Near Death, a first-person survival game released this summer, is easiest to describe in terms of the things it’s not. Taking place in an abandoned Antarctic research base in the 1980s, Near Death shares a setting with John Carpenter’s The Thing — but it’s not a sci-fi or horror game. Its main mechanic is avoiding death by crafting and scavenging, but it’s not a survival simulator. It’s made by Orthogonal Games, creator of character-driven indie project The Novelist — but it’s not a game about exploring other people’s lives. It’s a tense, lean, and tightly paced exercise in endurance, and one of my favorite games of the year.
Near Death starts with your character, a pilot, walking away from a crash-landing near the abandoned Sutro Station. A gathering storm makes rescue unlikely, and the station is in bad enough shape that simply waiting it out may not be an option. You’ll have to scrape together the station’s scant supplies and devise a plan with help from a lone voice on the radio — or in this case, a member of your home base on the teletype.
The game’s goals are clear and simple. Your dispatcher will tell you to visit one of the station’s five or six buildings and repair a machine or collect a piece of equipment, slowly guiding you toward getting out. But you can only stand a couple of minutes outside before dying of exposure, and as the storm worsens, it becomes harder and harder to even move, let alone see where you’re going.
Fortunately, a few pieces of equipment can keep you alive. A personal kerosene heater returns your body temperature to normal, as long as you set it down in a sealed room. Collecting canvas and tape will let you cover broken windows, and spare solder and wires can repair buildings’ heating systems, letting you save fuel. Later, a blowtorch lets you open ice-crusted doors, and rope poles create easy-to-follow trails between buildings. Searching boxes, cabinets, and desks can give you useful supplies, or it can waste precious seconds of body heat and turn up nothing.
The system is just complex enough to make you think about your next move. Do you use a window cover to create a makeshift oasis in one room, or press on in hopes of finding a cozy, heated shelter and a power box? Do you painstakingly lay rope trails between two facilities, or run as fast as you can, hoping to get more time to melt open a door? Every time I reached a new building, I would find a supply closet that had escaped the storm’s destruction, memorize the area immediately around it, and frantically dart out to explore one room at a time before returning to warm up.
Yet unlike many survival games, the limited options you’re given destroy any illusions that you’ve got a long-term strategy for staying alive. What you find can support you for hours, not days or weeks, and Near Death runs on the taut timeline of an adventure movie like Gravity or Apollo 13. The changing weather, including wind that makes the camera shake wildly and sometimes slows your character nearly to a stop, provides sharp narrative beats without forcing players into scripted sequences. The total lack of audio logs, diaries, or documents keeps you from breaking character to linger and explore. With enough time, you’ll learn parts of the station layout, but on a purely utilitarian level: which door leads to a heated room, which staircase is too broken to climb, which lockers you’ve already searched.
Emphasizing the adventure-movie feel of Near Death is the weary, sardonic written banter between your pilot and her dispatcher. As with the base, there’s no real backstory to discover, and the writing has just enough personality to enliven the process of getting instructions. But knowing that my character was a specific person let me root for her in a way I probably wouldn’t have for a generic representation of myself.
Games that try to follow a movie-like narrative often feel awkward. Either they turn into a minimally interactive sequence of cutscenes, or they’re so long that the structure breaks down into a series of mini-arcs, settling down to a whimper of an ending. Near Death, though, lasts just long enough to come to a sharp, satisfying, and entirely earned conclusion.
Near Death isn’t a game I really want to go back and replay, whether to optimize my strategy or to poke around every corner of the station. The achievements for placing a certain number of polls or crafting every upgrade feel like distractions, not in keeping with the general spirit of the game. But it’s an experience I’ll remember, and one that — despite the plethora of survival and exploration games at my disposal — I haven’t found anywhere else.