Staying Alive: in praise of survival games

Sometimes, the "trying not to die" element of a video game is the best part.

The Bush Tucker Man was a hero of mine as a kid. There he was surviving in the wilds of Australia, arguably the most hostile place in the world, crawling with poisonous spiders, giant mutant pigs, armies of vicious bandits and bitter cricketers.

It was The Bush Tucker Man that came to mind most strongly when I first started to play STALKER: Shadows of Chernobyl. There was a story to STALKER, there was a plot, but for me it was always about roaming the countryside, such as it was, nosing around and trying not to die. The AI system that governed wandering monsters and characters would mean that something interesting could happen organically, such as a bandit raid on a neutral group of Stalkers, or mobs of mutants might wander into each other. Periodically radioactive storms called blowouts would force everybody into cover and bring more mutants out of their holes. The day and night cycle also changed the game, being out at night, often without anything better than very grainy night vision gear, or worse just a torch, was rarely a good plan.

STALKER was a game that carried two significant problems from the get go. Firstly the developers fell quite a way short of their own lofty ambitions with the game. They had wanted a huge area for the player to romp around in at leisure, instead they had to settle for a succession of quite modest areas with each fenced in and connected via entry and exit points. Secondly the game was quite a trammelled experience, with rumours circulating that the publishers had demanded that it be softened in order to be commercially viable. Whether these rumours were true or not didn’t really matter because the game was not difficult to mod and the systems to make it as unforgiving and bleak as it really should have been were easily tailored for just this set up. The vanilla build of STALKER fell a long way short of its potential, but with a customised build the game became a cult classic.

When modified by players the STALKER series really came to life as wilderness survival games. The routine of searching bodies, checking weapons for rounds in the magazines, looting what could be sold, stashing what could be used, munching what could be munched, became more rewarding than bumbling around through the story.

In many ways the spiritual successor to the survivalist side of STALKER is the Arma mod Day Z. This is perhaps the definitive hardcore survival game by virtue of the fact that your prey is the most dangerous creature of all, Arma players. Existing now for both Arma 2 and Arma 3 this game sees the players confronting the threats of zombies, starvation and dehydration, all while in effect taking part in a colossal persistent death match game. Some people will tell you that Day Z isn’t a colossal death match, but they are probably only saying that so they can lure you out into the open in order to kill you and steal everything you own.

Mainstream games developers have never really embraced wilderness survival as a game mechanic. It was hinted at in the recent Tomb Raider, but after one meal of venison young Lara was good to go for the rest of the story. Fallout: New Vegas was one exception as this contained an optional hardcore mode, which included requirements for food and water, the consumption of which would almost always lead to an increased level of radiation in the character which would then have to be treated. This was a system that really had to be modified before it had any bite to it, but like the STALKER games the newer Fallout games have been easy to mod.

This repurposing of existing games via modifications is perhaps as much a part of the mind-set of the survival game player as the game itself. In much the same way as Ray Mears can change a small patch of forest into a third rate ship of the line with just his pen knife and saliva, games can be changed to suit the player if they are willing to put the effort in.

The lack of mainstream support for survival mechanics in games has not meant that survival games do not exist outside of mods however and indie games have stepped up to fill the breach. Don’t Starve has the player as a castaway style character, trying to stay fed, warm and sane alone in a world that is largely hostile but which can be tamed. Though there are monsters and a certain amount of violence is somewhat inevitable if a predator decides to munch you down, Don’t Starve is a very cerebral game, involving exploration, resource management and planning rather than the ability to stab things with alacrity.

Other indie games such as Sir, You Are Being Hunted and Shelter also deal with the problems of survival in the wilderness. One has you surviving in a very British looking world being pursued by unthinking killing machines dressed in tweed intent on shooting you for no good reason and the other one is about badgers. I think that’s the right way round anyway.

Although this simple idea of avoiding death is almost as old as gaming itself it is the way that survival games approach it that cements their appeal. Survival games are not inherently more difficult than ordinary games, Minecraft for instance is a survival game in many respects but it is not actually difficult to survive in it. What survival games do require however is a level of engagement from the player beyond the simple ability to shoot and dodge; they are a game type that requires planning, patience and improvisation. With this planning comes freedom: the freedom to make choices and the responsibility of dealing with the consequences. The narrative writes itself as the player shapes the game world and their place within it. These are the hallmarks of a more mature type of game, which perhaps is why we have yet to see this style really break into the mainstream yet.

This is okay though, really. Not everything that is good has to be popular, not every style has to become the norm, to be bastardised and absorbed into the next big franchise. Survival games will likely remain a niche, albeit perhaps a bigger one than developers give it credit for.

An abandoned industrial facility in STALKER: Shadows of Chernobyl.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

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The difficulty of staging Ibsen in a post-Yewtree world

The Master Builder at The Old Vic is even stranger than the original - especially when it tries to negotiate modern sensibilities.

Sometimes a cigar, warns a joke dubiously attributed to Sigmund Freud, is just a cigar. And, in other circumstances, a huge church tower that a seductive young woman persuades an ageing man to climb is just a huge church tower. Not, however, in Henrik ­Ibsen’s play The Master Builder, written in 1892, when the Norwegian playwright was 64 and besotted with a younger admirer, and Freud had just begun his revolutionary consultations in Vienna.

That the protagonist, Halvard Solness – an architect who is struggling to get anything up these days – was proto-Freudian when written, but feels satirically psychoanalytical now, is one of two big problems with the play. The other is its tonal instability.

Ibsen dramas broadly divide between the ones with symbolism and trolls (Brand, Peer Gynt) and theatre-redefining exercises in social and psychological realism (A Doll’s House, Hedda Gabler). However, there are a few works – including The Master Builder and Little Eyolf, recently finely revived at the Almeida by Richard Eyre – in which naturalism blurs into supernaturalism.

So, just as Little Eyolf’s searingly believable examination of the impact of grief on a marriage also involves a batty rat-catcher who may have caused a child’s death through enchantment, The Master Builder does not so much change horses in mid-race as jump from horseback to unicorn. It starts off as a study of male power in crisis, with Solness a strutting but now stuttering brother to other Ibsen menopausal males, such as Dr Thomas Stockmann in An Enemy of the People and the title character of the disgraced financier in John Gabriel Borkman. Like them, Master Builder Solness is an egotist under threat both professionally (he no longer has much energy for his work but doesn’t want younger colleagues to have the jobs, either) and personally. He taunts his wife by flirting with a female assistant, although there is a suggestion – which David Hare’s nicely contemporary-conversational adaptation firms up with the word “impotent” – that the couple’s sex life died when their children were killed in a fire.

Last year at the National Theatre, Ralph Fiennes moved suddenly to the front rank of British stage actors by bringing extraordinary clarity to the windbag Jack Tanner in George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman, and his Solness is again magnetically precise: you hear each word, feel every thought. He shows a man who keeps reaching for previously known feelings of power – artistic, erotic, domestic – but finds, like the driver of a failing sports car, that the push isn’t quite there. Fiennes transmits the character’s terror at no longer being terrifying.

But then Ibsen goes troll on us. Towards the end of the first act, a young woman called Hilde Wangel turns up, claiming to be keeping a rendezvous arranged with Solness a decade previously, when he “bent her backwards” and kissed her “many times”, calling her his “princess”. As Hilde would have been 13 then, this scene is almost too realistic for post-Yewtree theatre, and details such as Hilde’s reference to her bag of dirty knickers that urgently need washing (that isn’t Hare being daring; it’s there in the earliest English translations) would have had Freud rushing to the theatre.

Hans Christian Andersen would have been close behind, however, because Hilde also talks of “trolls” and “castles in the air”,  and both she and Solness seem to take seriously the possibility that he may have imagined her or summoned her up. Actors can’t be asked to play a character of ambiguous existence; even a ghost can only be acted substantially. So the young Australian actress Sarah Snook makes Hilde very real and very now – she could have walked in off the backpack gap-year trail – and the director, Matthew Warchus, gives her a moment of great theatrical power, curving urgently through the air as she stands on a swing to see Solness attempt to conquer his fear of heights.

Yet Snook’s naturalistic vigour makes the play even stranger than it already was. If Hilde is a completely unambiguous figure, then either Solness is a paedophile predator, or she is a malicious, marriage-wrecking fantasist – both problematic situations for modern theatregoers. As a result, we are never quite sure what we are watching, although always happy to be seeing Fiennes in his prime.

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle