The First Winter
Unreal World is a strange beast. One of the blizzard of ‘survival’ games currently striking the internet, it sets the player among the dark forests and freezing moors of iron-age Finland with the simple challenge: don’t die. Unlike most survival games, URW has been around for many years, and is built in the style of an old-fashioned dungeon-delving ‘roguelike’. Death, which in good roguelike fashion is permanent and irrevocable, can come in the form of frostbite, starvation, eating poisonous mushrooms or being eaten by wolves.
Thematically, URW occupies an odd position within the survival genre. Whereas other survival games (or ‘survivalist’ fiction) are frequently laced with postapocalyptic fever dreams about getting back to ‘real’ life in the style of Thomas Hobbes’ bellum omnium contra omnes (‘war of all against all’) and exacting revenge on the hordes of Others (Pixyul’s Reroll offers the latest example of this), URW contains no revenge fantasy or Schadenfreude.
The game is not entirely unproblematic: for example, the main enemies, the ‘Njerpezal’, are distinctively eastern and dark-haired, while blonde Scandinavians only seem to appear as peaceful traders (though, to be fair, some players tell legends of what might be Viking raids). However, the meaning of ‘survival’ in URW is quite distinct. Your character’s personal independence is more of an optional challenge than a built-in assumption: the various tribes of ‘Inhemo’ (your people) will happily put you up, let you use their saunas, and give you medicine and directions — though you still have to feed yourself. Survival in the wilderness is thus partly a matter of stubbornness – the determination to make your own little cottage, navigate a river, or make a bearskin coat because you can. While there are bandits (the previously mentioned Njerpezal), they are rare compared to the raiders in games like Fallout and the eponymous hordes of zombie games, and are usually avoidable — and best avoided. A surprisingly realistic wound model and permanent death combine to make the usual RPG progression of violence against ever-larger enemies a bad idea. A single unlucky arrow in the eye can and will kill your character instantly, while getting into a fair fight with a bear is always a losing proposition. No less importantly, NPC companions and pet dogs are crucial ingredients of any successful warpath against groups of invading Njerpezal – underscoring, mechanically, the social aspect of warfare.
This is not a game about proving your violent, atomic masculinity in the face of an invading horde of others and a hostile nature — at least, not most of the time. The game’s brutal and clinical attention to natural detail and its relative lack of ‘gameyness’ actually mitigate against any Hobbesian notion of the ‘state of nature’, since peace and cooperation become logical behaviours in the dangerous wilderness. The game’s dedication – ‘to the indigenous peoples of the world’ – is likewise a slap in the face of the misanthropy and veiled racism that often accompany survivalist fantasy.
This uniqueness is underscored by the theme from which the game takes its name – the ‘unreality’ of the world. The world became ‘Unreal’ after the ‘First Winter’, when human beings effectively became human, discovering fire, song and technology. The First Winter is the moment of our alienation from the natural world – the world is now ‘Unreal’, since the Inhemo, like us, have lost their mythical, immediate relationship with nature. So far from appealing to a ‘real’ state of nature, URW tells us that it is mythical and may never have existed.
In fact, success in the Unreal World is measured by the unreality of one’s life. Crucial items like iron tools, salt for preserving food, housing for protection from the elements, agriculture for a stable food supply, and nets and traps for ‘passive’ fishing and hunting each remove the player character a little from his or her ‘natural’ existence as a hunter-gatherer in the forest. The ideal setup for a character in the URW – a log cabin with a garden and cellar, plus a series of traps for collecting furs for trade – is also an act of violence against the forest which gives your character sustenance. Trees must be cleared and burnt, animals killed in devious and often cruel traps, even when their meat is not needed for food.
URW is, unambiguously, a game about the celebration of a more immediate relationship with nature. The trackless forests are described as ‘majestic’. The clever system of magic ‘rituals’, which allow your character to make songs and sacrifices to the local spirits, without ever telling you what, precisely, the rituals do, leaves you with a slightly superstitious attitude to the living forest. It is also a game (a videogame) about the impossibility – and undesirability – of fully achieving such a relationship.
Both of these issues — your character’s relationship to nature and to other people — are underscored by the way you encounter the landscape. In most survival games, as in most dungeon-delvers, the world is a series of pockets to be raided for goods and cleared of monsters before moving on to greener pastures. Videogames tend to embody what Karl Marx called ‘primitive accumulation': the creation of capital as a zero-sum game of violence. The enclosure of the commons and the seizure of land from indigenous peoples were the examples he had in mind. In both of these cases, the previous owners were historically represented as less-than-human; as not owning their lands in a proper individual, capitalist sense and thus not owning them at all; as an unruly horde in need of taming. In fact, the liberal intellectual tradition has a long history of defending theft and murder in the name of freedom and private property, starting no later than John Locke, who claimed that Europeans had a divine mandate to cultivate the ‘waste’ lands of indigenous peoples. Since the monstrous hordes of DayZ or Fallout and the troglodytes of Skyrim and Dragon Age, like aborigines and European cottagers, don’t have a legal claim to the things that surround them, their murder and expropriation are the discovery of riches in an alien wilderness. The hero of the RPG or survival game embodies the bleeding edge of capitalism, accumulating private property one massacre at a time and always in search of new frontiers. Behind him is a desert called peace and quickly forgotten — until the monsters respawn, at least.
In URW, by contrast, the wilderness is only alien because you don’t understand it. Clearing villages — or even Njerpezal camps — and then moving on is not going to keep you alive and fed indefinitely, even if you can manage to survive the inevitable bruises, lacerations and broken bones that come with realistic violence. Instead, the key to survival is knowledge. When you first move into an area, it seems alien, wild and empty; but what you see is your own ignorance. There are paths used by game, good fishing spots, caves inhabited by wolves or bears, groves where herbs, berries and mushrooms grow, and villages where you will find trade and comfort. Ranging over the same areas repetitively as you hunt, explore and trade allows you to develop a picture of the landscape. Gradually, the forest becomes legible; it ceases to be wilderness and starts to become a friend. This is no dissolution into atavism as imagined by common depictions of the primitive and the post-apocalyptic. ‘Nature’ is ultimately both primal and Unreal; and by delving into a less mediated mode of existence, you become more aware of the way your relationship to the world is shaped by understanding rather than nature.