A Survival Game That Dispenses the Usual Survival Bullshit
'Dead in Vinland' makes a strong statement about survival, specialization and cooperation.
All images courtesy Playdius and Plug In Digital
Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.
Dead in Vinland is a complicated game to describe. As I explained when I reviewed the game, it is an experience that weaves together some complicated, varied mechanics. You control a small family of people alongside some allies, and it is with those people that you have to make a life in a new place. It is a hard game of management, but at its core, it is also a game that is making an explicit argument about survival and flourishing. One cannot thrive in total seclusion. Life is social, and Dead in Vinland drives this home at every opportunity.
The game opens in a way that is probably familiar to you if you have played any kind of strategy game on the survival spectrum. Like Don’t Starve or Minecraft, Dead in Vinland requires you to take stock of what you have and what you need at any given moment. It demands awareness, and it presses on your ability to predict the things that you are going to need in the short and long term. Then you have to procure those things you need.
It’s a tense dance. You have a finite number of people who live in your village, and they are living on a thin amount of resources. It’s rare to have a stock of fish, meat, or berries early in the game, and that means that you are going to attempt to gather those every day. In the rhythm of the game, that means that you will be taking your villagers and assigning them into job slots for half days. In the morning, a village gathers fish. In the afternoon, they cook those fish. It’s a balancing act.
The lessons kick in when you realize that Eirik, the patriarch of the clan who has washed up on the mysterious island on which the game takes place, fishes better than his wife Blodeuwedd, her sister Moira, and his daughter Kari. He’s the best fisher in the small family, and fish are an easy way to feed everyone, so you start making him fish constantly. And Kari, well, she’s very good at exploring the island, so you make her spend all day exploring each and every day so that you can discover two new regions of the procedurally generated island. Everyone in this village has their niche, and they fit into these easily.
In a game like Darkest Dungeon, asking too much of a character puts them in peril. If you want your Crusader to go into the dark, mission after mission, then that crusader is eventually going to break. Their mind will shatter or their heart might stop. You, the controller of these events, might be okay with that. After all, you’re not losing any progress from their breaking. You’ve still delved down into the heart of the dead world, you’ve still got all the items you’ve looted, and your other characters still have their traits and experience gains. You can push, and that crusader can perish, and that’s just the way of the world.
Dead in Vinland dramatizes that in the village setting. Eirik might be great at fishing, but eventually fishing every day is going to make him depressed. Or he will become exhausted, having fished constantly for a week, and he will need a break. The initial four villagers you control are plot-crucial, meaning that if any of them die, then the game ends. Unlike that crusader in Darkest Dungeon, you literally cannot sacrifice Eirik to the greater good of your progress in the game. You need to take care of him and let him rest. You need to give him something to make him feel better about the world he’s living in.
While Eirik is resting, though, someone else needs to step in. Who is going to do the fishing while he’s out of commission for a whole day? Will everyone go hungry? We can put Moira, a bad person at fishing but the best of our remaining villagers, up to the challenge. She will catch fish, but who will scavenge for berries while she’s fishing? Who picks up the slack when any slack is felt as the cold, unfeeling hand of death creeping up on your village?
In strategy games, we call this the “death spiral.” It is a system in which a small failure causes larger failures that slowly accrue on themselves, making it difficult or even impossible to recover from. If not managed carefully, this is a moment where the spiral can widen, taking your entire game down with it, even if you don’t realize that’s what has happened for another hour of play.
Dead in Vinland is using this entire process to teach us a lesson, though. Not only should we have given Eirik a break from fishing, but we should be brought Moira in sooner so that she could learn to fish a little better, bit by bit. In Dead in Vinland, making someone the backbone of your economy, or even your society, is a huge mistake because it puts them under enormous pressure. If someone becomes a keystone, their stumble becomes everyone’s stumble. In contrast, if you spread the jobs around, everyone can bear the weight when one person needs a break or a change. Things can bend, without being brittle.
Dead in Vinland presents survival while dispensing with all the bullshit about survival. There are no heroic individuals in this world. Like State of Decay, another landmark game in the social survival genre, the world begins and ends with the quality of life that you share with the people around you. Mechanically, it is a game that refuses to allow you to recreate the old myths of The Strong Person tugging on his bootstraps so that he might force the world into the shape he demands. Instead, it is a game that forces us to see how life is a balancing act that is shared amongst many people. Isolation is impossible in that world, just like in our own.
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