Why dynamic social relationships are critical to survival games

A few weeks ago, early access darling Ark: Survival Evolved featured a twitch.tv event that they used to promote a new game mode. The game mode, Survival of the Fittest, is modeled very closely after The Hunger Games. In case you’ve been living under a rock or you’re just too cool for young teen Dystopian fiction, the games are simple: teams of two face off in free-for-all gladiatorial combat to the death. Ark’s game mode matched the young teen novel beat for beat. In addition to the main game idea, Studio Wildcard borrowed several details from The Hunger Games fiction. All of the competitors began the game session in a common area where they were able to communicate with the other players, there was a cornucopia of useful gear at the center of the players’ starting positions, and there were even orchestrated, unnatural events, called Evolution Events, that warped the experience, introducing chaos and encouraging player combat.

With thousands watching on Twitch, the survivors were unleashed upon one another. Several teams fell victim to the island’s dangers, cold weather and carnivores. Others were murdered by their enemies. In the first 10 minutes alone, one agile bowman, SniperNamedG, expertly Legolas’d three survivors in the face. It was one of the coolest events I’ve witnessed in video game history, period. Five hours later, a victor was declared. Then, something very funny happened. There was a huge community backlash! The internet died. Well, the part of the internet that cares about twitch, survival games, and dinosaurs, at least. An internet riot quickly formed, calling out “The Six” for their unfair play. Pitchforks and torches were brandished. The mob ridiculed “The Six” for playing “cheap.” These six players made it all the way to the final moments of the 5-hour event. According to the unruly mob, this wasn’t fair. I couldn’t help but scratch my head in confusion. Had these detractors ever seen The Hunger Games, or any survival-themed fiction or game in recent history? Forming alliances is a natural part of a survival game! The core dramatic elements in the first Hunger Games novel revolve around the fact that the more physically powerful teams group together and slaughter the weaker teams. It is up to the protagonist to outwit this power-alliance, as she is woefully outnumbered. She even engages in her own coalition with another competitor in order to position herself better for survival.

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How boring would this story have been without the District 1 and 2 alliance?

We can look to other examples in fiction and see how a survival setting naturally begets diplomacy. William Golding’s literary classic Lord of the Flies is predicated on the natural human inclination to form social groups, and the tensions that arise between them. The shifting relationships drive narrative and drama. This pattern is not restricted to fiction, either. Other survival games feature dynamic social relationships. The most obvious example is island-survival reality tv show Survivor. Although players are divided into strict, game-enforced tribes, social alliances and divisions within these tribes are commonplace. The show’s tagline, “Outwit, Outlast, Outplay” emphasizes physical ability, fortitude and diplomatic prowess. They are all essential skills in a survival game.

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The “Misfit Alliance” trumped the more physically powerful “Muscle Alliance” in Survivor: One World.

So, why did the internet lash out at “The Six?” In two words, popularity and contest. One of the teams featured a popular streamer named Lirik. During the event, he had thousands and thousands of viewers watching his stream. He was definitely a fan-favorite to win. But he lost. He was, by some accounts, more skilled at the game, but he was defeated due to the total lack of any diplomatic maneuvers on his part. And so, thousands of people stormed off to Reddit to declare alliances as Unfair. Look, I get it. It’s natural to be upset over a sporting event that doesn’t go your way, but to discredit the game itself is misguided and immature. Hate the player, not the game, am I right? The winner, Mr. Dolphin, stated, “Everything came down to forming that last-minute alliance with Ralph and his Spino saddle, which turned the events to our favor.” Look at that. Dynamic relationships created interesting gameplay and ultimately helped decide the result of the game. Sounds like a good thing to me.

In the Survival of the Fittest announcement, Wildcard community manager Jat explained that the neutral starting zone allows survivors to “strategize, or trash talk.” It’s clear that diplomacy was always meant to be part of the experience. But after the vocal reaction to “The Six,” there are rumblings that the studio may somehow enforce restrictions on dynamic alliances in future events. Diplomacy is a natural part of survival. Studio Wildcard cannot give in to what is nothing more than an emotional reaction to an awesome gaming event. Sometimes your team loses the Superbowl. There’s always next time.