How Survival Themes Save the Management Games from Themselves

Perfectionism ruins strategy games; desperation elevates them.
February 24, 2021, 2:00pm
Frostpunk Hed
'Frostpunk' screenshot courtesy of 11 bit studios

In the past year, I’ve started finding stressful survival games oddly meditative. 

Maybe it’s because I ran through all of my “chill” games, poisoning them with optimization. My Stardew Valley farms used to be bucolic, but by year three have become packed with ancient fruit distillery equipment, diamond-filled crystalariums, and several dozen truffle hunting pigs. I sabotaged my Animal Crossing run with a Stalk Market obsession, and psyching myself out of using terraforming tools after watching beautiful island tours on YouTube.

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I have found much more optimism in games that are aggressive from the get go, where staying alive feels like accomplishment enough. This is as true of my recent forays into Valheim—the wildly popular Norse mythology flavored survival sim, currently in early access—as it is of my favorite old standbys. I don’t play them with the hubris of someone who thinks they’ll succeed on the first try, but with the unfettered chaos of someone who lives for the drama of messing up. 

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Frostpunk

Where most city-builders I’ve played ask me to imagine the best version of an urban plan, Frostpunk feels more like taking the least bad path and hoping it will all work out. You're not worrying about micromanaging pathways or planning the routes every little worker is going to take each day. You're simply trying not to die as you lead an isolated settlement through a sudden, apocalyptic ice age during the Industrial Revolution. The only thing keeping the settlement from frosty oblivion is your firm hand, and judicious use of a massive, central generator—the only heat source. As temperatures plummet, people get sick, begin to riot, and threaten to abandon the city. Your job is to keep them (mostly) alive, in any way you can.

And that’s what I love about it—the bleak thrill of knowing you had to make ghoulish plays to survive, but avoided a full Donner Party situation (an in-game law called “Alternative Food Source” lets you cook your fallen brethren) or using child labor (shockingly, this law is called “Child Labor”).

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The game’s punishing difficulty only really ramps it up as the story unfolds, and by the end of any of the campaign scenario I’m mostly screaming at my little city to pull through. It’s still the only game that has kept me up until three in the morning, muttering to myself about whether I should be thickening gruel with sawdust or assigning workers another 18 hour shift to prepare for an incoming cold snap. 

Sure, there are many opportunities in Frostpunk to dig into optimizing— I’ve never finished a campaign without feeling like I could have done a little better. But it's a game whose difficulty curve helped me stop beating myself up for not achieving perfection. It's the end of the world, after all. As long as my city has some survivors at the end, I'm doing all right.

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'Oxygen Not Included' screenshot courtesy of Klei

Oxygen Not Included

Survival games can still be plenty complex without activating a paralyzing need to avoid mistakes. If you live for chaos and bleak humor, the brutal failure cascades caused by trial-and-error can be more entertaining than frustrating. Oxygen Not Included is a case in point: This colony-builder drops you in the center of a planet, where you manage a crew of duplicants, or “dupes,” who use little ray guns to excavate materials and craft them into an increasingly complex set of survival systems. It’s a funky engineering sim with a feral human touch and lovely 2d art direction. 

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You’ll need to generate enough oxygen and food to keep your colony going, which requires assiduously managing gasses, liquids, pressures, electricity and frantically Googling things like “layout for plumbing system.” By the time you’ve figured out something is wrong, it’s basically too late to fix it. That is, unless you’re able to come up with some creative solutions—like waiting until your dupes pee themselves, and then converting the pee into clean water. Let’s just say I was that kid who built half-finished rides in Roller Coaster Tycoon and then let ‘em rip on my unsuspecting guests.

The dupes really make the game. They have a tendency to dig the floor away under their own feet, or nap on a ladder in a carbon dioxide pit. Obviously, I love and cherish them. Their job preferences are adorable and you can assign them hats (personal opinion: the best hat is the rancher’s cowboy hat). They also have objectively perfect “joy” reactions like making balloon art. These cartoonish behaviors  make it a little easier to laugh through my tears when they inevitably get themselves killed.

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'Astroneer' screenshot courtesy of System Era Softworks

Astroneer

There's a part of me that envies my smooth-brained dupes—their overpowerful ray guns and frenetic approach to tearing through an alien world. Sometimes I just wish it could be me. That's one reason I love Astroneer, one of the more mellow games in this space (pun intended). Astroneer is as much survival sim as it is sandbox adventure. The game plops you onto the surface of a planet, which you’ll use your terraforming tool to mine materials from—reshaping the beautiful low poly world, in the process. It’s just like Minecraft! Except not. Because you die if you run out of oxygen. 

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The game’s got a great crafting tree that you spend “bytes” to unlock (you get bytes from analyzing various natural materials). Eventually, you’ll unlock the ability to fly to other planets! But you can also get a lot of gratification without actually “advancing” yourself in the game. There’s a lot of pure joy that comes from making the terraforming gun go brr brr—just sucking up all of the low poly environment or resurfacing the ground using the smoothing tool. 

At this point, I’ve determined that the point of the game is to build the sickest snowboarding slope. (If you sprint at a steep enough slope, you “snowboard” down it). I eventually hope to ride it to the planet’s core.

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'Dyson Sphere Program' screenshot courtesy of Gamera

Dyson Sphere Program

That's an ambitious goal, but nowhere near as ambitious as the tasks you're given in Dyson Sphere Program. It falls into the broad category I like to call “use a notebook” games—or an excel sheet, if you’re so inclined. The objective is to build a Dyson Sphere around various celestial bodies, a.k.a. fancy structures that harness their energy. You do so by building simple assembly lines, developing them into magnificent factories, and eventually automating production. From there, you get to chain production between planets

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But wait, it gets better! You do all of this as a mech on the surface of the planet. Think of it like Factorio, but with exploration elements. Fuel the mech—I like to feed mine logs—to keep building and excavating and researching. 

The full research tree is dense, and getting to end game upgrades requires major finesse. So far, the game’s own complexities have prevented me from the self-sabotage of over optimization—I’m just not good enough at any of this. It’s a double challenge: I have to figure out both the material pathways of the assembly line, and also map out how to get the machines to actually fit together on land. Designing it on paper saves me the heartache of having to destroy the thing I spent hours making, or rage quitting after manually grinding out dozens of cogs. 

Inevitably I give up on games like these, only to pick up my old notebooks, pick at my old sketches, and then hop back in to see if “maybe this time it will work.” That’s how I made it through The Witness, a dizzyingly difficult puzzle game where you learn how to solve puzzles through iteratively attempting them—and later ones require an understanding of multiple puzzle mechanics. I got a first rush of endorphins from figuring out solutions on paper, thanks to seeing two disparate mechanics side by side, and a second rush when I tested out my theory and found that it worked. I’m hoping something similar will click with Dyson Sphere Program, but then again I’m also not holding my breath. 

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'Don't Starve Together' screenshot courtesy of Klei

Don’t Starve/Don’t Starve Together

Maybe the easiest way to avoid getting hung-up on the potential perfectionism of a management game is to play it with someone else. That's one reason why Don't Starve Together has had such incredible staying power since its release in 2016 (a multiplayer version of the 2013 release Don’t Starve). This Gorey-esque, deliciously macabre survival game feels like a Tim Burton film or an Edgar Allan Poe gothic. The goal itself is basic enough: Stay alive as long as you can through keeping your belly full, and crafting shelter, light sources, and clothes. Learn to navigate the treacherous wilds, where pigs live in tiny cabins and have daily fights with human-sized spiders.

Dying is fun! Besides garden variety death by starvation, you can get picked off by Charlie the Night Monster (if you don’t have any light sources come evening) or trampled by a “deer-clops.” The cold can kill you in the winter, and in the summer—if you’ve made it that far—parts of your camp spontaneously combust. 

In multiplayer, your partner can resurrect you by creating “telltale heart” which is crafted with spider glands (yum) and your own health—and if all players in the current run die, you’ll have to start a new playthrough. Sure, losing progress is never fun, but you can’t be that mad when it’s at the hands of a kilt-wearing walrus and his blow darts. 

Years of playing these games have brought me as much, if not more, satisfaction than their “chiller” counterparts. And I’m sure it’s no coincidence that my playtime spiked during a global pandemic, where day-to-day living has felt like an act of survival in and of itself. 

These sims resist my turns toward ultimate productivity, or the most beautiful terraforming—worthy goals that I don’t have as much headspace for when I know my camp might be destroyed by a random enemy, or when I’m simply struggling to keep my workers alive. It’s a joy and a relief to play games where survival, itself, is its own prize. And where failing spectacularly can be its own form of entertainment.