Survive. You’re not here to go on a journey, save the world, finish a quest or have your vengeance, you’re just trying to make the most of your day and get through the night intact. That’s the pleasure of survival games, cutting away the layers of exposition and motivation that can stifle other games to take you back to life’s earliest questions: what will you eat? How will you stay warm? And some survival games take things further. Where will you end up on the food chain? Is there something out there, in the dark, that means you harm?
Tense, often raw, always thrilling, these are the games that keep you on the edge of your seat and watching nervously for the setting sun. We’ve picked out ten of the finest, just do your best not to die.
These days we think of Minecraft as a kiddie-friendly creative wonderland, so we forget that at its core there’s a brilliant survival game. Mining for materials, crafting tools and building a shelter is still as tense as it ever was, with one eye watching for sundown and one ear cocked for the moans of zombies. Forging your first decent weapons feels a big achievement, and there’s plenty of excitement to be had in farming and foraging in an epic, unknown landscape, or fending off exploding creepers before they can breach your fortifications. We love Minecraft for its creativity, but there’s still a thrilling game underneath.
Play it on: Just about anything, though it’s best on PC, Mac, Switch, PS4 and Xbox One
Don’t starve and don’t be fooled by those charming hand-drawn, Tim Burton-esque graphics. This is as dark, brutal and unforgiving as survival games get, with strong roguelike elements that make slaying weird monsters – evil spiders and creepy pig-men a speciality – as important as collecting the materials you’ll need to craft tools, traps and weapons, or simply stay warm and cook your food. Don't Starve is a game where you need to manage your time and resources carefully, and regard permadeath as another step on a learning journey (at least you can use the experience points accrued to give yourself an easier time on the next life). The longer you survive, the more seems at stake, and isn’t that what survival’s all about?
Play it on: PC, PS4, Xbox One, PS Vita, iOS, Android and Linux
The Long Dark
Where other survival games involve elements of fantasy or horror, The Long Dark plays things straight; just you, a downed bush pilot, and miles of freezing, wolf-haunted Canadian wilderness in which to stay alive. Battling cold and starvation is tough enough, and you’ll need to eat, drink and rest in order to survive. Yet go hunting and exploring and you’ll find there’s so much to discover for yourself. The team has bolstered the core sandbox survival game with a two-chapter story mode, where you’re searching for a doctor stranded in the wild, and both are crammed with tense, even terrifying moments and scenes of strange beauty. The Long Dark has grown into a survival great.
Play it on: PC, Mac, Linux, PS4 and Xbox One
ARK: Survival Evolved
Take survival, add sci-fi and dinosaurs, and you have the bare bones of Ark: Survival Evolved. The game’s built a huge fanbase despite dated visuals and a harsh difficulty level, just because it makes the business of staying alive so exciting, no doubt helped by the fact that beyond the giant reptiles and other hostile beasties, it’s other players that pose the biggest threat. Build and upgrade your base and set traps and you’ll live a little longer. Join forces with a tribe and wage war on others, and you’ll live longer still. It’s not every game where you can tame a sabretooth or ride a Megalodon, and no other game does survival on quite this T-Rex scale.
Play it on: PC, Xbox One, PS4, Mac and Linux
The Forest is the place where survival and survival horror meet. It’s bad enough being the sole survivor of a plane crash, stranded deep in a sinister forest. Worse still, when that forest is haunted by flesh-eating cannibal mutants who want nothing more than to eat you alive. This is a game with a serious day/night cycle, where you spend your daylight hours repairing the camp, setting traps and scavenging for food, getting ready for the nightly onslaught from the creepy cannibal hordes. They’re ferocious and smart and they work together, but you can explore their settlements and take the battle back to them. The Forest is dark and genuinely scary solo, and not much easier on the nerves in co-op mode.
Play it on: PC and PS4
Another deceptively friendly-looking survival game that turns out to have a vicious set of teeth. Terraria looks like an old-school 2D platformer but has more in common with a Minecraft. At first you work your way around the surface of the planet, mining for materials and chopping down trees to keep you safe from the weird patrolling eyeball monsters and other uncanny foes. Before long, though, you’ll discover an underground world of maze-like tunnels, traps and treasure, just ready to grab provided you can stay alive. More than just a Minecraft done Super Mario style, Terraria is a survival platformer with – literally – hidden depths.
Play it on: Just about anything. There are versions available for nearly every major platform barring Switch
If you want to blame any game for the onslaught of sandbox survival titles, blame DayZ. Dean Hall’s surprise megahit started off as a survival mod for the hardcore military shooter, ARMA, but grew into a phenomenon bigger than the parent game. Set in a fictional Eastern European state overwhelmed by zombies, it has you scavenging and fortifying to keep the biters at bay. As in The Walking Dead, however, it’s other humans that are, by far, the biggest worry. If you can’t make friends, you’ll need to play smart and be ready to pull a gun. DayZ has always been a bit rough and ready, but the team at Bohemia Interactive has added polish and content over the last five years. Providing you can take the challenge, it’s still a great survival game.
Play it on: PC
State of Decay
Think of State of Decay as a more accessible, solo-friendly take on DayZ, where zombies over-run a peaceful North American valley, and you recruit and defend a team of survivors to help you make it through. Not only do you have to handle the standard looting and scavenging stuff, but the attitudes of your survivors, which will ebb and flow in response to events. Here the death of your protagonist doesn’t mean the end of the game, but the move to another character and their story, without the experience and combat abilities your previous hero earned. Combine this, the need to scavenge and the hordes of tough, respawning brain-munchers who constantly threaten your homestead, and you have a game where the tension rarely lets up. There’s a reason why next-year’s sequel is one of next year’s most anticipated Xbox One titles. Why not find out what it is?
Play it on: Xbox One, Xbox 360 and PC
It’s safe to say that Facepunch’s survival sandbox game isn’t for everyone. It’s legendarily challenging and hardcore in its nature, and the biggest question isn’t whether you’ll die, but whether it’s the wolves, the bears, the patrolling helicopters or the other players that will get you first. Everyone spawns naked in a random male or female avatar, and you’re stuck in a desolate landscape where nearly everything that moves wants you dead. Yet for some players, nothing beats Rust’s brutal, unforgiving nature and fraught combat, or the bonds it creates between players once they learn to trust one another. It’s always going to be divisive, but Rust keeps evolving in interesting ways.
Play it on: PC, Mac, Linux
Bear Grylls meets Jacques Cousteau in the ultimate sub-aquatic survival sim. Here you’re the sole survivor of a starship crashed on a water-covered planet, populated by all kinds of alien fauna. Your only chance of living longer? The sci-fi fabricator you can use to fashion tools and materials from scrap, minerals and fish. Subnautica scores for its weird, genuinely alien-feeling world, which makes exploring its waters and the ocean floor terrifying and wondrous in roughly equal measures. It’s also a feast for fans of scary-looking tropical fish, because these scaly devils have too many teeth and are absolutely huge. Looking for a survival sandbox with a difference? Subnautica is it.
Play it on: PC, Mac, Xbox One