Over the years, there seems to have been a shift in what a survival game is. Not horror-survival or any other subcategory of survival, but rather a true survival game. These types of games used to be about — you guessed it — survival. Food, water, and shelter were your top priorities, and they would be the pillars of gameplay. Nowadays, especially on Steam, games with the tag “survival” tend to follow a simple formula: put the player in a massive map where they have to beat trees to make bases and crude tools. Eventually, if the player survives the massive hordes of other players seeking gear and loot, they can build better weapons and bases. After some time, the player can start raiding enemy bases for loot, and said loot is then used to build an even better base. Somewhere in between all of that, the player needs to consume food and water.
I’m not saying that formula is inherently bad; on the contrary, I have had some great experiences playing games like these. I sunk hundreds of hours into DayZ fighting off other players trying to steal my can of beans. That being said, the fun didn’t come from sitting around a campfire simply existing; instead, it came from the player-vs.-player. This rings true even in current single-player games. The Forest touts itself as a single-player survival game, but really it only has survival elements. Instead, the fun comes from building massive bases and traps to fight off swarms of cannibals. Collecting food and water is only a means to keep fighting off cannibals (and finding your son if you think that’s important). All of these games keep survival in the background, while combat and base building are the true stars of the show.
This is where The Long Dark by Hinterland Studios is different. No player-versus-player combat, no base building or trying to acquire better and stronger weapons. In place of all of that, The Long Dark gives the player a large map to explore and a bitter cold to fight against. The first hour of gameplay is spent stuck out in the middle of the cold, desperately trying to find shelter from the unforgiving climate. If you survive that, you then have to brave the outdoors once again to go and search for whatever meager food you can scrounge up, all the while hopelessly under-equipped to deal with the wildlife or the cold. Death in this early stage is around every corner, as a rogue wolf is just as likely to take you out as starvation. If you can survive long enough, you eventually can find some clothing and equipment that will help you explore the massive game world.
Exploration in The Long Dark leads to knowledge, and with that, you can start to conquer the world. Snares can be placed to catch rabbits, while the wolves that once stalked you become your quarry. However, despite how far the player comes and how much experience they acquire, the sense of security and superiority can be taken away in an instant. A random week-long blizzard can roll in, causing you to burn through all of your food and water. A wolf attack can leave you bleeding and limping for cover as you slowly bleed out, all of your gear and equipment useless on death’s door.
This type of game is not for everybody. It requires a slow and methodical approach that some players aren’t looking for, however, there still is an audience who appreciates this game. The true survival experience of the player’s fight to just survive day to day is being lost. PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds is a great example of this. The game has no survival mechanics and consists solely of PvP. Despite this, it still touts itself as a survival game. As the industry has moved on, the term “survival” now seems to be synonymous with “PvP”, which is a shame. The Long Dark is a bold game that went against the status quo to make a compelling and realistic survival game. In time, however, I fear that games that offer brutal survival gameplay will be left behind, as the meaning of “survival” mutates beyond recognition.