Our retro format, “Veterans Hall,” looks back at the most influential video games of days gone by. In this edition, we shed light on the origin story of an entire genre: survival games.
In this article, you will learn:
- Which classic games truly pioneered the survival genre.
- How the ancestors of survival games looked and functioned decades ago.
- Which survival game could be considered the first modern representative.
Which Survival Game Pioneered Conan Exiles & Co?
The current boom in survival games is, considering the long history of this relentless genre, a relatively young phenomenon. The pioneers of DayZ, ARK: Survival Evolved und Conan Exiles had us starving, thirsting, or drowning decades ago. We’ve retraced this path paved with player corpses all the way back to the beginning.
The Seven Cities of Gold (Amiga)
In the realm of survival games, there is likely one name that, by common definitions, has the best chance of being the grandfather of survival. And this name is associated with one of the currently most popular game developers and publishers: Electronic Arts (EA).
For critics of the American software behemoth, this news may be a bitter pill to swallow, but it did happen—those long-forgotten times when EA released many good games. This includes what we believe to be the foundation of the survival genre: Danielle Bunten Berry’s and Bill Bunten’s The Seven Cities of Gold, a strategic adventure from 1984 that also pioneered Sid Meier’s Pirates (1987), by the way.
Among other roles, you’ll play as Christopher Columbus, tasked with venturing into the “New World” and bringing its treasures (both land and wealth) to good use—for the Castilian crown and for yourself. In practice, this scenario plays out as a kind of primordial Pirates with survival aspects, as dwindling supplies sometimes make you the treasure in high demand.
This captivating blend of organization, sailing, island exploration, and encounters with natives was so successful that Bunten and Berry decided to follow it up just a year later with the strikingly similar Heart of Africa.
However, the spiritual successor completely abandoned the sailing aspect of its predecessor, bringing the previously incidental survival component to the forefront. We believe this was the birth of the first survival game in history.
Heart of Africa (C64)
The 1985 release of Heart of Africa meets many genre-relevant criteria, often including an open game world. While our safari-suited treasure hunter knows nothing about crafting, his quest for the legendary “Heart of Africa” definitely takes place on an open, explorable map.
What’s more important, though, is that the two-color pixel character can be quite hungry and extremely thirsty, which qualifies Heart of Africa as a survival game. In addition, the African traveler frequently falls victim to poisonous snakebites or scorpion stings in the continent’s swamps.
No medicine on hand? Well, the crocodiles of the Congo don’t mind if their victims contain some venom. They are equally unfazed by stabbing and shooting weapons, as all dangers in Heart of Africa are presented in the form of diary entries.
It’s different when it comes to the always-visible native tribes. Their typically neutral reception can certainly be met with black powder or a machete. However, that’s not advisable; just as bumping into a Baluba medicine man or a Maasai fertility goddess is unwise.
In such cases, your vital trade for survival quickly comes to an end. If you don’t establish good relations with the savannah peoples, you have no hope of getting information about the approximate location of the coveted treasure.
Heart of Africa was exclusively released for Commodore’s 8-bit flagship C64, where it was unique at the time (except for The Seven Cities of Gold). While games like David Braben’s Elite or Richard Garriott’s Ultima also offered open game worlds, they were either randomly generated or presented in simple character-based graphics, whereas the Buntens’ Africa was a fully designed sandbox with detailed graphics.
1992: Ultima Meets Survival in UnReal World (PC)
One might think that visionary developers quickly built upon the solid survival foundation. However, that was not the case. The gaming landscape of the 80s remained as simple as most New Wave German song lyrics.
Developers of that era often focused on more or less exciting arcade adaptations, while Sami Maaranen and Erkka Lehmus took a different approach. Inspired by Rogue and Ultima, they created a true role-playing behemoth with survival elements: UnReal World.
After an incredible two and a half decades of development, the once-early survival concept found a home on Steam, where it continues to receive monthly updates.
What’s Behind This Hidden Gem?
Given the screenshot above, gamers accustomed to modern graphics might be scratching their heads. Nevertheless, this old-school pixelated spectacle played a significant role.
Instead of bearded wizards, relatively normal medieval folks roam UnReal World. These include fishermen, traders, or hunters, going about their daily tasks and various quests in the dangerous Finland of the Iron Age. There’s no story to be found here, following the spirit of Confucius (“The journey is the destination”).
The question of what this Rogue-like role-playing game has to do with survival is easy to answer. First, there’s a brutal permadeath mechanic that closely resembles real death. In UnReal World, death is truly final; it means that the game is over, no second chances.
Secondly, in the game’s former ASCII worlds (because it indeed started with character-based graphics), nothing happens without food and drink. This wouldn’t be a major issue if injuries didn’t lead to significant blood loss. Additionally, vitality, fatigue, and outdoor temperature play a role. Exploring the highlands in your swim trunks is not advised.
1994: No Survival Without Robinson’s Requiem (3DO)
UnReal World was and is much closer to modern survival titles than several other “survival” games from the 90s. For example, Human Entertainment’s SOS, first released in 1993 for the SNES, with its shipwreck theme, was only a survival game in a broader sense, as it relied too heavily on platformer and 8- and 16-bit era jump-and-run gameplay.
A true step forward was taken by Silmarils-developed Robinson’s Requiem, which pioneered stranded-themed games 29 years ago. In the role of a so-called Robinson, an anti-social bad guy, you’re basically shot to the moon by human society of a distant future. Or more precisely: put into a deliberately sabotaged faster-than-light spaceship and left to your fate.
Game over? Uh-uh, not for a bad guy like ours. After the malfunctioning aircraft kisses the surface of an unknown voxel planet, the banished individual sets out to turn his “ticket to hell” into a cozy “ticket to Earth”; However, Robinson has Death’s scythe hanging over him all the time, as Zarathustra’s (this is what the planet is called) range of dangers is even greater than that of UnReal World.
Tool Crafting Existed Almost 30 Years ago
Robinson’s Requiem became known as “the game where you can cut off your own limbs.” And indeed, if the survivor can’t get a wound infection under control, there’s no choice but to bid farewell to the affected arm or leg. Or both, or even all of them, as the hero can move quite well without limbs. Whether this was the developers’ intention is questionable, but skillful use of a tourniquet, a syringe, and a needle made reducing oneself to a torso possible.
Finally, Requiem’s tool crafting feature paved the way for modern survival titles. A similar feature was also present in Konami’s Survival Kids from 1999, while Robinson’s sequel Deus, the caveman game Tail of the Sun (both 1996), and the horror-themed Disaster Report from 2003 reinforced the presence of survival-like games.
From here, it was only a stone’s throw away from Stranded Deep, or more accurately, Unreal Software’s Stranded.
2003: Stranded, the First Modern Survival Game (PC)
Peter Schauß, the sole man behind Unreal Software, achieved something like a major breakthrough with Stranded. Not from a commercial perspective, of course, as how could that be done with freeware. But in 2003, Stranded was arguably the first modern survival game, complete with all the features now attributed to the genre.
Stranded takes place on a randomly generated South Seas island, filled with life and missions. Here’s a question: What does a moderately civilized castaway need first on a deserted island to survive? Exactly: a solid roof over their head. Stranded provides players with this in the form we know today—base-building.
While it’s not possible to completely customize the various shelters in Stranded according to your own preferences, the dream of living far from civilization became a reality here. For this, players were willing to endure being bitten by a lion or shot by a three-day-bearded meanie. Not to mention the ever-prominent hippie grandpa, who always has something to say about the benefits of mind-expanding plants.
Finally, Stranded even introduces dinosaurs into the game, albeit only in the context of a single mission. Long before ARK, long before Saurian. A genre that caters to our “survival instincts” boldly fulfills adult dreams, but it should not neglect our childhood dreams either.
Or does anyone here not like dinosaurs?