Whether you’re looking to tumble against extreme circumstances or build a cosy hut against the storm, the best survival games are those that truly let you master the elements.
We’ve recently been reminded of just how powerful the best survival games can be. These games immerse you in a new and exciting world, right before stacking you against their harsh conditions, depleted resources, or aggressive wildlife, forcing you to manage your various materials to stay alive.
Some of the games on this list are very different to one another in regards to their tone, art style, and mechanics, but at their core, this is a collection of games that let you face off against the most potent odds – without you even needing to leave your bedroom.
These titles are enjoyable, if not sometimes flawed, highlights of the genre, ranging from pure survival simulators to roguelikes with solid survival elements. These are the 16 best survival games of all time in no particular order.
Icarus takes the survival genre onto a planet far, far away. You are an interstellar colonist who, after being dropped on an alien planet that’s in the process of being terraformed, must struggle against the elements to survive. Making this matter rather tricky is all manner of predators, dangerous weather conditions, and starvation.
You start each mission more or less naked and must gather supplies to craft essential tools to help you achieve your goals. The tech tree is vast, yet it will take you considerable time and effort to advance to the point you can access premium technology such as guns, concrete structures and practical resource harvesting tools.
Icarus is full of addictive gameplay mechanics, gorgeously rendered nature and many hours of challenging missions. It is one of the best recent survival games and promises to only get better with time.
Possibly one of the most infamous survival games in the genre, Rust has become known for the emergent gameplay held therein. Open voice chat allows players to talk amongst themselves as though they were standing next to one another. This makes for fascinating team dynamics as people cheat, manipulate, or support one another while fending off hunger, thirst, and cold.
Adding to this a highly customisable base system, flying vehicles, a randomised map, and dense weapon variety, you’re left with an incredible experiment into what the genre can be at its craziest.
Ark: Survival Evolved
Ark is a survival game with dinosaurs. Sounds cool enough. Ark often gets compared to Rust because they entered Early Access at around the same time, and both feature open-world PvP combat, but they’re fundamentally different games.
Rust often sees you raiding someone else’s base unawares 30 minutes after you spawn; in Ark, it takes a lot longer to get to the point where you can compete against the players who have put in their hours on the grindstone. And because it rewards that grittier gameplay loop, there’s less incentive for senseless violence, promoting peacemaking between players.
Where Rust sees you shooting other players on sight, Ark focuses more on developing your base, taming your dinosaurs, and building your online posse, and when it gets going, it can be an enjoyable ride.
Eco is an intriguing title – part survival game, part sustainability simulation – that features a diverse and interactive ecosystem that you must keep alive. It has been lauded as a great educational tool for teaching younger audiences about how to respect the planet, with specific pathways of industry meeting a negative feedback loop.
If you burn coal, you can endanger the planet. If you cut down too many trees, you can jeopardise the world. But on top of all this, there’s still the incoming threat of a giant meteor that you have to find a way to destroy, lest all life on earth perishes anyway. It’s wholesome and pretty, with a propulsive sense of urgency baked into its mechanics—an all-around insightful experience.
This legendary 2D sidescrolling epic needs no introduction – it was 2011’s resource gathering, dig-straight-down sim whose blippy soundtrack still features part of the meme discourse ten years later.
Featuring simple inventory mechanics, an in-depth base building system, vendors, an exciting arsenal of weapons, and hectic boss fights, Terraria is an absolute time sink. Plus, the vanilla game boasts some quality-of-life additions that took Minecraft eight years to implement. We don’t need to say more, do we?
In Early Access, Among Trees is a survival game that focuses on the cozier and more gentle elements of survival games. If you’re looking for a game that doesn’t precisely pit you against the elements as much as let you curl up in them, look no further.
At Among Trees’ core is a focus on exploring its beautifully colourful world, with several systems to help you do this; base building to escape the elements, plant growing to sustain yourself, and tool crafting to make survival easier. And if you’re looking for some extra kick, you can introduce some dangerous animals into your landscape, or add some tense man vs wild elements, with options to despawn all of the above if you’re looking for that pure, peaceful, escapist fantasy.
It’s exciting to see where this game will head with further updates.
If Among Trees is an excellent game, The Forest is its bizarro-world counterpart. It’s a dark, frightening and eerie survival game that serves as the complete antithesis to the friendlier corners of the genre.
After surviving a terrible plane crash, you come to in a forest chock full of feral cannibals who have kidnapped your son. As you build up resources, you eventually find the nerve to enter the sprawling caverns beneath the forest’s wealth of trees, uncovering more information about what’s going on.
For fans of the horror genre, The Forest offers an uncanny and terrifying world for you to fend against, with inventory management and base building mechanics that assist you on the quest to save your child.
Since we’re talking about spooky survival games, we’d be remiss if we left out Darkwood. Also featured on our survival horror list, this indie title is set in 1980s Poland, in yet another creepy forest whose deep and extensive backstory provides constant, teeth-gritting inspiration to traverse its brutal day-night cycle.
During the day, the game is treacherous and demanding, but when night hits, you’re essentially already dead unless you have a bunker to fortify and hold up in. Base management, inventory management, weaponry hoarding, and item crafting become integral after the sun sets, and it’s in those moments that Darkwood puts the survival in survival horror.
This War of Mine
Similarly uneasy and grim, This War of Mine is a survival game that makes you feel like you’re trying to outlive a war. Developed by 11-bit Studios, This War Of Mine takes the focus of warfare away from the Call Of Duty frontlines, instead choosing to place the limelight on the communities that see the most devastation.
You’re tasked with managing a crew of survivors living in a dilapidated house as you control food, weapons, inventory, and health during the day and scavenge for supplies in the hellscape of the night. It’s most likely that anyone living in 2021 has no illusions about the devastating impact of warfare, but just in case you need a refresher, This War of Mine will suffice.
Clock Tower series
A series consisting of four gaming titles and one movie spinoff, Clock Tower fully utilised scars of the ‘hide-and-seek’ nature as players must escape their hunters without the ability to fight back. This is a game mechanic that makes the gameplay significantly more stressful.
Throughout most of the series, the main enemy is a character known as Scissorman, who, as the name suggests, murders people with giant sheers. To add to the stress of this game, when the player is frightened or alarmed, they enter ‘panic mode’, making them difficult to control, and they constantly trip on obstacles, making the odds of them being killed all the more likely.
When not trying to stay alive, players work through a puzzling environment to advance the story. The Clock Tower series also has different endings giving the game some replayability.
11-bit Studios’ other headline survival title, Frostpunk, is an incredible hybrid game that perfectly blends elements of the 4X, survival, and base-building genres while immersing audiences in its rich and icy steampunk world.
After two volcanic eruptions decimate earth in the 1800s, it’s up to the player to gather and burn as many fossil fuels as possible to keep your civilians warm and develop the efficiency of the last city on earth. And while it does a great job of being a city-sim, Frostpunk’s most interesting elements are what it takes from the 4X strategy genre; with public approval systems in place alongside laws, morality scales, and gameplay options that can allow you to play as a purely evil asshole if you see fit.
Want to have a labour workforce made up exclusively of children you enslave into compulsory 24-hour shifts while executing dissenters by burning them alive in the furnace? Go right ahead. You monster.
Similarly to Frostpunk, RimWorld is another base construction and roguelike survival game, but with the added twist of its AI storyteller, who you’re constantly pitted up against. Like a Dungeon Master that nobody asked for, RimWorld’s AI storyteller is entirely in charge of the difficulty, progression, and random events that beset your colony, which may allow for an easy meander through its technological progression trees and survival systems, or may force you into a grimdark timeline that sees every one of your colonists dying from an incurable disease.
Alongside this is plenty of custom mods that are accessible directly from the Steam workshop, so if you ever wanted to further humanity with your work as an organ farmer, now’s the time.
Oxygen Not Included
Oxygen Not Included is another base-builder that sees you establish an underground base where oxygen… is not included. Each time you start a new world, you find yourself in a procedurally generated landscape where you need to manage your hunger, waste, and oxygen levels to survive.
It’s a very par-for-the-course, min-max base builder, with each of your different colonists having different stats that make them better at certain tasks, but makes for a great sense of achievement as your management prowess pushes you forward towards a larger population and more efficient base.
A bit of a left-of-field entry to this list, and not a pure survival game in the most specific sense, but a brutal roguelike management game that incorporates elements of the genre into its inventory management and progression, and takes no shame in pitting you against all of its worldly (and unworldly) elements.
Following a tiff with hell, London has been sucked beneath the Earth into a large ocean, full of islands whose populations and rich backstories require commerce and trade. You take the role of a ship captain who connects these islands together, fights against the vicious hell-spawn of the seas, and manages your food and fuel resources to deliver items throughout all of the unterzee and above.
However, the crux of this game lies in its story world, with Sunless Sea’s aesthetic and story proving to be somehow deeper than the oceans you traverse. And if you’re looking for a Lovecraftian take on survival and aren’t afraid of reading, get into it.
Valheim is an easy contender for one of the best survival games of the decade. It’s a masterclass in game design, stripping back the intensive graphics, doing away with the expansive planet-hopping scope of recent survival titles, and instead focusing on core gameplay and how to make it fun.
With a wide array of world traversal options, expansive biomes, enjoyable base building systems, and some hectic boss battles, Valheim is a fantastic title only made better by its online playability. Get a bunch of mates together and have an old-school LAN party with this one; build up your viking stronghold, summon in some nordic gods, and thank me later.
It’s Minecraft. It’s possibly the best example of what game design can be; a laundry list of fun and interesting systems that intersect in perfect simplicity. You chop a tree, you get wood, you upgrade your shit, you build a base, your farm, you tame animals, you explore the world, and you fight bosses – but all in a way that seems emergent and never feels like its something you have to do.
But it’s also an intimidating title that may seem simple on the surface but holds an infinite capacity for interactivity as limited as your imagination. At its craziest, Minecraft can see you build everything from 1:1 replicas of all of Seattle to redstone calculators that can solve calculus problems, but at its core, there is still a thoroughly enjoyable survival sim.
We all remember the first base we built to escape the rain, the first time we died to a creeper, or the ecstasy of finding our first diamond, and it’d be hard not to give credit to the game that’s fuelled millions of kids’ childhoods.
The Long Dark
The Long Dark is one of the more capital ‘S’ survival games on this list, but is easily one of the richest in terms of its aesthetic and setting. It sees you managing heat, food, water, and tiredness, with systems for crafting and repairing clothes, building fires, and hunting/combatting the various animals that populate your surroundings.
Rather than including intensive base-building mechanics, The Long Dark takes a turn for the more realistic as you try and escape the snow in the various abandoned settlements of the Canadian wilderness. While some of the survival elements are frustratingly immersive (effect stacking sometimes makes the game a nightmare to play), that’s also The Long Dark’s biggest boon.
If you’re looking for a game on this list that aims to make you feel at odds with your surroundings and in turn gives you that rich sense of pride for surviving at all, The Long Dark has it all. Not to mention, it has a great story mode attached.
Subnautica and Subnautica: Below Zero
If you take the positive elements of every game on this list, toss them in a blender, and sous vide the result, you get Subnautica. Somehow, Unknown Worlds found a way to perfectly tread the tonal line between a curious, playful reef-swimming simulator and a batshit terrifying abyss-walking thriller, and does so with a mastery of interactive systems, crafting mechanics, and an intriguing story to boot.
It does such a good job of setting the tone of the alien world of 4546B, – you never really feel like you’re being pitted directly against it as much as you’re trying to work alongside it in. Even though there’s nothing more emotionally turbulent than having your seamoth destroyed by a Reaper Leviathan, it never feels like the game is singling you out for doing anything wrong, but rather that you just flew too close to the sun that time, and that your reward should be a quick panic attack.
There’s a couple of issues the game has with inventory management or could’ve approached crafting with a less frustrating UI, but both of the Subnautica games stand as incredible ways to create a survival experience for the audience.