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  • Writer's picturehippowombat

Narrative Survival Game

When I first saw a trailer for The Forest (10 years ago at the time of writing this) I was at the very beginning of my journey into game development. The super detailed resource gathering & basebuilding mechanics enthralled me immediately, and I knew I wanted to make something similar, but I had no programming experience, next to no art experience, just a passion for games & the want to learn. Seeing the player's axe sink into the geometry of a tree, breaking pieces out of it, having the tree fall where it was cut, something so mundane as chopping trees (a staple in the survival game genre at large) became indescribably exciting to my someday-techartist-brain.

The desire to make a survival game is a massive part of what pushed me into game development to begin with, and the vast majority of my plethora of unfinished projects revolve around survival mechanics. I've never had a clear, definitive vision for what I'd want my survival game to be, just a cloud of ideas for systems, implementations, visuals etc, but I always knew that, I want to make a survival game.

Then, in 2016, Firewatch released.

For those who haven't played Firewatch or don't know what it is, stop reading this and go play it.

Firewatch is not a survival game. It's an adventure mystery game about people, problems, pretense, and paranoia. It is, in my opinion, a masterclass in video game storytelling, providing a connection with its characters, its story, and the player, in a way I've never experienced in any other game, packaged up with a beautiful art style, great soundtrack, and powerful voice acting.

While I love games in the survival genre, the stories that arise from them are, more often than not, told circumstantially through things in their environments, or are emergent & organic player experiences, rather than authored narratives. It makes sense, as survival games are often constructed as sandboxes with lots of systems, items, variety etc, designed to encourage player creativity, and for players to tell their own stories, which certainly is not a bad thing. A notable exception to this notion is the game The Long Dark, which I also love, that has carved the trail for creating a compelling survival experience that can also house an interesting narrative.

I think this marriage of character-centric narrative and engaging survival gameplay is the blend that scratches my itch, in the words of Matt Hackett. I love working on, experimenting with, and playing games with survival mechanics. I also love putting together environments that are visually interesting, stylized but concise, and that can convey a tone or mood. And something that I haven't expressed through games before, is my love for emotional storytelling. Before I started pursuing games, I put my creative energy into writing and into music, and when I started digging into games, those things sort of fell by the wayside.

In the past I've put a lot of pressure on myself to have the first game I release independently be this massive, meaningful achievement. This mindset of trying to make the ultimate indie game that everyone likes is common among a lot of indie developers, or so I've been told, and it's led me to cook up game ideas that are, at best, impractical to tackle alone, and at worst, deeply unsatisfying to work on & thus untenable as long-term creative projects.

I think I can create something that is a massive, meaningful thing to me, something that honestly feels like a real expression of who I am, what I love, and what I want to share, and it doesn't need to be a tremendous technical achievement or a game with endless replayability. I've been more focused on trying to be a developer of some respectable caliber among other developers, instead of pursuing projects that are truly emotionally meaningful to me, so much so that I feel like I forgot how to even channel emotional expression into my work in games. It probably doesn't seem like some huge revelation to anyone reading this, but it's taken a lot of time and thought and consideration for me to land here, and having this sort of clarity feels really nice.

I have a story I want to tell, one that is deeply personal and important to me, and that's where my personal project focus is going to be for a while. Time to get to work.



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