ARK: Survival Evolved is a titanic game. If you want to have fun, you have to earn it. Hours of chopping wood, mining minerals and defecating. Constantly monitoring your hunger and hydration levels. It’s such a big ask, but the genre certainly has its fans. I’m not one of them.
Flirtations with survival games have been going on for years now. I dabbled in Rust, dipped my toes into Day-Z and tasted The Forest. Each offered different experiences but required a fair amount of return. I became disillusioned with the genre, often finding myself falling into repeat processes that felt more like jobs than enjoyment. With that thought in mind, I have moved away from survival games forever. That was the plan anyway.
Kicking & Screaming
We’ve all been in a position where our friends are playing a game you don’t have any interest in. Sitting on Discord while they splice in talk of the game with general chat. We say to ourselves, we’ll never play it, but then it slowly starts to bleed into conversations. ‘Hey, why don’t you play with us?’ awkwardly trying to remain neutral we palm off the suggestion. But it never ends, so we bite the bullet. I bite the bullet, ending up with ARK: Survival Evolved in my Steam library.
Begrudgingly loading up the game, I struggled to express any excitement. My presence was more social than a legitimate interest in the game. That didn’t mean I was against having fun, it’s pretty hard not to when dinosaurs are stomping around. That’s probably the first striking thing about ARK, the world. Dazzling blue oceans peppered with island boasting lush greenery. Cosmetically, it’s impressive to behold. But screw that, we had to chop some wood.
All of the familiar elements come rushing back. The level of work required to squeeze out some fun makes it a hard sale, for me anyway. While my friends enjoyed gathering materials and planning what to do with them, I found myself jaded. Building is fun, it always has been and always will be. Titles like Minecraft, Rust, and ARK are extensions upon the simple joys of lego. Build and create, a fulfilling process. The issue here is, there’s so much required before you can even begin the creation stage.
Gathering wood to build a shelter in order to hide from the rain that lowers your body heat. Creating tinder so you can make a fire to cook a fish to keep your hunger levels low. It’s minor, but grows into a much more complex task. That’s how the whole ARK experience feels, a never ending task. Build this to create that, but you a certain amount of stuff to do so. It never ends.
Calling It Quits
After a month of playing, I decided to call it quits. The world had lost its sparkle, the dinosaurs were now just another part of the game. That sound of chopping down trees haunted my ears. Chop, chop, chop, chop return to base, store word, repeat. All work and no play make Jack a dull boy. In a strange way, ARK is a great descent into madness simulator.
Uninstalling the game produced a sense of relief. No more tree chopping or digging for ore. I’d no longer have to feed and water myself between dropping regular dookies on the beach. My ARK time was over, but not without some highlights. The times we spend building a ship to ferry over supplies to a second base was undeniable fun. A joint effort that allowed us to have our own little input on a great goal. Building a drum set to play while someone steered the ship. Dumb goofy fun.
A few days after I’d kicked ARK to the curb, my fellow islanders wished to reflect on my experiences. Knowing I had tried most other survival games, they wanted to quiz me on my time with ARK
So, Sean, you are something of a newcomer to survival games. What made you kind of stay away from the genre?
The genre has always had this weird wall around. They all aim to do the same thing but garnish it with various mechanics and features. Ultimately, I don’t enjoy the process of gathering materials to build items. There are a rare few cases where I’ll invest into crafting system (World of Warcraft and Monster Hunter), most just bore me.
Do you think that ARK is a good example of a survival game that gets it right, or would you not recommend it to a friend?
I came in with guidance from other players, which helps immensely. I can’t imagine going in solo and working out what makes what and how things work. It’s all overwhelming, but I understand the appeal. ARK can at least boast the element of discovery. Ther’es an element of fun to be had when walking around and finding curious little places. Even more so with a group, complete with a fully stocked ship.
What was the hardest part of getting started in ARK?
In short, the game runs like shit. My PC is hardly cutting edge, but far from bad, and it still required some tinkering. ARK kinda just throws you in at the deep end and forces you to learn, but given how much you die the lessons rarely feel rewarding or fair. If it wasn’t for wiki’s or other people’s knowledge, the whole game would be a blank slate.
Do you think you would have enjoyed this game as much without friends to play with?
It would have been uninstalled and forgotten about within 3 days. ARK and most survival games are completely mind-numbing alone. After picking at the same cluster of rocks for an hour, you start to question why you’re playing it and what the end goal is.
Do you think you could manage to do all of the same things that you’ve accomplished in ARK on a single player run?
I don’t think I would have stuck around passed the 4th death by hidden dino, so no. There’s an unavoidable tinge of isolation when playing solo, sucking all the enjoyment out of the game. Kinda like walking around a town you don’t know with no one to reach out to.
How has playing ARK in the Game Raven tribe helped reset your expectations of survival crafting games?
It gave the game a structure and purpose. Everyone working to the same goal, while building their own ships, is where the game shines. Even if the mechanic’s and technical aspect feels a little rough.
What’s gonna be the next survival game you would check out or try out, now that you’ve had a decent experience in ARK?
Conan: Exiles looks promising, mostly down to the world and the large avatar creatures. I’m curious to see if, unlike most other multiplayer survival games, large groups of people will come together and form factions. Whether or not the community will create that aspect remains to be seen.
At this point, I fully understand the survival genre will never be for me. I can see the appeal, I’ve even felt it. Building bases and working towards a great goal is empowering. It’s that same buzz you get from similar concepts in real life, be it team sports or even building and painting tabletop armies.
The amount of work required to enjoy the fun is the killer here. It’s a niche market, with a hardcore base of players. They enjoy the challenges and requirements of the genre, buying into the rewards of their efforts. For me, it’s too little for too much.