How the Apocalypse Goes: NEO Scavenger
Sharing time: I come from a place where a sizable chunk of the population is actively preparing for disaster. Most of the time this manifests as food storage and 24-hour kits, but sometimes the impulse leads to arsenals and air raid shelters. It’s safe to say that I’ve become familiar with the idea of an apocalypse, so I pretty much know what I’m talking about when I tell you that when it goes down, you do too.
If you live in a city, you’re dead. Near a city? Dead. In the proximity of a highway? Take a guess. In fact, despite your location, extensive preparations, probable sticktoitiveness, sunny outlook, and rah-rah attitude, you’ll probably starve. Or contract cholera, at which point starvation starts to sound like spring break.
So it’s nice to see a game like NEO Scavenger from Blue Bottle Games. Most apocalyptic games present worlds that are dangerous but ultimately surmountable. NEO Scavenger tries something else: this is a world that’s out to get you. And it probably will.
Of course, this isn’t totally unique. The first Fallout and the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games (always a pain to type out) presented truly affected and dangerous terrain. Somehow, NEO Scavenger manages to feel realer than even those formidable examples. As the game begins, you have no quest but to survive, no inventory other than a plastic wrist strap, a necklace, and a hospital gown. You don’t even have any means for carrying items that you find except your own two hands. Has there ever been a game in which finding a plastic shopping bag to carry some kindling and a few packets of ketchup counts as an early victory?
Other than that, you have nothing but what’s in your head. After a dozen deaths resulting from variations on a tough-guy routine, I decided to make a few alterations to my starting skills that would hopefully make it easier to find something to eat. I stuck with “tough” and “melee” to give myself a chance against looters, and picked “botany” to avoid poisoning myself with bad berries, and “trapping” to snare some squirrels.
After using my rockin’ botany skills to evade a toothy furry, I emerged to find a grumpy looter. After receiving a sound beating (and punching him to death in return), I helped myself to his pants, shoes, t-shirt, and some food, and wandered into a nearby town for a good day of scavenging for something to drink (and to treat my bruises).
This turned out to be a good idea, as I found a meat cleaver and a backpack—and plenty of helpful little things to pack into it, like gummy bears, soup crackers, soda, a multitool, and a couple of cheap iPad knockoffs. I stored some still water in a pair of plastic bottles that I found, and muttered a quick prayer that the contents wouldn’t turn my bowels to soggy paper. Perhaps most importantly, I figured out how to make a squirrel snare from an incredibly helpful note that I found lying around.
Unfortunately, clattering around this small town turned out to be pretty dumb as well:
Well, I didn’t want to match my cleaver against what looked to be a rifle, so I threw back some soda and got the hell out of there. The sugar rush fueled my escape to a forest a ways to the north, but soon I was suffering the unforeseen consequences of my soda binge.
With my blood sugar crashing and the weather turning threatening, I began to slowly explore the forest, hoping to catch some squirrels and figure out how to make a fire. Instead, I found a little cabin in the woods. Without thinking, I barged right on in.
My failure to knock turned out to be alright, as the cabin’s owner was out… permanently (dun dun dunn). This might have raised some alarms, but the sugar crash was still addling my brain and my thoughts were occupied with wishes that I hadn’t woken up from cryo suspension that morning. So I figured out how to make a fire and began to sort the sundries that filled the cabin. I took whatever I could carry, boiled some water in a saucepan, and after a long time debating, decided to leave the ammunition-less rifle.
I left the cabin when it was still dark, figuring that the night would conceal me from bandits and looters while I surveyed the forest for squirrels and berries. Instead, I made two more pressing discoveries.
The first was a mighty glow far to the east, visible for the first time. Maybe civilization? An alien landing? Whatever it was, it gave me somewhere to go. A goal.
The second discovery wasn’t so encouraging:
At least the appearance of the dogman solved the mystery of the missing cabin owner.
We struggled brutally, leaving the dogman face down in the mud and me even more wounded than before. I spent a few more hours recuperating at the cabin before setting out for the glow.
It took quite a while.
It took about a week to make it halfway. It might have taken only a couple days, but I took care to avoid anything that might harbor looters—little towns, car parks, airports. I stuck mostly to the forest, scouting carefully and taking time to snare squirrels and boil water. After just a few days, I was a master at identifying which berries were edible and which I should avoid. Also, I was crippled, and was moving at half the pace that I would have had I not encountered the dogman. I might have tried to search for a hospital to fix my leg, but in my weakened state I was too afraid to try, so the leg grew steadily worse. It was a vicious cycle.
Still, after a few more days my confidence had grown. I had avoided every looter I had seen, and I was feeling healthy, all things considered. My belly was filled with squirrel and good berries and mushrooms, and I was warm enough.
In this state, I finally reached the glow. This is what I saw:
Sorry, but I’m going to have to pull a Reading Rainbow and let you find out what the glow is for yourself. Suffice it to say, it’s a great twist to an already compelling game.
I recommend you take a look at NEO Scavenger. It’s still in beta, and it’s rough around the edges, but it’s one of the most realistic game worlds I have yet to interact with. This is the sort of game that deserves support—big, smart, and ambitious. Sometimes it can also be cruel (I was once killed by a dogman not an hour after leaving the cryo facility), but then, isn’t that exactly what an apocalypse would be?