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The PC Games Column: Survival and horror

Dan Griliopoulos reports on wonderfully brutal worlds to wander in

There have always been survival games on PC. Think of 1983's Survival Island or 1985's Wilderness or 1994's Robinson's Requiem or its sequel Deus (retrospective over on PC Gamer here). Perhaps that's because the PC is the home of the kind of pensive planmongers who've honestly thought about how to survive a zombie apocalypse and want to test their plans...

It also reflects the general ambition amongst some gamers to create an alternate life in a computer world. It would be a mistake to call that ambition 'escapism' - that would imply that their lives are bad when they aren't. It's just that video games worlds promise an entirely different challenge and simulation from our current existence. Where else would you get to ride on dinosaurs, battle zombies, survive a nuclear apocalypse or sail underground seas in your steamboat?

What makes these games become a challenge of survival, however, is when your fate is in your hands. Most survival games are sandboxes, where the ultimate mark of your success is your continued existence. They expose the chain of mechanisms that keep you alive, then require you to maintain them as they are abraded by time, events and enemies. The real enemy you're fighting in a survival game is the world, which is just looking for a single mistake to crush you. (No, not an actual conscious world like DmC. More like Minecraft, which we're just assuming you've played. If you haven't, forget about the rest of the games, just go and play that instead). And when you die, much like a roguelike, you have to start from scratch.

First-person

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DayZ

There are two big names in survival games right now. The first is DayZ, the open world zombie-survival FPS modded from Arma 2 that's taken seven squagillion years to convert into a full game, which has just been released as a playable paid-for 'Alpha' on Steam and seems to be mainly populated by games journalists who wanted to be war reporters writing articles about how cruel all the other real people in the world are, who are most likely other journalists.

In DayZ, you start with almost nothing and a perfectly normal day may consist of almost dying of thirst before another player who's found a gun threatens you, handcuffs you, and uses you as a portable blood bank until you kark it. It's a horrible game and we highly recommend it - but be warned the Alpha has more flaws than an anti-immigration ethics system (bit of fleeting politics there for the intelligentsia).

However, it's less likely you'll have heard of the second, the very similar RUST, from Garry Newman, the creator of Garry's Mod. This is also in alpha, and mingles DayZ with a science-fictiony setting and Minecraft style crafting. It's not as beautiful to explore as Day Z, but follows that strange survivalist mechanic, where the biggest threats, in order, are other players, hunger, radiation, bears, wolves and (way down the list), zombies. It's a wonderful, brutal world to wander around - if a little empty in its current alpha state.

Following the Minecrafty theme, but moving to a singleplayer setting, The Forest puts you in the muddied shoes of a plane-crash survivor on a gorgeously-rendered tropical island. As you'll see from the trailers, it's often a delightful harvesting and crafting simulator. But there's a horror twist to it, so that food and shelter start taking second place to fending off hostile tribespeople and whatever is it that's collecting all those skulls underground. (And if you prefer a wet landing when your plane crashes, The Stranded Deep is set mid-ocean and looks like it'll be engagingly silly, if a bit one-note.)

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The Forest

Moving from a game where everything is an enemy, to a game where there's just two enemies, Miasmata is a singleplayer first-person game (available now on Steam), where you play a disease-ridden loner attempting to cure his illness and get away from whatever it is that's pursuing him through the undergrowth of a forest island. In Miasmata, getting lost and getting ill are the two big threats. That and the thing.

Similarly, Raindrop is an impressive-looking first-person horror game set in a destroyed complex reminiscent of Dear Esther and STALKER - though since the team's Kickstarter failed, it's gone rather quiet. No Return, which has just been released, is a crazy-huge modern-day hunting survival game. Finally, The Long Dark is looking very, very promising - a first-person post-apocalyptic snowbound adventure with a distinctive art style that also has a sandbox survival mode.

Third-person

Every 6 year-old loves making believe at roaring dinosaurs and Jurassic Park really brought that to life. Well, The Stomping Land envisages you as a tribesperson attempting to survive on an island full of said terrible lizards. It has the usual crafting and multiplayer survival elements - ranging from teepees to traps to weaponry to arrow-fishing to the building of tribes - but the more important aspect is tameable, ridable dinosaurs. Yes, you can ride anything from a carnosaur to a Gallimimus. The beta should be arriving in March, according to the team.

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Proven Lands could easily have featured in last week's round-up of Space Exploration games, but it's more similar to the other survival sims here. Your character crashes on an uncharted planet, with a continually-procedurally-generated terrain that's revealed as you explore. Your first concerns are oxygen, thirst, hunger, sleep, insanity and scavenging the devices from your crashed ship - and then exploring the world. See also Maia and Spacebase DF-9, for more Dwarf Fortressy space-survival sims.

The game that wins the "holy crapola that's still in alpha?!" prize is third-person zombie-survival sim Project Zomboid. This is a isometric world full of zombies where (until NPCs get added) you are the only survivor. Like many of the other interminable alphas, there's no tutorial here. You spawn in a house and, mostly, you die within ten minutes. And you will die here; it's just a matter of how soon. Scavenging, hiding and eventually farming and rebuilding is the order of the day. Avoid the zombies and perhaps you'll die of illness instead. I've not been more depressed by a game since Kudos, the "survive your 20s" sim. (If you want a less-zombified but no less post-apocalyptic "struggle with the interface to survive" game, why not check out Neo Scavenger).

2D

The sadistic game that I crave about as much as Spelunky is Don't Starve, which is available on every last damn platform going now, but started on PC. It's most notable for its delightful Edward Gorey inky art which makes goth-fave Limbo look cruder than unrefined oil. With horrible monsters roaming the land and a huge randomly-generated 2D world, in this one you'll struggle just to find enough to eat - and that's before winter arrives. You can just about survive by inventing 19th century gubbinz to keep yourself afloat, but they're all fallible.

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Under The Garden

Under the Ocean (currently in Steam Alpha) is the sequel to Under The Garden. It's also 2D, but follows the side-on aquarium perspective of Starbound or Terraria, with a handsome claymation art style. Like The Forest, you're a survivor shipwrecked on a randomly-generated desert island. But this has a much more freeform crafting system than any of the others we've covered here, allowing you to combine items however you want - if you're happy spending the ages it'll take to gather all the resources, that is. Though there are enemies on the island, it gives the impression that you're the most deadly thing around. Like Don't Starve, we're told there is a way to escape the island - but we expect it'll be bloody hard to achieve. As an alpha, it does have issues - there's no real tutorials and not all that much content.

The Acid Wizards' cutely grim Darkwood takes place in an alternative reality Eastern Europe and is a top-down survival horror game with similarities to Knock, Knock. Despite including many of the crafting and survival memes that we expect, Darkwood actually seems to have a (nasty, twisty) story and an endpoint in mind, so we're not really sure if it should be here or not, but that creepy appearing-disappearing orphan kid decided it for us. It's due to be on Steam at some point this summer, but little birds are hinting that it'll be arriving in some form much sooner than that...

Sunless Sea is a very different sort of survival game, from the text-wizards over at Fallen London. You take control of a steamship sailing out from London (which has fallen into hell), exploring the dark seas of the netherworld. It's plot-heavy and animation-light, with the actual layout of the seas randomly-generated each time you voyage out. You and your crew are similarly bizarre, ranging from minor devils to nacreous abominations, and it takes aboard a lot of Rogue Legacy's mechanics, meaning part of the game is inheritance from the previous captain.

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Reviews

Review: Don't Starve gives PS4 plenty to chew on

Klei Entertainment delivers endless surprise and adventure

Other games that we considered but we simply couldn't justify cramming into here are: Gods Will Be Watching (adventure-game survival simulator where a team of specialists is trapped on an alien planet - browser demo), Dyscourse (a cartoony psychology-chat adventure), Eidolon (Proteus with stuff to kill), Sir, You Are Being Hunted (steampunk robot hide and seek), Nether (shiny post-apocalyptic DayZ with mutant monstrosities), Edge of Space (pixelly Starbound-a-like where you're battling/terraforming a literally-hostile planet that's fighting back), Will To Survive (Project Zomboid with aliens), 7 Days to Die (voxel-based zombie & crafting survival), Rogue Survivor (free survival roguelike sandbox where you can be human or zombie), Banished (city-building survival game), the Stranded series (lo-fi survival games on desert islands), and the forthcoming Midwinter remake. And if you want to play something RIGHT NOW, try the text survival game A Dark Room. Phew.

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