Despite 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.