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.
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 civilisation and all that. Others are quite happy with 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”.
Astroneer isn’t the only space-related survival game we’re going to update the list with, but it comes before any of them alphabetically. It tasks one (or more, up to four total) player with colonising procedurally generated planets, and provides cool tools to help you do it.
One on them is the deform tool, with which you’ll terraform the planets you’re on. 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.
First of all, Darkwood is horror game, and despite the top-down camera, it is pretty good at increasing the tension and selling the scares. 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 meagre safehouse against assaults.
Gloomy, oppressive atmosphere
Choices made in earlier chapters affect the course of the narrative
No Man’s Sky gives an avatar to control (The Traveller), a spaceship to travel around in, and a few tools to give a chance of providing for yourself. You have an entire galaxy to explore and see what each star system hides.
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.
Multiple massive procedurally generated galaxies
You can build your own base and conduct research there
As of the Next update: a full multiplayer experience intended from the start
In a typical RPG you’re build a character, then quickly become the most capable character virtually overnight. In Outward you begin indebted, and then 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 quest to complete, and an interesting set of abilities, 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.
Various meters reflecting your nourishment and well-being
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 catastrophy.
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 some progress when you fail to spot the danger in time.
Simple, but clear visual style
Boredom and depression among the problems caused by the zombie outbreak
Perks letting you customise your avatar’s skillset
Challenge Scenarios ad co-op multiplayer in addition to the standard campaign
Rimworld openly takes its inspiration from Dwarf Fortress and Firefly, which probably already says a lot about the game’s style and atmosphere. You get to direct a growing group of survivors trying to survive in the alien environment.
None of them are professional colonists, more like random assortment of people who crash-landed and want out. Of course, each of the colonists has different traits and willingness to do different job. It’s a brilliant game with complex mechanics, that, like Dwarf Fortress, make losing fun.
Forests can be scary. Thanks to the glories of civilisation we’ve forgotten a lot of the way of surviving in the wilderness. The Forest brings back a lot of the dread and the helplessness a modern person would feel in the woods, and also brings in cannibals and cults for good measure.
The gameplay is as expected of a survival game, but it has an intriguing horror layer that helps propel the player forward towards one of two possible endings. There are also the cannibals, who aren’t as straightforward as enemies, as it might initially seem.
Playable in multiplayer
Strong horror elements
Crafting and base-building are all present and well realised
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.
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, and 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 customisable through four “Experience Modes” modifying some aspects of the difficulty.
Challenges to try yourself at outside of the core modes
Wintry regions of The Long Dark are quite different from usual survival game settings
In the not-very-near future humanity is on the verge of extinction due to the hordes of infected created by the carelessness of humans from the past. Now you have to fortify your town against thousands of mindless infected. It’s hard, and second chances are rare.
They Are Billions has a story campaign seeing you push back against the tides of infected, but it also retained the original survival mode. It puts you on a randomly generated map and lets you build and fortify your colony’s way to success or at least slightly prolonged survival.
Potentially thousands of units on the map simultaneously
Two game modes: story campaign and survival
Lots of mechanics to be discovered through playing the game
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. It ruffled some people’s feathers, of course, but it was also quite brilliant, and an unquestionable, if odd, nod towards realism.
Gameplay-wise Rust isn’t anything remarkable by current standards, but is a solid enough game with well-made mechanics. 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.
Klei Entertainment has a thing for cool-looking 2D games with demanding gameplay, and they are quite good at making them. While Oxygen Not Included isn’t the best known, or even the best of their games, it still is a pretty interesting, engaging, and occasionally funny production.
The idea is that a small group of space colonists winds up in an asteroid with only small pockets of breathable air in it. Your task is to turn this troublesome situation into something survivable and more or less welcoming for more colonists.
You’ll handle ventilation, and refuse disposal. You’ll have to cope with gas diffusion (well-simulated) and liquid drainage all while there’s food to be provided and tech to be researched. Much like Don’t Starve (also present on this list) Oxygen Not Included gameplay is about juggling many plates at once and minimising losses.
You shouldn’t expect to get this game’s mechanics right away, but once you do, the interplay of its systems make for a very satisfying puzzle to figure out, especially with procedurally generated maps.
Here’s the poster child of the battle royal genre, a game which launched a thousand rip-offs and inspired some actually good games.
While most survival games pit the players against their environment with an occasional bout of PvP nuisance, Plunkbat does the opposite: here it’s the other players that are the main menace, while the shrinking barrier and carpet bombing are an addition spicing up the entire thing.
The idea is that a hundred players are dumped onto an island in barely more than a clean pair of tighty-whities and a discount-store t-shirt, and they need to duke it out until just one remains. Weapons, armour, ammo are lying around, if you can find any of it before you get axed. Good luck.
It’s a simple premise, a good old Last Man Standing mixed with some scavenging and cowardly hiding in a bathtub stealth and tactics. But somehow people got hooked, Twitch exploded, cats and dogs living together, mass hysteria. PUBG surely made huge waves.
And, much like in other survival games, the reward is a still warm carcass of a dead animal prepped for celebratory consumption, AKA Chicken Dinner for the Winner Winner.
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 capitalises on that fascination, populating 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, defence, 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.
Created by a Polish developer 11 bit studios, This War of Mine takes a perspective war-focused games tend to omit from their depictions. The civilian perspective, the people who don’t make for a fascinating action game or factor significantly into real-time and grand strategies.
The scope of TWoM is small, no huge locations, no cinematic transitions. Just a building where a small (but possibly growing) group of survivors is hiding during the day to avoid snipers. Occasionally, during the nights, some of them can leave to explore and scavenge for crucial resources.
Of course things aren’t quite so simple. A house where you find some still edible food may have an elderly couple living there, and you’re not leaving them anything to eat. Or maybe you’re taking medicine from an impromptu house for orphaned children. But you choose to do it, because you have your own people to care for. Or maybe you decide to risk starvation, but do the seemingly moral thing?
This game will not give you a rush of excitement, it won’t make you feel good, but it WILL have you asking questions about what is acceptable in a struggle for survival when you aren’t the only person around.
With an imminent launch of State of Decay 2 it’s only prudent to mention the first game, because it isn’t quite like the others. For one, it is actually a singleplayer game, unlike zombie/survival games which use multiplayer features to increase the tension and emphasise the risk-reward nature. SoD however was fine with not going online, which for a good number of people was a large misstep.
State of Decay you have 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 for some people the lack of multiplayer means being able to focus on playing the storyline (there is one) and managing the base. They don’t need to worry about someone with far more time on their hands coming to destroy something they’ve been working hard to build.
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 a semblance of 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 This War of Mine (discussed earlier), you can be damned sure to expect some heart-wrenching decisions to make, not the least of them being: should we make children work in the coal mines. The answer may be: people will not like it, but they will be alive to complain about it. Or you could find some other solution, somehow.
As a mayor of this budding town you are concerned not only with the tangible resources like heat, food etc. but also people’s Hope. If too much Hope is lost, the game’s over, so you need ways of getting it back up by providing facilities for relieving rising tensions, like fight rings. A very effective solution is reforming the government using Faith or Order, two separate paths you’ll eventually have to choose between. Neither looks particularly friendly, but they work.
Yeah, it’s once again a game about moral (also amoral and immoral) choices, like This War of Mine, only this time it also tests how fast power will corrupt you.
Don’t Starve is a pretty little (big) game, developed by Klei Entertainment, predating Oxygen Not Included. This time, the protagonist finds himself (or her/them/itself, should you pick one of the unlockable characters) in a grim-looking world full of weird monsters and an oppressive darkness you can only barely keep at bay.
Although the game’s colour palette doesn’t seem exciting on paper, being all greys and browns, it comes together with a unique art design to create an unmistakeable aesthetic. It’s not exactly “Gothic” in style, but it certainly is in atmosphere.
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 complete…
There is also a multiplayer-friendly stand-alone Don’t Starve Together. It introduces certain tweaks to the characters’ traits to make them more viable in team-play, but is otherwise a very similar, very satisfying experience if you like playing with friends on shared projects.
After spending some time in the dreaded Early Access, and fixing some initial hiccups Conan Exiles is out, brandishing its full frontal nudity with pride. There’s also some gameplay there, I guess.
Based on the stories written by Robert E. Howard way back in the 1930s set in a fictional forgotten era of humanity, Conan Exiles (which I still on occasion call Age of Conan, because of Funcom’s previous game in this setting) is as harsh, ridiculous, and bloody as the original pulpy stories. I think what sets the tone perfectly is the fact that there is a dedicated slider to adjust the size of your lad’s dangledong, or your lass’s tatas.
There’s also building bases on cliffs, breaking NPC on the Wheel of Fortu… Wheel of Pain to make they work for you. You can fight other players, or even summon a humongous incarnation of a god to smash through their puny defences.
The jury is still out on the quality of the final product, and your mileage may vary depending on your gaming preferences, but it’s a quite decent adaptation of Howard’s works, at least as far as the sword and sorcery atmosphere is considered.
Subnautica is something of a silent masterpiece. It didn’t quite make a stir like Rust or ARK, didn’t invite dick-jokes as Conan, and sure as heck doesn’t have even a quarter of the Plunkbat playerbase. But by all accounts it is an actual joy to play, and as far as survival games are considered: quite unique.
For one, it doesn’t look like a drab world of pain and suffering. No, friend, there’s no Snyder edge in this game. It’s full of colours, 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 colourful fish and plants in the sun-lit waters. But there may be valuable resources somewhere, so maybe it’s worth swimming down after all?
The verticality of it all is amazing, with smooth transitions between areas and a sense of being actually submerged, unless you’re hanging out in the base you eventually build using the remains of your ship and emergency schematics you receive as you push the surprisingly engaging plot forwards.
It’s not a violent game, although there are elements of danger to Subnautica’s gameplay, 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.
In the landscape of gritty worlds filled with blood and violence Subnautica takes us on an interesting journey which only lacks the narration of David Attenborough or Jacques Cousteau to be more relaxing.
So there you have it. A list of some of the best, or at least 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.