What are Survival Games? Holding on to One of Gaming’s Classic Genres

6 minutes read

Survival games are those in which you face off against a hostile environment in what is generally an open world, often starting with only meager equipment, supplies and limited inventories. 

These games incorporate aspects of crafting useful tools and weapons in order to stave off hunger, thirst or an enemy threat.

Survival Games

While many other genres of video games incorporate survival elements, the survival genre as a whole is one which places the element of combat as secondary and often avoidable. 

Survival games are often open-ended, with the player tasked with either surviving for a certain amount of time or as long as they can in that individual playthrough.


The origins of Survival Games

Survival games are often perceived as one of the slower and more methodical genres of video gaming, though as one of the most varied out there, they can often surpass expectations. 

Starting in the early '90s, survival games have found their way into combinations with many other genres, often with surprising and popular results.

Even today, as online gaming makes its way to the front of the game sphere, survival gameplay has an important part to play. In this guide, we'll look at what makes a game part of the survival genre, the key aspects of the genre, and survival's place in historical and contemporary gaming.

How Do you Play Survival Games?

When starting a survival game there are a few main concerns which you need to keep in mind.

  • Finding Supplies: As hunger and/or thirst are usually going to be an issue, your first concern is gathering enough of these to survive the first night, and then each day following.
  • Taking Shelter: The night in survival games tends to be more dangerous than the day. Sometimes this is because of increased monster count or strength, and other times it comes down to the lack of visibility. Whatever the case, finding shelter for the night should be among the top of your to-do list.
  • Crafting Some Gear: While you will usually start with at least some bare essentials when entering a survival game, finding real success often means upgrading or making better equipment, weapons, and tools. At the beginning of the game, you will only be able to create a few low-quality pieces, with better gear being locked behind gathering rarer and more dangerous-to-obtain crafting materials.
  • Researching New Unlocks: While not included in every survival game, research is still a common and very useful tool in many titles. Research not only unlocks better gear and recipes, but it can also provide passive bonuses such as increased run speed or stamina.

Primitive Shelter in a survival game

Unlike their more action-heavy cousins, survival games tend to place mid to long-term planning as the most important component of the gameplay. 

Calculate what supplies you have, how long they will last, what you might need to continue onward, and where you might best search and set up a base, and you'll be well on your way to understanding proper survival game flow.

Where Do Survival Games Originate?

UnReal World, released in 1992, is generally considered the most significant example of early survival games. Set in Iron Age Finland, this game uses a simple – by our 21st-century standards – graphical style to portray the challenge of survival against the harsh elements of the freezing environment. 

Including systems as complex as frostbite to individual body parts, UnReal World is a punishing and complex game despite the limitations of early '90s hardware.

One of the more interesting necessities of the game, the limited graphics, ties into just how complex the underlying systems can be. The genre places a greater focus on technical aspects than many of its counterparts. It is quite simply not possible to emulate harsh environments in a realistic manner without an enormous budget. 

Because of this, some of the most elaborate survival games, like Dwarf Fortress, rely on ASCII graphics to illustrate their worlds.

Ancient times inspire some survival games today

While modern survival games are among the most popular titles in the world, a lot of the current mainstream visibility comes from horror games like Resident Evil or Silent Hill. 

These incorporate heavy survival aspects and have gained international success, helping drive mainstream interest into more traditional survival games.

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Which Are the Most Popular Survival Games Right Now?

One of the most popular games in the world at the moment and for the last few years is Minecraft, which is a free survival game for certain platforms but paid-for on others. 

A seemingly simple sandbox game with deceptive depth, Minecraft has shown it has the initial appeal to draw in gamers, and the long-term creative and social opportunities to keep players of all ages engaged.

Also popular are games like Rust and ARK: Survival Evolved. These all illustrate the movement of the genre towards an online environment, with both PvE and PvP acting to boost interest and maintain viability over years. 

When it comes to free survival games, offerings are far sparser, though a few multiplayer survival games like Unturned are starting to pave a free-to-play path in what is traditionally a genre that's expensive to develop.

Survival Games - Gathering Resources

Can Survival Games be Played Cooperatively?

Yes, they can be. Minecraft and Rust are two of the most famous examples of multiplayer, and both have enormous popularity in their cooperative modes. 

This has come about not only because it lets friends and strangers work together to survive and create, but also thanks to allowing teams to pit themselves against strangers and rivals.

This can be tricky when it comes to longer sessions, as it leads to situations where players might have to remain online for long sessions in order to defend their bases from destruction and looting. 

Fortunately, there are often offline protection systems that help alleviate these potential threats, meaning players aren’t going to have to see their base protection as a full-time experience.

Survival Games as PVP

Are Survival Games Suited to eSports?

They could be, though perhaps not quite yet in the current environment. Most of the current big names in eSports such as MOBAs and FPS games rely on shorter match times, and this is not something possible with most survival games. 

We have already seen some steps in this direction with SCUM, a more battle-royale-style eSports-compatible game which leans heavily on survival elements. The survival genre could also take a page from Fortnite's book, in that free survival games could act as an enormous opening draw.

Surviving survival games

What Will Survival Games Be Like in the Future?

AR and VR represent untapped opportunities for open-world survival games, especially when it comes to immersion and real-life integration. 

While there are VR versions of current open-world survival games like Minecraft available, they tend to run into issues of compatibility when it comes to the nature of the genre. 

Multiplayer survival games tend to require a considerable time investment, and our current VR and AR technology is often straining on the eyes for these long periods.

As these issues have already improved with improving technology, though, so we can only hope the future maintains this same trend.

Despite a sometimes rocky history, survival games still stand today as one of the most popular and beloved genres. Not just cult classics anymore, breakout games like Minecraft have become powerful forces in international media and mainstays in pop culture. With VR and AR just now a mainstream reality, the future for survival games has never been so bright.

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