I’ve always found survival aspects in games very intriguing, and I can’t quite put my finger on why. It’s one of those sort of things that just appeals to you on a subconscious level--you can’t explain why it appeals to you, it just does. People may try to explain why things appeal to them in particular ways, but in the end they may end up just turning up a blank. Self awareness is pretty helpful in these sort of inner-explorations. While I can’t place my finger on what I like specifically about survival games or games with survival aspects in them, I can place place my finger on why I like them in general: the thrilling risk-reward of it all.
In a way, survival games have always been thrilling to me, and it’s probably indirectly the reason why I enjoy playing difficult games, or games on a high difficulty: for the sense of survival. Survival elements like crafting, scavenging, resource management, risk assessment and the thought of only having one chance to do something are all things that are thrilling in their own way, but they are more thrilling when combined, especially when the odds are tilted against you right from the get-go.
But why are survival games so appealing? To be honest, I think it’s appealing because it’s a chance to explore a dire circumstance without actually having to be in a dire circumstance. It’s a chance to put in the guise of a would-be survivalist in a hostile world and to, well, survival on what the local environment can provide. Of course, that’s thinking that I’m referring to a sandbox game. Other genres can have survival elements in them too: first-person games, third-person games, city builders, etc. Especially city builders, as it’s not yourself that’s surviving, it’s the inhabitants that you have to help survive, which is a different tone entirely.
Of course, “survival elements” can be a bit of a blanket term, and one’s definition of a survival element is relative to the individual. A few things could be considered survival elements when contextualized by the right setting, like resource management, crafting, scavenging, etc.
Surviving in games is thrilling because it is, at first, challenging. The experiences are new and trial and error run rife. Excluding going to look up wikis, you have nothing but your own intuition and problem solving skills to see you through the day. It’s thrilling, if stressful too, to even take calculated risks when exploring to find resources, especially if there’s permadeath involved, as each trek into the wilderness could be your last. That’s where risk-reward can come in, where you’re risking your in-game life (and everything you perhaps hold dear in your session, like dying deep in a cave in Minecraft and losing all of your loot) for the potential reward of getting something better out of an escapade.
Not every game is required to have survival elements in it, and some games could have survival elements in them by accident. However, games that implement survival elements well can be quite a thrill ride indeed. Let’s take a few examples, starting with the recently released Banished.
Banished is the first city builder that I’ve seen that adds survival in its truest form: to simply survival as long as possible. Winter does truly come in that game; if you don’t prepare correctly, expand your town too early or too late, don’t gather enough resources in general, or have a particularly bad harvest, your inhabitants can and will die out, leaving a ghost town in their wake. When I first saw Banished, I was immediately drawn to it, because the tone of the game was very much appealing to me. It’s a game that involves patience, careful planning and a fair amount of luck, as well as a hefty amount of data crunching too. You have to scavenge local resources, manage said resources so that you have enough for your inhabitants to survive the winter and so there's food for the children, make sure you don’t overexpand too early, calculate potential population influx, and other micro and macro-managements.
Banished is a game where survival is a key focus in its design, but there are games out there that don’t have survival as their key design, but may have certain aspects that could be considered survival elements, like shooters such as Doom 3.
Doom 3 is a horror shooter, yes, and it’s shooting and its horror is that game’s key focus, but it does have what I consider to be a survival element: scavenging, which is much required when playing that game on higher difficulties, especially on Nightmare mode. In Doom 3, if things are getting pretty rough and hairy, which they do if you panic, you have to scour through vacant rooms, alcoves, behind broken computer terminals, etc. to find armour shards and/or health packs, or even just extra ammo. Doing so may take a bit of backtracking and it may even be a bit time consuming, but doing otherwise and proceeding onwards regardless may be a tougher time for you than what you’d like it to be. I like how that sort of thing is in that game, and I enjoy games that have the same attribute.
Survival games may not be for everyone, but I feel the very genre is appealing to those who are interested because it, as I said earlier, gives us a chance to explore dire circumstances without actually having to be in a dire circumstance, and to make use of what is around us at the time of play.
I find survival games appealing because it tickles that particular spot of wanting to experience a survival situation without having to put myself through the discomfort of actually surviving, because I’d probably die. Plus, I find the idea of building up from scratch with the resources at hand very appealing, and quite thrilling too.