Out of my Comfort Zone #01
[Out of my Comfort Zone is a new series where I try to combat complacency in my gaming habits by trying different genres and tackling challenges I might otherwise never attempt. In this debut entry, I try my hand at a survival adventure game for the first time ever and promptly lose it to a bloodthirsty velociraptor.]
Every time I talk to a gamer under 14 years old I feel like I come from another planet. I run into them occasionally at family gatherings, weddings, that kind of thing. As the youngest member of my generation and supposedly the most hip (look, it’s a small, sad pool to draw from) it falls to me to try and engage them. It always goes sour.
I write about games. I play them obsessively. You’d think we could find some common ground to talk about these things. But when I ask them if they’ve seen the latest Street Fighter V character reveal, or if they’re looking forward to The Phantom Pain, their eyes glaze over. Instead, they ask me about Minecraft. Or Day Z. Or any other of the million survival adventure games out there I’ve never played.
There is an entire generation of gamers out there who have had a dramatically different relationship to games than I’ve had. Some of the kids I know have been playing the same game for years, constantly building, destroying, and re-building in the same sandbox. When I was young, it was a constant, frenzied search of rental shelves and bargain bins for the next game, always moving to the next thing. I have trouble relating to them. I can’t see what would keep them in one game for so long. But then again, I’ve never actually sat down to play one of these survival/construction games.
So I changed that.
There are tons of survival games to choose from these days, but I downloaded ARK: Survival Evolved almost entirely on the promise of weaponized dinosaurs. If I was going to go down this road, I would do it in style — on the back of a giant, heavily armed lizard — and indulge all of my Dino-Rider fantasies. The fact that ARK‘s character creator is busted and will let you roll up with a nightmarish mutant of disproportionate body parts and bizarre growths is just the icing on the cake.
I never read any instructions or watched any tutorials; I went in completely blind. My survivor woke up on a sandy beach as God and Studio Wildcard intended – confused, nearly naked, and shivering.
I don’t know much about these games, but I do know that they all boil down to collecting resources and building things with them. I start picking up stones on the beach, slightly disappointed that I can’t seem to pick up any of the glittering sea shells scattered around. My survivor almost immediately shits himself, somewhat spoiling the moment.
But hey, bonus, I can pick up the turd! I can’t collect sea shells, but I do start a catalog of dookie samples.
I come across a flock of dodo birds on the beach. They’re dumb as bricks and don’t seem to react to my presence in any way. I punch them and punch them, but only succeed in rendering them unconscious. I savage the flock until I’m standing over a pile of comatose birds and have somehow learned how to write notes and sew pants in the process. This is caveman education at its finest.
Soon my pockets are heavy with stones, the beach is awash with pulverized birds, and my survivor is complaining. In fact, complaining seems to be all he does. I never knew the raw nature of primitive man was so whiny.
During the day he complains that he’s too hot. At night, the big sulky baby is too cold. And he’s hungry, and thirsty. I’m starting to worry that Child Services is going to come and take my caveman away.
A series of icons depicting sweltering fires and frigid ice cubes, along with unending penalties to my stamina let me know what a terrible job I’m doing of keeping him alive. I stuff some narcoberries I’ve picked off the local plants down his gullet, hoping the natural sedatives will fill his belly and put him to sleep for the night letting him doze through the cold. But he just staggers around in a haze for a bit, stamina lower than ever.
It’s time to engage with the crafting system before I get arrested for criminal neglect. As a species we are tool users, after all. It’s time to take advantage of that. Looking at what I have available to make, it seems like building a pickaxe would be a good start. I’d need stone (check), thatch (nope), and wood (na-da). Can’t I just make it with narcoberries? I still have plenty of those.
I waste a good 20 minutes wandering around a small forest looking for loose sticks to collect, thinking they’d be like the stones on the beach. I can’t find any and the, “I can’t get wood” jokes got old about 19 minutes ago. I punch a tree out of frustration. Gouts of blood spray from my hand and a piece of wood lands in my inventory.
Oh, so it’s like that, huh?
I punch trees until my knuckles are bloody and broken and I’ve managed to pick enough splinters out of my hand to fashion a crude pickaxe. Then I get into the holy guts of these games – hitting shit to build more shit. I hit rocks with smaller rocks until they give me the other kind of rocks I’m looking for. Then I use those rocks to hit other rocks more efficiently. I make hatchets, spears, a shirt to cover my misshapen body. Caveman essentials.
Is this really all there is to life? We’ve lost a generation of gamers to this?
I suppose the closest comparison to ARK would be Rust, which also throws you into the wild with nothing and expects you to build up from stone-aged flint spears and hemp pants to assault rifles and flak jackets. But ARK has a different vibe.
You’re a caveman sure, but there is a pulsating metal jewel embedded in your arm. You have a number and, ominously, a projected survival expectation based on your performance. You’re tagged and tracked like an animal, which begs the question of who exactly is doing the monitoring. At night, pillars of light and energy reach into the heavens. High-tech obelisks stand alone in the middle of miles and miles of untamed jungle and roaming packs of dinosaurs. Clearly something is going on here.
If there is a concrete storyline, I haven’t picked up the thread yet. I’m sure it exists out there in wikis and forum posts scattered around the net, but I don’t want to seek it out that way. I want to know what my survivor knows and live in that reality. And right now, it’s all just sci-fi mystery and terrible giant lizards that look like they could snap me up as a light snack without even thinking about it. It’s terrifying and fascinating, and truth be told, I kind of like keeping it vague.
My mind wanders while I play. Are we all futuristic criminals banished to an otherworldly penal colony? A kind of Space-Australia complete with raptors and megalodons? Are the inhabitants of the island subjects of some kind of twisted social experiment? Or is it somewhere in-between? Like the ’60s British classic The Prisoner? Do I need to be careful of Rovers if I try and leave the island?
The best moments I have in the early hours of ARK are moments of transgression. Moments that I’m not particularly proud of. Players are given unfettered freedom to do what they like in ARK, and somewhat predictably, most people like to be jerks — myself included.
I came across a player’s unguarded camp once and looted everything that wasn’t nailed down. I even stole the charcoal from his fire, blackening my hands and soul with the theft. I stumbled on an unconscious player, half hidden under a rocky outcrop. I knew I should just leave him alone, but I hovered over him, freshly made spear in hand. I mean, I should probably take a chance to test it out right? It’s just good survival.
He wasn’t the last. Like the old lady from Mad Max, I killed everyone I ever met out there. Or at least I tried to. My belligerent, mutant caveman would shake his spear and charge at everyone, no matter how unclear the actual threat they posed or how hopelessly outmatched he was. Maybe it speaks to some deep-seated trust issues of mine, but I never saw the point in playing nice with the other neanderthals. Better to go down spitting and stabbing than take a chance.
I know I should probably reach out, join a tribe, engage with others. Maybe find someone with skills I don’t have and combine our efforts to mutual benefit. You know, like our ancestors did. I know we could work together to make this land livable, to build a life.
But, it’s a matter of motivations. I didn’t come here to make the world a better place. I came here to strap machine guns on a T-Rex. I came to trample, shoot, and devour anything that stood in my way. I came to make the world a distinctly worse place.
I die a lot.
I die of malnutrition and deprivation. I die from giant mosquitoes and their toxic stings. I die from dinosaurs I don’t even know the name of. Each time, I respawn in some new random location with nothing in my inventory, right back to the raw state of nature. But I keep the knowledge and skills I’ve accumulated and it’s easier and easier to rebuild with every attempt. Well, except for that one time I respawned right next to a saber-toothed tiger and had to play hide-and-go-seek with it on a pile of rocks for a good ten minutes before it finally got on top of me.
It’s hard out there for a sci-fi caveman.
I still haven’t yoked and tamed a dinosaur. My dreams of loading up a T-Rex with cannons and missiles and riding it around like some prehistoric Metal Gear haven’t come to fruition, and I don’t think they will anytime soon. It just takes too long to level up, to learn the skills you need to tame a thunder lizard, or stitch an appropriately intimidating saddle to ride on (I’m thinking skulls, but I’m open to rows upon rows of claws and teeth). It’s even more effort to make a pen to keep a three-story tall dinosaur in and gather enough food to prevent it from turning on you.
Then of course there’s the long, painfully slow journey towards making gunpowder. I’d have to mine for raw metal and build a furnace to stamp out just a simple blunderbuss, never mind a high caliber mini-gun (as a consolation, I just recently discovered slingshot technology). It’s too much for any one would-be warlord to do on their own. It really would take a village. A savage, bloodthirsty village.
But I think I saw it. I glimpsed the abyss, the way one would get sucked down into these sorts of games and never come back.
At the end of my third or fourth night of playing, after hours of exploration deep into the island, I realized that I didn’t want to die and start over again. It was late, I was tired, but I couldn’t go to sleep and just leave my caveman to die in the wilderness like I had at the end of previous sessions. I found a nice spot secluded in the trees and laid down a simple foundation and a campfire.
It was a simple hut. Four walls, a door, a roof, and just enough room for a sleeping bag if you stood outside and dithered the placement just right, but it was home. I had enough wood in the fire to last all night, a bounty of meat to feast on, and full waterskins. My caveman was looking sharp too, fully dressed, new shoes, a backpack full of extra spears — this was a person who was going to make it.
My mind immediately unspooled reams of future designs. A bigger house, wood and stone structures, spikes for defense. If I built near a river I could make a simple plumbing system, grow my own patch of berry bushes, maybe tame a few dodo birds for pets (or food, the line is blurry for cavemen). I could make my survivor more comfortable, I could provide more for him, and he’d be okay, protected and safe.
I went from Kull the Conqueror to Mr. Nanny in the space of one night.
It was the same feeling I used to get from placing all of my action figures in their proper boxes or play-sets when I was a child. It reminded me of an article I once read explaining why people get screwy sometimes and start adopting all the neighborhood stray cats or obsessively outfit their backyard with squirrel feeders and multiple kinds of birdhouses. It’s that fleeting feeling of control, of finally, actually taking care of all of a creature’s needs (inanimate toy, video caveman, or small wild animal). To be able to give something the kind of security and finality that is outside of your control and impossible to provide in your own life.
I think back to what it was like in grade school; All the uncertainty, the nasty and brutish classmates that made those formative years a gauntlet of survival. I used games to escape from that setting, but it was all about hopping into other worlds, being a tourist. I wonder how much more time I would have spent in any one of those worlds if they let me build with the same degree of granularity a game like ARK or Minecraft does.
I always assumed the appeal of survival games was the trolling, of ruining the fun for other players. Or failing that, the creativity of playing around with the tools. While I’m sure those things are the reason some players come to these games, I think the reason they stay is more simple than that. Maybe it’s just the pleasure of building a home, of having something to come back to.
Maybe it’s time I learn to play nice with the other neanderthals.