My dad was a workaholic.
He grew up on a dairy farm with a strict father figure, and carried that attitude through the rest of his life, for better or worse. Mostly worse, to be honest. Dad never could separate the difficulty of a task from its inherent worth; if something wasn’t hard to accomplish then it was essentially pointless. In his eyes, the struggle was an important part of the task. So he would work very, very hard all the time, to the point of absolute exhaustion, as a way to prove to nobody that he was doing something worthwhile. Anything relaxing was meaningless and needed to be stamped out, including anything anyone else in the house might be doing to relax. My childhood was a little stressful, at times.
Video games have a similar challenge-focused mindset, wherein worth is often measured by the effort and skill required to master or complete the game. The colloquial ‘git gud’ mentality everyone who plays has heard when referring to the difficulty of Dark Souls or the addition of a permadeath mode to The Last of Us Part II. As such, there’s an emphasis across the board on survival. Survive the obstacles thrown in your path to reach the end of the level; survive the enemies trying to stop you; survive the elements. Survive even being alive. There’s even a whole genre dedicated to the concept of eking out a life under harsh conditions with limited resources. Survival games come in a variety of flavours: crafting, open-world, massively multiplayer, etc. As you might imagine, survival games are viewed through the standard video game lens, which means they are scary, violent, deadly, harsh, dangerous, frustrating, exacting and punishing experiences, designed to test the limits of human pain and endurance. They’re filled with moments that aren’t fun, per se, as much as they are a chance to triumph over something horrible.
But is that really what survival is all about? Struggle?
Certain games take a softer approach, taking players by the hand and saying “hey, this is a tough situation, but I want you to have the best chance of success.” These games ask you to survive in a more sedate, realistic sort of way, encouraging improvement instead of punishing failure. They’re nice, but they’re also still about surviving. After all, surviving the real world is often a matter of degrees rather than brutal game over screens.
Astroneer is a sandbox crafting game, set on strange, uncharted planets and superficially similar to something like No Man’s Sky. Players are dumped on a landmass with few materials, an unforgiving landscape and no particular goals.
Unlike Hello Games’ infinite procedural playground, however, the world of Astroneer has very little desire to kill you. There’s no need to protect against radiation poisoning, plants and animals aren’t out for blood, and deadly robots won’t pitch a digital fit because you touched the wrong tree. In fact, the only major hazard in Astroneer is running out of oxygen, which is very much in your control and easily avoided in most cases. The experience of playing Astroneer is peaceful, even serene. Guiding your tiny astronaut around the surface of the planet is more about exploration and progress than fighting against insurmountable odds.
And yet, it is a survival game in its own right. Players begin with a small base and need to conquer the environment to carry out more complex tasks and therefore explore further. Adapt to the world around you, or fail to make progress. Creatively utilise limited resources. Scavenge materials from your own rotting corpse.
Crucially there is no urgency to anything in Astroneer. Survival games like ARK: Survival Evolved, Don’t Starve and even Minecraft run on a series of interlocking clocks. Sate your hunger and thirst, manage the dual dangers of day and night, keep your fire burning to cook and scare away beasts but think about how staying too close for too long will leave you light on resources later. Wheels spinning inside wheels, keeping the player alert at all times to the many time sensitive challenges, maintaining a solid baseline of intentional anxiety. Obsidian’s Grounded, which is a delightful 1980s take on the genre, currently falls prey to the same need for constant management; hunger and thirst meters drop rapidly while you try to carry out simple tasks, requiring characters to eat and drink far more frequently than a normal human being. The result is a persistent sense of being unbalanced, of barely keeping your plates spinning no matter how much control you exert over the game’s systems. In contrast, Astroneer‘s oxygen supplies are limitless when connected to a base or vehicle, and even the portable oxygen canisters deplete at a respectably sedate pace. Day and night cycles occur, but they don’t represent any sort of line in the sand between danger and safety, instead simply providing more or less favourable lighting conditions. With no resources dedicated to micro-survival—making sure you make it to the end of the day, or the hour—Astroneer allows the player to step back and take in concerns of a larger scale; survival becomes less about keeping up and more about moving forward.
The question games like this ask is: can survival gameplay mechanics be fun? Many games in the genre are entertaining, challenging, complex, but much of the pure enjoyment is wrapped in stressful timers and false scarcity. Often to even reach the fun parts of a game like this you’re forced to metaphorically or literally punch trees to get the required resources for a mediocre starting weapon, or the water skin that will keep you alive long enough to punch more trees. Don’t worry, the game promises, a bunch of cool things are coming, and you glimpse on the horizon a smorgasbord of possible story content, complex machinery, and exciting locations. Hopefully you have the time and energy to reach it.
By contrast, Animal Crossing: New Horizons (yes, I’m comparing Animal Crossing directly to Minecraft, Lost Oasis and Don’t Starve, stay with me on this) almost trips over itself in offering the player power and agency. The game immediately telegraphs its intent to ape the style of a survival experience, dumping the player on an empty island and asking them to collect twigs. But the zeitgeist is upended by the sheer cheerfulness and overwhelmingly player-centric nature of the adventure. Welcome to this deserted island, devoid of resources, now here’s your free tent and by the way you are the most important person in the world. Yes, you need to mine for materials, but instead of building a rickety fence to keep out the dino-zombie cannibals, you’re constructing a museum to keep track of your accomplishments and discoveries. Many survival games eventually make a pivot from ‘getting by’ to building a life, the experience evolving slowly away from avoiding destruction and towards the act of creation itself; but Animal Crossing, Astroneer and similar games shift that experience to the early game, rather than treating it as a reward for hard work.
It could be argued that by removing the challenges of basic survival from a ‘survival’ experience, you render the genre somewhat pointless. After all, if there’s no chance of failure, how does the player measure their success at surviving?
But these games ask us to shift the perspective on what counts as success and failure. Failure in these more peaceful, forgiving environments amounts to an inability to create what you desire, falling short of grander goals, not being capable of designing the perfect machine or most self-sufficient village. Success is superficially similar to a harsher mode of play—explore, master the world around you, increase the range and scope of your crafting abilities—albeit with a shifted Overton Window regarding the minimum capabilities of a human being presented with five rocks and three coils of plant fibre.
Removing barriers to enjoyment also incentivises exploration; since players don’t have to dig through the basics to get to the complexities, they’re more comfortable striving for larger goals and taking greater risks. Constant management of hunger, thirst, stamina, sanity, light, bowel cancer, invading monkey-cats, manure supplies, climate change, necrotising fasciitis, and juice levels has sapped the motivation clean away from many of my own playthroughs in countless survival titles well before things got interesting. Yet in Astroneer I’ve put dozens of hours into crafting mobile science bases complete with alternating renewable energy power sources; my Animal Crossing island is replete with commerce and a complicated maze of hybrid flowers; planets in Starbound are covered with elaborately decorated skyscrapers full of furniture I stole with zero consequence.
None of this is to suggest that survival games as they currently are—dangerous hellscapes designed to test the limits of patience and panicked ingenuity—shouldn’t exist, they clearly have a place and an audience. But, like most of the gaming landscape, there’s a very narrow, violent and challenge-heavy focus where something much broader and more inclusive could be blossoming. Just because a game is about surviving, doesn’t mean it has to be hard, or painful.
We’re all just surviving out here in the real world too, after all.