Back in the haze of history that is 2009, an online friend of mine enthusiastically recommended a free game to me that he described as “Legos, but better.” While I enjoyed forging basic structures out of its chunky pastel blocks, and I could sense some measure of its potential as a building toy, the fact that the game could only run in a window in my internet browser irritated me greatly, and nothing about its make-your-own-fun pitch really hooked me. I messed around with it for an hour or two before giving up. Imagine my surprise when, two years later, “Minecraft” – the game I so swiftly abandoned – had become a worldwide phenomenon, spawning a legion of imitators that continue to joust for the threadbare throne of a new genre known as the “survival game.”
But even as the star of “Minecraft” has risen and dwindled every so slightly over the past decade – while it’s no “Fortnite,” now-owner Microsoft revealed that the iconic game still has 93 million monthly users as of this March – I’ve still managed to mostly avoid the massive wave of crafting and building-oriented games that followed in its wake. (To staunch the flow of angry comments before they even arrive, yes, while the actual definition is open to debate, “Minecraft” was far from the first true survival game to hit store shelves. However, there’s no denying that the genre was massively buffeted by its swell of success.) But while mega-hits like “Ark: Survival Evolved” never quite managed to hold my attention during their heyday, a tinier take on the formula has crept into my life and started sucking away what little free time I have.
On paper, “Forager” has more in common with gentle sims like “Stardew Valley” – a cutesy aesthetic, few tutorials, and simple but elegant mechanics. You start by cutting down trees and chipping away at boulders to collect stone and lumber; from there, you build a furnace to smelt ingots out of the ore you find, or burn down your wood into coal. As you progress through what little technology you have at the game’s outset, however, the complexity quickly spirals beyond that, with clever puzzles pushing against your perception of the game’s limitations. A handful of hours later, when I found myself delving into dungeons armed with magic weapons while furnaces pumped out more gold than I could store in my imposing steel vaults, I began to realize that this was a very different game than the one I imagined when I clicked “add to cart.”
Despite my childhood love for “Harvest Moon” – a game series that present an idealized work environment, where the literal fruits of your labor always follow strict rules from the seed to the market stall, and the next level of advancement is only a few hours away – I never quite managed to bridge the gap into their more complex cousins. “Forager” is in itself that bridge. While you could eventually reach the apex of “Stardew’s” economic curve through sheer stubborn volume rather that cleverly exploiting the game’s systems, this survivor is a bit stricter than that. Many of the game’s most intriguing systems are locked behind puzzles of construction or engineering that the game rarely deigns to give you any advice on. The game’s sprawling tech tree is central to its structure, which you unlock with skill points that you receive each time you level up. Even seemingly simple tasks can present significant obstacles.
For example, an early quest sees a merchant task you with delivering two bottled fireflies. While catching the fireflies is straightforward enough, bottles require combining glass and thread in a furnace. You can build a sewing station to create thread with basic resources, but gathering the sand needed to obtain the glass took a bit of experimentation. Though you can dig up sand in the game’s desert environments later in the game, the only reliable way I could find to gather it in the early game was through fish traps. But since I had only laid a singular trap as an experiment, and the spawn rate for the sand is quite low, it took me over an hour to figure it out while pursuing other tasks, and even longer to gather the large amount I needed, even with a half-dozen traps going at once.
Still, that wasn’t my most embarrassing moment in “Forager” – though, at least, this is one that quite a few players must share. A few hours in, I paused the game and stepped away to get a glass of water, only to realize that the game doesn’t actually stop running when you dip into the menu. As a result, for the first time in the game, one of the comically-slow “slimes” had dealt two hearts of damage of me. When I reached into my backpack to eat some of my vast stores of energy-restoring food, much to my chagrin, I discovered that food does not, in fact, restore your health, and that I thus had no idea how to bring it back to full. I walked around with one heart for quite a while before I unlocked the “Farming” skill and figured out that cooking the food in my furnace would give it vitality-restoring properties.
Even after a dozen hours with “Forager,” I think I remain a skeptic when it comes to the broader world of survival games. In my view, most of them just don’t respect the player’s time, and that’s not a thing I have a lot of these days. Still, though I’m unlikely to dive into the next multiplayer flavor of the month, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with it, and I’m excited to look around to see if there are any other games that manage to combine its steady drip of progress with its clever approach to puzzle design.