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Survivalism in Hardcore Games

Posted by Nick Dinicola on February 20, 2009

I just started playing Fallout 3. I put it off for so long so I could finish Far Cry 2, and now that I’ve started it I’m surprised how similar these games feel. Both games seem to revel in beating down the player, in making us feel weak and inadequate in the face of danger. In Fallout 3 I’ve found multiple guns but little ammo, so every missed shot becomes a terrible loss, and I have to make sure I’m always carrying a melee weapon for a worst-case scenario. In Far Cry 2 ammo and syrettes may be plentiful, but with every person in the country out for my blood, just traveling across the map becomes a constant fight to stay alive. These are hard, but that difficulty isn’t just there to appeal to a certain demographic, the heavy focus on survival is important to the story and theme of each game.

Our struggle to stay alive in Fallout 3 mirrors humanity’s struggle to survive in the Capital Wasteland, and by forcing us to fight for our life at nearly every crossroads, Far Cry 2 lets us experience firsthand the brutal violence that defines the African civil war. This is a very different approach to difficulty than what something like Ninja Gaiden does, a game whose difficulty is just there to appeal to hardcore gamers and has absolutely nothing to do with the story. Ninja Gaiden is an good game in its own right, and there’s nothing wrong with making a challenging game for people who want a challenging game, but it doesn’t push the medium forward.

Fallout 3 and Far Cry 2 make their difficulty, the very act of experiencing their fictional world, a major part of their story. With developers trying to tell deeper and more meaningful stories in games, I think these two games have hit upon a theme tailor-made for video games: Survivalism. After all, the want to survive is already the unspoken basis for all shooter games. If a game then starts to make us question that automatic desire to survive, what it costs, do other really have to die for us to live, then the story will be given quite a lot of depth without changing much of the basic gameplay. On that note, I’m excited about what Ubisoft does with I Am Alive, a game that’s all about surviving after a major earthquake.

However, before I Am Alive there was Pathologic. I’ve never played this game, or even heard of it until reading about it in the comments section of a Rebel FM post (it’s comment 18, but the rest are pretty interesting too). The commenter linked to an in-depth look at the game on Rock, Paper, Shotgun, and from the sound of it, Pathologic is a game that takes the survival aspect of Fallout 3 and Far Cry 2 to an unprecedented extreme:

On my first runthrough of the game I was impossibly relieved when I got given a revolver and six bullets, because it was the solution to my impending starvation. I took it straight to the nearest corner store and swapped it for a bottle of milk and a can of vegetables. The next day food doubled in price.

Pathologic was made several years ago, but given the current popularity of Fallout 3 and Far Cry 2, I think it was way ahead of its time. As merciless as it’s survival mechanism sounds, I think it’s a challenge hardcore gamers are being warmed up to and will eventually embrace, if we haven’t already.

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