This is a post in a collection of posts cataloging my writing on the games website Zam.com, which later became ReadySet. ReadySet is shutting down today, October 1. I edited it from late 2015 to early 2018.
This essay was published on Zam.com in February 2016. It was also listed in the 2016 “This Year In Videogame Blogging” roundup on Critical Distance.
The lede-buryingest, depths-hidingest videogames in the world are open-world survival-construction games.
In your average survival-construction game, you’ll spend your first three hours punching trees to death, or crafting simple tools out of rocks. You might tell yourself: “This game is about surviving, with rocks.” The first fifty times you die, the game is brutal. But ten or twelve hours later, your power usually escalates so dramatically that you’re crafting cannons or building solar-powered cattle farms or summoning robot soldiers through a death portal. “I’ve learned recently that the robot death portal mechanic is the real meat of this game,” you’ll say. Fifty hours in, you’ll probably be teaching yourself basic electrical engineering so that you can hand-program an even larger robot to kill dragons for you on the moon. “I understand now that the real endgame is moon dragons,” you’ll tell your friends. They’ll nod sympathetically.
Chances are, your friends had similar experiences in Minecaft, Terraria, Starbound, Don’t Starve, and many other similar games. Minecraft was the first extremely popular sandbox game to so carefully hide so many of its core systems and challenges. If you handed someone a copy of Minecraft with no further explanation, they could play it as a basic survival game for a hundred hours without realizing that it is possible to automate a farm, or to make a hell-portal, or to build an automatic machine inside the hell-portal for killing monsters and stealing their bacon.
Minecraft and many of the games it has inspired are goddamn icebergs, and the part of the game below the water is generally the bit where you craft a cannon and shoot dragons on the moon. Some, like Don’t Starve (and a few of the survival-construction-horror hybrids) really put you through the wringer. They start you out with bare fists and let you die a hundred times before getting anywhere interesting, but they often also delight in eventually dropping a magic-runed diamond sword into your palm and whispering: go wild. I argue that no matter how they market themselves, these games are more about the feeling of growing strength than they are about the feeling of miserable failure.
But the way these games grow your power is often disjointed and nonsensical, even within the fiction of the game itself. In Subnautica, an early-access underwater survival-construction game, I have built a two-story-high submarine that I now live in. It carries another, smaller submarine which I use for short trips; it contains four fishtanks that hold my extra food and around twelve wall-mounted cases that I have built to house my vast fortune. Nevertheless, when my fishtanks empty out, I must go outside and chase down and catch individual fish with my bare hands.
It’s absurd. I am the sole human inhabitant of the planet; I own many fabulous submarines; I have dug a tunnel over a thousand meters deep using a magical terraforming claw; yet I catch my dinner with my bare hands, one fish at a time. I must be a strange kind of space explorer if I can build a robot which builds submarines, but not a machine to catch fish. The developers will soon be adding plant-farming to the game, but my magnificent, submarine-owning self will still be the planet’s sole farmer. There is no machine that cooks and serves me whenever I please. I can only imagine such a thing–and believe me, I have!
The most universal characteristic of this genre, I think, is that these games inspire and empower us beyond their ability to actually satisfy that inspiration. Even when they get close, the results are often incoherent. We become ship captains who strangle our own fish dinners; we become the middle-managers of our own fantasy worlds. The stuff we end up making ourselves do is sometimes only marginally entertaining. These games never allow you to become so powerful that you are not responsible for cooking your own dinner.
In Minecraft, I once built an enormous tower containing an entirely automated farm. I spent all day sitting in a tiny room in the basement frantically emptying hundreds of sheaves of wheat from crates and stuffing them into a gridwall of ovens. I am very skilled, I told myself. I am Good At Minecraft. In Don’t Starve I once spent something like four hours repeatedly cooking meatballs. I felt weary and hassled but I had five refrigerators all filled with meatballs, which is a Very Big Deal. In Starbound, you are capable of piloting a starship and forging space suits, but not of getting someone to pick your carrots while you’re out of town.
I suppose that someone could mod in something to cook my dinner for me. Modding, of course, is the universal response to all of this genre’s absurd limitations. Minecraft inspired its players to such scales of creation that they immediately began modding out mapsize restrictions, creating complicated third-party design tools, and expanding on the honest-to-god electrical engineering already in the game. It is possible to build a calculator in Minecraft. It is possible to build the game Snake in Starbound.
Typical power escalation in survival-construction games leads quite naturally into this kind of modding gameplay. A player begins one of these games as a naked, helpless fool, punching trees to death. Eventually, they master their immediate survival, then their local environment, then the entire in-game world. And then they may master the game itself, taking the build-what-you-want ethos out into the real world and modding whatever bizarre shit they want to see into the game itself. There is a unity of ambition shared between the actual content of games like Minecraft and the busy modders who are adding cyclopses and toilets and catapults and portal guns into these games. The developers are probably on that continuum as well: I’m sure many of them are making these games because Minecraft inspired them beyond its ability to satisfy.
So: from bare fists to diamond swords to two-story-high submarines to modding in a portal gun because we felt like it, this entire genre has taken a totally “unrealistic” attitude toward progression. It’s not even remotely similar to real wilderness survival, and we know that—and we love it.
Most of us know that real wilderness survival/the real threat of death are extremely stressful and not particularly fun. But almost every single one of these games uses the fantasy of “realism” to make itself attractive. Even survival games set on alien planets and in magical worlds use hunger and thirst meters and force us to cook our own dinners every goddamn day. You don’t need to scavenge and eat MREs in Call of Duty, and we accept that for the same reasons we accept that action heroes in movies never stop to use the bathroom: admitting that our characters burp and shit harms that particular fantasy. But in these survival games, our biological functions are definitely part of the fantasy. We want mechanics which remind us constantly that we’re supposed to be a “real person” in these games, with human needs; we want our experiences to feel at least marginally “real.”
But we don’t want things to be as hard as real life, and we want the heights of power we reach to be unrealistically mighty. And, for some reason, we’re comfortable with systems that are simultaneously vastly more powerful and bizarrely less effectual than the agency that an actual survivalist would have.
Less effectual because, in most of these games, it is nearly impossible to seriously abuse our tremendous power. We may have fucked up Actual Nature in real life, but in games like Don’t Starve, Minecraft, Subnautica, and others, our hard-won leaps of technology generally don’t cause any systemic ill-effects. You can never overfish in Minecraft. You can always move your submarine to a new zone in Subnautica. In Starbound you can always find a new planet with trees to chop; in Terraria’s hard-mode, you can buy a device that lets you create whatever “good” or “evil” biomes you wish. In Don’t Starve you can deplete an environment of useful resources, but once you’re powerful enough to do that, you’re probably also powerful enough to search in caves or farther afield for new resources. There is no reason to not become as powerful as absolutely possible. Our power is unrealistically earthshattering—but in the end, it’s also almost completely benign.
In other words: it’s comfortable and entertaining. It gives us all the pros without many serious cons. Power fantasies that deliver pros without cons have been a huge part of digital games since their very earliest days. They make real problems feel simple and manageable, and some of them help us grapple with or neutralize our fears. We consider them fun; they make us feel great. Survival-construction games, in the end, are usually not about how scary nature is, no matter how they might market themselves: they’re power fantasies about nature. And modding is our meta-power-fantasy. Once we’ve controlled nature in the game, we can control it from beyond the game. We can tell it how to behave. We can be gods.
Many survival-construction adventures really do ask us to imagine what it would be like if we were stranded out in the middle of nowhere and had to build our own houses out of sticks, but very few of them take that question seriously. We don’t seem particularly interested in exploring that fantasy right now, outside of a few extremely difficult games like The Long Dark. In many of the genre’s most popular games, we don’t struggle to build houses or become small-time farmers; we become all-powerful overlords and nature-masters who are also still small-time farmers. Our power is immense, but weirdly limited: it has none of the negative effects of real nature-taming power, and none of the most convenient benefits, either.
It’s possible that we wouldn’t enjoy those benefits in a game. Most games are trying to provide players with a constant stream of interesting things to do; in the real world, truly powerful people’s agency is usually expressed almost exclusively through the control of information and the communication of orders and opinions. Quite a lot of them spend more time writing memos, building spreadsheets, and maintaining business relationships than they spend doing visually or athletically-exciting things. But our open-world survival games are all about cresting new vistas, fighting new monsters, and building our own castles by hand. None of them have a spreadsheets endgame.
But, you know: someone could mod that in.