“Ah, Ha, Ha, Ha, Stayin’ Alive” – Part 1

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It’s going to be night soon.  I’d better make a beeline back to my camp asap or I’ll be in the unenviable position of having to hoof it back in the dark.  It was really stupid of me to venture this far out from home base so late in the day, but I don’t really have a choice.  I’m running low on supplies and need to see if there is anything worth scavenging back by where the plane crashed. Wait… is that a twig snapping? I stop busting open suitcases with my axe for a moment and freeze, completely motionless mid backswing, straining my ears to listen. That’s when i notice the eerie silence that’s fallen over the forest. Was it always this quiet?  Weren’t there birds chirping a minute ago?  The quickened pace of my heart beat is making it difficult to tell what direction the noise was… WHAT THE FUCK WAS THAT?!? There’s a flash of motion in the corner of my eye.  I swear i just saw something humanoid darting in between some trees to my right. Ok, ok it’s a little ways off; don’t panic, dont panic. I’ll just slowly back away and book it back home to hunker down till morning. I barely take three steps when i notice what looks to be a half-naked man leaning out from behind an old pine about twenty feet to my left. Shit shit shit!  I’m surrounded.  All pretense of stealth is abandoned as i turn and start hauling ass away from that crazy looking bastard.  Was that a human skull he was wearing for a hat? Oh god why did it look so fresh?

It’s getting really dark now. I can’t even see the makeshift path i normally use to navigate my way home and there’s a snowball’s chance in hell that i’ll get there at all without my torch.  Ok, let me just slow it down for a moment, pull my torch out of my backpack and see if those twisted looking psycho freaks are still aft…. Crap on a cupcake!  I see the figures of three people silhouetted against the faint moonlight. They move towards me and I can start to make out disgusting skull headdresses and necklaces made of small bones that look disturbingly like the fingers of children. The clubs they wield are human femurs gripped at the skinny base where tanned flesh was wrapped to make a handle.  The one wearing the most ornate and grisly headdress, the leader i’m guessing, steps closer into view.  A shaft of light catches his face and he’s smiling widely; his teeth filed to a point.  Little yellowed needles speckled with drying blood that confirm my suspicions, cannibals.  I 180 around on my heel and bolt into the darkness, uncertain where I’m going but knowing that it can’t be worse than the alternative.  Just when i’m certain I’ve lost my way, I catch sight of a faint, warm glow in the distance; a trickle of light bleeding through a gap in the thickets up ahead. Please please please please please… Yes! I thank my own laziness for not putting out my campfire before setting off earlier. It’s a beacon of salvation and my only hope for safety.  I burst through the clearing, pause for a half second to reorient myself and run for my cabin. As soon as I get inside, I turn to see the chieftain standing by my cooking fire, close enough to reach out and touch. We meet eyes through the crack in the door as it shuts tight , and he’s still smiling.  I stand motionless listening to them circle around my base looking for a way inside.  It doesn’t matter though; he and his cronies aren’t breaking into this fortress anytime soon. Defeated and with morning approaching, the cannibals sulk back into the forest. I don’t move a muscle while the dull thuds of their retreating footsteps grow fainter and fainter. Goddammit I’m alive! For at least one more day, I’m alive.

This was just a single small moment from my playthrough of The Forest, but it illustrates a lot of what I find so engrossing about the hybrid crafting-survival-adventure genre. This wasn’t some predetermined encounter, rather a conflux of factors interacting in a sandbox environment. The cannibal tribe has an area they like to patrol in; a rough circle outside the perimeter of their village. It just so happened they were walking nearby when the noise of me whacking open suitcases caught their attention. The experience was organic, unique, and tremendously fun.

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I’m the kind of gamer that tends to empathize heavily with my player characters.  Customizers permitting, I usually like to make my avatar look like me, and have similar skills and abilities. It allows me to connect more with the game world and have a deeper concern for my agent’s well being. This can be a real double edged sword when I’m playing anything with a horror element as I tend to suffer from a strong case of the NOOOOOOPE every time I round a corner and come face to face with some monstrosity.  I know it’s ridiculous, but this level if immersion is what makes survival games so appealing to me.

This genre seems to have grown substantially in the last few years and I feel that a strong argument could be made that much of this success is a direct result of the popularity of Minecraft.  Its survival mode created much of the framework that is present in nearly all first person crafting adventures that followed it. It established the need to nourish your protagonist with the diminishing hunger and stamina meters.  It also introduced us to the first large scale crafting system. This was all rolled up with a day/night cycle, an escalating tech tree, and a massive open world to explore.  Obviously you can’t accredit Minecraft‘s success to just these specific gameplay elements, but they were adopted and passed down in the design DNA to the modern survival games that I love getting lost in.  As I’m pretty passionate about this genre, I’d like to spend a few weeks recounting the experiences I’ve had trying to survive in these various worlds. Let’s start things off with the Steam Early Access adventure from Endnight Games and the source of my opening paragraphs: The Forest.

The Forest

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Being a parent is hard, or so parents tell me; at least they would tell me if they had the energy to have an actual adult conversation. I can’t imagine it’s any easier when your son is stolen from you by savage cannibals that are intent on trussing you up like a stuck pig.  Unfortunately, that’s the situation you eventually find yourself in when the 747 flying you both home takes a nosedive into the old growth forest in the Pacific Northwest.  You regain consciousness just in time to have him ripped away from you and dragged off into the wilderness by a tribe of crazies that don’t seem particularly friendly to outsiders.  

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The Forest feels like a very realistic, even grounded, entry in this genre and an excellent jumping off point when discussing survival games of this type.  Your inventory and crafting menu, often a make or break point, is actually a blanket laid out in the dirt where you sort through the various supplies you scavenge.  The craftables all feel natural and plausible, like something you would order to help support a friend’s shitty Etsy shop.  There’s no lasers or circuits to be found here.  Armor might consist of a couple of hollowed out tortoise shells strapped together with some twine.  You can make a club with sharp stones embedded into it, reminiscent of the Macuahuitl used by the Aztec and Mayans.  There is a good balance of available materials, at least early on, forcing you to make tough decision over what is worth carrying in your limited inventory.  

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The world of The Forest is as visually pleasing as it is inhospitable. One lesson I learned the hard way is to be very careful about where you decide to set up your base camp.  The enemies like to scout and patrol areas near their homes and won’t think twice about smacking you in the back of the head while you’re tinkering about trying to organize your gear or craft a new axe.

The game does an amazing job of always making you feel watched, as if there’s always someone behind you, or just out of sight, stalking, waiting.  Exploring the world around you is as rewarding as it is terrifying.  Curiosity will push you to check out that village over there.  I’m sure its denizens will be affable and welcoming.  Pay no attention to sweet smelling meat they are roasting… But, what’s in those sacks they have tied up in the back of their huts; something useful, or maybe some clue as to what happened to your son?  That’s the balance of exploration and terror that makes these types of games such a joy to play, and The Forest does a pretty great job of delivering it in spades.  Don’t face these fears alone either, since it now supports co-op so you can freak out with a friend.

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Solo or coop, regardless of how you play, The Forest has an interesting philosophical question underlying much of its world.  It pushes the player to become more and more like the monsters you fight in order to survive.  It doesn’t do this in a straightforward way. Rather it provides you with blueprints for various horrific gear and totems that you can use to ward off your base or defend yourself with.  The logic behind it is sound as well.  Your character is making these fucking horrifying monuments to human depravity not because he believes in them, but because the superstitious tribal halfwits do.  It’s a clever design choice by Endnight Games. Good job fellas.

So what do you like or, if you’re dead inside, dislike about these types of games?  Let me hear your thoughts in the comments below and tune in next week when I discuss the marvelous underwater world of Subnautica.

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