The modern way of life presents many challenges, but on the whole it eliminates the visceral, bloody, sweaty, murdery kind of survival that marked the early years of humanity before we figured out that husbandry is much more effective in the long run than hunting.
Somehow, thousands of years of existence didn’t manage to remove our atavisms, and so in our brilliance we devised ways to indulge our prehistoric instincts. Some choose to live them out in real life, hunting, camping, vacationing beyond civilization and all that. Others are quite happy with just the fantasy of trying their damnedest to survive.
Which is how we arrive at the popularity of survival games, which, depending on the presence of online features, may turn out to be more depressing than living off sprouts and skinny rabbits. What follows is a bunch of notable games modern technology created to keep us safe from the dreadful and mythical “outside”.
|Valheim||2021-02-02||Iron Gate Studio|
|Minecraft Java Edition||2013-11-19||Mojang||25%|
|The Flame in the Flood||2016-02-24||The Molasses Flood||88%|
|Sons Of The Forest||2023-02-23||Endnight Games|
|ASTRONEER||2016-12-15||System Era Softworks||39%|
|Darkwood||2017-07-17||Acid Wizard Studio||81%|
|No Mans Sky||2016-08-12||Hello Games||64%|
|Outward||2019-03-26||Nine Dots Studio||79%|
|Project Zomboid||2013-11-08||The Indie Stone||44%|
|The Long Dark||2017-08-01||Hinterland Studio Inc.||65%|
|Rust||2018-02-08||Facepunch Studios, Double Eleven|
|Ark Survival Evolved||2015-06-02||Efecto Studios||31%|
|This War Of Mine||2014-11-14||11 bit studios||91%|
|State Of Decay Year One Survival Edition||2013||Undead Labs||87%|
|Frostpunk||2018-04-24||11 bit studios||86%|
|Dont Starve Together||2016-04-21||Klei Entertainment||82%|
|Subnautica||2018-01-23||Unknown Worlds Entertainment||61%|
Even a small suburban backyard can become a massive forest riddled with dangers and challenges when you’re not even an inch tall. This is the reality of Grounded, a survival game from Obsidian. It puts you in the tiny shoes of some teens who got hit with some science fiction stuff and now even an ant is the size of a large dog to them. And the less said about spiders, the better.
You’re going to collect morning dew as your water resource, build out of grass and tiny sticks. You can also get a pet weevil, because you are tiny, caught by a weird science experiment, and you deserve something cute for the trouble. And all of that happens in a really beautiful, immersive, and surprisingly diverse (given it’s just a single backyard) environment. What’s not to love?
|Developer:||Iron Gate Studio|
You are dead, but instead of getting to Valhalla, old man Odin has a job for you and your fellows: you need to take down a few bothersome monsters before getting to the proper afterlife. Of course, it’s a survival game, not a boss rush, so before you’re ready to face the big leagues, you need to build a base or two, work on your gear, explore your surroundings, and find a way to other regions.
One of Valheim’s finest features is its crafting and construction system, which is flexible enough to allow truly impressive builds. The game’s also a rare survival game which doesn’t lethally penalize you for running low on meters, you simply lose the buffs, like increased HP and stamina. Don’t go in expecting triple-A graphics, though, Valheim prefers style over photorealism and is good at it.
Minecraft’s biggest claim to fame is the ridiculously powerful crafting system, but while the Creative mode is where the greatest builds are easiest to make, the Survival mode has all of that potential AND a very competent survival game on top, with a hunger system, an essential day-night cycle, and monsters keen to eat your face.
Virtually everything that exists in the world can be mined, harvested, or looted for useful resources you can turn into decorations, food, equipment, and a ton of other stuff which can make you more powerful, and your home base way fancier. And on top of that, regardless of the mode, you can play with friends and survive the blocky world together!
The Flame in the Flood
|Developer:||The Molasses Flood|
The Flame in the Flood is a very interesting game. It’s a blend of a roguelike and a survival game, with a unique aesthetic and a perspective that’s rather rare for the genre. You’re playing as a girl known as Scout, who’s on a journey with her faithful dog. Most of the game happens on a raft, as the titular flood has turned the continental US into a bunch of scattered islands.
Of course, you’ll also set foot on the islands themselves to scout for resources and rest up. Of course, the meters are present, and you’ll gain and lose statuses as you play. The game’s roguelike (or rather rogue-lite) nature means that death is permanent, so you need to keep an eye on your well-being because checkpoints are rare and only available in the Campaign mode.
Sons of the Forest
Sons of the Forest is a sequel to The Forest, a great survival game laced with a lot of horror. While SotF is less horrific, it does have very strong plot connections to the first game. The game puts you in the shoes of a trained mercenary, whose team was sent on a rescue operation to rescue some rich dude who dabbled too much in things that should have been left alone.
Unfortunately for you, your transport got shot down, and when you regain consciousness, you are the only survivor. Well, you and a fellow called kelvin, who’s happy to help you do some menial work around your base. Because, of course, while the mission required you to get to the other end of the island, you will need an HQ to restock and prepare for trouble.
You find yourself on a small, dinky raft floating calmly on a vast ocean. Thankfully, you have a hook and rope which you can use to fish out debris and flotsam out of the water and use it to expand your vessel and get some sustenance to manage your hunger and thirst meters. In time, you’ll start discovering islands, which provide some stuff you can find on the open waters…and some lore!
In time, your small bunch of cobbled-together boards will become a large, fully-featured yacht…or perhaps a floating mansion, depending on how you build it. You do, however, need to watch out for uncharacteristically aggressive sharks which are happy to munch on you and on your trusty vessel.
|Developer:||System Era Softworks|
Astroneer isn’t the only space-related survival game we’re going to place on the list, but it comes before any of them alphabetically. It tasks one (or more, up to four total) player with colonizing procedurally generated planets, and provides cool tools to help you do it.
One of them is the deform tool, with which you’ll terraform the planets you’re on. The tool is incredibly powerful, allowing you to create sculptures with the same ease as tunnels and shapeless hills of matter. You also have to keep oxygen in mind, because straying too far from your sustainable supply will start tapping into your backpack-stored limited oxygen tank, and one of the reasons in space nobody can hear you scream is because without oxygen you die.
|Developer:||Acid Wizard Studio|
First of all, Darkwood is a horror game, and despite the top-down camera, it is pretty good at increasing the tension and selling the scares. It turns out, you can still play with lines of sight and sound design outside of TPP or FPP. And Darkwood is really, really proficient at it, no matter if you’re in a derelict village or an open field.
The area you find yourself in is inhabited by deranged humans and some actual monsters. As The Stranger, you’ll have to find a way to cope with the horrors of the sinister forest, including crafting and cooking your tools of survival. The game is split into day, when you are safe enough to scavenge, and night, when you need to defend your meager safehouse against assaults.
No Man’s Sky
No Man’s Sky gives you an avatar to control (The Traveller), a spaceship to travel around in, and a few tools to give you a reasonable chance of providing for yourself. You have an entire galaxy to explore and see what each star system hides. Inevitably, you’ll be drawn to the galaxy’s center, where the final mystery dwells, and we won’t spoil it for you.
As is the standard, you’ll have to collect resources in order to keep your life support systems functional. As of the Foundation update you’re also able to build your own bases on a planet you designate as your home. In addition to basic survival, you can also dabble in trade, study alien languages, and generally good around with friends in multiplayer.
|Developer:||Nine Dots Studio|
In a typical RPG you build a character and then quickly become the most capable character in the world virtually overnight. In Outward it’s not so simple. You begin indebted, and even after you clear your debt on time, you’ll still have to work harder than in any other RPG to accomplish anything. You’re not a hero, you’re just a person.
Outward, in addition to giving you time-sensitive quests to complete, and an interesting set of abilities (including a magic system, which takes real effort to use), it also requires you to pay mind to your vital meters, like most other survival games out there. Hunger, thirst, warmth etc. are all essential to your continuing existence. It’s a struggle, but the game is worth it!
|Developer:||The Indie Stone|
Project Zomboid isn’t particularly interested in being a game where you get to heroically withstand a zombie outbreak. Instead, it asks how one would actually fare in the event of such a catastrophe.
It has all the trappings of a survival game, too. Open world, several meters to manage, crafting, and a sense of dread induced by the possibility of losing progress when you fail to spot the danger in time.
It also doesn’t worry about killing your character if you mess up or get overwhelmed. Everyone dies easily. To add insult to injury, it’s possible that on the next playthrough one of the zombies you encounter is going to be your old character. In many ways, PZ is the most realistic zombie survival simulator, despite relatively simple graphics. The systems are deep enough to carry the game.
The Long Dark
|Developer:||Hinterland Studio Inc.|
The Long Dark is a solitary adventure, you aren’t going to play together with other players to lessen the stresses of surviving in the uninhabited, snow-covered region of Northern Canada. You won’t even encounter anything supernatural, the nature is, by the developers’ promises, just enough. So get your wamest clothes out, you’re visiting frigid Canadian outback in the dead of winter.
The game features two core modes. The first is Wintermute, The Long Dark’s story campaign based around Will McKenzie and his ex-wife Astrid Greenwood getting separated after a plane crash, each having to survive on their own. The second mode is Survival, which is notably harder that the story mode, down to featuring permadeath. It is somewhat customizable through four “Experience Modes” modifying various aspects of the difficulty.
|Developer:||Facepunch Studios, Double Eleven|
Rust made something of a stir back in the day because the developers decided to generate your in-game avatar’s appearance based on your SteamID. You could end up playing as a person of another sex, a different skin and hair colour, and short of creating a new Steam account there was diddly you could do about it.
Gameplay-wise Rust isn’t anything remarkable by current standards, but is nevertheless a solid game with well-made mechanics, and one of the sources of the survival genre’s popularity. If you don’t like the gimmicks of other games on the list, you may be interested in the “vanilla” experience offered by Rust.
Assuming you can handle the SteamID-bound appearance, of course.
ARK: Survival Evolved
Yes it’s “Survival: The One with Dinosaurs”. It’s pretty amazing as far as gimmicks go. One would be hard-pressed to find a person who had never spent some time of their childhood being wowed by the prehistoric reptiles.
ARK populates its expansive open world with prehistoric animals including, indeed, dinosaurs. Better yet: many of said animals can be tamed (in a lengthy process) and used for transport, defense, or as features in your private zoo, if it tickles your fancy. ARK also stands out because it doesn’t shy away from fantastical elements, like dragons and lush underworlds filled with bizarre lifeforms.
If you’re in for realism, you aren’t going to like ARK, that’s certain. If you’re looking for something like Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World mixed with sci-fantasy, you probably won’t find anything better.
This War of Mine
|Developer:||11 bit studios|
Created by a Polish developer 11 bit studios, This War of Mine takes rare perspective on war. It focuses on civilians, the people who don’t make for a fascinating action game or factor into real-time strategies.
The scope of TWoM is small, no huge locations, just a building where a small group of survivors is hiding during the day to avoid snipers and spend nights scavenging outside. Of course, things aren’t simple. A house where you find food may have elderly inhabitants, and you’re need to decide if you’re going to let them starve. Or maybe you find medicine in an impromptu orphanage. But you have your own people to care for.
This game will not give you a rush of excitement, but it WILL have you asking questions about what is acceptable in a struggle for survival.
State of Decay
State of Decay is a rare-in-genre single-player game. Your mission is to gather a group of people in a secure base and keep them alive despite an ongoing zombie apocalypse ruining everybody’s day. You collect survivors, each of them with certain skillsets and traits which may be either helpful or detrimental to your base-creating efforts.
There is, of course, crafting, which focuses mainly on reinforcing your outpost and creating facilities needed to make it slightly more self-sufficient.
It’s an interesting, engaging game, and the lack of multiplayer means being able to focus on playing the storyline (there is one) and managing the base. Without worrying about someone with far more time on their hands coming to destroy something.
|Developer:||11 bit studios|
The year is 1886, three years after Krakatoa threw some shade on the world. Unlike in our world, things got really cold, millions of people died, crops failed, but there is hope: a heat generator. All you need to do is get it running and everything will be fine, right? WRONG.
Since Frostpunk’s developers have also created TWoM, you can expect some heart-wrenching decisions to make. As a mayor, you are concerned not only with resources like heat, food etc. but also people’s Hope. If too much Hope is lost, the game’s over. An effective solution is reforming the government using Faith or Order, two paths to choose between. Neither is particularly friendly, but they work.
Yeah, it’s once again a game about moral choices. Happiness is a luxury when survival is at stake.
Don’t Starve is a pretty little (big) game, developed by Klei Entertainment. The protagonist finds himself (or her/them/itself, should you pick one of the unlockable characters) in a grim-looking world full of weird creatures and an oppressive darkness you can only barely keep at bay. Although at first the color palette doesn’t seem exciting, it works really well with the Burton-esque art style.
There are monsters to fight, a semblance of a safe camp to establish, items and useful devices to craft, characters to unlock, and, eventually, storyline to figure out and see to the end…
There is also a multiplayer-friendly stand-alone Don’t Starve Together, which introduces a few tweaks to the characters’ traits to make them more viable in team-play, without losing gameplay appeal.
Based on the stories written by Robert E. Howard way back in the 1930s set in a fictional forgotten era of humanity, Conan Exiles is as harsh, ridiculous, and bloody as the original pulp stories. You begin as a freshly freed exile, without even a pair of pants to your name and faced with a region which couldn’t care less about your survival.
It’s a strong start, and the game’s complexity, particularly in the base-management area, is very satisfying. Not only is the construction system quite powerful, but your headquarters can also be populated by NPCs serving as artisans, soldiers, and general workforce. Having this help definitely helps you with maintain your meters, and becoming the greatest power in the land.
|Developer:||Unknown Worlds Entertainment|
Subnautica is by all accounts it is a joy to play, and as far as survival games are considered: quite unique. It’s full of colors, and good contrast, and the only thing resembling a gritty film grain is the sand being kicked up by some fish.
Of course, there are the murky depths filled with lifeforms looking (and being) considerably less friendly than bright and colorful fish and plants in the sun-lit waters.
It’s not a violent game, usually death only spawns you back at base, and the vistas in the upper layer of the ocean are friendly and gorgeous enough to play some of them with a child if you are looking for some quality gaming time with your offspring. Subnautica lacks only the narration of David Attenborough or Jacques Cousteau to be more relaxing.
Survival of the fittest
So there you have it. A list of some of the best and most notable survival games which have popped up over the years. From harsh fantastical lands to friendly fantastical lands, with an odd trip to harsh realistic worlds in-between, survival games abound, and anyone can find something to match their expectations and preferences.