Survival is a term you hear a lot in video games, but what does it actually mean? For some, it’s all about crafting and base building. Or eating and sleeping. Or razing other people’s bases in the cold, cruel night. For others, it might mean a totally different genre — like survival-horror — or, curveball, The Sims. It’s a lot to wrap your head around. On this week’s Splitscreen podcast, we chart the course that brought the survival genre to this point and conclude that Valheim rules because it tosses so many of the aforementioned concepts into the garbage.
Mike Fahey is out this week due to top-secret business that only giants are in on, so we got another dad with a cool voice, Kotaku freelance editor and Rock Paper Shotgun co-founder John Walker, to replace him. To kick off the episode, John, Ashley Parrish, and I take a crack at tracing survival games’ origins, beginning with the first, text-based version of Oregon Trail in the ‘70s and moving into the disparate branches of multiple genre trees: roguelikes, survival horror, and simulation games.
Then we move into a discussion of extremely granular, hyper-specific survival mechanics, like the criminally underrated Lone Survivor’s depiction of mental health, the absurdly detailed recreation of human metabolism in SCUM, and of course, poop in Ark: Survival Evolved. Finally, we close out by tying all these ideas together in a discussion of the survival game du jour (and, at the rate it’s going, many more jours), Valheim, by digging into how it strips away much of the muss, fuss, and busywork to craft a true gem of a game — one that transcends the genre most people consider it a part of.
Get the MP3 here, and check out an excerpt below.
John: Just to go back to Ash’s earlier point, when you were talking about not liking the pooping in games, is it just the absolute inclusion of the subject matter that puts you off or just that it’s implemented badly?
Ash: I think it’s implemented poorly. I think it’s like, “This is gonna show how gritty we are.” But it doesn’t. It’s just included for the sake of inclusion, and it doesn’t really serve a purpose. I understand for some survival games it does serve a purpose — like you can harvest poop for whatever reason — but I just think it’s extraneous, and it doesn’t need to be in there.
Nathan: Harvest Poop is gonna be the name of my Z-grade parody Steam game I release soon. It’ll be incredibly bad, and Valve will pull it after two days. But yeah, I think that’s a really good point in regards to what a lot of survival games did for a while. It was mechanics for the sake of mechanics, like, “Let’s have this metre or that concern, just to have it.” I think it’s exemplified by a non-survival game or at least a game with some survival elements that wasn’t classified as such: I’m talking, of course, about horse balls in Red Dead Redemption.
Nathan: Yeah! In Red Dead Redemption 2, horses’ testicles would shrink and expand depending on the in-game temperature. It was kind of illustrative of that game’s entire mentality, and I think of more survival-oriented games’ entire mentality, which was, “Let’s simulate everything. Let’s put in all these systems because that shows not just how gritty we are, but also that we’re truly about surviving and survival — because we’ve simulated everything a person would have to overcome.” But why? Does it actually add anything to the game? Or is it just there? And if it’s just there, then is it even enjoyable, or is it just busywork?
Ash: How many hours did Rockstar employees have to crunch to model horse balls? That’s upsetting.
I’m interested to hear you guys’ experiences playing Valheim — what you enjoy about it, and if it’s worth it for someone like me, who can enjoy a survival game, but it’s not necessarily something I seek out.
Nathan: It’s 100% worth playing for someone like you, in part because of what we were just discussing. So we were talking about the way survival games pile systems on systems and simulate all these things to nebulous ends, at best. The thing that Valheim gets right — and the reason it’s caught on so much — is that it took a look at that survival landscape and said, “Fuck that. That’s not fun. That’s not interesting.” Instead, it streamlines survival systems so that they’re not a matter of life and death. They’re more about preparation. If you don’t eat, you won’t drop dead. You’ll have your lowest base HP stat, but it’s not going to kill you.
So it becomes more about cooking specific meals and having specific food in your system so that you have more HP and stuff, so that you can prepare for specific fights — or entire biomes, in some cases. Like, my friends and I just made it into the swamp biome. There’s a lot of poison there, so we have to brew mead that ups our poison resistance. In that regard, it feels kinda like The Witcher, where I’ve explored such that I know what I’m going to be dealing with, and I know that on my own I cannot handle it. But I know there are ways I can prepare for it. As a result, there’s a lot more of a momentousness to exploring new places. It’s not just like, “I’m a video game character who’s eternally getting stronger along a linear trajectory. Therefore, I’m going to waltz into this place and fuck everyone up.”
You’ve gotta be careful and be smart, but at the same time, you’re not constantly worrying that, like, “Oh no, this metre is going to run out and I’m gonna die of starvation, or I’m not gonna have enough to drink and die of dehydration in just five minutes.” So it focuses a lot more on exploring and creating a cool base with your friends. It’s all very intuitive, too. You learn by doing. Say you kill a boar and pick up the contents of a boar for the first time — some leather and meat. Then, immediately, you learn crafting recipes based on those parts. You don’t have to go through a bunch of menus and learn specific recipes. The game’s just like, “You can do this now.” Same for all your stats. If you run a lot, your running stat goes up. It just makes sense, so the game doesn’t have to hold your hand. You just figure it out.
John: I think the key for me in learning about Valheim was, first, that — this idea that these things make sense — but secondly, you don’t need a group of friends. You can do this totally on your own, too. Because survival games have steered so far away from that recently. So the idea that somebody’s gone back to basics in one of these games is really appealing to me. Because other people — I don’t know if you’ve met them — but they’re not great.
Ash: They’re awful. That’s actually the question I was going to ask: Can you play by yourself? How is this world structured? Is it always multiplayer? You can play by yourself, but are there other people you’ll eventually run into?
Nathan: It depends on how you want to play it. You can play on your own if you want to, you can bring in friends, you can have your server be open so randos can join. It fully runs the gamut depending on what you want to do.
Ash: You wrote a piece about fighting a fuck-off huge deer. Is there a story, or do you just run into deer you might have to fight occasionally?
Nathan: What if I told you the answer is both? There are many deer. Regular deer don’t fight back. In fact, they run away and bark like dogs. Everyone has observed that deer don’t make that sound, but it’s fine. But yeah, basically the story is that you’ve been dropped into this purgatorial afterlife world by Odin, who’s just too much of a lay-about to do his own work. So he wants you to kill his mortal enemies who live there. I guess because your soul has been ripped from your body, you’ve got to build back from nothing. As you do that, you can gradually hunt these bosses.
One of the really, really cool things about the game — and something the developers have said — is that more than being inspired by other survival games, they were inspired by games like Legend of Zelda and Skyrim. Specifically, on The Legend of Zelda front, they were inspired by the way you’ve got to collect specific items to beat dungeons and bosses. They wanted to build that into survival. So the idea is that each boss you beat opens up a new way of doing things, so you can pursue the next boss. So the giant deer you were talking about — his name is Eikthry; he’s very big and imposing, especially after you’ve just been hunting boar and deer the entire time — drops his antlers, which you can then use to craft a pickaxe you can use to mine a new material you couldn’t mine before. The game always proceeds along those lines. So it’s very Zelda-like, but in this broader, much more open way.
For all that and more, check out the episode. New episodes drop every weekend and don’t forget to like and subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Stitcher. Also, if you feel so inclined, leave a review, and you can always drop us a line at email@example.com if you have questions or suggest a topic.