Ever Tried Pitting Yourself Against Nature in a Survival Game?
Love Them or Hate Them, We Take a Look at Their Ins and Outs.
While I was playing The Forest, this PC Gamer article appeared on related Steam news. The author Andy Kelly notes the popularity of survival shows and how the dangers of nature are not given enough respect in gaming. Developers often include antagonists, such as natives or wolves, to generate action, provide another challenge, and keep the player engaged. While the writer makes some good points, striking the right balance of difficulty and entertainment without specific antagonists is a difficult task and one probably not worth the gamble.
Survival games often drop players somewhere in the wilderness, and the majority of nature’s sudden dangers are animals. Wolves, bears, snakes, for example. Perhaps the antagonists don’t have to be zombies or cannibals but when a game includes animal attacks, conceptually they are all the same.
If you oppose sudden attacks, you are asking for a game without any sort of attack. Consequently, the game’s challenges exist only as depleting resources (hunger, thirst, etc.). These creatures are often representative of more complicated concepts: Minecraft’s zombies and skeletons are symbols for the dangers of travelling by night.
The article goes on to suggest that games should keep players engaged in different ways. By putting more detail into the environment and including incentives to explore, games can give players something to do without putting them under threat. The problem here is that begins to warp the experience into something other than a survival game.
Hence, many of the most recent titles include more expanded shelter creation options. How do you incentivise exploration? Only give players a landscape to look at, you’ll lose players to TV or, dare I say it, real world travel. Offer rare items for players to use in their shelters? There needs to be incremental increases in difficulty relative to the items offered – a role usually filled by combat.
How does a pure survival game create difficulty? Well, the same way being stuck and lost in a forest would: lack of know-how. The TV programmes referenced in the PC Gamer article have popularised survival skills and shown that, with appropriate training, staying alive in the wilderness is definitely doable. Unfortunately, this translates poorly into a survival game.
Your core players will experiment, die, and learn. Once they’ve learned, the game loses all challenge. Other players will be put off by the lack of tutelage (remember you can’t tell them how to play because you’re relying on that to create difficulty) or simply look it up online.
Thus, survival games need to maintain their challenges once someone knows the ins-and-outs of surviving.
As I said earlier, without sudden attacks, the game’s challenge becomes tied to satisfying your character’s needs. In many games these take the forms of hunger, thirst, and some variant of energy (sometimes manifests as tiredness). If this interaction is the primary focus of the game, the existing models aren’t enough. These needs must compete against one another to ensure continuing action and player engagement.
Currently, hunger depletes at a steady rate and energy must be expended to acquire food. The problem arises, however, when eating food also restores energy. The satisfying of one need automatically satisfies another.
How survival games of the future can do this is to establish a more complex version of Amnesia: The Dark Descent‘s safety-sanity dichotomy. In this instance, using the lantern maintains sanity levels but makes the player more vulnerable to attacks while prowling in darkness lowers sanity but offers more safety.
Questions then arise about how to properly implement this into a survival game? Lets stick to the previous example of hunger and energy. Say you had to put your character through a cardio workout, which depletes hunger, to increase maximum energy. On the other hand, running around in search of food to sate hunger depletes the player’s energy.
Where this becomes complicated is adding in third, fourth, and even fifth resources to satisfy. Sleep can be added by still draining hunger and thirst while you are asleep. In practice, this creates an interesting dynamic: players must satisfy their sleep but will try to avoid being wasteful as they achieve nothing while sleeping.
Ultimately, it would be interesting to see a survival game that used only resource-meeting as a challenge. But I don’t think it’s as feasible as it appears. Conflict – by nature, combat – is what drives the game and creates most of the tension. Unless, of course, the means of satisfying these resources are rare (ever tried finding your way home while starving in Rust?).
Gamers are playing a survival game and so surviving has to be difficult enough to demand their focus. I would jump on such a game if a developer took the time to do it well, but they would need to account for the loss of engagement by removing antagonists.
Would you rather be left alone while trying to build a shelter and find food? Or are the footfalls of incoming predators what really gets your blood pumping?