I’ve played a lot of video games in my life, a great many hours have been spent in front of one screen or another as I battled the forces of evil and saved countless worlds. Above all, I remember the stories behind the games, and the moments that made each and every story possible.
I remember the moment in Skyrim where I stood back-to-back-to-back with my companions and the warrior Farkas in the ancient tomb of Dustman’s Cairn. We hacked our way through an army of undead that fateful day to achieve our goal. Or the moment in Fallout 3 when I escaped Raven Rock, still pursued by Enclave forces, only to have my old friend Fawkes (A super mutant with a Gatling laser) show up with the intent to rescue me as we blasted our way through the troops that had held me prisoner.
Or even moments in games like the Witcher, Dragon Age, or Mass Effect, where I look over the armies I’ve gathered to aid me and know that I made all this happen. I’ve gathered the forces that will save the world, and it’s up to me to command them.
I remember the stories and the characters, the plot points and the romances, the tragedy and the triumph, and as games are becoming more and more story focused in today’s world there’s more for my author’s mind to remember and get a focus on.
However, I also remember the games without stories. Games like This War of Mine, Cataclysm Dark Days Ahead, and RimWorld. If you asked me about them I could tell you countless stories with the same level of detail as a story focused game. The reason is that all these games are focused on Survival, and survival is a story all it’s own.
So I began to ask myself: How does the Survival aspect of a video game help create a story? Because these games don’t have much in the way of characters or plot, you just live day to day. You have to create the story yourself, and it becomes just as rich as a scripted tale.
I’m going to analyze these games, and try to answer my own question, so let's get started! Special thanks to Pawel Miechowski and Tynan Sylvester for helping me answer the questions for This War of Mine and RimWorld, and their responses have been edited for clarity.
This War of Mine:
This game is all about survival in the most hellish of conditions. War. In a besieged city called Pogren, a bloody civil war has erupted and the city is caught in the crossfire. Unlike in various other war games, you do not take on the role of a soldier on the front lines, but instead, the role of a group of civilians caught in the conflict.
You have to provide them with food, water, and shelter. Keep them safe from snipers and other dangers, and keep up their spirits up during this harsh time. These people come from all ages, races, and walks of life, and very few are equipped to deal with the harsh realities of war. Combat controls are clunky and awkward to reflect this, and even if combat is won, there’s often a severe mood debuff for your survivors to reflect the pain at taking a life or robbing from the defenseless.
The reason the survival creates a story is because it doesn’t just ask you how to survive in a war zone, but also how far you are willing to go to do it. Because of these choices that have to be made by your characters, you grow attached to their effects.
“This War of Mine design has been made in way where everything has been wrapped around the topic and that topic was civilians living in hell of war. And since people living in a city under siege, surrounded by war, want to survive and that’s a natural need of life, the game is about survival. There is no particular story in the game, rather an environment in which you play and tell your own story of people struggling to make it to the end of the war.” Pawel Miechowski said in his answer to my question. Also adding “ it was easier to design certain events that player may experience to create her / his own story… There is something indeed in survival games that they seem to be a good fit for emergent storytelling.”
The game doesn’t leave the consequences of your actions ambiguous, and it flat out tells you that you have done something wrong. Then you have to justify it in terms of keeping your people alive.
In the first and only TWOM game that I played, I watched the effects of the things I did and didn’t do ravage my survivors. I tried to be the nice guy because that is who I always am as a player, but increasingly found that the good I was doing didn’t stop me from making tough choices. I had to rob, turn away those who needed help, and sacrifice my own beliefs and morals all in the name of survival.
Despite it all, people still died. One from the cold, and two from bandits during nighttime scavenging. Until the last person took the only child in the shelter and left.
By the time the game had ended, the experience was burned into my mind, because all the choices had melded into a perfect story that mapped the mindsets of my characters. The characters I had were good people and the way I was playing was to try to do the right things. As the war dragged on, they lost their capacity to do good, and the more they lost, the more sacrifices they had to make.
RimWorld is a story generator, where you control a group of colonists that crash-landed on a RimWorld (A planet extremely far away from the galactic core.) With no opportunity for rescue or to even call for help, the colonists have to build their own shelter, forage for food and supplies, and survive an increasingly hostile landscape.
The main goal of this game is to build your own ship and get back home, but most players don’t even get that far and simply choose to keep their pawns in their colony. At that point, the place is pretty comfortable and decked out, so it makes sense.
The game’s Storytellers are the things that really make the game interesting. They don’t serve as difficulty modifiers, but they control the various events that your colonists will deal with over the course of the game. These can be anything from a raid by hostile pirates or cannibal tribesmen, an eclipse, or a temporary mood buff for your pawns.
One storyteller scales the difficulty of the events with the growth of your colony, one keeps events further apart but makes them last longer so you can focus on building, and the third simply picks events at random and hurls them at you whether you are ready or not.
The randomness of the events, coupled with each and every colonists’ personality, traits, and skills, is what meshes together to create a survival story. According to game designer Tynan himself “It (survival) creates consequences, without consequences there is no tension; without tension, there is no story.”
Whether the event is my hunter colonist angering an entire army of boars on a routine hunting trip or several cold snaps and bad winters damaging my food supply, it’s the events and the consequences that follow which make a great story.
When I played my first game of RimWorld, I found myself connected to each and every colonist, understanding their own personal stories and their relationships with other colonists, and when they died, succeeded, married, and suffered I was right there with them.
Instead of being pawns or mindless drones that I played God with, I instead connected with them on a human level and did my best to keep them alive.
Again, it’s all about how you deal with the events and their consequences, that’s the memorable part. That’s the story.
Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead
The last game on the list is a bit more typical of what we think of when we think of survival. Cataclysm DDA puts us on an Earth that has gone off the deep end. Every single end of the world trope is crammed into this game, and we’ve got a zombie apocalypse, demons and monsters, robots, black magic and war to deal with.
The only story that a character gets in this game is the background occupation, the rest of the world is completely procedurally generated as the game goes on in real time. So you pick your character’s background from a long list (Police officer, hiker, school teacher, skater etc.) and that determines the equipment you have and the place you start off. Then it’s all about living and foraging.
While some characters might seem more equipped to deal with the challenges of an apocalypse at the start, the early game hell quickly sets in as your character explores. Items like food, water, and lighters soon become much more valuable than one might think, and once you’ve stocked up and slain a few undead creatures, then you have the chance to do whatever you want.
You can build/repair a house or other building to use as a base, repair cars and turn them into deathmobiles, hunt, farm, and fish in the woods for a living, or even take the fight to the monsters themselves and figure out how the world came to an end so badly.
However, one of the most important aspects of Cataclysm is that what you end up doing in the mid/late game (If you even last that long) doesn’t always revolve around player choice, but instead what you find in the early game. For example, finding a working garage that is stocked with car parts often means that you can build a tricked out deathmobile sooner. Finding a mansion in the woods often has players make it a base and go the ‘survival in the woods route.’ If you are lucky enough to find a machine gun or an armory you might go the combat route and put the zombies back in the ground.
The story in this game revolves around what you find and how you use it, as well as a dose of randomness. You could journey in the woods for several in-game days and not find anything but squirrels and bushes, or you could stumble upon a fallout shelter, a cave, or a crashed helicopter. The character you play and the methods of survival you take on all can change because the world revolves around you, not the other way around.
The very act of surviving causes the story to take shape, and due to procedural generation and the ways that characters survive the early game, the story can literally go an infinite number of ways.
It’s all about Consequences
I’ll touch on the importance of Emergent storytelling in another article when it comes to video games, but in survival games, even if the developers don’t intend for it to happen, it’s certainly a must-have feature.
The best types of survival games don’t only make us survive, they tell us just how far we will go to do so through the choices and consequences we are given. RimWorld can become a brutal simulator as colonists descend into barbarism, This War of Mine forces players to justify their actions in the name of survival, and Cataclysm drops you into a hellish world and forces you to discover your play style based on the weapons and items you find.
All of this is based on choice, and it’s those choices that are memorable and allow for some great stories to develop. Unlike in scripted RPG’s where choices take you down different paths of the same branch, these open world survival games often throw you to a different tree altogether.
I found out that survival doesn’t impact the story in a conventional way, but instead the very act of survival is the story. If you have that, then you don’t need gripping characters or epic plot lines, as the story ends up writing itself.