Images courtesy of Steam and the developers

You’ ll rot your brain! That’s a waste of time. Can’t you find something better to do? If you ever played video games as a kid, you may have heard statements like these from parents or other adults who saw no value in that particular pastime. Admittedly, many games are intended solely as a source of entertainment — expertise at rescuing the Mushroom Kingdom’s princess doesn’t translate well to the real world. However, assuming that we can’t learn anything worthwhile from video games is as shortsighted as saying the same about movies, television, or books. In fact, the interactive nature of this medium can be an extremely valuable training tool, as we’ve seen from the widespread use of simulators in various technical fields.

As survivalists, we should consider all possible avenues to strengthen our minds and learn new skills. Video games can offer opportunities for both. Just as a survival-oriented novel or film — or our own What If? column — can leave you contemplating how you’d approach a disaster scenario, survival games can help us become more adept at planning, problem-solving, and organization. You might also see a tool or technique you hadn’t considered before, resulting in motivation to study it later, or hone your ability to communicate under pressure during a multiplayer session. You could even utilize video games as a form of confined environment recreation if you’re locked down and going a little stir crazy — think 10 Cloverfield Lane.

There’s no substitute for practicing survival skills in real life, but there are times when that’s not feasible. Most of us can’t afford to simulate being marooned on a desert island, stranded on a frigid mountain peak, or under attack by a hostile force in an urban wasteland. And even if we could, there’s no respawn if you’re injured or killed while living out these scenarios. Video games allow us to instantly jump into any one of these storylines, exploring and experimenting without lasting consequences.

We selected five survival-oriented games and evaluated them based on their value as training tools, as well as how this is balanced with enjoyment and replayability. Each game features varying degrees of fantasy and creative license — don’t expect a hard-core simulation of survival, because you still can’t feel the physical effects of a life-and-death situation through your controller. That said, these games can be a lot of fun and — contrary to what those cynical adults said — far from a waste of time.

Dying Light (Enhanced Edition)

Publisher
Techland

Platforms
Microsoft Windows, Mac OS, Linux, PlayStation 4, XBOX One

Players
1-4

Price as Tested
$60

URL
www.dyinglightgame.com

Notes
This game takes place in Harran, a fictional Middle Eastern coastal city with terrain ranging from towering skyscrapers to claustrophobic tunnels. Harran has been quarantined after a viral outbreak turned most of its residents into zombie-like mutants, forcing the remaining survivors to go into hiding. You play as Kyle Crane, an undercover agent inserted into the city on a mission to retrieve a topsecret file for his employer, the Global Relief Effort (GRE). In addition to hordes of shambling infected filling the abandoned streets, you face fast-moving “virals” as well as heavily armed bandits. A continuous day-night cycle ramps up difficulty after sunset, when more powerful and aggressive enemies come out to hunt.

Dying Light’s free-running parkour system encourages the player to move quickly through Harran, vaulting over obstacles and scaling buildings to avoid enemies. Getting bogged down or cornered is often a death sentence. There’s also an extensive crafting mechanic in which players are encouraged to scavenge for food and resources throughout the abandoned city. Found items can be combined in a variety of ways to construct first aid kits, weapons, and weapon upgrades — for example, the Wrench Kiss is a heavy pipe wrench wrapped in barbed wire with a blade fastened to the leading edge. As the game progresses, you’ll start to obtain handguns, shotguns, and full-auto rifles, but ammo scarcity means you must use every round carefully.

Numerous downloadable updates have kept the game fresh since its release in 2015, including a large expansion called The Following (included in the Enhanced Edition) that adds new map areas, drivable vehicles, and missions. There’s also an upcoming sequel, Dying Light 2, which was announced in mid-2018 and is currently in development.

Pros:

  • Excellent co-op gameplay lets you team up with up to four friends, working together to scavenge, defend each other, and complete missions.
  • Situational awareness is critical. If you stop moving or get distracted, it’s easy to get overwhelmed, especially at night.
  • Huge variety of weapons — each must be repaired over time, and can be upgraded or modified.

Cons:

  • Using your parkour skills to make death-defying leaps like post-apocalyptic Spiderman is a lot of fun. In a real disaster, it’d leave you exhausted, injured, and/or dead.
  • If you’re looking for immersive realism, the game’s often-cheesy dialogue, sci-fi enemies, and exaggerated weapons won’t appeal to you.

Raft

Publisher
RedBeet Interactive

Platforms
Microsoft Windows, Mac OS, Linux

Players
1-8 is recommended, although there’s no hard limit

Price as Tested
$20

URL
www.raft-game.com

Notes
Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink. Also, you have no food or shelter and a giant shark keeps trying to kill you.

In Raft, you’re adrift on an endless ocean with no supplies except what you find floating on the surface. The good news is that there’s no shortage of junk being carried by the current — enough
barrels, plastic jugs, wood planks, and other debris to give a Greenpeace member an aneurysm. The bad news is that you’ll need to retrieve the junk before it floats away, either by swimming out to grab it or by reeling it in using an improvised grappling hook. The former option is dangerous, since you’re likely to get attacked by the shark or drift too far from your raft. Using the grappling hook lets you retrieve supplies safely, but this takes careful timing and precision to cast it in the right spot. At first, this can be annoying, as many items slip from your grasp like prizes from an arcade claw machine. With practice, it gets easier.

The raw materials you collect from the ocean surface are used to build tools, such as a hammer to expand your raft, a spear to temporarily deter the shark, and a fishing pole. Fish you catch — and other food you find inexplicably floating in barrels, such as potatoes and beets — must be eaten periodically to keep your nutrition bar from dropping to zero. Making a fire and cooking these items increases their nutritional value. You also need to quench your thirst, but seawater predictably hurts you if you consume it, so you’ll need to build a purifier ASAP. Eventually, you can grow your raft into an expansive multi-level houseboat, and play online with friends to divide and conquer survival tasks.

Pros:

  • Water purification is surprisingly realistic. Your character boils seawater and condenses the vapor in an improvised still.
  • This “Early Access” game is affordable and receives frequent updates, one of which added large islands where you can anchor your raft and search for supplies.

Cons:

  • After a while, trying to stave off dehydration, starvation, and the irritating shark that constantly pops up to rip your raft to shreds starts feeling more tedious than fun.
  • The construction system is sometimes illogical — build a planter from planks and rope, and soil magically appears so you can grow crops.

Rust

Publisher
Facepunch Studios

Platforms
Microsoft Windows, Mac OS

Players
Up to 300, depending on the server you join

Price as Tested
$35

URL
rust.facepunch.com

Notes
Survival has a steep learning curve, and so does Rust. The game has no story, no dialogue, and no missions. Your character is an anonymous, completely naked man or woman who never speaks. You’re dropped unceremoniously into a huge, procedurally generated map with nothing but a rock and a torch, and your only goal is to thrive in the environment without starving or getting killed by exposure, predators, hostile non-player characters, or other humans. You’ll need to forage for food and fresh water, collect resources, and build your way out of the stone age. With enough time and patience, your rock can be replaced by a stone axe, then a sword and bow. Sooner or later you’ll get an improvised shotgun, explosives, machine guns, and rocket launchers. You can don armor, build a defensible compound, decorate your home, start a garden, and even pick up hobbies like playing a fully functional guitar (yes, really).

Rust is exclusively multiplayer, so you’ll be occupying the same map as dozens or hundreds of other players — each might choose to befriend you, ignore you, or hunt you down. Unsurprisingly, most choose the third play style. This probably sounds harsh, and that’s by design. The developers have said they wanted to create a world where players could behave any way they choose — a sort of a virtual Lord of the Flies. You’re free to decide to trust others and work together, or attempt to kill everyone you meet on sight before looting (or even eating) their corpses. Facepunch Studios founder Garry Newman wrote, “You should be fearful of others. That is the whole point. If you’re sick of getting killed — start a town. Build town walls… set up trip wires and alarms. Watch each other’s back.”

Pros:

  • You’ll immediately feel the punishing difficulty of survival, and understand that the responsibility to make it easier is yours alone. If you expect to survive, you’d better get to work.
  • Just like in real life, you have total freedom to help others or stab them in the back for your own gain. This brings a psychological element and makes every alliance a tentative one.

Cons:

  • Gameplay is often comical in its ruthlessness, with a learning curve that’s more like a brick wall. The first time we played, we unluckily spawned next to a wolf that ran over and killed us within 30 seconds. It didn’t take long after that to come across some of the countless hostile players with advanced gear who gleefully annihilate the defenseless.

Stranded Deep

Publisher
Beam Team Games

Platforms
Microsoft Windows, Mac OS, Linux (PS4 and XBOX One releases are planned, but not available at time of publication)

Players
1

Price as Tested
$15

URL
beamteamgames.com/stranded-deep

Notes
Unlike the previous games in this article, Stranded Deep is exclusively a single-player experience. Although there’s some indication that co-op functionality might be included in a future update, we played this game solo, and we’re glad we did — it strongly emphasizes the feeling of isolation.

The game starts with a nighttime plane crash that dumps you somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, not unlike the movie Cast Away. After emerging from the wreckage, you clamber into an inflatable life raft and paddle your way to a tiny desert island. The game world is procedurally generated, meaning that every player will end up with a different environment. Throughout the game, you’ll need to monitor hunger, thirst, and tiredness via status bars on your wristwatch.

Aside from anything you find in your raft or  washed up on shore, all items must be crafted from the world around you. Start by making a stone tool from a rock fragment, combine it with cordage from fibrous leaves and a stick to make a crude axe, and chop down some palm trees. This yields wood for a campfire, fronds to make a shelter, and coconuts. You can drink coconut water to stay hydrated, but just like in real life, it’s a natural diuretic that will make you sick if you drink too much. Make a still to produce fresh water. Spear some crabs and cook the meat by holding it over a fire. There’s a huge variety of items in Stranded Deep, and each has a purpose, if not several possible uses. Eventually, you can make a raft and sail to a new island, explore shipwrecks, construct buildings, and start farming.

Pros:

  • Great sense of immersion — the environment feels both tranquil and merciless, much like it would on a real desert island.
  • Crafting system is well thought out and surprisingly realistic. Your island’s resources will soon be depleted. When that time comes, you’d better be prepared to make the dangerous voyage to a new island.

Cons:

  • We appreciate that inventory space is limited to a realistic level, but this also means you’ll constantly be picking up, dropping, and moving around items to manage that limited inventory.
  • This is an “Early Access” game that’s still in development, and its controls and gameplay mechanics often feel less polished than a retail release. Also, the future of PS4 and XBOX versions is uncertain after the sudden closure of publisher Telltale Games in 2018.

The Long Dark

Publisher
Hinterland Studio

Platforms
Microsoft Windows, Mac OS, Linux, PlayStation 4, XBOX One (Nintendo Switch release TBD)

Players
1

Price as Tested
$30

URL
www.thelongdark.com

Notes
“Preparation and self-control are vital to your survival.” This lesson from The Long Dark’s first segment is reinforced through every aspect of the game. Two main modes are available, an episodic Story Mode and an open-ended Survival Mode; both are single-player only.

The story takes place in the “quiet apocalypse” following a massive geomagnetic storm that has wiped out all technology. You begin as Will McKenzie, a bush pilot whose small plane crashes in the frozen Canadian wilderness as a result of this global disaster. Dr. Astrid Greenwood, your ex-wife, had persuaded you to fly her out to treat a patient in a remote village, but she’s nowhere to be found after the crash. Injured by the hard landing and suffering from the onset of hypothermia, you must take shelter in a cave, start a fire to raise your core temperature, and treat your injuries to stop the bleeding. Your character’s vitals — thirst, hunger, fatigue, and body temperature — must be constantly monitored and maintained. Exposure is a continuous risk, with varying weather directly impacting your character as you scrounge up resources. You eventually need to leave your cave and follow clues to find out what happened to Astrid. This story has yet to be completed — two of the five episodes are currently available, with no concrete release date set for the third.

Despite its many realistic elements, The Long Dark is about more than pure survival. It’s also a cinematic experience with characters you grow close to and a story you become invested in. We only wish its story was complete and ready to play, but as in real survival situations, sometimes you have to exercise self-control and wait patiently.

Pros:

  • Beautiful, haunting soundtrack, unique art style, and compelling voice acting pull you into the story
  • Survival mechanics often surprised us — starting a fire sometimes fails, strong wind can blow out your torch, and hunting a rabbit requires you to snap its neck in a visceral manner
  • Manage your time wisely, because food can burn and water can boil away if left unattended. Stats drop as you sleep, and your fire will go out before morning if you didn’t add enough fuel.

Cons:

  • At time of publication, two of the five planned story episodes have been released. Episode Three was promised in December 2018 but got pushed back, with no precise ETA given.
  • You’re forced to melt snow and then boil the water for 20 in-game minutes before you can drink it, perpetuating the “minimum boiling time” misconception.

For a bonus survival-oriented game review, check out our recent web-exclusive article about Tom Clancy’s The Division 2.


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