What is Survival Game? [Gaming Definition, Meaning]

There is great confusion about the definition of survival game, which is often related with the more famous survival horror game sub-category. Indeed, the term “survival game” is used to refer to a quite broad group of single player video games which developed since the 1990s. Actually, also survival game is a sub-genre of another wider category, that is the action video game one. In fact, the only difference between a survival game and an action game mainly lays in the setting, which in the latter is a hostile, open-world environment to the player who is forced to start the adventure with a very limited equipment. The player’s main objective is to gather as many resources and useful items as possible in order to survive and get to the end alive.

The first example of the survival game genre was UnReal World, released in 1992 by Enormous Elk – a Finnish indie production team. The game had no big plot since the authors concentrated more on gameplay elements such as crafting and collecting, creating the first video game designed in order for the player to survive as long as possible just relying on the resources found through its path. UnReal World’s new conception of an action game was well-received by the audience which appreciated its realism and challenging nature, so it became the starting point for a new way to enjoy a virtual experience.

After 1992, many survival games were released, and all of them featured different settings, situations, and modes. Wurm Online (2003, Sweden), for example, was set in Medio Evo, in a world where realms – built and headed by multiple players – gather resources and fight against each other to escape destruction by the hand of the enemy. However, it is only thanks to Minecraft (2009) – pretty similar to Wurm Online’s one, as its world gets gradually created by the players – that survival game genre earned its popularity. Meanwhile, the genre of survival game had already begun to mix with other ones, giving life to a great variety of sub-categories and scenarios appreciated by players all over the world. We are talking about a battle royale, and horror-themed survival horrors like zombie apocalypse games.

Battle Royale Games

When it comes to survival games, the battle royale genre is the best example. Indeed, battle royale is a kind of video game adventure which asks the player to explore and find useful items and materials, while killing all the other players or non-playable characters until there is only one survivor left. Born in 2012 after the great success of the movie Hunger Games (inspired by a Japanese novel published in 1999), Minecraft developed a battle royale mode. Battle royale became a playable mode for a long list of games, laying down the standards of the genre. The player (or the players) controls a character who starts its adventure with a very limited equipment, and has at his/her disposal a map around which he can move freely. Throughout the map, there are different types of items the player can use, such as weapons, objects to assemble weapons, first aid kits, and also vehicles. The objective is to be the last standing character by demonstrating great surviving abilities like quick reactions and strategy.


  • System/Platform: WEB, PC, MAC, LNX, PS4, PS3, VITA, X360, XONE, WII, UNS, 3DS
  • Publisher: Mojang AB, SCEE, SCEA, SCE Australia, SCEJ, SCEI, Microsoft Game Studios
  • Developer: Notch, 4J Studios, Mojang AB
  • Release Date: May 10, 2009

Despite being one of the most famous video games in the world, Minecraft has no plot and hides no particularly deep meaning. In fact – besides its brilliant blocky graphics – what made Minecraft a masterpiece is it’s great playability, which presents the players multiple modes to enjoy a complete gaming experience. Indeed, Minecraft has been praised by critics for the creative freedom it grants in-game and for its complex crafting system. The objective of Minecraft is, in fact, to explore the world and build your own little personal empire, but it is not restricted to this. To make the game even more interesting, the authors thought to a wide range of special mode over the years, which goes from creative to adventure, and of course survival mode.

Battle Royale mode was the great revelation of the game; in this mode, 25 players are dropped from a plane into a large map scattered with buildings and terrains and find themselves immerses in an unknown ground. The players have up to 20 minutes to venture the area and make loot of as many houses as possible. Meanwhile the players try to increase their properties, the map will start to shake at certain intervals, which will make characters fall out the borders of the map. Once out of the borders, the player’s adventure ends and only the last one who survives will be the winner. Minecraft really is an original reinterpretation of the battle royale mode.

Official Minecraft Trailer

Horror-Themed Survival Games

There are many people who are fond of both survival games and horror, so horror elements couldn’t be excluded from the category. Game developers from all over the world released a huge quantity of high quality horror-themed survival games which became popular only in 2012 thanks to games such as ARMA 2 and 3. Are you wondering what about huge titles such as Resident Evil, Alone in the dark, and Silent Hill? Well then, you are probably getting confused with survival horror genre, that is pretty different from horror-themed survival games. Indeed, the former are a subgenre of horror video games which put emphasis on puzzle-solving, evasion, and saving the scare resources available in the game. They often follow an intricate story. On the contrary, the latter favors combat, shooting, crafting, action, and adventure like every classical survival game, with the exception of the setting in which player has to survive in an extreme paranormal or supernatural situation. However, the two kinds of game genres are closely related, like in the case of the popular apocalypse zombie setting.


  • System/Platform: PC
  • Publisher: 505 Games, E-Frontier, Bohemia Interactive
  • Developer: Bohemia Interactive
  • Release Date: Jun 26, 2009

The more appreciated example of a horror-themed survival game is DayZ mod, a particular survival mode playable for ARMA 2 which sold more than 300,000 units all over the world in just two months after its release. Differently from other survival games which don’t have a real plot since they focus almost exclusively on the gaming experience, ARMA 2 attempts to create a more sophisticated approach to the survival game genre. ARMA 2 takes place in the fictional post-Soviet state of Chernarus, in late 2009. Chernarus is in a state of political conflicts, with its democratic government trying to keep from being overthrown by the "Chernarussian Movement of the Red Star", a pro-communist group of rebels. After several years of battles between the two groups, the Chernarussian Movement (abbreviated in ChDKZ) gets the upper hand, establishing the Socialist Republic of Chernarus. Now, the defeated democratic government has no other choice than to rely on the international community and U.S.’ assistance to overpower the rebels and take the power back.

The same setting is the scenario for DayZ mod. The mod drops the player into a Chernarus where a mysterious plague has infected most of the population, turning people into bloodthirsty zombies. In this mod, the player is a survivor with minimal inventory and will have to survive by venturing out onto the world for supplies such as food, water, weapons and medicines. Of course, the player’s vagrancy won’t be any easier; s/he will need to avoid both zombies, other players, and sometimes non-player characters, in an effort to survive the zombie apocalypse. DayZ’s concept is pretty similar to survival horror games’ one, but it concentrates more on the mechanics than the dynamics, with an incredibly interesting result. Characters in DayZ can faint due to low blood pressure, can fracture their bones, can get infected, or they can die of starvation. Players have to deal with a realistic scenario with which s/he has to interact in order to survive. No wonder DayZ sold so well and was enthusiastically welcomed.


Final Thoughts

The world of games is incredibly various; war, racing, sports, trivia, MMO, action, and then there is survival that is one of the most popular among them. It is not surprising that the survival genre could gain such popularity since it can claim a vast range of different subgenres able to meet the tastes of every kind of player, from fans of adventure to fans of horror. Moreover, the great playability of the games which ask for the player to strategize, think smartly about the best move to do in order to subdue the enemies, build his/her own town and army is able to create the best conditions for a more than enjoyable gaming experience.

Have you ever played a survival game? What is your favorite title? Don’t forget to let us know with a comment.

Arma-2-wallpaper-700x438 What is Survival Game? [Gaming Definition, Meaning]


Author: Dareka Nobody

I’m an Italian dirty little girl obsessed with Japanese language, culture, literature, anime, manga, games, but also with writing, reading, and travelling, in general. I lived in Japan and I’m about to be moving there forever. When I’m not working, I translate yaoi light novels for a hobby. I’ve recently started a partnership with the website Novelleleggere.org where I publish my works. I run a page on Facebook about my translation and I’m also a blogger who likes to write about her experiences in Japan. Akiba addicted and enthusiastic Honeyfeed’s writer!

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