H1Z1: The new fantasy hero

survivorDespite having been underwhelmed with my first serious dip into H1Z1 — it is early-squirrelly alpha access, after all — it’s not going to leave my desktop any time soon.  I think it has some great potential as an MMO version of the increasingly popular survival game genre.

Why are these games grabbing our attention and spawning a legion of wannabes?  I think a lot of it has to do with the opporunity to be a different type of hero than we’re usually offered in online games.

Instead of hewing to a gamer’s fantasy of being an altruistic hero or an ultimate fighter (or even a wealthy merchant), these types of games strike right into the heart of the fantasy of the survivor.  Instead of beginning as a powerful, self-sustaining warrior, we are instead thrown to the other side of the spectrum and start out as a fragile, defenseless soul who has the odds pitted against him or her.

And then we’re told to use our wits and skills to survive.

The post-apocalypse is a natural setting for this but not a necessary one.  All you need is an environment that is naturally hostile, some form of aggressive enemy (either player or computer-controlled), and enough things that can be made into other things that can help one survive if used properly.

Maybe we really love a rags-to-sewn-together-rags story.  Maybe the popularity of these games is connected with our love affair of the zombie genre and how we constantly test our imagination with how we ourselves would survive and thrive in a harsh world.  Me?  I’d probably die quick and leave a weird-looking corpse, but in a computer game, why, I might have the satisfaction of building a teepee, skinning a deer, and then die to a rampaging bear.

It certainly explains why television audiences loved Survivorman and Man vs. Wild.  We live in comfy worlds where we don’t necessarily have to think about survival the way our ancestors once did, and we lament the loss of those skills and talents.  Plus, we kind of worry how quickly we’d die if we did get stranded in the woods some day.  While survivor games don’t really teach us practical tips, they do a good job simulating the techniques to carving out a living.  The feel of it.  Kind of like how Guitar Hero simulated the feeling of being a rock star while doing nothing to teach fans how to play a real instrument.

WURM Online should get a lot more credit than it does for having the foresight to jump on this bandwagon, even if it was ugly as sin and not the most user friendly.  But we’ve seen single-player and limited multiplayer survivor games have much more success with better graphics and a refinement of these ideas, notably DayZ, Rust, and Don’t Starve.

That’s why I think that H1Z1 is on to something.  Zombies and psychopathic players aside, it’s a sandbox where a personal survival narrative can be told, over and over, each time with different results.  We’re sick of being coddled in fantasy worlds; we want to be thrown into the deep water and told to suck it up and swim (or at least to craft flippers and a snorkel on the fly).  If it can nail the feel and fuel the survivor fantasy without being too difficult or too easy, then it’ll grab hold to a segment that has a lot of potential and audience left to tap.

P.S. — I’m on Team Survivorman, if I had to choose.  At least he did all of his own camera work and actual surviving without off-screen hotel stays.

5 thoughts on “H1Z1: The new fantasy hero

  1. Jake January 28, 2015 / 9:21 am

    Have you ever read World War Z? I love how the author describes the rebuilding phase, where the white collar workers are forced to be under the management of blue collar types. With the infrastructure of affluence gone, roles reverse. Life coaches and financial advisors have fewer meaningful skills than the gal or guy who can fix a generator or tender crops in that environment.

    Personally I’m not much into the zombie culture (WWZ is literally the only book on the subject I’ve read in a decade and I don’t remember the last zombie film or tv show I watched) but I think a Sci-fi survival game would be interesting– harsh planet, unfamiliar resources, limited technology or contact with earth, etc. As a genre survival has some appealing traits, there just hasn’t been an incarnation of that theme that has really resonated with me personally.

  2. JJ Robinson January 28, 2015 / 9:31 am

    I played Rust a ton when it came out, but eventually the “alpha” nature of hacking and unfinished gameplay wore on me. With the AA disaster. Landmark’s flop, and other “early access” games, I’ve vowed to stay as far away as possible. If a developer labels a game “early access”, to me that means not ready and buggy as hell. No thanks. I think this whole “early access” phenom is doing a lot of damage to the gaming community as a whole. Significantly lowers the bar, and ruins potentially promising games.

  3. Jidhari January 28, 2015 / 12:01 pm

    I still don’t understand how an MMO version of a survival horror game differs from titles like DayZ or Rust besides lots more people. What exactly is SOE doing with this title that makes it more of an MMO (than Dayz or Rust) besides bumping up against more individuals? I would argue that having lots more people running around a survival horror world actually takes away from the atmosphere and will have the appearance of tons of people just moving around day to day in a wasteland.

    As an aside, this game will flop horribly. SOE’s biggest mistake was releasing it early access. You are a triple A developer supposedly. To stand out, you should take the time and release a polished product. It would have helped them stand out more in a sea of early access competition. I would rather pay for an early access version of Rust or DayZ as they are further along and I understand how they are monetizing the game.

  4. Jake January 28, 2015 / 12:51 pm

    I think a post-post-apocalyptic zombie plague theme would make a better MMO setting. For example you could have factions (because the world has started the rebuilding process) for more interesting MMO style PvE and PvP. Factions could fight over resources and have to transport them cross-country (like medical supplies, food, etc.) through quest lines and dungeons as well as open world PvP.

    And yet there could be enough survival elements (hunger, crafting for all gear, weapons, housing) because the world is still in bad shape that it would be different from a traditional MMO.

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