A ruthless online space game is stretching the boundaries of fun, telling us about ourselves and the wider potential of gaming
How does this sound for some gaming fun … or not?
You spend hours of computer gaming time building spaceships and learning a complicated combat system that requires working a spreadsheet. Then you fly into space where there are no rules, where you can’t trust anyone, and where you are likely to get blown up and stolen from by online gangs of bullies, potentially losing all you had invested hours in building.
No thanks, just pass me the remote.
But for over half a million people the massive multiplayer online space game EVE Online is right up there with their idea of fun. It is a gaming phenomenon that is now attracting serious academic study as it pushes the boundaries of what constitutes ‘fun’ for people. Its longevity and success is posing deep questions about what we want from games, what they can tell us about ourselves, as well as suggesting new avenues for applying gaming concepts to the real world.
It is the real sense of meaning that can be generated in otherwise frivolous virtual worlds that is key to EVE’s success and perhaps the wider applicability of gaming, says University of Melbourne human computer interaction researcher Dr Marcus Carter.
Unlike most online games, EVE, launched in 2003, imposes serious consequences for failure, and creates a harsh and cold environment where there is no reset. Once a player takes an action it can’t be taken back or replayed, and the impact can affect every other player in the game.
“EVE can generate an enormous amount of meaning because as in the real world every decision can only ever be made once,” says Dr Carter, who has edited the first book to examine the EVE world, Internet Spaceships Are Serious Business, published earlier this year.
“It shows the enormous breadth of ways in which games can be attractive to people. The appeal of EVE Online is completely alien to most people, but that is why I’m interested in it. It is a contrasting case that challenges how we think about virtual worlds and online communities,” he says.
In EVE, when players fight their space wars they risk permanently losing hundreds and even thousands of hours of game time that some will even have spent real money to acquire. For the players it is more than enough to focus the mind.
It encourages wholesale deceit and espionage that extends well beyond the game, including infiltrating off-game forums to sabotage competing alliances. Once there was even a plot by some players to cut the power to an enemy’s house in London to take them out of an upcoming battle. Sometimes players are forced to set their alarms for the middle of the night so they can get up in time to defend themselves against co-ordinated attacks launched from different time zones.
To protect themselves players band into alliances, some of which boast tens of thousands of players. The largest has 40,000 members, is led by one player named The Mittani, and is known appropriately as The Imperium. The hundreds of thousands of players have in effect evolved their own Star Wars and made their own stories, some of which have been compiled into a book.
real world conflict
And just as the game intrudes on the real world, the real world intrudes on the game. When Russia invaded the Ukraine in 2014 a group of Ukrainians players who were allied with some Russian players suddenly betrayed their partners and defected.
“EVE Online shows that negative things can be part of the attraction of playing games – that ‘play’ can involve struggling to survive in a hard, ruthless and high stakes world. People will question how it can be fun to be stolen from, to be lied to, and to be victimised. But for EVE players it is fun, and that is really interesting,” says Dr Carter.
“By playing a game we are pursuing an emotional experience such as fun or excitement. But people don’t realise how often the experience we seek in games can be something other than frivolous, but something serious,” he says. “It suggests that gaming and virtual worlds can be highly effective in motivating people toward achieving goals whether they are personal or professional.”
The key to EVE Online is that the game takes place on a single computer server, distinguishing it from other massive multiplayer online games such as World of Warcraft that take place on multiple servers, putting the virtual world into compartments. But in EVE there is only one world with all 500,000 players in it. And the game designers have taken a back seat, leaving it to the players to create their own play and providing little protection for players from each other.
In such a world it is no surprise that players band together and that alliances are perhaps dispiritingly based on real world ethnicities and cultures. EVE players are overwhelmingly male, white and work in IT. But Russians band with Russians and Reddit users band with Reddit users.
It shows that social prejudice transcends the real world.
“In a game that forces you to trust people when you can’t actually trust anyone, it is no coincidence that players band together with people that seem to be like you,” Dr Carter says.
“It is depressing, but it is also comforting that perhaps this is simply what people are like and that the more we realise that the more we can think about what we can do to stop that affecting our societies in negative ways.”
The game also puts a premium on building social skills, says Dr Carter. He describes EVE Online as a form of “social combat” in which players learn to deceive and spot deception. Some players even report becoming more socially confident through playing the game.
At the same time, the absolute dependence of EVE Online players on each other in a bleakly unforgiving environment means learning to trust someone is crucial to survival.
“It raises the stakes of in-game friendships because people have to be better friends in order to trust one another,” Dr Carter says.
How EVE Online encourages players to interact could have important implications for how we use virtual worlds and gaming ideas for other purposes such as teaching, learning and promoting social interaction for isolated people such as the elderly, Dr Carter says.
“By studying games like EVE that are on the boundary of what games can be, we can appreciate that the space for games is wider than what we may initially have anticipated.”
The tagline for the 1979 movie Alien was “in space no one can hear you scream.” But when it comes to EVE Online the screaming is audible … and worth listening to.
The Nintendo Switch has finally been revealed, and Nintendo looks set to come out swinging when the new console is launched on March 3. As well as splitting the difference between home and handheld gaming, the Switch is bucking recent Nintendo tradition by having a stellar line-up of Nintendo Switch games announced already. Here are all the highlights revealed, to date.
Super Mario Odyssey
In Mario series lore Mario and Luigi are from Brooklyn, New York (well, sometimes) but it’s never been a world the colourful, mushroom-gobbling plumber has adventured in – until now. Super Mario Odyssey sees the cartoonish hero running around both the familiar Mushroom Kingdom and new, realistic city environments, interacting with full-size humans and wall-jumping up skyscrapers. Throw in new abilities thanks to his now-sentient hat – which can be thrown like Wonder Woman’s tiara to attack enemies or create a temporary platform to jump across – and this is easily the Nintendo Switch‘s first ‘killer app’.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
The title of ‘killer app’ might go to the latest Zelda, and the only reason it doesn’t is that it’s a split release, also coming to Wii U. The prospect of console quality Zelda on the go is tantalising though, and with more than 100 dungeons, a vast open world, and deep crafting mechanics to mix up the usual gameplay formula, this coule redefine ‘epic’.
The Nintendo Switch’s answer to Wii Sports, 1-2-Switch is a mini-game collection designed to showcase the hardware’s features. In total, there are 28 of these mini-games to get to grips with, nearly all of which are played by looking at your opponent, not the screen.
This may sound odd but it takes gaming into real space, with players psyching each other out face to face before quick-draw shoot-outs, or waving the Joy-Con controllers around like swords. A contender for best party game.
Possibly the biggest surprise of the Nintendo Switch’s reveal – Bomberman is back! Konami, having been almost dormant on console games since Metal Gear Solid V, seems to have realised the wealth of its gaming IP, and is bringing one of its most beloved franchises to potentially the best platform for it. The social and portable aspects of the Nintendo Switch combined with Bomberman’s simple but addictive mechanics could be the perfect pairing.
Lego City Undercover
History repeating itself? Lego City Undercover was originally released on the Wii U, where it became the best Lego game that barely anyone played. Loosely inspired by Grand Theft Auto, with cop Chase McCain returning to Lego City to track down his criminal arch-nemesis, it remains one of the best Lego games ever made. This remastered version – which is also coming to PS4 and Xbox One – makes its bow on Nintendo Switch though, now with extra features. Hopefully, it’ll finally reach the audience it deserves.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2
The original Xenoblade Chronicles never got a fair turn at bat – initially a late, niche release for the Wii, and later ported to the 3DS where it suffered from the tiny screen. Xenoblade Chronicles X for Wii U didn’t fare much better, with most players missing out on the game. Third time lucky, then, for Xenoblade Chronicles 2, Monolith Soft’s epic new space fantasy. The trailer doesn’t reveal much, beyond it being an action-RPG, but it looks beautiful.
The first Splatoon was arguably the best game on the Wii U, so it’s incredibly good news to see Nintendo moving forwards on a full sequel for the Nintendo Switch – especially since the social nature of the portable console meshes perfectly with Splatoon’s multiplayer nature. It looks set to offer brand new ways to splat too, including more powerful weapons, new abilities, and arena-drenching inkstorms.
Mario Kart 8 Deluxe
Conversely, the Wii U’s other masterpiece is only upgraded for Nintendo Switch – but it seems to correct the original’s only grievous error. Battle Mode was a mess on the Wii U, and it thankfully looks to have been heavily refined here, bringing back more of an arena tournament rather than the track-based race combat of the base game. At the Nintendo Direct event on April 12, Nintendo added that the game will have more unlocked tracks, characters and carts than any previous version of the game. Deluxe arrives on April 28.
Publisher Koei Tecmo doesn’t even need to show any gameplay in its reveal for Fire Emblem Warriors – the name alone reveals it’s yet another horde-based hack and slash effort, in the vein of Dynasty Warriors. However, the earlier Hyrule Warriors did an exceptional job of making the button mashing action blend seamlessly with Zelda lore, so hopefully this can do the same for the mythology of the Fire Emblem universe.
Nintendo isn’t much known for fighting games, but Arms looks like the Nintendo-est take on the genre you could imagine. Two fighters enter an arena and battle it out with extendable spring arms. Mechanically, it looks suited to showing off the functions of the dual Joy-Con controllers, with players holding one in each hand and using motion controls to attack and defend. During the recent Nintendo Direct event, the firm revealed more about Arms‘ gameplay, including a new character called MinMin, and said it will launch on June 16.
It’s hard to parse much information from the 45-second reveal trailer, but despite surface appearances, this looks to be more than your standard retro-style JRPG. With deceptively attractive visuals – pixel-based characters inhabit a layered, 2.5D world filled with beautiful environments and impressive lighting effects – this seems set to dive into the minutiae of role-playing, teasing vastly different experiences based on your choices. Almost certainly not a final title either, but this an interesting-looking prospect from Square Enix.
Shin Megami Tensei: Brand New Title
The best thing about Atlus’ Shin Megami Tensei games is how mind-bendingly, gut-twistingly weird they all are. This cinematic trailer tells us nothing, other than the final game (probably) featuring some of the series’ more familiar demons, and a new hero – maybe? – who looks like a tokusatsu superhero, hanging out in a run-down building. What the game is actually about, we have no idea – but we can’t wait.
Sonic Mania is a loving flashback to the 2D superspeed side-scrollers of the ’90s. A celebration of Sonic’s origins and finest moments, the Nintendo Switch release doesn’t appear to be any different to the already-announced version for PS4, Xbox One, and PC, but it is nice to have confirmation it’ll be available – even if it is still a bit strange to see Sega mascot Sonic headlining a game on a console made by former rivals Nintendo.
Puyo Puyo Tetris
Sega dives deep into its catalogue for this puzzle game mash up. Tetris is an internationally renowned classic, while Puyo Puyo – beloved in Japan – is best known in the west as the source for Doctor Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine. This crossover was originally released for PS Vita and PS3 in 2014, but the Nintendo Switch release will be its western debut. The mechanics of both games are combined in various modes, to create an addictive new twist on fast-paced puzzle gaming. A slightly later release for the Nintendo Switch, this arrives on April 25.
Minecraft is set to join the Nintendo Switch ranks on May 11. The crafting game on Nintendo Switch will look similar to the Wii U version, complete with exclusive Super Mario Bros-themed content.
Ultra Street Fighter II
The game that dominated the fighting genre in the 1990s is making a return on Nintendo Switch with all the original fighters and bosses, the characters added in Super Street Fighter II, plus new additions Evil Ryu and Violent Ken. Players will be able to use Joy-Cons to challenge friends and strangers and, in addition to versus action, you can now team up with a friend to take on the CPU in Buddy Battle mode. The game is released on May 26.
And there’s more…
Following the Nintendo Switch’s reveal, other publishers started revealing their upcoming titles for Nintendo’s new machine.
Bandai Namco has confirmed Dragon Ball Xenoverse 2 will be coming to the console, while an entry in the Tales of RPG series is also in development. Most excitingly, the publisher is working on a new Taiko Drum Master release, bringing the brilliant rhythm action title out of Japan for the first time in years.
Activision has confirmed the enduringly popular Skylanders will be coming to Nintendo Switch, with the latest entry Imaginators arriving in March. The Nintendo Switch version will introduce a digital library, allowing players to store characters from the physical toys, making it easier to play on the go.
Ubisoft’s slate includes recent winter sports title Steep, taking players on a tour of the Alps; Just Dance 2017, now playable with up to six dancers at a time if you have multiple Joy-Con controllers (or use a smartphone app to double as one); and Rayman Legends: Definitive Edition, which the publisher calls the “ultimate version” of the beautifully animated platformer.
Indie publisher Tomorrow Corporation has revealed it’s bolstering the day one line up with three games from its back catalogue. 2008’s phsyics puzzler World of Goo, 2012’s flammable mini-sandbox Little Inferno, and 2015’s programming puzzler-cum-corporate satire Human Resource Machine will all be available on the Nintendo Switch on March 3.
Interestingly, these will be digital-only releases, indicating Nintendo’s eShop – or the Nintendo Switch’s equivalent – will be active on launch day. Details on the online store have yet to be revealed by Nintendo though, and Tomorrow Corporation has not revealed prices for the trio of games.
Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas, a Zelda-esque adventure has also been confirmed for release on the Nintendo Switch. Set in a water-logged world dotted with islands, players guide a young boy on a quest to find his missing father while uncovering the secrets of the ancient kingdom of Arcadia and a legendary sea monster – the Oceanhorn of the title.
Oceanhorn was first released on iOS in 2013 before receiving upgraded and expanded ports on PS4, Xbox One, and PC, so perhaps won’t be the most demanding of the Nintendo Switch’s power. However, the game’s publisher says it “will run beautifully on the powerful Nintendo Switch.”
No exact release date has been confirmed, but the game will launch in 2017. Perhaps more interestingly, the first game coming to the Nintendo Switch, albeit late, could be prelude to the in-development sequel Oceanhorn 2: Knights of the Lost Realm arriving on Nintendo’s hardware when development is finished.
Expect more games to be revealed for Nintendo Switch in the days ahead.
Nintendo Goes Indie
If the above slate of titles weren’t enough, Nintendo recently held one of its trademark Nintendo Direct broadcast exclusively focused on indie games.
The showcase unveiled a staggering 60 titles coming to Switch, showing a major push on Nintendo’s part to get more independent developers involved with the new console. It’s a great plan – indie devs are increasingly able to produce so-called ‘triple-A’ quality games, with an extraordinary amount of variety and imagination on offer. The independent sector is also showing tremendous growth – in volume of games and popularity with players – making it exactly the right creative community to court.
While some of the games announced are beloved classics – the likes of Towerfall: Ascension, The Escapists and Overcooked are perennial favourites that have already proven themselves – many will have enhanced features making use of the Switch’s unique hardware. Others, such as Yooka-Laylee and Gonner are brand new, and Nintendo has even managed to snag a few exclusives, as with Runner 3.
Release dates are still to be confirmed for many titles, but the full list of 60 indie games coming to Nintendo Switch is as follows:
It makes great use of the Switch’s hardware innovations, but not bundling 1-2-Switch with the console means few people will play it
Milk a cow, make a baby go to sleep, strut, shoot, feel some balls, eat a giant sandwich… 1-2-Switch has got it all. While Zelda: Breath of the Wild is stealing the headlines, Nintendo’s curious mini-game collection is, arguably, a better demonstration of the Nintendo Switch hardware. And it’s great fun. For a bit. If you’re drunk.
There are 28 mini-games to get to grips with, nearly all of which are played by looking at your opponent, not the screen. The games have a feeling of WarioWare: Smooth Moves about them, but the cartoon characters have been replaced with human actors gyrating in brightly-coloured rooms. Nearly all the games require little explanation: in Shave you have to shave your face using the Joy-Con; in Ball Count you have to count the number of balls in the Joy-Con, a sensation ingeniously created using the controller’s HD rumble feature; in Wizard you have to battle your opponent by casting spells; in Dance Off, you dance.
As with WarioWare, the genius of 1-2-Switch is in the glorious incongruity of its mini-games. Staring into the eyes of a friend while miming milking a cow will always make you laugh. Then there’s Baby, where you’re tasked with putting a baby, apparently trapped in the Nintendo Switch’s portable screen, to sleep. Rock it in your arms and set it down on a flat surface just right to win. It’s odd. But it’s also very good. Table tennis, where you stand facing your opponent and thwack a virtual ball back and forth based on sound alone, is exceptionally fun. As is baseball, where pitcher and batter duke it out in a ninth-innings showdown.
Nearly all the games make use of the Nintendo Switch’s innovative hardware in one way or another. Eating Contest, where you have to chomp your way through as many virtual sandwiches as possible before the time runs out, uses the right Joy-Con’s infrared sensor to work out when your mouth opens and closes. The quicker you chomp, the faster you get through the pile of sandwiches. But where Nintendo takes this kind of innovation next will be the real test of the hardware.
Most people will get a couple of hours of fun out of 1-2-Switch, but that’s it. Then, like so many party games, it will sit gathering dust until you’ve next got a house full of people, a bottle full of gin and a fridge full of tonic. This is an excellent party game and one quite unlike any that has come before.
Yet the game’s biggest fault is more to do with how it’s sold. For all Nintendo’s protestations, 1-2-Switch absolutely should have been bundled with the Nintendo Switch. It’s an excellent demonstration of the hardware and the sort of game that could be chucked on when you’ve got friends over and want to show them what the console is all about. Instead, you’ll have to fork out £35 for a limited, albeit fun, tech demo.
AI has a new task: helping to keep the bugs out of video games.
At the recent Ubisoft Developer Conference in Montreal, the French gaming company unveiled a new AI assistant for its developers. Dubbed Commit Assistant, the goal of the AI system is to catch bugs before they’re ever committed into code, saving developers time and reducing the number of flaws that make it into a game before release.
“I think like many good ideas, it’s like ‘how come we didn’t think about that before?’,” says Yves Jacquier, who heads up La Forge, Ubisoft’s R&D division in Montreal. His department partners with local universities including McGill and Concordia to collaborate on research intended to advance the field of artificial intelligence as a whole, not just within the industry.
La Forge fed Commit Assistant with roughly ten years’ worth of code from across Ubisoft’s software library, allowing it to learn where mistakes have historically been made, reference any corrections that were applied, and predict when a coder may be about to write a similar bug. “It’s all about comparing the lines of code we’ve created in the past, the bugs that were created in them, and the bugs that were corrected, and finding a way to make links [between them] to provide us with a super-AI for programmers,” explains Jacquier.
Ubisoft hopes that Commit Assistant will cut down on one of the most expensive and labour-intensive aspects of game design. The company says that eliminating bugs during the development phase requires massive teams and can absorb as much as 70 per cent of costs. But offloading the bug-killing process to AI, even partially, isn’t without its own challenges. “You need a tremendous amount of data, but also a tremendous amount of power to crunch the data and all the mathematical methods,” he says. “That [allows] the AI to make that prediction with enough accuracy so that the developer trusts the recommendation.”
It’s still early days – Ubisoft is “only starting to pollinate” Commit Assistant to its development teams and, so far, there’s no usage data on how much it’s impacting game creation. There’s also the human factor to account for: Will developers want an AI poking through their code and effectively saying “you’re doing it wrong”?
“The most important part, in terms of change management, is just to make sure that you take people on board to show them that you’re totally transparent with what you’re doing with AI – what it can do, the way you get the data,” says Jacquier. “The fact that when you show a programmer statistics that say ‘hey, apparently you’re making a bug!’, you want him or her [to realise] that it’s a tool to help and go faster. The way we envisage AI for such systems is really an enabler. If you don’t want to use that, fine, don’t use it. It’s just another tool.”
Ubisoft is working on other AI applications beyond Commit Assistant, though Jacquier emphasises that it is only currently useful in dealing with very specific individual tasks – like getting virtual agents to avoid walking into each other. “AI so far is very good at making decisions on very narrow topics, like Alpha Go,” he says. (AlphaGo is the AI system from DeepMind that beat top Go player Ke Jie at the notoriously complex board game in May 2017.)
“We’ll see in the future more and more examples where this works, but in reality, [something like] a self-driving car, you won’t see in our streets probably until 20 years from now,” he says. “Simply because all those self-driving cars would have to avoid other automated vehicles, pedestrians, old-school cars driven by real humans, and rogue factors like wildlife wandering onto roads.”
But improving AI in gaming could help solve some of these real-world problems. Olivier Delalleau, an AI programmer at Ubisoft, spoke at UDC about autonomous driving in Watch Dogs 2. Using an example of a non-player-controlled car driving around the game’s virtual San Francisco, Delalleau showed how, initially, it would more often careen out of control when taking corners. The car was programmed with the goal of reaching a destination or looping the streets, providing visual flavour to the game world.
“[We found] cars never braked, because they didn’t find it was a good solution,” Delalleau says. As a result, it didn’t learn to brake. “It’s pretty difficult [for an AI] to learn to brake, because it [doesn’t see it as] a good solution most of the time. You need to help it find that it is a good solution.”
Delalleau used reinforcement learning, a form of machine learning, to help the AI learn this skill. Ubisoft provided thousands of examples of braking when driving, and the system learned that it could achieve its goals more efficiently by following the rules of the digital road. The outcome was that the AI cars began taking corners more slowly. This made Watch Dogs 2’s representation of San Francisco more realistic and reduced random crashes.
Jacquier believes that similar work could help inform AI systems with real-world applications, such as driverless cars. “In terms of ethics, I think that actually the games industry can help,” Jacquier says. “When you’re wondering how an autonomous car will behave in a situation that involves pedestrians or other cars, it’s like the Trolley Problem. That’s something you wouldn’t be able to test in real life, either for moral reasons or cost in some situations. But maybe you can have some fair answers by simulating that in a video game environment, and see how your AI would behave.”
Other areas in which Ubisoft is using AI include non-player characters (NPCs). In the upcoming Far Cry 5, Ubisoft has implemented a virtualised version of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – the psychological theory of motivating factors for human behaviour – for NPC characters. This gives in-game agents motivations for their actions, and is modeled largely on the self-preservation strata of Maslow’s pyramid.
When a player encounters a non-player character in Far Cry 5, two systems are at work: trust and morale. If you raise your weapon at someone you’ve never met before, they will react with distrust or fear, warning you to lower your gun. If the NPC recognises a lingering threat from you, it will launch an attack of its own, fearing for its own ‘life’. When facing a group of enemies, as you pick off members of a gang, individual foes may realise they’re outclassed and lose their thirst for combat, and attempt to flee as they sees their ‘friends’ taken out. Elsewhere, animal companions will respond to player activity, cowing close to the ground unprompted when you crouch into stealth, for instance. It’s the sort of work that adds depth and realism to the world.
In future, tools such as Commit Assistant could spread beyond the confines of Ubisoft. La Forge developed the AI in conjunction with the University of Concordia and published academic papers on how it works. “If someone else wants to implement this kind of method, it’s totally possible to do that by getting those articles, which are public,” says Jacquier.
The system wouldn’t be of use to all developers though. It very much thrives in a ‘big data’ environment with near countless examples of what not to do to feed it as a guide. That restriction, for now, renders it uniquely beneficial to big-budget studios.
But if Ubisoft’s artificial baby matures as is expected, the pay-off for players could be significant – it could mean fewer release dates are pushed back for bug fixes and fewer bugs end up in the finished product. Meanwhile, it could free developers to focus their attentions on improving other aspects of the game. Perhaps best of all, if everything goes according to plan, you’ll never even notice.
I’d grown to be a young woman, the last in my tribe, tasked with running to the ponds for water to keep our crops alive. I’d just returned from one of these long errands when my ageing mother took me aside to tell me that only by raising my children could we ensure the tribe’s future.
Just then, I spawned my first child. Unfortunately, I was carrying no food, and the hunger that had gnawed at me as we spoke was to be my undoing: as I picked up my child to nurse them for the first time, the extra energy expenditure tipped me over the edge of starvation. Within seconds, I was dead. I only hope that my mother was somehow able to save my daughter.
Developer Jason Rohrer, known for experimental and art games including Passage, The Castle Doctrine and Chain World, calls One Hour One Life his “love letter to human civilization”. Aptly described as “a multiplayer game of parenting and civilization building”, it may be his least abstract and most approachable game to date.
In the game, you start life as the helpless infant of another player, entirely dependent on them to nurse and care for you. Over the next few minutes, you’ll grow into a weak but independent child, able to help your community. With luck and cooperation, you’ll survive to have children of your own, becoming one link in a generational chain.
The game world on the server is persistent, but your character and their life are unique. Every time you die and respawn, you do so as an entirely new, randomly-generated person. You can communicate with other players via a text box, which allows you to type just one or two characters when you’re a baby, before expanding to allow full, if brusque, sentences as you grow to adulthood.
One Hour One Life‘s difficulty curve can be punishing on an emotional level as well as a technical one. But it’s also rewarding – I felt genuine pride when I learned where to find fertile soil to plant our fields or how to crush a gooseberry with a flint chip to produce a seed that would, in time, give us a bush to provide dozens of berries.
The importance of cooperation and mutual aid in the game rapidly becomes apparent. Although there are built-in tips on what you can do with any given object, it is other players who provide the hands-on lessons in survival. It’s only because of my fellow players that I learned that sitting by a fire would dramatically reduce my energy expenditure; that dying brown fruit bushes could be restored with water, and that leaving one row of carrots to flower produces seed for the next planting.
Solo foraging can keep you alive for a while, but to establish a safe home and food supply for yourself and your descendants, you’ll need to farm, build and hunt, and that requires more than one pair of hands.
Women are uniquely important in One Hour One Life, as only women – without the involvement of any men – can have children. This design choice is a reflection of the Rohrer’s own views. “Every woman in the world is at the end of a chain of women who had at least one daughter, going back for 400 million years like endlessly nesting matryoshka dolls,” he says. “Women are the branches of the human family tree, where men are just the leaves.”
In One Hour One Life, the disproportionate importance of women, and thus female children, in sustaining your tribe through multiple generations leads to its own emergent gameplay. When times are hard, it’s not uncommon for male babies in particular to be rejected and left to starve by a mother who has only enough food resources to sustain one, while more sentimental players may struggle and die in a vain attempt to keep multiple offspring alive against all odds.
If you live past infancy, the game can be easier to play if you spawn as a male child. Once weaned, you can survive on your own and try to learn and help your community as best you can, but your mistakes are less likely to result in someone else’s death than if you were a woman. But, as Rohrer points out: “As a male character in this game, you feel your lack of importance acutely. If you wander off into the woods, you can live out the rest of your life, but you will do it absolutely alone, with no means of bringing other players into the game to join you.”
If the game’s design and mechanics lend themselves to matriarchies, they are also arguably rather bioessentialist (although not heteronormative – the most common family structure I’ve seen while playing the game has been centred around two or more women). Although the ability to spawn new players is unique to female-coded characters, Rohrer says that gender-coded behaviours, clothing and performance aren’t linked to sexual attributes. “There are two biological sexes in the game, but there are as many genders as people want to play,” he says. “After all, in this game, you are often tasked with playing a character who does not match the gender you identify with in real life.”
Not all women will be fertile, either: “It all depends on the flow of players into the game, and the way the child placement algorithms shake out.” However, he emphasises, “this is not a game about player customization. It’s about playing a character in a unique situation in each and every life.”
One Hour One Life is free and open source, but the game is primarily played on Rohrer’s own game server, for which you’ll have to pay $20 to get lifetime server access and support. When you sign up, you’re sent a unique login key, along with a download link to clients for Windows, macOS and Linux, plus the full source code and Linux server source code that you’ll need if you want to run your own private game server.
The game and its community are at times reminiscent of the early days of Minecraft, sharing tips, support and discussion on the official forums, a crafting recipe wiki and a review board, where players have taken to telling their characters’ stories.
The game can be tough, particularly while you’re learning your way around, and especially if earlier players have pillaged the resources of the area you spawn in. Childhood is difficult to survive and, if you’re an Eve – a reproductively mature woman spawned ex nihilo to balance user numbers – you’re at the mercy of both the environment and the needs of your potential brood of offspring.
Despite, or perhaps because of, its challenges, One Hour One Life‘s gameplay keeps dragging you back, while characters’ limited lifespans lend themselves to casual play.
All survival games are ultimately about forging your own story, but the interdependent community aspect of One Hour One Life means that the stories you create are intimate, complex and multidimensional in ways that few other games approach. Here, the pain of losing a family member and the joy of raising a child to adulthood are recreated in a moving microcosm of the human condition.