A few thoughts on the survival game genre

I’ve been Goldilocksing my way through survival games and I think perhaps the genre is not for me. Subnautica is about the only one I enjoyed. I think my main problem with the genre is a problem with the central drive of the games, the survival.

Specifically the fact that there is an optimum way to achieve it so every run is just you doing the same steps in the same order. There might be a few little deviations based on how rougelike the game is. But there’s never enough because to “survive” you always need food, shelter, etc. and there is always an optimum way to achieve those things.

Perhaps the worst example of how tedious that was for me was Don’t Starve. You died often enough while learning that you could be back to doing the same stuff within five or ten minutes of doing it. At least in games like Subnautica the gaps between deaths were longer (as they eventually became in Don’t Starve). That said, drowning just before you break the surface in Subnautica was the closest I’ve come to breaking a controller in sheer impotent rage in quite some time.

As anyone who has been exposed to this weeks tedious obsession of mine may have guessed this is leading to me complaining about RimWorld. My current camp is at, shit, fifteen hours. I could tell you a few amusing little anecdotes about what happened. But they would be the richest of cream skimmed from the tippy top of those fifteen hours. Even worse, they are only entertaining when I’m telling you about them. In the moment they weren’t particularly pass remarkable. Making up your own fun after the fact might indeed be fun but having to pay for it seems a bit much.
Games in this genre, and really grand strategy games at large, tend to use a fairly “cheap” method of engagement. There is always something to do, there is always something be clicking, a hundred little bars to check on as you wait for the next turn to come or the timer to tick over. It’s a gameplay loop that certainly eats hours but I think I’d honestly call it soporific rather than addictive.

In grand strategy games the choices feel like they have a bit more weight, whereas in survival games they ironically feel almost ephemeral (somewhere in the distance I sense Milan Kundera getting an erection). I can probably wrap up this colony in another ten hours, its reached that tedious stage all survival games do where you’ve reached equilibrium with your situation and as time passes you become more and more secure as you drive slowly towards an unexciting win.

I could start a new colony after this. Burn another twenty hours on a group of random pawns doing some slightly different things. Maybe this time Space Simon won’t get rejected for hitting on Space Seans wife four times in a row, suffering a psychotic break which made him call Space Patricks wife a chinchilla and then get beaten unconscious in the ensuing fistfight. But I could just spend those twenty hours coming up with inane little anecdotes like that instead.

I don’t even know what “just right” would “taste like” (to continue my unfortunate Goldilocks metaphor). Subnautica probably got fairly close, the moment to moment gameplay was “fun” (how scientific) and it looked very nice which didnt hurt. When I was done with it I never went back but it was fine as a complete experience. Perhaps in some way the genre’s love affair with roguelike randomness is actually working against it.

I mean when I’m done with Rimworld (which I say I am basically every day) I will write up “The Misadventure of The Rim Boys at Fishermans Grotto” and it might be worth an inane chuckle or two. But it just feels hollow to me. Maybe I’m expecting too much out of these games, maybe they are burdened by the unbearable lightness of being, maybe they just, like I said, aren’t for me.

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