August 2015 Update: We've added two more games to this list. Highly enjoyed in 2015, ARK: Survival Evolved and Rust made the cut.
Surviving in games is usually pretty easy. Death isn’t a big deal, continuing on your path just a reload away. In recent years however, a new - or some would say old - philosophy has taken hold in a growing number of games. Survival is no longer guaranteed in those titles, it is a thing the player has to actually work for. Death in these games has consequences that can’t be rectified with a simple quickload. Players have to pay much closer attention to the game, have to put a lot of effort into their characters well being, and are not pampered in any way. As such, these survival games are a lot harder, and usually less accessible and less appealing to a broad audience, however they have a steadily growing number of avid fans.
This trend harkens back to the old days of gaming, when games were not aimed at the broadest possible audience, when real men were still real men, hairy chests and all. It is in and on itself a part of the trend towards harder games in general that for example spawned titles like Super Meat Boy. To the days of Rogue, a game that birthed the roguelike genre. It harkens back to a harsher age. A darker age. Here are its champions.
Note: Keep in mind that this list pertains only to survival games—ones in which you have to struggle to find resources and survive for as long as you can, as it were. This is in contrast to survival horror games, which consist mainly of running away from a deadly opponent that no amount of bravery or skill can hope to overcome.
This game provides perhaps one of the best illustrations of what might truly happen in a post-disaster world. Players have to tend to typical survival needs of hunger, thirst, and shelter while either cooperating or fending off other players. Like Day-Z it is known for having one of the most bizarrely fickle communities in gaming, oscillating wildly between hostility and heart warming displays of humanity at any give moment.
#9 ARK: Survival Evolved
This Early Access title you must hunt, grow and harvest crops, craft items, build shelters, the usual: but with DINOSAURS. Really, what more do you need to to know. Over time the player character, a man or woman stranded on a “mysterious island”, learns to fend for themselves as well as tame and ride these magnificent beasts. You can kill them too but frankly, we’re more interested in pretending to be pre-history Mario astride our mega-Yoshi.
#8 The Forest
In The Forest, you play a lone survivor of a passenger jet crash and kind of like the TV series LOST, you find yourself in a mysterious forest battling to stay alive against a society of creepy cannibalistic mutants who want nothing more than to devour you. You have to build, explore, and survive in this terrifying first-person horror simulator.
#7 NEO Scavenger
Ever wanted to kill someone with a crummy crowbar, steal their pants, cut the flesh from their corpse and throw it into your kiddie sled filled with broken bottles, alcohol and firearms to later cook and consume it alongside some jelly beans and dirty water? No? Just me? Okay, if you’ve ever wanted to do that (which you shouldn’t do because it’s preeetty illegal) then NEO Scavenger may just be the game for you. This hardcore post-apocalyptic survival game is incredibly addictive, and playing it makes for some strange and hilarious stories.
#6 theHunter: Primal
Players will hunt, explore, and survive a realistic prehistoric environment in theHunter: Primal. Developed by the makers of Just Cause series, theHunter: Primal features a wide open Cretaceous environment populated by some of the most fearsome dinosaurs the world has ever seen, ranging from the Triceratops and the Velociraptor to the fearsome T-Rex.
#5 Shelter & Shelter 2
In the Shelter series of games, players assume the role of a mother animal who must nurture her offspring in a harsh, and unforgiving environment. As a badger in the first game, and as a lynx in the second, players must struggle to survive out in the wilderness while raising a litter of baby animals. Players undertake various activities, including hunting to kill and feed, making sure the cubs drink water, and lifting and carrying cubs to safety.
The second game is much larger in scope than the first, offering more freedom than ever before. Weather and seasons change, and the world offers many challenges.
At its core, Minecraft is about building things. Yet, the game offers an aptly named Survival Mode that forces you basically to brave the wilds and survive for as long as you can. Dying doesn't equal the end of your life, but it does mean you'll lose everything you have in your inventory, and then some.
The game gives you good incentive to stay alive, and forces you to collect resources, build structures, and do battle against the creepers and zombies who would like nothing better than to lay ruin to your creations. There's even a need to maintain your hunger levels and continuously explore the land in an effort to stay alive.
#3 Don't Starve
The goal of Don't Starve is as the name suggests—to not starve to death. The game asks you simply to not starve, find food for yourself, and have some form of light at the end of every day and survive the night. The game just gets more complex from there, as you are able to scavenge a wide variety of resources to further improve your odds of surviving, and you can even develop new items through science.
In many ways, the game takes the concept of survival to its very core by asking you simply to survive, while offering you adventures and the chance to do something beyond feeding yourself.
#2 The Long Dark
The Long Dark is an introspective, exploration-focused survival simulation set in the Northern North American wilderness in the aftermath of a global disaster that decimates much of humankind. Players must brave the elements and other survivors while hunting for supplies, exploring the world, and answer the question as to how far they’ll go to survive.
#1 Day Z
Day Z is a mod for Arma 2 that's managed to gain a cult following all on its own because of its gameplay, which involves surviving the wilderness—which consists mainly of zombies—and other players. Players must find sustenance in order to survive, and doing so requires that they make forays into the city, which is, as you can already guess, filled with the walking dead.
The game makes full use of Arma 2 as a realistic combat simulation, so you'll be able to bleed out or lose the use of your legs if you shoot yourself in the foot, for example. It has everything you could ever expect from a survival game, and like any true story of survival, it's about man against man against the wild.