Every major console has had its unit-shifting survival horror game, with franchises such as Resident Evil and Silent Hill cementing the genre as one of the most lucrative for developers to get into. But away from all the ghouls, haunted houses and zombies, a new twist on the tired tropes of survival horror has recently been gaining traction with gamers. Titles such as The Long Dark, Don’t Starve and Subnautica are pure survival games. Supernatural horror is out, fending off mother nature is in.
Strangely, basic survival themes may actually be more effective than horror sequences at generating dread because survival games play off the primal fears we all know. We’ve all been hungry, we've all been thirsty, we've all longed for the warmth and comfort of our own bed when we’ve been stuck outside in the cold.
Survival games ramp up these experiences to the extreme, pitting the player against snow storms, starvation, deep water and other phenomena we have some experience with or at least an intrinsic fear of. Suddenly, relying on the crutch that is supernatural horror is no longer a necessity for developers.
Fear of the dark
Let’s consider The Long Dark, a survival simulation set against the snowy backdrop of the Canadian wilderness after “the quiet apocalypse”. While wolves and bears do pose a threat to your playable survivor, your main adversary will be the elements themselves. It quickly becomes apparent that uncooked meat, freezing temperatures and dehydration are a much bigger menace than the local wildlife. After all, you can’t scare off dying from dehydration with a loud noise or a bright flare like you can a wolf or bear.
The key to ensuring your survival in The Long Dark is careful observation of your vital stats. These constantly depleting bars must be regenerated by finding and cooking food, purifying water and ensuring you get enough sleep. For the inexperienced player, hunger and thirst may seem like the most pressing vitals to tend to, but cold and fatigue can be just as lethal.
On top of that, if you avoid the harsh outdoors by hiding inside for too long, your restless character will develop cabin fever, an affliction which causes irritability, claustrophobia and, eventually, madness.
The Long Dark is an incredibly engaging survival experience, but other games are doing it just as well.
Don’t Starve is another open world survival game, this time with 2D graphics and a much more whimsical style. Visually, Don’t Starve takes a more cartoonish approach to survival than The Long Dark, but the game still hinges on exploration tempered by real-life needs. You do get to explore a quirky, alien environment, but you must still monitor your vital bars for hunger, thirst and sanity. In survival games, exploration has an energy cost, and you need to make sure you pay it.
As in The Long Dark there are threats in Don’t Starve, but the game takes a more comical and relaxed approach to them. Hounds, Pigs and Tentacles move around the map in mobs and can easily overpower a lone survivor who’s low on health.
Fail to keep a fire burning through the night and Charlie, a deity who hunts under the cover of darkness, will instantly kill you. The difference in approach the developers took when compared to The Long Dark is interesting because it shows the variation the survival genre can offer gamers. Essentially, the gameplay dynamic of keeping your body functional by no means limits the kinds of world you’ll be exploring.
Diving into yet another type of environment, Subnautica takes the survival experience underwater. Set on an unknown alien planet, you play as the survivor of a devastating mothership crash that has left you stranded far from home in an escape pod floating in what seems like an endless ocean. The only way to stay alive? Take the plunge and see what you can scavenge amongst the vibrant corals and otherworldly fishes below.
During the opening hours of the game swimming is the only way to explore the world and, at times, what you need to progress will be lying in full view at the bottom of the seabed. Swimming down and collecting a key item only to realize that you don’t have enough oxygen to reach the surface is one of the most panic-inducing, terrifying moments of any game you’ll ever play. And it takes place in a tranquil, sandy-bottomed ocean reef.
However, true to real-life Earth oceans, various kinds of ecosystem exist on Planet 4546B. The deeper expanses of water are frightening places, with monsters dwelling where the sun’s rays can’t reach you. These beasts reside in their specific biomes and, unless you venture too close to their patrol routes, they’ll leave you in peace.
However, essential material parts, plentiful food sources and the story often force you to encroach on their territory. In these seas you’re the small fish in a big pond and, although Subnautica isn’t a horror game, it relies on terror and tension to create unease during these sections, always amplified by the fact that you often desperately need what the monsters are guarding to keep yourself alive.
Despite their vastly different environments, there is one thing that all these games have in common beyond vital stats that need replenishing. Fear of the unknown. Be it a vast, ancient woodland between you and where you need to go, strange noises in the night or looking down at your feet only to be met with dark water that apparently has no end, these games let you know that you are a fragile being and then confront you with an abyss.
Naturally, we fear what we don’t know because the only thing we do know is that we are vulnerable beings.
Survival games don’t let you play as an action hero, they don’t allow you to tear into a horde of zombies with an arsenal of mega weapons. They limit and challenge you, all whilst engaging with what makes us human, the flaws and the triumphs. Survival without the horror is genre that is becoming more popular all the time, and we can’t wait to see where it goes next.
- Read more: Best horror games on PC and consoles