Valheim is the indie darling survival game of the (Aussie) summer, we break down what makes it special and its place in the Triangle of Survival. Trust us, it's a thing.
You start the game in the woods, punching trees and eating berries like you're in Nordic Minecraft, but before too long you'll be putting together epic halls to house your plunder, sailing longships on the not-so-open ocean and smelting metals to create spectacular armour.
Valheim is a low-poly Viking-themed wood-chopping affair with everything from berry acquisition to battles with Elder gods. It's a phenomenal game, a fantastic Early Access premiere that already features the majority of the game's core loop intact. But while I love it, I'm very aware that it's not for everyone.
And the idea that it might not be got me thinking. Why do we bounce off some survival games and not others? What makes one survival game work for me, when maybe it doesn't work for you?
Three Sides to Every Survival
The Triangle of Survival posits that survival games can be broken down into three categories; Exploration, Crafting, and Existence. Each survival game — and by now there are a lot of them — falls somewhere on this triangular chart between these three factors. And if you can work out where survival games you like exist, you might be able to identify early on whether you will or will not like another one.
Valheim is a phenomenal game, one that already features the majority of the game's core loop intact.
Think of it like one of those charts you might see during a business seminar, except far more practical.
Games that are heavy on Exploration encourage you to branch out from your home base, to look at what else is out there and find something better. A game that is pure exploration might be called a Walking Simulator — that is, all you do is wander around, discovering new things and learning about the world without worrying about staying alive or building anything.
Games focusing on Crafting give you loads of recipes and reasons to build them. You can craft anything from a simple axe all the way up to giant kingdoms, depending on the game you're playing. A game all about crafting would be something incremental/idle, where you progress purely by finding and crafting new recipes.
And finally, games focused on Existence require you to live against the odds. You'll need to manage an array of needs as you attempt to stay alive for just one more day. Battle Royales, being an evolution of the DayZ PvP loop and generally focusing on a last person standing theme, would be games that are purely existence-based.
To cement the idea a little better, I thought I might break down some popular survival games and explain where I feel each one exists within the Triangle of Survival.
Similar Games: Terraria, Starbound.
What makes Minecraft such a ubiquitous presence is that it can sit almost anywhere on the Triangle of Survival, and that means it doubles as a fantastic guide for finding your next favourite survival game based on how you play. If you’re purely in Creative Mode, you might be looking for a crafting-focused game. If it's Adventure Mode — as seen in the impressive RTX Showcase levels we got to experience on the MSI GeForce RTX 3080 Suprim X — then you might want something purely exploratory. A feast for the senses.
The Triangle of Survival posits that survival games can be broken down into three categories; Exploration, Crafting, and Existence.
But it's Survival Mode that keeps me coming back — even when laced with an RTX texture pack — and Minecraft in Survival Mode splits its focus quite a bit. Minecraft Classic, as I like to call it, requires players to balance their crafting and existing quite carefully. It encourages some exploration, especially into the deep depths below the surface of any Minecraft world, but by-and-large your focus will be on living through night time periods and building out the elements you require to continue to, well, live.
Here’s how this Minecraft flavour sits on the Triangle.
As you can see, I've placed it pretty close to the centre on the Triangle of Survival. That's because eventually the natural progression of the game requires you to branch out far from your starting location to find the resources needed to enter and survive within the Nether.
Once that kicks off, your survival comes under threat from monsters — creepers, zombies and dragons, oh my — and food management becomes more challenging as you journey further from your main base. Crafting slowly takes a backseat to exploration and existence as the game draws to its end, though it's still entirely viable all the way throughout.
Minecraft in Survival Mode represents a fantastic balance between all three points on the triangle. And if you feel you're not getting enough of that out of the regular game, Hardcore exacerbates the existence elements in a near overwhelming manner.
Similar Games: Raft, Subnautica: Below Zero, FarSky.
Subnautica is one of the best survival games I've played, a brilliant underwater thriller featuring a person stranded on an ocean planet, a soon to explode nuclear-powered spaceship and… something… lurking deep below the surface where the sunlight can't quite reach.
Subnautica is one of the best survival games I've played, a brilliant underwater thriller featuring a person stranded on an ocean planet, a soon to explode nuclear-powered spaceship and… something… lurking deep below.
Existence dominates the triangle in Subnautica, because it's an ever-present concern. Even when you've mastered the game, you'll still find yourself needing to manage your air, hydration and sustenance, and if any of these three concerns becomes critical it represents an immediate threat to your game time. Add to that the fact that exploration directly leads to larger and larger existential threats, and the fact that you're never really able to do anything permanent about these leviathan-class problems, and Subnautica finds itself in the position on the Triangle as follows.
It has a great crafting system, although finding resources can be painful, and so too the blueprints needed to build things. And recalling all the parts you need to find to build something can drive you bananas — something they directly fixed in the standalone expansion pack Subnautica: Below Zero, which should be out fairly soon.
In my mind, Subnautica represents the pinnacle of the 'existence-focused' part of the Survival triangle — the best in its class, without going too far in any particular direction.
Similar Games: Sons of the Forest, probably.
The Forest was one of my top 5 games the year it came out. Other games that came out that year were — Red Dead Redemption 2, God of War, Battlefield V, Dead Cells, Hollow Knight — that's right, The Forest dropped in 2018. And when it did, I dropped everything to play it all the way through.
What The Forest did so well was it de-emphasised the Existence and Crafting elements in favour of Exploration. Trapped on a ‘Lost’-style island following a plane crash, you (and your co-op friends if you choose to play it the best way possible) start off just trying to survive, but soon enough find yourself investigating a mystery that rapidly careens out of control.
What The Forest did so well was it de-emphasised the Existence and Crafting elements in favour of Exploration.
Make no mistake, The Forest is a survival game. You will hunt, you'll find clever ways to gather water, you'll build lean-tos, then huts, then forts and eventually (if you're smart) tree houses. Crafting and Existence absolutely play a role in your time with The Forest, but they pale in comparison to the importance of exploration.
That's because progression in The Forest is directly tied to exploring new areas — the caves beneath the island you now call home. Your ability to build things is linked to your ability to spelunk, and while there are some… interesting things lurking in those caves that absolutely pose a threat to your continued existence, if you want to finish the game you'll need to explore beyond them.
A sequel, Sons of the Forest, was announced in 2019, but there's no release date available for it yet, so if you've never played The Forest there's still plenty of time. I can't recommend it enough — it easily exemplifies the 'exploration-focused' side of the Triangle.
Similar Games: Satisfactory, Factorio, Harvest Moon, Animal Crossing.
If Subnautica and The Forest represent the points of existence and exploration, then Stardew Valley is the peak idea of crafting in these games. It's not as action-oriented as the other games on this list, but it still has everything you might want.
If Subnautica and The Forest represent the points of existence and exploration, then Stardew Valley is the peak idea of crafting in these games.
You can pass out, and there are consequences for losing all your energy, but it's not "death" as it is in other games. You don't get a Game Over screen. And there's absolutely exploration, as you find out more about the town, learn its quirks, and explore the dungeon.
What makes Stardew Valley sing is its robust crafting systems, which encourage players to build out their farm with a wide variety of plants and livestock. The way items interact is highly reminiscent of other games in the genre, but the depth of complexity here far exceeds its contemporaries.
You'll start by clearing out rocks and growing basic crops, but before long you'll be harvesting fish eggs for caviar, pickling chillies and mining Iridium. It's a zen experience, with the nail biting tension of lasting just one more day replaced with the peaceful pursuit of perfect propagation.
So where does Valheim belong? It's the new hotness, currently sitting in third place on the Steamcharts Top Games list — there must be some reason people are being drawn to it en masse.
Exploration-wise, Valheim features a massive game world — one that is chock-a-block full of stuff per-metre. It has terrible foes, a heap of crafting recipes, a handful of biomes, and thanks to random map generation (based on seeds) nobody should wind up with the same experience as anyone else.
Exploration-wise, Valheim features a massive game world -- one that is chock-a-block full of stuff per-metre.
Exploration is really the primary drive for the game, the reason for continuing to play — as you get deeper into each biome, you begin to find clues pointing you towards your next boss. I haven't finished it yet, but I presume that inevitably you'll have explored enough of the game world to have killed all the bosses and helped Odin do his dirty work, or his good deeds… the jury is still out on the Norse gods.
From a crafting perspective, Valheim is complex, with dozens of materials and just as many recipes to craft with them. It's reminiscent of Terraria, in that progress into the next zone is locked behind defeating the previous area's boss (by way of some tool required to acquire materials). You can't mine in the Black Forest, the second biome, until you've killed the first boss.
You'll see in the triangle that it tends away from Existence. and that's because, nasty monsters aside, you won't find yourself worrying too much about dying. You won't die if you fail to eat or sleep, so if you insisted on staying inside the walls of your well-guarded fortress you could theoretically live forever in the game without needing to progress.
The low-fi visual style no doubt makes it playable on a wide array of PCs, though the distinctive and gorgeous art style makes it sing on high-end gear. You don’t need something like an RTX 3080 to get the most out of Valheim, but it doesn't hurt. Especially when performance optimisation is always on the iffy side during Early Access releases such as this.
The Fourth Side… You and I
There's one piece of this puzzle I didn't address, one element that isn't ubiquitous with the Survival genre -- but sort of is and should be. Multiplayer. It’s the unwritten rule across a wide range of genres, but multiplayer makes every Survival game better. In fact I’ve yet to encounter one made worse by the presence of other people.
There's one piece of this puzzle I didn't address, one element that isn't ubiquitous with the Survival genre -- but sort of is and should be. Multiplayer.
Certainly playing games in co-op has its disadvantages. There's nothing more aggravating than spending hours in the Viking afterlife mining and transporting scrap iron only to return to base and watch as some shiftless do-nothing smelts it all and dons a fancy set of armour before immediately logging off.
But the benefits far outweigh the negatives. All survival games are burdened by periods of aimlessness. It's an unavoidable element in the genre. They're like Immersive Sims, except where Deus Ex includes a carefully crafted narrative that leads you directly to JC Denton's next adventure (probably a bomb), Survival games lean heavily on emergent narratives. And because emergent narratives require freedom for players to go the wrong way, it’s inevitable that Survival games will see people stall out.
Co-op solves that problem. People still stall out, but those brief periods of listlessness are more fun when shared with others. Because survival games are priority management emulators, the addition of other people alters your priorities in interesting ways. I can watch the ray-traced sunset in Minecraft in my two-cube-sized dirt hole solo just fine, but with other players present new architectural challenges present themselves.
And better still, playing with others amplifies even the simplest of achievements. For example, the mosquitoes in Valheim can one-hit kill you, which is what made the video above so exciting — at least for the players.
The flipside is that some survival games are only fun because of the threat of other people. I have steered away from PvP focused survival games since Battle Royale games came to the fore, but there's absolutely no way I would have spent 2000 hours playing DayZ if moments like this couldn't have happened.
Finally, I fully recognise that the Triangle of Survival is subjective as hell. My interpretation of where each game fits on the triangle might be different to yours. If there's a game that you think better exemplifies one of the three trisections, let me know!
Oh, and yeah ‘Valheim and the Triangle of Survival’ sounds like the title of a Young Adult novel. One where Valheim, or Val, moves to a new school and, in a desperate attempt to make new friends, joins the school band. The only position available? Triangle. How could she have known when she signed on that this Triangle in particular had sapped LeBron James of his abilities, and now she could play (the Triangle) with the skill and grace and athleticism of the best basketball player of a generation.
If you know of any games that could fill the void The Forest has left in my life, I'm begging you to tell me. Lest the above be turned into an actual YA series.