Survival Games Are At Their Best When You're Alone

I lost my raft. Not the best way to start a game called Raft, but I soldiered on, desperately doggy-paddling through an endless sea in hopes of finding dry land before I starved to death or got eaten by a shark. As the in-game sun set, I accepted my fate: I would die cold, afraid and alone. I looked up at the Moon. It was beautiful.

Image: Raft

Raft, recently released into early access on PC, is a survival game about being lost at sea.

At the outset, it's just you, a few scraps of driftwood for you to stand atop, and a piece of rope you can use to lasso debris that floats by. Under threat of imminent death, you have to quickly fashion that debris into useful items such as a wooden spear (for fending off sharks) or a water purifier made of twigs and palm fronds.

Like most popular survival games, Raft has a multiplayer mode. I've watched some streams of it. It seems fun. But I find that when you play survival games with other people, they stop being about survival.

Eating, drinking, sleeping, and other concerns of frail, mortal flesh become a series of inconvenient fences you have to hop in order to reach the real meat of the experience: PVP combat, base building, dinosaur punching, whatever.

Raft's single-player mode goes in deep on isolation. You're surrounded on all sides by a gently lapping blue void. Islands occasionally dot your view, but you can't even reach them until you build a paddle or a sail, and even then, they're often glorified mounds of sand - so insubstantial that you can walk their full length in a literal hop, skip and jump.

Sometimes you see other hacked-together attempts at sea vessels. They're abandoned, and apparently with good reason. I tried climbing onto one yesterday evening. It sank.

In Raft, you quickly fall into this wonderfully bleak pattern of literally and figuratively trying to keep your head above water.

I spent my early in-game days lassoing every bit of debris that floated my way, but especially barrels, because they have a chance of containing precious, precious potatoes and beets. As my character's stomach rumbled and vision faded, I'd pray for just one potato.

If any god heard me, they must've had a cruel sense of humour, because that's when a shark showed up and started biting chunks out of my sad little driftwood raft.

In the face of certain doom, routine became a soothing salve. I built a makeshift grill and water purifier. Then I sprinted around my raft, trying to collect supplies to stock them before keeling over from starvation and dehydration.

At one point, I stared at a potato baking in the flames - trying to will it into hurrying the fuck up - and realised that I was probably gonna starve to death seconds before my dinner was ready.

The oppressive isolation of Raft leaves room for you to focus on hilariously bleak little moments such as this - moments that wouldn't get a second thought if enemies or other players were monopolising your senses. In Raft, the conflict is only partially external; much of it happens in your head.

Eventually, I established a routine, dancing between supply collection, cooking food, purifying water, planting crops in a little box (which would then need purified water of their own), and researching new craftable items. Always in motion, never slowing down. There was a satisfying rhythm to it and, more importantly, it got my character to stop banging on death's door.

This gave me an opportunity to recognise that I wasn't entirely alone after all. I had my three "friends": The shark, a seagull and the Moon.

The shark, while definitely still an arsehole, became a kind of reprieve from my routine - a rude neighbour I had to regularly ward off with a pointy stick. Similarly, the seagull kept trying to eat my dinky, malnourished crops, and I had to break my rhythm to go shoo him away.

The Moon, meanwhile, kept me company during Raft's peaceful yet unnervingly pitch-black nights.

Raft is a game in which your whole "world" is so tiny and cut off from anything else that enemies become your friends, and you look up at the sky and start to understand why so many previous human civilisations worshipped the Moon.

It was about that time that I lost my raft. I drifted into an island and decided to explore it. I figured my raft would be fine on its own for a few minutes while I collected supplies. It was not. I hadn't crafted an anchor, so it floated out of view.

Then something odd happened: The island I was on disappeared. I think this might have something to do with the game generating terrain and debris based on proximity to the raft, rather than the player, but that's just speculation on my part.

What matters is that I was suddenly and entirely alone. There were no islands, no floating rubbish, no birds, no sharks, no crops to tend, no potatoes to cook. It was just me and the sea.

I swam for a while in one direction. Then another. Nothing. The Moon came out. The final vestige of my routine, my rhythm, my little world. I swam toward it for as long as I could.

Then I drowned.


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