How long would you last in a zombie apocalypse? This is the question at the heart of any story involving zombies, and it’s a question that offers a tempting power fantasy. The undead hordes elide the real-world practicalities of survival—food, water, shelter—and ask instead how many zombies you could destroy as soon as you find your preferred weapon. These stories usually suggest that the most dangerous threats in a zombie apocalypse are either the zombies or other humans, the distinction between the two groups growing increasingly blurry as times goes on.
“There are no zombies,” states the Steam page for The Long Dark, “only you, the cold, and all the threats Mother Nature can muster.” The Long Dark, still in development, hints at but does not describe some kind of apocalyptic event. It is a game, very simply, about survival. You play as someone who crash-lands in the Canadian wilderness. It is very cold and you have minimal supplies. The game does not offer a true single-player mode yet but includes a robust sandbox. Your objective is to survive for as long as possible. In my first game, I found an abandoned cabin, decided to rest for a few hours, and froze to death in my sleep. Time survived: 8 hours and change. I repeat, there are no zombies.
I would not last long in a zombie apocalypse.
Carl Sagan once said, “To create an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe,” and that’s not far from the experience of The Long Dark. Simulations require the sort of design that would be anathema to most games. You can’t skimp on the details. You can’t reduce “stay alive” to a context-sensitive button. Consider the process you have to go through to eat some freshly cooked deer. First, you need a weapon. Second, you need ammo. Third, you need to find a deer. Fourth, you need to stalk and kill it without spooking it, running out of ammo, or succumbing to the elements yourself. Fifth, you need to skin the carcass and prepare the meat. (Do you have a knife?) Sixth, you need to start a fire. Starting a fire is another multi-step process and assumes you have plenty of firewood. If not, that’s another multi-step process. Assuming you successfully start a fire (which may take several attempts), you can finally cook and eat your meat, assuming your fire lasts long enough to do so. Finally, all of this time, all of this energy, all of these materials need to be a net gain for your survival. If you expend more calories hunting this deer than it gives you, you’re losing the game.
The Long Dark is an example of a particularly hardcore style of video game. Calling it a merely a “survival” game or some kind of “simulation” does not do justice to the game’s underlying thesis: You aren’t as tough as you think. You would not survive this situation in real life. You wouldn’t know where to find food, or how to start a fire, or how to treat a broken limb. You wouldn’t survive a zombie apocalypse because you can’t survive a non-zombie apocalypse. Only through the reload-and-try-again magic of video games will you ever succeed.
This sort of game doesn’t need an apocalypse. There is nothing fantastic or speculative about needing to eat every day to survive. Banished is another game which draws drama from the basic requirements of existence. In this game, you oversee a small band of people who arrive in empty wilderness after having been booted out of some unspecified homeland. Unlike games like Civilization or Age of Empires, with stories that begin somewhere in pre-history, the people of Banished have early industrial technology. There are no skill trees to unlock. You’re able to build any building in any order. If you wanted, you could kick things off by building a school, a marketplace, a trading post, and a hospital, but none of these places produce food. Your first and most urgent need is to plant crops in spring and harvest before winter. Even a well-managed settlement can run low on food, and it always stings a little when the little gravestone icon pops up and tells you that so-and-so has starved to death, perhaps resting in the hospital that has plenty of medicine but none for that particular ailment.
In many video games, if death is a possibility at all, it is a sudden or climactic moment. Your car explodes, your ship sinks, someone removes your head with a chainsaw, a group of zombies tears you to pieces. People do sometimes die like that—maybe not killed by zombies, but quickly and unexpectedly. In The Long Dark, you fade away, watching a counter tick towards a zero you always knew was there; or perhaps you misjudge your endurance, lie down to sleep, and never wake up. People sometimes die like that too, at the end of a long struggle they think they’ll overcome. I am, of course, unlikely to die in the Canadian outback either, but now I know I definitely would. No zombies required.
Grayson is a writer and editor living in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter at @vghmag.