The origins of survival gaming

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about whether it’s possible to pin down the origins of the survival game to a single title and what that title might be. At the moment I have two contenders in mind, both from 1983. The problem is that I’m not exactly sure when either of them was released, thus I can’t be precise about which was first. The more serious issue is establishing what their survival credentials actually are.

It would help if we could define what exactly a survival game is. However, unlike the first-person shooter where the entry requirements are explicit in the name, “survival game” is a rather woolly term that merely suggests what the game is about and how it should be played. Pretty much every game at some level is about surviving, whether it’s Doom, Ark or Tetris, but the fact that many of us are able to recognise one when we see it should mean we can set the parameters for inclusion, right?

The current Wikipedia entry seems vague, suggesting rather than insisting that survival games are set within generated rather than designed worlds, across which resources are often scarce, crafting is frequently necessary and that there’s no route to ultimate victory. That’s all well and good but it’s telling that the only requirement that a survival game needs to meet is to be about survival, which isn’t particularly helpful if it’s the only unique characteristic that the genre can lay claim to.

Perhaps the best we can hope for is to list a few conditions and if a game ticks enough boxes then it’s allowed through the door. Procedurally-generated environments – check! Limited player resources – check! Ability to harvest your own excrement – check! Crafting – check! Lack of stated goals – check! No chance of coming out of Early Access within the next five years – Check!

The problem is that the further we go back in the timeline the fewer boxes a game will be able to flick a line through, which is perhaps why the Wikipedia hivemind seems unable to pluck out any examples of survival game innovation prior to 1992’s UnReal World. Don’t get me wrong, UnReal World is an impressive piece of ongoing work that arguably holds as important a place in survival game history as Wolfenstein 3D does in the annals of FPS immortality. Ultimately though what I’d like to do is track down the survival genre’s equivalent of Maze War, Battlezone and 3D Monster Maze.

I doubt whether the ancient games I have in mind will ever be considered prototypical survival games, but over the coming weeks and months I’m going to try to make a case for them: Games that when looked at in a certain light on a certain day, a bright sliver of survival DNA can be glimpsed within. They won’t be ticking many boxes, but there’ll be enough hovering over them to suggest that the genre’s 21st Century popularity didn’t just spring out of nowhere in 2009 when Minecraft and DayZ made themselves known.

Richie Shoemaker

Richie has been writing about games since 1997, spending five years on the staff of PC Zone and more recently writing for Eurogamer. His greatest claim to fame is that Sid Meier once gave him a lift to the pub.

3 thoughts on “The origins of survival gaming

  • Nov 13, 2016 at 5:16 am

    I’ve thought about this a lot. Actually, far too much for my own good (in my defence, though, I have been writing a book about it)… You could argue that Spacewar! (1962) was the first combat game where you had to “survive”, but Spacewar! was a human-versus-human, gladiatorial game, and I wouldn’t count it. You could argue that some of the black and white arcade classics of the late Seventies could be the origin of survival gaming, like Sea Wolf (1976), or Boot Hill (1977), though I would argue otherwise. Space Invaders (1978) I would argue strongly as a candidate, and The Temple of Apshai Trilogy (1979, though it wasn’t until later versions that it fulfilled its potential). Or Mystery House (1980) on the Apple II. Or Akalabeth (Richard Garriott’s prototype of the Ultima games), first released in 1980. And, of course, Rogue in 1980. The first ever survival games evolved on university mainframes of the late 1970s, and then onto the Apple II in America, and the ZX81 in the UK. 3D Monster Maze for the ZX81 – a seminal, historically-important survival game, came out in 1982. So, lots to choose from! 🙂

    • Nov 13, 2016 at 6:41 am

      Every game is about survival game in some form, but there are some early examples where you can make out prototypical game mechanics that have quietly evolved to almost define the genre.

      The titles I had in mind when I wrote the blog were Atic Atic – which insisted the player kept finding food – and Ant Attack, a game whose world and tone utterly crystallises the feel of modern survival. I can’t think of any examples that precede them, but then I’ve not looked far beyond the games I’ve actually played.

  • Nov 13, 2016 at 8:56 pm

    Okay, then, going by your ‘sustenance’ logic I’d have to say that “Akalabeth” by Richard Garriott (1980, Apple II – later for DOS) is a contender. I’d put the origins of survival gaming down to a number of things, rather than eating food, though that is a factor. 🙂


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