I don’t like camping. For the longest time I felt like I was supposed to because, I mean, there are a lot of things about hanging out in the woods and fending for yourself that are immediately appealing. Building a bonfire, constructing shelter out of a bag of loose poles and canvas sheets–these feel like decent enough accomplishments when we’re more used to the convenience of sleeping in beds and adjusting thermostats to meet the same basic needs. But, after one night in Cape Breton a few years ago–one night I remember most for its awful heat, clouds of black flies biting at my face, and skin made sticky with layers of ineffectual mosquito repellant–I allowed myself to admit that I’m too accustomed to the easy life to get much enjoyment out of camping.
Just the same, I’m fascinated by the wilderness. I stand out on a cottage deck, looking at the lakes and dense forests of Ontario and I still think about how I’d do at fending for myself out in the wild. I know it wouldn’t go well, but it doesn’t stop me from wondering. Maybe, if the stakes were high enough, I’d get past my discomfort and figure out how to make a lean-to and catch food. I’m one of many people, soft-palmed from a life spent living in towns and cities and typing on computers for a living, that subconsciously assumes–despite all evidence to the contrary–that I still know how to survive like our common ancestors. I don’t think I’m alone in this.
Hinterland Studio’s The Long Dark is set in a frozen Canadian Northwest paralyzed by an electronics-disabling magnetic storm. In its Sandbox mode–the only part of the game currently available in its Early Access Steam release–the player is tasked with nothing more than surviving an abandoned, technology-free wilderness for as long as possible. After picking between a female or male character, the game opens up to one of several random, snow-covered vistas and provides no objective other than to tend to the physical needs of the protagonist. S/he shivers in the wind, prompting a search for shelter, fire, and warm clothes. A look at the menu (or a voice-acted complaint) shows that the character needs food, potable water, and any kind of weapon capable of fending off the occasional hungry wolf. The Sandbox mode of the game is a desperate scramble for survival that only ends when the player finally dies. How long that process takes is almost entirely dependent on our ability to convert the raw ingredients of nature–wood, snow, local fauna–into tools for keeping a (virtual) human alive.
The Long Dark‘s Sandbox isn’t the only instance of survival simulations attracting players. The success of Facepunch Studios’ Rust, Bohemia Interactive’s DayZ, and Endnight Games’ The Forest (not to mention the foundational aspects of Mojang’s Minecraft) all speak to the inherent fascination we have with forging our own paths in the wilderness. Each of these games is a safe way to indulge our survivalist pretensions from the comfort of our homes. They allow us to experiment with hardships without having to sacrifice anything but a bit of free time. As I play The Long Dark, a cup of coffee in front of the keyboard and a stable roof over my head, a sophisticated bit of technology runs a program that transports me to the same kind of landscape that real people had–or have–to contend with in order to continue living.
Survival stories have always had a place in literature and film, but the popularity of the genre in recent videogames represents a pretty significant spike in interest. As our lives increasingly take place in the abstraction of digital spaces and our work shifts ever further away from the production of tangible goods, the kind of people who own the devices necessary to play games are becoming more removed from the natural world. We exist in cities, tend to careers carried out in offices and on computers, and buy our food from grocery stores. This kind of existence would be difficult for our great-grandparents to imagine–our earlier ancestors wouldn’t have the ability to even comprehend a lifestyle like this. Is it any wonder so many of our games are based on the fantasy of rejecting all of it?
In many ways the idea of turning our backs on the kind of existence we’ve grown used to is a nightmare. The Forest, Endnight Games’ horror-filled take on the survival game, brings this idea to the forefront of its design. The game opens with a plane crash, the abduction of the protagonist’s child by a strange man, and sudden attacks by groups of hyper-aggressive cannibals. From the sickening lurch of an airplane falling out of the sky to the sudden positioning of a modern person as the target of predators far more adept at wilderness living than himself, The Forest is a violent reminder of just how frightening it would be if the lifestyle we’ve grown used to suddenly disappeared. While there is no shortage of danger present in other survival games, The Forest‘s horror atmosphere accentuates the stakes at hand. Failing to build a strong enough shelter can lead to sudden death at the hands of an attacker. An untended wound isn’t just a health-draining nuisance; it’s an increased chance of being unable to escape the next dangerous encounter.
An experience like this seems like something we shouldn’t enjoy as more than a bit of schadenfreude–a way to feel thankful that we don’t have to live in such a perilous world. But, thinking this way discounts the times when even a dark, overtly scary survival game like The Forest portrays the beauty of the sun rising over a calm blue lake or the light filtering through the leaves of lush trees, swaying in a gentle breeze. At times like this, it’s possible to forget the urgency of survival and appreciate the idea of being a single person, getting by in coexistence with the natural world. The harsh, freezing landscapes of The Long Dark are filled, too, with this same intermingling of terror and beauty. The snowy mountains will kill you, sure, but they’re also one of our habitats. Nature can easily take our lives, but without it we wouldn’t exist in the first place. Capturing that idea is, I think, what draws us to these games. No matter how far removed we, as a culture, are from nature, our animal instincts will always remind us of our place in it. Our sense of awe comes from the recognition of our subservient place in a world that we ultimately belong to, even as we isolate ourselves from it through technology and urbanity. This seems like a valuable feeling.
Reid McCarter is a writer, editor, and musician living and working in Toronto. He has written for sites and magazines including Kill Screen, Pixels or Death, Paste, and The Escapist. He is also editor-in-extremis for videogame site Digital Love Child. He tweets tweets @reidmccarter.