In the gaming world, much like other forms of media entertainment, there are genres. At its most basic level, you’ve got action, horror, romance and other types of games. But there are countless numbers of sub genres, which can fall under multiple umbrella genres, which can be a re-flavored entry under a single genre, or might even break the mold and develop something new.
This piece seeks to cover one of the more undervalued sub genres in gaming; survival games. Games where the player’s real world skills come into play, typically on a remote island or some other desolate, typically dangerous, territory. The most popular of its kind would no doubt have to be Minecraft. But other games have come into their own under this sub genre.
For this piece, we will discuss what makes a good survival game, and we will examine this through three different video game examples: 7 Days to Die, Conan Exiles and The Forest. While seemingly random selections, these games all come from companies and time eras that are in stark contrast to one another.
Let’s begin with a brief overview on each of the the three games.
In 7 Days to Die, you and up to three other players find yourselves caught in the midst of the deadly zombie pandemic in a territory known as “Navezgane.” Whether working together or against, the players must quickly move to secure shelter, develop defenses and ensure their bare essentials, such as food and water, are tended to. Playing off of the name of the game, every seven in-game days, when the sun goes down, dramatically stronger, more feral zombies come out to hunt, making it imperative to be particularly well prepared every seven days.
In Conan Exiles, the player begins having been exiled to the fittingly named “Exiled Wasteland.” As the name suggests, this is an area devoid of human life beyond other hostile NPC exiles and any other players playing the game with you. Much like 7 Days’ Navezgane, the Exiled Wasteland is a vast area with a lot of geographical variety. Also much like 7 Days to Die, Conan Exiles imposes “The Purge” onto the players in the game. The Purge doesn’t operate on a specific time parameter, but it shows the players roughly how long until it takes place using a simple meter. Once the meter is full, the Purge commences. The idea is to hold out until the players can find a way out of the Exiled Wasteland and back to society.
In The Forest, you assume control of a character who had boarded an airplane that crashed on a remote island. The only people who seem to have survived the crash are you and any other players enjoying the game with you. The only potential exception is the character’s younger son, Timmy. Finding him amongst the huge island thereby becomes top priority. However, the many unique, terrifying denizens of the game will convene to make that goal as hard as possible to achieve, and these creatures grow stronger and more terrifying the longer the game proceeds.
7 Days to Die was developed by Telltale Games, a company which essentially nuked itself in 2019 before potentially exploring a comeback in 2021. Conan Exiles, on the other hand, recently released its Isle of Siptah expansion pack in May, so it has a very active, fresh player base. Finally, The Forest was developed all the way back in 2014, but it had a sequel set to release in 2021 announced very recently.
Now with that out of the way, let’s discuss what makes a Survival game good and see how these three entries stack up. This will take on a similar structure to the article I wrote months ago about Pokémon ROM hacks.
So what does a Survival game need to be good?
A good survival game should make the player feel vulnerable and a bit at edge from the beginning, as they only have very rudimentary, often insufficient, materials until they locate the means to build up a little. The player should begin to actually feel stronger the more they put into their character. That feeling of tension will probably dissipate as a result, but it’s the early going that reels the player in and gets them wanting to play the game for the long haul.
Do these three games achieve this well?
7 Days to Die definitely does. The player starts off with absolutely nothing but a small fiber shirt on their back and similarly poor pants. Picking a fight with a single zombie is immensely dangerous, but any more than one at a time is downright suicide when your best weapon is a rock that’s been attached to the tip of a stick with some plant fibers. Down the road, though, players will begin to be able to craft weaponry, put up sturdy defenses on their home and increase their maximum health and stamina. Within about a month in-game, players will be able to deal with hordes of zombies without much trouble. That’s a perfectly reasonable, excitable progression dynamic that places real weight into player decisions and rewards good play.
Conan Exiles… kind of does. From the beginning, the player has nothing but a loincloth, not even a shirt or any pants. In that sense, the player can build themselves up in a predictable fashion. However, nothing really instills any sort of real tension or fear. Enemies are pretty toothless at the beginning, and for the most part, generally plateau pretty quickly. The progression mechanic gives players something to build for, but there isn’t much of a sense of urgency to actually get there. The Purge won’t come for a tremendous amount of time, after all.
The Forest does meet this benchmark. Both the player and their assailants, the cannibals who inhabit the island, begin pretty hapless and non threatening. But the interesting thing is, both sides will become more and more powerful as the game goes, meaning there’s always going to be a sense of urgency. The player failing to make progress doesn’t halt the cannibals from becoming stronger, so poor decisions are also pretty badly punished. Finally, having an actual permanent death mechanic places even more weigh onto playing with your head on a swivel than there already was. It does well in this regard.
Sure, any idiot can swing an axe at a zombie, start a campfire, or run around for a little while. But can you craft an entire rocket launcher out of mud and stones? Can you create a forge for the use of smithing weapons and defensive supplies? Can you outrun a horde of hungry, riled up zombies for an entire day without stopping? Typically, in Survival games, there is a progression system where skill points can be earned. In this way, they are limited, so players must decide how they want to develop their character. If working in a team, you’d typically find one player devote their characters towards doing something the others could not, as to ensure you cover all of your bases as a team.
Do these three games achieve this well?
7 Days to Die aces this aspect. Smithing, crafting, negotiating, shooting various weapons, using different types of melee tools, maintaining a garden and hunting game for food are a small selection of a very long list of things players can make their characters better at. With a simple level up system, players can create entirely focused characters on whatever they want. It’s a simple system that makes everyone feel like their character belongs in that specific world.
Conan Exiles definitely nails it in this aspect, for pretty much the same reasons 7 Days to Die does.
The Forest, however, doesn’t have a setup conducive to this trait. Characters are mostly carbon copies of one another who are different in very small, usually artificial ways. This does remove a decent degree of player identity from the game.
Goals motivate players. In particular, a small selection of tasks being completed should have a much larger purpose in the forefront of their workers. Otherwise, the game runs the risk of losing player engagement before terribly long.
Do these games achieve this well?
7 Days to Die does not. There is no goal in the game aside for simple survival. While the gameplay itself is fluid and exciting, this ultimately means there is an expiration date on the game that will likely be met sooner rather than later in terms of player enjoyment.
Conan Exiles immediately implements major goals onto the player from moment one. On one hand, the ultimate objective is to find a way off of the Exiled Wasteland. You’re not going to get there particularly soon, however, so the game gives smaller but still important tasks along the way. This has typically included killing certain enemies, building certain things, and exploring various territories across the wasteland. This can keep the player engaged for the long haul.
The Forest does an okay job with this. The ultimate goal of locating Timmy is made known very quickly. However, the game doesn’t really do much else along the way. It has a vague “to do” list that has nothing to do with Timmy and mostly just serves as a tutorial for learning how to play the game. Still, having some bigger objective gives the game more breadth than it otherwise would have, so that’s a plus.
Survival games attempt to simulate what would really happen if the player was really in this position and really made various decisions on realistic scenarios. Unfortunately, real life, especially in a less than stellar position like these games thrust the player into, can be unforgiving. As such, there should be some degree of challenge to a good survival game.
7 Days to Die hits on this swimmingly. Nothing is given to the player without them earning it, but it isn’t so oppressive that it’s going to drive players away. That is, unless they select the “Insanity” difficulty mode, the hardest setting in the game. The ability to tinker with game settings, up to and including general difficulty, lets players find their difficulty sweet spot very easily. Maybe you just want a house building simulator with some zombie killing along the way. Maybe you want to take a Rambo-esque approach against some of the toughest, most terrifying flesh eaters around. Whatever play style and challenge you want, you can have it here.
Conan Exiles offers pretty much the same dynamic as 7 Days to Die, and similarly succeeds at this point.
The Forest offers an initial difficulty setting, but this locks in place once the player begins playing the game. There is also much less room to adjust game settings, leaving for mostly similar experiences across any and all playthroughs of the game.
And so with that, what grade do these games deserve? This will mainly evaluate how well they represent the survival sub genre, but will also consider their more general qualities as an overall game.
7 Days to Die gets a B-. You really want to play this one with a friend or two to avoid it getting too stale. Still, the first couple of in-game weeks are very exciting and the gameplay is very loose. After that, things can get a little bit monotonous, too routine, and gameplay can stagnate as a result. Still, it’s a very cheap game and it tends to play into the survival sub genre well. Get this one for your library, folks, and you’ll probably enjoy it.
Conan Exiles gets a B+. More modernized graphics, gameplay and all the good qualities of 7 Days to Die make this game an excellent pick and a near perfect representative of the sub genre. It’s only crippling downfall is that the game is quite buggy and can suffer from performance issues that mangle frames-per-second gameplay. If you can ignore that from time to time however, you’ll have a fun time.
The Forest gets a C. It’s not a bad game, but it can definitely be confusing and probably shouldn’t be the very first survival game you ever play. Gameplay can be a bit clunky and stagnate as a result. It’s probably only really worth playing for enthusiasts of the survival sub genre, who would probably view it as a mostly downtrodden pick for the collection, but it can eat up a handful of hours of gameplay and be decent fun along the ride. It also incorporates chilling horror elements throughout the game that do give it some life on the scene.