By Will and Wits Alone – Near Death & Survival-Themed Games

This week, I was playing through Near Death, a 2016 game about surviving and escaping a decommissioned arctic base.  While I was relishing the discovery of its little idiosyncrasies, I couldn’t escape the strong desire to finish the game and rewatch John Carpenter’s The Thing.  The comparison isn’t very far off, both have the arctic setting, an overwhelmingly hostile view of the landscape, and a claustrophobic setting of metal corridors and failing machinery.  Soon after finishing the game I felt an equally strong urge to rewatch the 1979 Alien film, one of my all-time favorite pieces of science fiction.  After watching both, I even reinstalled Creative Assembly’s Alien: Isolation, a game I should have loved, but somehow was mostly bored with.  Basically, Near Death sent me on a kick for a very specific type of media.  I don’t know what that genre is called – as far as I know, it doesn’t have a name – but I can see its tropes and structures recreated across games and films. I have not played or watched a single one that I didn’t get at least some value of.  The fact that I loved this genre so much but had so much trouble describing it made me curious, and what follows is my attempt to explore and define its inner workings and core appeal.  It has helped me to narrow down the genre to two distinct and necessary qualities in the protagonist, which I have used to name the genre simply for the sake of having something to call it: will and wits.

The first aspect, the will of the protagonist, is put to the test by danger, or more specifically, the type of danger, that they are in.  Survival is at the genre’s core, usually placing the character in a situation where the environment itself is hostile.  This is why the structure is so similar regardless of if it is set on a dilapidated space ship (Alien (1979), Event Horizon (1997), Dead Space (2008)(AKA Event Horizon – The Game), Sunshine (2007)), an underwater facility (Soma (2016), Sphere (1998)) or an arctic research station (Near Death (2016), The Thing (1982)).  Each one is a cramped, human-created space where leaving is either impossible or very, very dangerous.  This already limits the options of the protagonists, and answers the question of why they can’t just walk away from the danger they will be facing.  Some stories add extra plot elements tying the characters to the location, like the threat of The Thing in, well, The Thing, or Isaac needing to find his dead (spoilers) girlfriend in Dead Space.  The characters need to be trapped for this kind of story to work, otherwise all of the remaining trouble they go through could be avoided if they just walked away.  This setting creates tension on its own, and plays on fears of claustrophobia, but this is further heightened by setting almost never being working the way it was intended to.  Sometimes the base, ship, or station is broken down to begin with, and everything failing is just expected.  Other times, the setting starts as a high-tech marvel of humanity’s technological prowess, only to be revealed as a monument to our own hubris as it falls apart, destroying the idea that we could possibly conquer the vast indifference of nature.  This further limits the characters’ options, preventing them from just using the setting to their advantage, even though it was created by humans.  Oh, a fire broke out on the lower decks?  Well, just use the built in fire suppression system and boom, you’re done, movie over, narrative tension alleviated.  Obviously, this never happens.  In fact, in these stories, it is significantly more likely that a system won’t work as intended than that it will just go off without a hitch.  At the very least, something will go wrong first, and need to be fixed before it can work again.  Everything about the setting oozes hostility, which makes the few moments of safety, such as getting the power turned on and catching your breath in a room in Near Death, even more rewarding.  

In the closing sequence of Near Death, the game changes the rules of its environment in a way that perfectly highlights how important the hostile setting is to the tension of the genre.  The previously ferocious storm clears, and the base becomes peaceful and quiet.  Where before you struggled to see more than five feet in front of you, the game now gives you a clear vantage point of the entire area.  You can casually walk through areas that before you struggled to survive in, and see the light poles and rope trails you left in the snow to guide your way from one station to the other.  Strangely enough, this creates a sense of mastery and comfort in this environment you struggled with for so long. Near Death creates a moment that isn’t often created in this genre, a moment of conquering.  Once the hostility is removed, and all the tension has evaporated, the experience of walking through the world is fundamentally different.  Before I completed the game, I had to solve a simple puzzle to unlock the final achievement, and without the storms, the tone of the game had shifted to that of a slow-paced adventure game like Myst.  I didn’t feel like I had finally lucked into this situation.  I didn’t just survive, I felt like I had earned this.  And that feeling is what makes up the second core part of this genre.

The qualities of dedication and will in a protagonist could easily apply to a great deal of other works that don’t fall into this genre.  Home invasion horror films, for example, also have an environment that feels hostile, where everything seems to go wrong for the protagonist.  But a core difference between this genre and works about raw survival is how the characters go about surviving.  The Revenant, for example, shares many of these qualities, but I think is distinct, because the way Hugh Glass goes on surviving is largely through sheer force of will.  This genre has its share of sheer force of will, but the core reason the characters survive is something far more mundane: they’re good at solving engineering problems.  Yes, the characters have limited options, but those options aren’t “do the easy thing and die” or “do the super difficult but obvious thing and live”, they’re “do the easy thing and die” or “push your brain to its limits to figure out a way out of here”.  This genre emphasizes the agency of the protagonists, even as they are showing how futile so many of their actions are.  This genre isn’t hopeless, it simply says that survival requires a great deal of will AND a great deal of engineering smarts.  Ripley doesn’t survive Alien because she’s incredibly good at fighting aliens, she survives it because she’s smart and resourceful and never stops looking for creative, difficult options.  Her limited options make us wonder what she’ll do next, how she’ll find a way to use the crumbling Nostromo to her advantage.  Those two qualities, determination AND resourcefulness, are what makes the protagonist of this type of story survive.  YouTuber exurb1a did a great video on scarcity as an ingredient of storytelling, and how the character’s lack of options make us root for a character because, well, we like rooting for underdogs.  But we love rooting for underdogs who are alive because they’re being smart about it.

Fortunately, this formula adapts itself to games wonderfully.  So many of the character’s interactions with the world are easy to simulate and systemize, and, despite the stress of the situation, is traditionally fun to do.  You move to a new area, search for materials, patch things together, and move on.  But these rhythms of play are also easily adaptable to the gaming convention of subquests.  So you need to get to this one building?  Well the controls to active a bridge to get there are in this other building, and oh you need to turn on the power in another building to get to that building, but the door to the power station is frozen so need to get a blowtorch to melt the ice off it and the blowtorch is on the other side of the map and…it can go on forever.  This might seem like it would get frustrating, and, if done without careful attention to pacing, it can, but when balanced, it can be an incredibly engaging loop of challenge and reward.  After a dozen subquests preventing you from getting to your goal, finally getting there is going to be incredibly rewarding in the way that well-executed delayed gratification almost always is.  It is an easy way to build tension, and it fits into gameplay in a way that feels purely mechanical.  This is most of what you do in Near Death, with plot elements only taking up a small amount of your time.  You are on the ground, getting your hands dirty with the environment you are stuck in, and that can get pretty addicting.

The additional engagement and shift of tone that this emphasis on subquesting adds can be strongly felt when it is absent, as exemplified by Frictional Games’ 2010 and 2015 games Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Soma.  Both are first-person survival horror games made in the same engine by the same team, use fairly similar controls and even have similar minute-to-minute gameplay.  The difference, however, is that Soma fits into this mysterious illusive genre, while Amnesia does not.  In Soma, the horror is mostly at the narrative level, as you consider the horrible implications of the plot while you’re solving engineering problems.  It doesn’t have too much of the systemized horror of Amnesia, and while it has a few monster encounters, they are rarely as mechanically engaging as Amnesia’s much more consistent monster encounters were.  In Amnesia, you were managing health, sanity, and resources, all of which actively needed to be considered during monster encounters.  In Soma, you basically just need to run and hide.  Your sanity, light source, and health are almost entirely automated, so you don’t need to worry about them in the long-term, and without an inventory, the complexity of the puzzles had to be significantly reduced.  But I felt more engaged in Soma’s puzzles, despite their simplicity, because they felt like the focus of the title.  You were mostly worrying about getting from place to place, and about what you needed to do to get there.  Technically, you were solving puzzles that were just as self-contained as Amnesia, but without the inventory aspect of that game, it felt more like you were trying to get the damn station to do what you wanted instead of trying to find which items in your inventory could be slapped together to form a key to open a door.  The narrative emphasis Soma placed on the puzzle solving, which Amnesia lacked, changed the tone of the experience.  I love both games, and I’m not sure which one I prefer, but by slight narrative and gameplay changes, Frictional nearly fundamentally changed the tone of the game.  That alone highlights to me how delicate the balance of the genre is.

I’ve been thinking and reading about this subject for about a week now and I still don’t have a solid answer for what this genre is, but I think I have a general idea how it works.  You mix a hostile, cramped environment with a protagonist who is both determined and smart, make a fairly simple narrative that focuses on low-level engagements with the environment, and congratulations, you have a work of whatever this genre is.  Survival horror?  Siege movie?  Just straight-up survival?  High-stakes building maintenance?  I’m not sure.  The genre has a very narrow narrative structure even as it encompasses so many different settings.  But its core loop of problem solving makes for works across multiple mediums that I find incredibly engaging, and despite having spent hours of my life trying to hack my way out of places that are trying to kill me, I’m still eager to go back for more.

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