The Video Games That Want You Dead
Steam's Early Access is full of half-finished survival titles right now, all different but bound by a single common goal: to kill you.
In many ways, Steam's Early Access store is a bit like the Police Academy of video games. Inexperienced and under-qualified rookies bumming around in a pre-release stupor, firing their guns into priceless vases, supergluing other games' hands to their heads in the showers, making realistic siren sounds with their mouths to fool criminals, and using gay bars as punchlines in a way that makes a modern audience feel a little bit uncomfortable.
You might notice how none of the examples I've given is strictly analogous to how Early Access actually works, but that's because I've decided to release this article early. Much like an Early Access game, it is a work in progress. The complete article will be ready some time in 2016 and will probably feature an introductory metaphor that makes more sense. Maybe next time I'll compare Early Access to a barn full of digital eggs, and consumers to chickens who'll choose which eggs to sit on and hatch and which eggs we'll stab to death with our beaks.
No matter which of the two official analogies you choose – Police Academy or eggs in a barn – Steam's half-baked game incubator has become the nesting ground for a whole new genre: the unfinished survival game. It's a type of game that's been gestating in the wings for as long as anyone can care to remember: a cruel sort of exposure simulator that throws you into an unfeeling (and unpopulated) world with nothing but the clothes on your back and your innate ability to punch trees into wood.
As of the time of writing, there are exactly three million of these games on Steam. Forty thousand more were released in the time it took you to read that sentence, including: Dang it I'm Alone on the Moon Now; Oops the World Ended While I Was Walking in This Mystical Forest; Marc Ecko's Lost in the Desert Again Can Somebody Help; and I Suppose I'm Happy to Eat Raw Fish Straight Out of the Sea For the First Week or so of This Survival Experience Until Such Time as I Learn How to Craft a Fire.
They're everywhere, and like most things in the world it's all Minecraft's fault. The all-conquering pig-harassment simulator certainly wasn't the first game to introduce death by forgetting to eat some chicken every once in a while (that honour goes to Streets of Rage, which had entire roast birds hidden in bins, discarded by the decadent and poultry-burdened population of pre-recession Manhattan), but it definitely popularised the notion of a game that in which you build a shed that you sit in until you die.
DayZ, for example, is a zombie survival game in which you're most likely to die from stubbing your toe on a fence and succumbing to septicaemia, or simply of thirst, or of hunger, or of sadness. It's rare to even see a zombie in this game, never mind die at the necrotic hands of one. Instead, running out of tins of beans is a far more terrifying prospect than encountering the shambling undead horde. And when zombies can be found carrying delicious, life-giving zucchinis on their rotting person, the notion of what's actually scary becomes entirely inverted. You'll want that zucchini so badly that you'll wander obliviously into danger, floating along smell lines like a cartoon dog.
That game is, at least, far more complete than a lot of the other Early Access survival games currently available. GRAV is an open-world crafting and survival game that was topping the Steam charts for the best part of a week, which I mention only for its unironic and brazenly honest opening line that describes it as "like most of the other survival adventure games out there today". It's not a bad game, bless them, but Christ.
Stranded Deep is an unfinished game in which you, a man who knows precisely how many sticks need to be combined in order to craft a campfire (it's exactly five, no more and no fewer), become marooned on an archipelago of tiny desert islands after your Learjet plonks into the ocean. With little else to do, you immediately set about clicking on the few interactive objects you can find, picking up rocks and starfish and smashing them together to see if they turn into a new object that exists slightly further up the game's secret and hidden tech tree.
Stranded Deep doesn't tell you what objects will fit together, ostensibly leaving it up to trial and error to find out what works and what doesn't. To craft something, you must drag objects to within a rough proximity of one another, so any items that don't combine end up sitting in an uncooperative pile of junk on the beach, while those that do will glow orange once they're near enough to their constituent buddies, requiring just a click or two to merge into something new and interesting.
So you make your piles and hope for the best. A stick and a rock makes an axe. An axe and a coconut makes a drinkable coconut. Maybe combining a coconut and a crab will create the speedboat you require to escape this survival hell? Perhaps lashing together a conch and a potato would create a sort of rudimentary modem you could use to call for help? If survival games are supposed to provide a gratifying and challenging degree of realism, they've gone all squiffy with this "use everything on everything" approach to building the things that you need to not die. This wasn't how Tom Hanks did it, and as a rule I only do things the way Tom Hanks or any of the characters he has portrayed do things.
In reality, you're expected to consult the Stranded Deep wiki, an online and external repository of crafting recipes that you can call upon to guide you through the process of survival. This, as you could imagine, always feels like cheating. You're being given the answers to the game's clueless (in the literal sense of there being no clues) puzzles, but what other choice do you have when that answer is "combine one fuel tank, one carburettor, one engine, one propeller, one stick and one duct tape to create an outboard motor"? Relying on alt-tabbing out to a third-party crafting guide is sadly endemic of a survival genre that hasn't yet figured out how to organically teach players how to build, survive and thrive in the barren landscapes they've created.
And if Cast Away could teach the genre anything, it would be to give players the ultimate control over their destiny. That bit where Tom Hanks goes to retrieve the rope he had at one point intended to use to hang himself, and he shouts at his volleyball friend about it, and it's terribly sad. Why not give players the opportunity to meet death on their own terms. Let them walk into the sea. Let them embrace the void. Let them reject this horrible universe of obtuse item combinations you've trapped them in and instead hurl themselves into one of your procedurally generated volcanoes.
And then, if your metrics show enough people choosing death over life, you must agree to remove your game from sale forever. Because like Tackleberry in Police Academy, your best efforts are probably doing more harm than good.