I'm the owner of the mostly empty Moderatelyoversizedhats.com. I'm studying to apply to the DigiPen school of Technology in Redmond Washington. I design games using Unity. I'm 15 and graduating highschool, while I've been going to community college since I was 11. I'm fond of Jazz and Chiptunes. Yeah, that's pretty much it.
From Castaway, to Lost, to Lord of the Flies, Wilderness Survival has remained a popular and ever present theme in films, television, and literature. The scenario in which one must survive in some sort of foreign jungle environment has almost become a genre in itself, just as much as the Western or War Film. Yet, there's something that has puzzled me about this type of survival, why don't we see it much in videogames? Come to think of it, outside maybe one or two examples, why do we have no survival games? Besides that, what exactly is it about Survival that makes it so great and how can we utilize it in games? Well, let's take a look.
Let's Take a Look: Wilderness Survival
If we want to look at how games can attempt to contribute to Survival genre and find out what makes the genre so great, let's first dissect Survival in other mediums. The cornerstone of Survival normally involves being stranded either alone, or with others, in some variation of wilderness or island. The main character/s must learn to adapt to their environment in order to gather food, create shelter, and in most cases create some sort of method of escape. Great! In order to be considered a "Wilderness Survival" game you must have each and every one of those elements!
In this case, The Sims: Castaway Stories, is the perfect example of a survival game! Look, you're stuck on an island, you need to survive, and you create stuff! Oh yeah, and the game is utterly mediocre and nothing special. While The Sims: Castaway Stories attempts to take the fun of the normal Sims 2 format, and mix it with the "key elements" of the Wilderness Survival genre, it only succeeds in varying degrees. The end result is a mediocre spin-off game that amounts to nothing more than useless shovelware. Enjoyable shovelware, novel shovelware, but shovelware none-the-less. Why?
(Yeah. I've totally played this game. Don't judge me.)
Any game that attempts to work off of the shallow surface of the Wilderness Survival genre will end up missing the point in many places, for to truly understand what makes that genre so great, we'll have to go past the obvious.
While the way we're going to look past the obvious may seem a bit simple, it does a better job than looking at the surface elements. Remember in elementary school when conflict was taught in terms of Man vs. Man, Man vs. Nature, and Man vs. Himself? Well, we're going to use that as a starting point. I'm serious.
Most would argue that the Wilderness Survival genre is Man vs. Nature, and would be right, but as movies like Castaway have taught us, the psychological elements of being stranded also weigh in, adding bits of Man vs. Himself. Now, from this starting point let's take it a bit deeper. In most stories where the major conflict is against nature, whatever aspect of nature that is being fought is normally personified in some way. If we think about this in context of the Survival genre, this normally means that in most cases, the island or forest itself becomes a major character, just like in Lost. Now, Man vs. Himself is often seen in many psychological horror stories, which normally has it's place in Survival, such as the completely made up "monster" in Lord of the Flies, or the constant threat of various wild animals. Survival stories normally also incorporate a great deal of stress, and even fear into their theme as survivors are vulnerable to their surroundings and are unable to escape.
Wait. Psychological horror? The setting is it's own character? The stories are stressfull and make you feel vulnerable? Doesn't this sound a little familiar...?
(Silent Hill 2 has so much to teach aspiring designers.)
Yes, Japanese Survival Horror games are Western Wilderness Survival stories. Even though it's in the name of the genre, "Survival Horror", the way that survival is approached is normally far different. Silent Hill 2 provides many great examples. Instead of scouring a jungle looking for food and hoping you don't run into a bear, you're rummaging around a deserted foggy small town hoping not to run into Pyramid Head. While cultural differences do drastically change the feel behind the two, and while they do shift their focus on the survival and horror aspects respectively, they both contain all of the similar thematic elements.
However, we can actually compare these differences by comparing Japanese Survival Horror games to Western Post-Apocalyptic games. Whereas psychological horror is the focus of Silent Hill 2, with scrounging around for supplies only serving to enhance this purpose, in Fallout 3 it is resource gathering that takes prominence, with horror elements only existing to enhance the former. This technically makes games like Fallout and STALKER more similar to Survival stories than Silent Hill and Resident Evil, yet even in Western Survival games, there's just some aspect that's still missing... We have all of the psychological horror, situational stress, and resource gathering elements, so what are we missing?
(Yes, we're missing Time and Patience in our Survival! Wait, no, that's not right.)
Creation. Creation is the cornerstone of "Wilderness Survival" that holds everything else together. This is one of the things that The Sims: Castaway Stories did right, it utilized the innovative Sims 2 building system to allow players to craft their own shelters, tools, and transportation. While this made the game enjoyable, the Sims 2 framework clashed with the horror elements and made the stress far beyond enjoyable. Yet, for all it's faults, this overlooked spin-off game has showed us the missing ingredient of the Island Survival genre, but are there any games that actually manage to combine all of them in a satisfactory way?
The answer to that question, is yes. What we have, is Minecraft. While Minecraft is a sandbox, it is also the best example of an Island Survival Video game. Minecraft manages to mix not only resource gathering elements of Western Survival with the horror of Eastern Survival, but also adds in our missing element, creation. Minecraft is currently one of the most popular and played indie games on the market, and has blown open the door on procedually generated sandbox games, making room for games such as Terraria and Castle Story. When you think about it though, Minecraft has not introduced to us the Sandbox genre, but rather a true Wilderness Survival genre. Minecraft has taken an age old story trope, and introduced it in an interactive way, making full use of Video games as a medium.
(This Minecraft logo is actually a helicopter which flies back to civilization.)
After a long blustering attempt to understand Island Survival, what exactly have we learned this week? We've learned to not only look past the obvious to find underlying themes, but to also not entirely ignore surface elements. We've discovered that Eastern and Western Survival games come close to emulating Wilderness Survival stories in form, but differ in their end goals. Perhaps most importantly, we've figured out that creation and freedom gives Wilderness Survival it's unique charm and explains popular culture's fascination with it. What we can take away from this week's exploration is that few genres can explore the power of creation, the power of individualism, and the power of freedom better than raw Survival. Survival, just like everything else, can always be made better by just taking, a closer look.
Addendum- Don't agree with me? Did I miss something? Have more examples? Feel free to share! Growth can only be obtained through criticism and scrutiny! You can also find my weekly blog at My Website and the Moderately Oversized Hats tumblr.