You can tell a lot about what makes a society nervous by its recreations. In the early twentieth century, toy soldiers were hugely popular, and not just with children. Laying out soldiers for elaborate battles in the model of the Napoleonic Wars or the Crimea or, later, World War I let children and adults fantasize about the worst thing that could befall them—total war.
World War II changed a lot of that. It didn’t matter where you placed your troops if the enemy dropped a nuclear bomb, and during the early years of the Cold War, post-nuclear apocalyptic literature flourished. Novels like Alas, Babylon and On the Beach let readers imagine how they would adapt if their society were decimated by the bomb (or, in the case of the latter, how they would choose to go out). It was a way of taming fear by playing with the possibilities.
And today, survival narratives are popular once again—but in video game form. These crafting-heavy games allow us to play with the possibility of living in a world that does not operate with the push of a button. Given the environmental threats that become more real every year, it’s not surprising that we want to persuade ourselves we can live off the land and become self-reliant. Minecraft opened the door, but games like Ark: Survival Evolved and Rust developed the survival theme into a hugely popular genre.
Case in point: Niffelheim, currently in early access release from Ellada Games. Niffelheim is loosely based on Scandanavian mythology and bills itself as a 2-D open-world action-adventure RPG. None of this is not true, per se—the game’s opening sequence shows a brave warrior’s flaming ship being nabbed by demons, diverting him on his journey to Asgard, and there’s certainly action fighting of a sort (albeit a sort that principally involves holding down the attack key until the enemies die—it is “action” merely in the sense that combat is not turn-based).
But once the demons have hold of brave Olaf, as I named my burly, yet startlingly fragile, warrior, they…set him up with a little cavern all his own so he can build workshops, greenhouses, and sheepfolds. He doesn’t battle his way out of the demons’ dungeons, have a long conversation with an NPC about what he’s facing, or deal with any of the other standard RPG scenarios. Nope. He cooks up big batches of berry jam and starts building the biggest, strongest fortress he can to defend against the skeleton warriors who regularly come calling (which is another mystery—if the demons want Olaf there, why are their buddies attacking?).
Does this sound like a terrible game? It’s not—it’s really not, and I’m confident that the devs will take advantage of early access feedback to add a little more RP to the G so that your main reason for exploring dungeons is something more than, hell, you’ve got a sword, and there’s probably something cool down there (though, let’s be fair, the logic of most RPGs isn’t exactly leaps and bounds beyond that).
The 2-D nature of the game is probably the feature that takes the most getting used to, but it also for loving hand-drawn animation, and the result is artful, offering a moody immersion into a bleak world of burial mounds and scant resources. For a small development team, it’s a masterpiece.
But the heart of the game, the reason it’s garnering swoony “where have you been all my life?” reviews from many players on Steam, is the survival and crafting system. In a game inspired by mythology, you would expect the meat to be fantasy of the gods and demons type variety, but instead it’s fantasy of the variety that makes you wonder how self-reliant one human being can possibly be.
Olaf’s endless industry as he upgrades his fortress and workstations is peculiarly reassuring. Sure, it’s a tough old world out there, teaming with hornets and boars and so, so many wolves. But though he may return from the forest tired and bloody, after a hearty snack of a dozen or so raw chickens, he’s ready to pop down to the basement to kill skeletons and mine ore. There’s always something else to build or upgrade, and Niffelheim is addictive in that “holy crap it’s 3 am what happened” way so dear to the gamer’s heart.
I can’t mine ore. I can’t build a carpentry station with my bare hands, and I certainly can’t toss a few random herbs I find in the woods into an alchemy station and come up with something that will restore my health and strength. I do fantasize about building a chicken coop, and perhaps one day I will. But if my push-button world goes awry, I will almost certainly be seriously, completely screwed.
But as I build up Olaf’s supply of food and arrows with apocalypse-prepper intensity, I can almost believe that I won’t. That, like Olaf, I will tame the forests with my club and my axe, that I will build a little greenhouse and eat mashed pumpkin until I am ready to burst.
Never mind Asgard or the demons—this is the fantasy that I need.