In a lot of open world games and, of course, even more so with survival games, there is a loop of scavenging. There is the challenge of making sure that you stay alive. That could be trying to get better weapons. It could be finding ammo. Maybe it is finding food or ingredients to make a product that will increase your ability to survive. I think the Scavenger’s Loop can be very simple: find a thing to survive for longer. How deep the design goes determines how rewarding it is, and how risky it is to make that a reward.
At the very lightest of scavenging, we can point to games that are not survival games like Borderlands, where ammo is what you chiefly need and better guns to shoot that ammo with. You’ll ultimately do fine, as there are many alternatives should your gun not be very strong. Alternatives like…shooting more. The preferable result is still that we’d like to have a high-rarity weapon with enough bullets to defeat the enemy. Chances are we will have other guns on hand, grenades, skills, or another player to help out.
Every layer we add makes it more complex and requires more management. These layers could be things like potions to heal ourselves when there is no auto-healing, limited inventory space, low amounts of ammo that can be found in the world, or a hunger/thirst bar. Normally these things are a relief to have to not worry about.
You, the Scavenger. You, the Manager
I think part of the feeling of success comes from knowing that we managed correctly, to know that in Resident Evil we saved those bullets for a good time. The distribution of fears as to whether or not we should expend bullets in the moment is one of the main things that make the game feel challenging. In the end, we will have made it to the next area, but it feels like it is because of our management. If it isn’t the management of your resources, it is the management of your skill in gameplay, and both choices end up being rewarding. Or if you are running from a monster, just the relief itself that you can now catch a break is a reward. You also have just shown you have the skill to make it to the relief as well.
The emphasis of the reward of you being proven as resourceful or skillful is different than the reward of the actual items themselves. Sure, we may find a fancy crystal for making that one equipment, but the reward in survival games is usually concealed. We do not expect the actual item reward. It is merely a bonus for exploring the world.
The variables involved in items obtained depend on how well you do everything. In games like Fallout where there are more variables such as durability of weapons, scarcity of ammo, and constantly being bombarded with radiation from different sources, you overcome these trials not because you are the chosen hero, but because you are the spunky, everyday person that has fought their way through a wasteland. You’ve survived long enough so that you can be as strong as you are now.
I’d like to add one more thing to the idea of being a scavenger, especially in survival games like Fallout, Subnautica, and Void Bastards. You are rummaging through other people’s stuff to survive. It is the weird intensity of stealing parts from a ship in Void Bastards when you know you’re not supposed to be there and the comic words saying “Squelch, Squelch,” indicate someone is in the next room over. It’s similar to the feeling in games like Dishonored where you’re grabbing some valuables in a house where the person is still down the hall. It’s the feeling of “How far can I go without getting caught?”
The high risk, high reward makes the scavenging feel even more rewarding. Games such as the Subnautica and Void Bastards have the alternative that if you do not risk enough, you will not survive, but if you risk too much, you are going to die anyway. These games become a balancing act. This is even more of a risk in Void Bastards where if you like your character on that run and you die, you likely won’t see them again.
In the end, the Scavenger’s Loop always points back to the main idea of a survival game and that is to point out the fact that you are not dead. And that is solely because you were digging through someone else’s or something else’s stuff.
Thanks for reading. We’ll see you next time!