Blue Bottle Games’ NEO Scavenger doesn’t pulls punches- and it’s willing to make that clear in the first five minutes. Players start out by building a character based on description in place of numbers, choosing attributes like ‘trapping’ instead of raising a percentage on a ‘survival’ skill. Or adding negative attributes like ‘insomnia’ that allow for another positive trait. Once into the game, a static image accompanied by some text makes the experience feel like a DM reading out the setup for a new campaign. Stumbling out of an extended sleep chamber half-naked, players are asked to prepare themselves for whatever is howling down the entrance’s hallway. While baked in options allow escape and combat, more interesting choices appear depending on what skills were picked at the beginning. A favorite of mine is the medical skill which allows me to empty out one of the other chambers around me and provide human bait for dog creature that comes barreling into the room.
As if the initial confrontation with some terrible creature wasn’t rattling enough, players are then thrust into the post-catastrophic world with no direction. With no equipment provided players have to find ways to feed themselves, stay warm, keep hydrated, and find safe places to sleep. While this may sound simple enough, the hex based world is randomly generated each playthrough save for a few key locations, making each new map as equally dangerous as the first. The only useful cartography in the game is the one made by the players themselves as they discover the ruins of mobile homes and small towns. Players can loot these places, but dangers come in the form of not just wandering bandits, raiders, and dogmen, but in scrapes and cuts caused by a tumble through a broken window that allow for infection.
That being said, actual combat encounters are still dangerous and carry their own special horror; the narrative focused approach that forms the character building and events are evident here. The game eschews showing players numbers like hit points and attack chances, having them choose combat options whose effects are relayed in a scrolling text box. The turn based fights inform players of the physical condition of each contestant, but limiting that information to what would be able to be seen visually, making players rely on just the information the avatar knows as an actor in that world. If the players get an enemy to cough up blood, there’s a good chance death is near, but is it worth taking a hit themselves by continuing the battle? Combat also carries another complicating aspect in that there’s rarely any benefit to it. Once a character is built, it’s pretty much set in stone. There are no experience points to farm and no guaranteed rewards at the end of a fight. In fact, the strongest enemies carry nothing with them at all, making confronting them a terribly risky move that carries no positive benefits. It reframes the violence in the game, causing it to be something I wanted to avoid due to the myriad of ways it could lead me to death. And death is around every corner, because it’s not just enemies and viruses players fight, but the entropy of the human body itself.
Though the narrative inspired design may make the game sound like it doesn’t offer much past a playthrough, it does. I’ve personally gone back to the game over and over again specifically because of the mechanics. While a handful of curated encounters remain undiscovered (and more are being added as Blue Bottle continues with the beta), its the gameplay of surviving that draw me into the game even after all the deaths I’ve faced. I’ve not even touched on the crafting system which consists of everything from purifying water to jury-rigging rifles.
NEO Scavenger is a survival game, and nowhere is that more evident than in the the way the game makes you think about food, water, warmth, energy, and even things like blood loss and immune system strength. The game represents all of these through meters that start in the positive green but are continuously decreasing into red. Food is hard to find and I’ve just recently played through a game where I ended up attacking people for the chance that they might be carrying food- it didn’t end well. The game is deeply set in the survival genre as it makes players feel that success isn’t found in scaling mountains, but rather just hanging onto cliffs. Add to all of this the fact that the game uses a one file save system that ends at death, and NEO Scavenger is a game that stands out amongst a field of games that coddle players.
Come back tomorrow for the first part of an interview of Dan Fedor, the mastermind behind Blue Bottle Games and NEO Scavenger as he talks about his history as a developer and the design decisions that led to the brutal and wonderful game.
NEO Scavenger is available for pre-purchase from the game’s site and Desura, with immediate access to the ongoing beta. The game is also on Steam Greenlight here. The game is available on Windows, Mac, and Linux.