Designing for survival in Steam Early Access hit Green Hell
Green Hell is a survival game that casts the player out into the Amazon rainforest, forcing them to survive the harsh jungle without food or equipment, and it's currently doing well in Steam Early Access.
It’s not just a matter of finding food, water, and shelter, though, as the developers at Creepy Jar have put a deep focus on multiple aspects of surviving to make staying alive that much more challenging. You may have food, but are you getting the right nutrients from it? Are you taking care of your mental state with rest, even if it wastes time?
Gamasutra spoke with Michal Stawicki, lead game designer and Krzysztof Kwiatek, art director, to learn more about the nuances of focusing on character in a survival game.
We spoke with the developers about the research they did on important things to note in survival situations, the specifics of creating a system where players can learn through failure, and making the player make constant trade-offs in the decisions they make.
Exploring the psychological toll of survival
Kwiatek: We take an immense amount of care in the realism of Green Hell. The idea of ‘sanity’ as an in-game parameter began after reading some Ed Stafford books ("Naked and Marooned," "Walking the Amazon"). Thanks to those books, we discovered that the long-term psychological aspect of surviving is the most important. The Survival Pyramid has, at its base the ‘will to live,' and most survival experts agree with that. A clear plan and a strong will to survive -- that’s the only way to stay alive when you get stuck alone in the wild. We just couldn’t ignore this aspect in our game.
Endless fighting against all those Amazonian dangers can break a would-be survivor down, and this idea is what we turned into a game mechanic as a parameter called ‘Sanity.’ Players have to take care of what they eat, where they sleep, how they choose to stay healthy and more.
Stawicki: The psychological aspect adds another layer to the player’s decision-making. Both the mind and the body’s needs create a feeling of constant struggle, where decision-making is crucial. All the gameplay mechanics are mixing — sure, you can survive eating just worms, but it will drive you crazy. Leeches attached to your body? You won’t lose HP, but they are irritating, decreasing your mental health if you don’t deal with them. Every decision is a trade-off. Do you waste time sitting next to a fire to gain sanity? Eat chocolate to gain energy or increase sanity? We believe that combining different mechanics together and allowing the player to balance between them is the way to go.
Bringing realistic survival to Green Hell with the Survival Pyramid
Kwiatek: There are many different takes on the Survival Pyramid but we like this simplified one where number one is at the base, with two and three built on top respectively:
1. The Will to Live
2. Skills and Knowledge
It was shocking to us when we learned that food and water aren’t in that first stage. Even your survival kit isn’t as important as skills and knowledge. Another pyramid we saw, and which we found quite interesting, showed that having a “survival plan” was the base need.
Our first idea was to use having a ‘survival plan’ as a factor, which is the base of player sanity. This mechanic would ask the player to think ahead and plan accordingly at the beginning of the game, and if that wasn’t done, their sanity levels would decrease (we learned a lot from Ed Stafford’s experience). After putting more thought into it, we decided this way very risky because it could limit the player's freedom of action.
So, we skipped that idea and made the sanity mechanic dependent on how the player chooses to take care of themselves. In Green Hell, you have to take care of all of life’s details, such as a good place to rest, fire (in a safe area, of course), nutritious food, and health. These factors can make or break your day in Green Hell.
Working with the human psyche as a game mechanic is very tricky, and we pay careful attention to our Steam community to keep tabs on what players think about it.
The main challenge is to make the person playing in front of the screen have similar feelings to the character in-game. If you’re great (psychologically), as a hero you can’t just be punished in-game because of your bad sanity. The player should feel and see, step by step that their sanity in-game is decreasing or not.
Realistic...but not "turbo-realistic"
Stawicki: We’ve always wanted survival games to be more realistic. That doesn’t mean turbo-realistic with every last number correct, but we wanted to create an experience of actually surviving. The everyday struggle for food, water, and shelter, and to show how exhausting it is for both body and mind. The idea was to focus entirely on the character and their needs, which is surprisingly unique in the genre, as most survival games focus more on base building than the player character.
While we still have a modular shelters system you can build and expand on, you can't build a fortress in Green Hell. It's a good example where we respect the player’s needs to express themselves, while still staying fairly close to realism, as you can make the same structures in the real world.
Focusing on the character approach lead us to a simple rule where, if possible, everything should be physical - avoiding using UI. As it may be strange to the genre, we almost don’t have any ‘Typical UI’ screens. Everything is ‘Touchable’ in the in-game world.
A great example of this approach is how our wounds system works. When the player takes damage there’s a great chance to get a wound. You don’t know what type of wound you have unless you enter inspection mode, which allows you to check your limbs, and here is the unique part — the wounds are actually there and not just a text bubble. You can see the physical wound, and on top of that, it's not something we show only in inspection mode. If the player has wounds or bandages on their hands, it’s visible during gameplay animations, which, in our opinion, brings immersion to another level.
Designing the one thing missing from most survival games...
Stawicki: Planning and decision-making are the basics of survival. I believe that most of the games in the genre don’t live up to that full potential. Too often you can wander around and eat whatever candy you find to survive. In Green Hell, we wanted to bring the planning aspect to the front.
Water, food, weapon, medical supplies, shelters - it all can be really overwhelming at the beginning for new players. If they learn the basics and can survive the crucial first days, then it all starts to make sense, and you can realize that it truly simulates a real-life survival situation. If you start building shelters without food and water, you may die. Wandering in the jungle without any medical preparation? Same thing.
The best example of this way of ‘planning ahead’ is the wounds system. We noticed beginner players complaining that there’s not enough medical plants spawning, whereas veterans are fine with it. The difference is that beginners start to look for it after they get the injured, which leads to death running and searching for a plant, while veterans collect it and plan ahead, staying prepared for all situations.
The second part is the decision making. As surviving is a constant struggle, games in the genre should express it with both second-to-minute and minute-to-hour gameplay. In Green Hell, we are trying to force the player to think and make decisions constantly. Limits and trade-offs are the best tools for that. You can’t carry everything, you have to ditch items, you have limited space for weapons. Food contains different nutrients, forcing you to find and carry different types, but then there are trade-offs, so in theory, you can just eat worms and stay alive, but your sanity will suffer. You can eat fruit for water or for carbs. I believe that everything you do should contain small decisions, and eating only candy when trying to survive should have negative effects.
Learning by dying
Stawicki: In survival games, dying is part of the fun! We decided not to teach the player how to survive directly, but instead, show them how the mechanics work and have them develop from there.
Early Access includes a small story-driven tutorial that shows what is unique in this game like body inspection, keeping a notebook, starting a fire, how to make a bandage, how to navigate in your backpack/inventory, crafting and so on. Most of the feedback we received from the tutorial was that afterwards, players felt ready to face the jungle, but the truth was, they weren’t AT ALL, and that was the plan. Sure, we handed them all the tools, but how the player learns to use them is all up to them.
Discovery is a big part of the game. We only help the player to organize what they already know by making a small entry to their notebook. That precious journal contains all the instructions for crafting items and buildings, recipes for medicinal treatments and helpful plants, and in this way, we can keep expanding content, and if the player forgets something they already know, they have their portable wiki with them.
On top of everything is the realism, as each time you find something new, it’s referred to as an ‘Unknown Herb/Fruit/Mushroom’ and it’s up to you to figure out its value. The player can simply try it (and face the consequences) or maybe pause the game to Google it. You can even pick up a book about the Amazon rainforest to check out the various plants in the same way someone going mushroom picking would before eating anything they pick.
Giving players the tools to survive in their own way
Stawicki: In terms of surviving, there is no typical progression. There are no points to spend in talent trees and so on to learn new moves. We wanted to make the game as open as we could. This way, you can have multiple ways of dealing with the problem, and it's simply up to the player to find the best solution for themselves.
For example, water can be obtained in five different ways, and some are better than others, but we never tell you which one you should use, and you can try most of them out almost immediately. It’s same with all the mechanics — nutrients make up our ‘food meter’ but instead of managing just one, we have carbs, proteins, and fats, with all three combined with water which we sum up for your maximum HP. For each of them, there are at least four items that replenish it, and the most exciting part for us is to watch players finding out new plants and food sources after days and days of playing the game.
We wanted to make a game that encourages the community to share their ideas on surviving, and I believe it works in such a way. We didn't focus on only one leading mechanic, but instead, everything is deadly on the same level and can be dealt with in multiple ways. Players can really feel that it’s not the tribes or the snakes etc. that are the main enemies in the game, but the rainforest itself.
Burn a spider, heal a wound in the Amazon
Kwiatek: It’s hard to imagine finding a better place to set a survival game than the Amazon. As we talked about survival ideas, the possibilities felt endless. Animals, plants, diseases, poisons, insects, parasites - everything tries to kill you there. It’s beautiful, exotic, and deadly all at the same time. And finally, there are tribes who have dealt with that natural environment for hundreds of years. They are the best survival experts on earth, and we actually learned a lot of survival techniques from them from documentary books and movies. There’s a lot of inspiration and we use just a part of them.
How to heal wounds? Use ash from a burned Goliath spider body and put it on the wound.
How to heal an infected wound? Try maggot therapy - it’s disgusting, but maggots can eat dead tissue and finally save your life.
How to make a poisoned arrow? Catch and use a Dart Frog - its skin is covered with extremely powerful nerve and muscle toxins. These toxins can paralyze or even kill.
Developing in Early Access
Kwiatek: Before the Early Access release, we were afraid of how players would receive our vision of surviving and all these new mechanics we implemented. We loved the idea that even starting a fire is a big challenge, just like it would be in real life. Leeches in bushes waiting for your blood. Each small wound can turn into an infection and finally kill you.
I can say that we had a clear vision about the identity of Green Hell and stayed true to it. This is what makes Green Hell different than other survival games.
Now, after the Early Access release and while our community is growing, we know that our ideas are working. Players are appreciating this fresh look on the survival genre and supporting us, allowing us to stay true to our original concept. They don’t want to change Green Hell.
Our roadmap ‘big updates’ also consist of two parts, usually -the first part is what we planned to add originally, and the second is what players suggest to us. As an example, for our first update (called the ‘Animal Update’), adding in the new animals was our idea, but Modular Shelters was something that players suggested we do.