In a world careening towards ecological apocalypse, survival games are obviously hitting a nerve in the zeitgeist, and developers are responding by making them increasingly tougher to prepare us. Here are my picks for the 11 titles on the market that make staying alive the most difficult.
One of the most popular settings for survival games is the deserted island – a natural barrier of impassable water gives the game map a logical border, and islands can include multiple distinct biomes for a variety of foraging experiences and environmental challenges. 2018’s Survisland boasts procedurally generated maps, so your castaway existence is different each time you die. And you’ll die a lot. Developers Super Trampers Studio aren’t interested in holding your hand through the game’s interlocking systems. There are no blueprints or directions for crafting – players need to use intuition and knowledge to harvest different parts of plants and use them to make tools and shelter. It’s a serious challenge even for survival game vets.
From Croatian studio Gamepires, SCUM ups the difficulty by presenting one of the most complex user interfaces we’ve ever seen in a survival game, a veritable riot of readouts and meters designed to keep tabs on the multiple factors that go into being a human. Players are cast as prisoners on an island with an implant in their bodies that prevents them from leaving its borders, and the goal is to stay alive long enough with 99 other players to find a way to get it out. The systems in this game are nuts – players have to poop and pee, and skilled trackers can use that spoor to detect you. Bodily injuries are calculated in horrific detail, food has different digestive speeds and effects, and you can even monitor the levels of individual vitamins in your bloodstream. It’s a lot!
Survival simulations take one of two tacks — either you’re responsible for keeping just a single human being alive, or a whole bunch of them. Frostpunk falls into the latter category, with players in charge of a colony in a world ravaged by perpetual winter after multiple volcanic eruptions vented enough matter into the atmosphere to dim the sun. As the leader of a small group, you need to manage your workers to ensure that the colony has enough food and resources. But heavy hangs the head that wears the crown, and developers 11 bit Studios don’t shy away from introducing extremely hard choices as your city grows. And that’s not even factoring in the immense frozen wasteland outside your borders that hides new challenges.
The Long Dark
Hinterland Studios’ survival game puts players in the shoes of a pilot who has crash-landed in the arctic Canadian wilds after a geomagnetic storm has crippled the world’s infrastructure. With no hope of rescue, you must scavenge whatever you can to keep yourself alive. Unlike many of the other games on this list, The Long Dark is a completely solitary experience, with no other humans to contend with. Instead, the bitter cold is your greatest enemy. Players must contend with wind chill, exposure, dwindling food supplies and wildlife, both predator and prey. The original Early Access release offered just a single difficulty level, but the final retail release had four. Only the most experienced dare play on the highest, called “Interloper.”
Don’t let the cartoony presentation of indie hit Don’t Starve fool you — this game can be bitterly tough. You play as Wilson, a scientist who finds himself trapped in a hellish wilderness with nothing but his beard for comfort. Before the sun goes down on the first day, you need to find food to eat and a light source to protect you from the myriad predators that inhabit this plane, and it just gets tougher from there. Don’t Starve works on the strength of its multiple interlocking systems – different kinds of animals have different behaviors, and you need to carefully manage how you interact with the environment in order to keep going. It’s uncompromising but wildly fun.
The core premise of Green Hell already diverges from the survival game template in a pretty interesting way. Instead of being stranded in the Amazon rainforest by accident, you and your partner are there on purpose, on a diplomatic mission to repair relations with an isolated tribe. Things naturally go wrong and it isn’t long before you’re scavenging materials from the lush, terrifying jungle as you struggle to stay alive. Water is a huge concern here, as you can die of heatstroke easily, but the animals of the region are also ready to mess you up and eat you. Throw in the tribe itself, who aren’t terribly happy to have you around, and you can expect to die a lot as you figure it out.
Ludeon’s complex colony management simulator RimWorld has a number of different difficulty settings, so it’s only as hard as you want it to be. That said, playing this one on the most extreme level will test your decision making skills to the max. As the manager of a settlement on a hostile planet, you need to balance the needs of your shipwreck survivors with the needs of the civilization as a whole, and the magic of RimWorld is how catastrophically these things can go wrong. An AI-driven “storyteller” spices things up with a vast panoply of potential scenarios, making each game an emergent narrative unto itself. Actually “winning” is a distant fantasy, but you’re going to have a whole lot of fun in failure.
Endnight’s The Forest doesn’t break much ground in its premise — you play a father crash-landed on a mysterious island trying to survive long enough to find your son and the other passengers of the plane — but it delivers the intensely difficult survival action we crave. The basics here aren’t that tough — there’s usually plenty of food and fresh water around, and the crafting system isn’t draconian and complex. What makes staying alive hard in The Forest is the island’s inhabitants, a tribe of cannibals with some of the most unsettling AI we’ve seen in the genre. They mess with your minds, feinting and fleeing only to return in greater numbers when the sun starts to set, and fending them off is a real challenge.
As the United States prepares to have its first manned mission on its way to the red planet by 2030, game designers are messing around with what exactly it will mean to colonize Earth’s nearest neighbor. Surviving Mars is a simulator that looks and feels similar to others in the genre, but being away from the lush resources and plentiful oxygen of Earth transforms the challenge into something a lot more hardcore. Unlike many city sims, it doesn’t get easier as your population grows. Instead, you’re always balanced on a knife edge of scarcity, frantically producing enough to keep your people alive and hunting for new deposits of minerals and water to plug into your system.
The majority of the Earth’s surface is covered in water, and us humans aren’t really equipped to survive there. That’s the hook of Subnautica, a game that puts you in the role of a spaceship crash survivor marooned on a watery planet, forced to dive deep for resources without running out of oxygen. These undersea worlds are gloriously beautiful and deeply terrifying, full of mysterious creatures that resent your presence in their food chain. While you struggle to gather food and build a habitat, they lurk outside of your field of view, ready to swallow you in a single bite. Subnautica‘s hardcore mode gives you a single life and removes the ability to save anywhere.
One Hour, One Life
Let’s close this out with one of the most idiosyncratic and tough survival games ever made. One Hour, One Life is the latest project of indie developer Jason Rohrer, also known for bizarre home invasion simulator The Castle Doctrine. When you fire it up, you’re born into a primitive world as a helpless baby, and with each minute that passes you age a year. For the first three minutes you’re completely unable to provide for yourself and must rely on other players to keep you alive, but once that happens you’ve got the opportunity to make your own mark on a persistent world that advances over time. Not only do you have to make the most of your hour, but you need to work with others to ensure that the society you’re building can sustain itself over multiple generations.