The Legacy of Survival

When I say “survival game,” what do you think of? I’d guess that the image that comes to most people’s mind is a distasteful one. The modern conventional wisdom of the gaming community is that “survival” is code for “search for berries in the woods until you get mauled, die of thirst, or starve (which takes like, two minutes because omygod why do I get hungry so fast?).”

The falling popularity of survival games has no doubt been influenced by the recent surge in their quantity. And it’s no mystery where this surge came from: Minecraft. Minecraft was a hugely popular game and drew many imitators. Many of these imitators were, well, not bad, but… not great either. The road survival games have taken was a rocky one, but on the brink of their death, an unexpected potential savior has emerged: Fallout 4.

Minecraft was officially released in 2011, but by this time had already garnered a significant following from its Beta releases. To date, Minecraft has sold more than twenty million copies. The game was revolutionary. It wasn’t the first survival game ever, but it was certainly the biggest. And there was a good reason for Minecraft’s massive popularity. Even today, it holds up as one of the best survival/sandbox games ever made. The impact Minecraft had on the gaming industry was immense. Countless design elements were brought into the mainstream by the game, though not all of them good — from the procedurally generated worlds of No Man’s Sky to the crafting systems in, well, pretty much everything, to, of course, the dreaded “hunger bar” or, even worse, its evil twin the “thirst bar.”

Moving forward, we need a name for these hunger and thirst bars — specifically those which, upon reaching zero, kill or incrementally damage the player character. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll call them “starvation metrics.” Now, I would argue that the central reason for the rising disdain of survival games, at least on a superficial level, is the broad implementation of these so-called starvation metrics. In a way, starvation metrics were the poison which Notch inadvertently added to the water supply of the genre which he popularized.

So how do we cure survival games? Well, obviously starvation metrics need to be radically rethought. Many games have attempted various approaches to this problem. Some games have removed the mechanics altogether, which, er, works, I guess. But this approach doesn’t sit quite right with me. Others games have simply made nourishment drain exceedingly slowly. This strategy also sorta works, but it misinterprets the problem of starvation metrics as one of balancing, whereas I would argue it is a systemic design problem. This is where Fallout 4 comes in. Specifically, this is where Fallout 4’s Survival Mode comes in.

Survival Mode for Fallout 4 was released nearly six months after the base game, in late April of last year, with the 1.5 update. The optional difficulty mode changed many aspects of the game — it made players, as well as enemies, more vulnerable; it removed fast travel; and it removed manual saving. It also added hunger and thirst systems to the game. And its approach to doing so is by far the best I’ve ever seen.

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Fallout 4 (2015)

Fallout 4’s nourishment system redefines the norms of survival games in one key way: the system is rooted not in health affectation, but stamina. This decision is brilliant. The mechanic works by periodically reducing the maximum stamina the player has access to as the player gets malnourished. Eventually, the game will begin occasionally reducing the player’s health at semi-random intervals, with increasing damage done each time. This makes hunger and thirst creeping dangers which very gradually increase in severity, instead of being constant, imminent threats. The system is based on Fallout’s infamous radiation mechanic, which limits maximum health in a similar way. Frankly, I’m surprised that this approach to nourishment wasn’t popularized in the mainstream years ago.

Okay, I don’t just want to pat Fallout 4 on the back here. I actually think that a lot of the game is very poorly handled — particularly the combat and role-playing. Which is actually kind of ironic, when you think about it. A great game poisoned a genre, and a bad one might save it.

I sincerely hope that Fallout 4 does save survival games. There’s a lot that they have to offer to game design, particularly in the realm of social engineering. Games like DayZ and Rust are fascinating when it comes to social interactions of players. But unless the genre is brought back into the spotlight, these games’ contributions may be wasted on the design community.

I guess if there’s one take-away from this discussion, it’s that we should never settle for stagnating mechanics, even if they are thought of as standard. We could lose a lot more than just those mediocre survival games if starvation metrics aren’t rethought. And Fallout 4, as similarly mediocre as it is, is a great jumping-off point for reapproaching these mechanics, which have been quietly poisoning the genre for years.

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