After several years of development, during which it was released on Steam’s Early Access and several console platforms to wild popularity, ARK: Survival Evolved finally entered the market with that stamp of permanence – the full release – this past August.
The full release of the game was met with little fanfare, as most people playing it by that time were likely unaware that it was still technically unfinished. As of writing this, ARK is the ninth most-played game on Steam, just above Rust and Garry’s Mod, and has pretty much been in that same position for months. Fans who already had the game were upset that the full release barely amounted to more than a new patch and failed to resolve many existing issues in favor of piling on more content, and newcomers who’d been waiting for the full release felt cheated by the increased price.
I’m not really interested in discussing the drama surrounding the full release, but it does provide a nice opening for me to talk about the game itself. I’ve played over 250 hours, yet have nothing to show for it. I was enraged by my first several attempts to get far enough to tame creatures, but after I overcame the initial difficulty curve, I found myself coming home from school or work and wanting to play it every day. I simultaneously love that it features a wide variety of unusual prehistoric creatures, and yet resent the way those creatures are distorted and given ridiculous abilities. You could say, then, that I have a complex relationship with ARK, and I suspect I’m not alone in this.
ARK: Survival Evolved
Spoilers: I guess?
Audience Assumptions: Familiarity with video games
Part One: Fucking Therizinosaurs!
This game is aggravating above all else. When I first started, I found the controls janky, couldn’t figure out how to work the user interface, and died almost immediately. My experience was far from unique.
I joined a multiplayer server, like an idiot, but in my defense, there wasn’t any “single player” option labelled as such. Host server? I didn’t want to host a server and have randos showing up and killing a dinosaur while I was trying to tame it. Multiplayer-exclusive games are the bane of my existence; while I appreciate that some people like to play with other people, I have a limited capacity of about two games I would rather play with friends than alone. Two, that’s it, and one of them sure as fucking hell isn’t ARK: Survival Evolved. The multiplayer is almost impenetrable to newbies, especially those like me who don’t like interacting with human beings. Not only has everyone on the server built much cooler things than you could possibly build if you quit your job and just played this game all the time, but there’s also a proximity build limit that prevents you from even placing a campfire if you’re within a few hundred feet of someone else’s things. Given that everyone else has built structures all around every starting area, you’ll have to go a long way from your spawn point to even start to build a shitty little beginner hut.
And that’s when you can even get out of the spawn point; I found myself stuck in someone’s house on several occasions because they had the idea of building their fucking mansion right where players spawned. Convenient for them, I suppose, but they built an enormous wall around their base with exactly one door, and that door was only accessible to them, so I ended up just running around until I died of exhaustion. One castle-builder had the insight to build a one-way ramp for noobs like me to escape to the bigger world – not that I could survive the five-story fall, but it was a nice gesture. The only place I managed to find to build on that wasn’t right next to some other annoying new player who wanted me to be their friend was in the swamp.
You do not want to build your house in a swamp. Especially not as a new player.
I haven’t even mentioned the creatures yet. To say that ARK suffers from a balance issue is like saying the current U. S. president is somewhat incompetent; ARK’s difficulty curve looks like a brick, and the only way to make it even marginally functional to those of us with better things to do than sit next to an unconscious CGI ankylosaurus for four hours feeding it berries is to adjust the stats sliders for a single-player game and keep a list of useful cheat codes on-hand. I suppose I should be happy the sliders exist, because they make the game functional, but the line between unbearably difficult and so easy a toddler could play it is wire-thin.
Once I got the hang of building and crafting and figured out how to tame creatures (a feat itself unless you use the wiki, as it involves knocking a creature out and feeding it certain things to keep it unconscious while it slowly decides, somehow, to eat other food items you put in its inventory), I had a tremendous amount of difficulty with the newly-introduced therizinosaurs. Every new player in ARK has some specific creature to gripe about – the compies, the killer manta rays, the troodonts, the dilophosaurs especially – and mine were the therizinosaurs. They have a fairly large radius in which they’ll turn aggressive toward other creatures, including the player, and their attack is exceptionally powerful for a creature that spawns in the low-difficulty areas. I thought I could handle them once I knew their behaviors, but then I discovered there were several therizinosaur spawn points right next to my house, allowing three of the fuckers to come destroy everything I owned, kill all my creatures, and kill me every time I spawned. Therizinosaurs in the game have ridiculously high health for their size, can glitch over walls that look at a glance too high for them to climb, try to revenge kill you and chase you halfway across the map if you off their mate, travel faster than most level twenty or thirty players, and are pretty fucking useless except for gathering wood when tamed.
Here’s some useful advice: aggressive, non-flying creatures can’t get you if you hover slightly over them with the “fly” cheat. Guess what creature I was trying to deal with when I discovered that nifty trick? The “kill” cheat turned out to be useful as well, though as you might imagine, once I found I could instantly tame or kill creatures, the game started to become pretty boring, even if I only did so in the early parts of the game. I know some people have an aversion to using cheat codes and exploiting glitches, and I appreciate the sentiment, but if they come to be almost essential when learning how to play a game, I’m inclined to say that game isn’t very well balanced.
In creating your own server space to host an island, either in the multiplayer or single player mode of ARK, you have the opportunity to adjust factors that affect the difficulty by playing around with a large number of sliders, and in fairness to the developers, this update has made the game tremendously more playable. However, as with so many parts of the game, it is the fly in the ointment that spoils the soup, or however that idiom goes. The adjustments can only be made outside of the game, are not on fixed scales, and can often be easily over- or under-adjusted.
Meat spoilage is a good example. Food products in the game have timers associated that will make them spoil over time. The standard food items (berries and raw meat) will either spoil slowly or stack sufficiently to give players a couple of days before a stack of food has spoiled completely. Rarer food items will spoil more quickly, and preserving or cooking items makes them last longer. Now, it might seem advantageous to extend the spoilage of food items far beyond the default because certain valuable, rare food items like prime meat and mutton spoil in just a few minutes and don’t stack at all. However, the spoiled meat item is essential for a lot of ingredients and important to have in large quantities, so if it takes forty minutes for raw meat to spoil (only about three times the rate it normally takes – trust me, the game can adjust the spoilage much further), then unless you have fifty storage chests full of slowly rotting meat, it’ll take you hours to make enough tranquilizer to take down a large carnivore.
And I hear you saying, “Well, then don’t fucking touch the spoilage meter!” I agree, the raw-meat-to-spoiled-meat rate ratio is close to well-balanced as it is, but accidentally adjusting the meter requires you to repeatedly go into the game to figure out what sort of scale it works on because none of the bars has units. And, even if you don’t touch it, prime meat spoilage is still an issue. I believe the developers recently increased the time prime meat remains fresh, but even adjusted so that things spoil at about 75% of their normal rate, I find the prime meat too inconvenient to use often. It’s a shame because not only is it really useful for the few times it’s necessary, but by making the mechanics required to use prime meat so convoluted, the game essentially locks off one of its features. This isn’t the only time the game makes otherwise useful or engaging mechanics nearly impossible to use.
Part Two: Fucking Bugs!
ARK is not a well-made game. It has come a long way from its inception and regular patches update the game frequently, but even on one of my most recent play-throughs without mods and/or cheats, I’ve had it crash on me several times each day. The game has refused to start, and on two separate occasions, patches have completely reset my single player progress and forced me to restart everything from square one. These are the regular struggles players have to contend with outside of the gameplay if they want to experience ARK. The bugs present are still sufficient for me to say it’s not worth buying the game for full price. Granted, I only know it through the Steam interface, but I doubt it runs smoother on consoles or other platforms. When you buy ARK, you need to go in knowing that any progress you make could eventually be wiped entirely. This is true of most games, but it’s a particular risk with ARK. The one consolation I have is that each play through gets easier and the customization allows players to get to a point comparable to what they had before in a shorter span of time each time they restart. Even if you do lose progress, regaining it is not prohibitively difficult.
Of course, even when the game doesn’t crap out, bugs are still very much a part of its being, even a mechanic of their own in some respects. The creature meshes are designed to have a maximum amount of flexibility in some areas and minimal flexibility in others, as evidenced by certain creature’s abilities to get stuck between trees or phase through and hover-step over low walls. The Titanoboas are particularly good at contorting their spines in unholy ways to climb up cave walls and over rocks. Dead creatures have that always-popular tendency to stick to things as ragdolls so their bodies resemble the skull in Holbein’s The Ambassadors.
I suppose some benign glitches like these can be amusing, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t take advantage of how easy it is to knock out creatures trapped between foliage, but minor bugs are still bugs. Well-crafted games rely on users to be able to intuit their mechanics in order to play. If components of a game follow the same rules, even if those rules allow for unrealistic behavior, players will recognize them and adapt. Platformers are only permitted to be challenging because they provide that small amount of leeway players can exploit, like the radius of a checkpoint being larger than the checkpoint’s visible area. Invisible buffers that give players an edge without them realizing it are nice, but even games that disallow those player aids can still be mastered.
If you can put a player in an in-game room completely foreign to them and give them the same mechanics for a game they know, they should be able to navigate the room without falling into traps because the game has taught them what to look out for and how to approach new stimuli. Some games require you to learn through experience and die a few times, but in those games, the mechanical consistency in death never changes. In Spelunky, certain traps will deal more damage than others and some will kill you in one hit, but it is always the same trap. The bats always deal one point of damage per bite, and when you die, you get to restart.
The glitches in ARK cause it to occasionally break that cardinal rule of consistency. New creatures are difficult to deal with, as many of them have unique abilities that can royally fuck you over, but these mechanics are at least predictable enough that you can rely on them working in a particular way once you’ve encountered the same creature a few times. If you walk too close to an aggressive creature and it sees you, it will chase you. If you hit something, it will probably hit back. The times you can sneak past a tyrannosaur or walk through a leech-infested swamp without getting one stuck to your face are exceptions, and you generally learn not to rely on them. However, the game is so buggy and many of the mechanics so crude that it can be difficult to tell what’s supposed to happen and what isn’t, which quickly breaks player trust.
When I first encountered therizinosaurs walking over a stone wall that would realistically have stopped them and seemed to stop other creatures of a similar leg height in the game, I became frustrated enough to report what I perceived to be a bug, but which other people informed me was very much an intentional mechanic of the game. Building is equally frustrating, as the game never makes it particularly clear whether a foundation tile cannot be placed because of the terrain type, height, or other unknown factors. You can build fenceposts through the sand surface, but sometimes you can’t build a fence on top of them, occasionally ceilings won’t register that there are blocks under them, and you can place tiles pretty much anywhere, meaning you might not realize two floor tiles are misaligned until you try to run a wall across the room and end up with a three-foot overlap in the middle. The game’s tendency to give players as little information as possible doesn’t help when trying to understand why something odd happened, and even the brief tutorials or hints that occasionally arise usually won’t address precisely how something is meant to work. Are creatures following you across half the map supposed to stop following you when they run out of stamina? Are ranged weapons supposed to fire one of their bullets each time you take them out? The mechanics of the game are so varied and many of them so shoddily built that some are almost indistinguishable from small bugs.
Part One: Fucking Caves!
Given how thoroughly I’ve dispelled the contents of my lower intestine onto this game so far, you might be forgiven for expecting me to say I hate it. I’m deeply temped; I have something to complain about almost every mechanic, and no single part of the game is completely satisfying, or even really worth the effort put into obtaining it. I like the metal tools and weapons, but they’re too heavy to carry multiple sets of and when they break, you need to go all the way back to your base to repair them. The mosasaurs are easily my favorite marine creature in the game, but like most of the animal meshes, they’re riddled with scientific inaccuracies, and that wouldn’t be a big problem except that the snaking motion they use to swim is doubly annoying because it’s inaccurate and makes them difficult to maneuver. The megalania has the unique ability to climb on walls while you ride it, but after the struggle of searching all of the caves to tame one, I was disappointed by its tendency to constantly get stuck. The Yutyrannus is adorably fluffy, and might actually be one of my favorite creatures in the game, but it’s also fairly difficult to find and located in the tundra regions that freeze your ass off if you spend too long in them without full winter gear, torches, and fires.
And yet, I have put over two hundred and fifty hours into this game, even though it has crashed on me, even though I constantly complain about the mechanics, even though it takes up something like fifty gigabytes of disc space, and even though I don’t feel I should have put as much effort into it as I have, this is a game I still go back to. I’ve been trying to figure out why. For me, it’s a good game to throw a few hours into collecting new resources, taming a few creatures, or exploring a new area. Even though the gameplay is very different, it reminds me a lot of how I used to play the Zoo Tycoon games. I could get a satisfying play session out of spending only an hour on them, but I could also binge them for half a weekend straight. There were always fun things to do, new playstyles to explore, and that flexibility that made Zoo Tycoon and other sandbox games like it so captivating was more than enough for me to overlook their flaws, at least at the time I was playing them.
ARK, I think, goes a step further and offers a glimpse at what future sandbox games will look like. It has so many mechanics that even those that are poorly done offer something to play with, and I’m sure many players have developed their own unique playstyles. Despite the amount of time I’ve put into the game, I’ve barely scratched the surface of what can be done with it. I’ve restricted myself to single-player, and haven’t even touched the first-person shooting aspect of the game, the arenas, or the Player-versus-Player mode, and I’ve barely looked at creature breeding or electrical crafting components. That’s also ignoring the creatures I’ve never seen, the locations I’ve left unexplored, and the vast majority of the maps other than The Island I’ve never used. Even the creatures themselves often have unique abilities that can be mastered or manipulated to one’s advantage. ARK is a mechanics-heavy game, where almost every item, weapon, and monster has some unique feature. Some items or creatures are literally game-changing, like the flying mounts, grappling hook, and scuba gear.
I imagine most players gravitate toward certain game mechanics they prefer to improve their gaming experience. However, I’d be surprised if every person’s playstyle is the same. If you like RPGs, first-person shooters, crafting games, animal care and breeding games, war strategy games, base-building and defense games, social games, animal-centric games, games like Minecraft with heavy construction elements, survival games, games featuring a lot of exploration, or just general action-combat games, you will find something to enjoy about ARK. In some regards, I think you could call it an early universal game – something that almost anyone interested in games could play. Granted, it lacks puzzle, platforming, and story components for the most part, but it clearly draws from Minecraft in allowing users to take advantage of its varied mechanics and gameplay depth to do with as they see fit. It’s one of those games where you’ll have to consult the Wiki page if you get invested, because there’s always something new to discover, no matter how experienced you are as a player.
The main restriction to accessing ARK’s depth is the quality of the mechanics themselves. The game bugs, and generally shoddy design to a lot of the game’s smaller systems (and some of its core systems) reduces the thrill associated with discovering these things. Learning that caves have unique creatures is exhilarating; finding the same four creatures in every cave you explore is less so. I think something like Don’t Starve is a better example of a mechanics-heavy game with a cohesive identity and systems that mesh well together. However, I will say that ARK simply has more stuff in it. The ARK developers have taken the position that if they cram as much as they can into their game, at least some of it will be good. For the most part, they’re right. It’s not an especially bad way to build a game these days, with so many resources available to game developers, and clearly the shotgun approach has popularity if developers use their resources to tailor the game to a consistent and interesting aesthetic.
Successful survival games of the “naked person woken up on beach or in woods with rock in hand” variety are dependent on having a distinct identity that distinguishes them from the others. ARK has this in its mutated prehistoric creatures, and I think most people would consider it financially successful at the very least. Many other survival games may be more streamlined, but most won’t have the variety or creativity that draws people to ARK.
In the end, ARK: Survival Evolved is basically a sprawling fantasy novel series; I may prefer a tightly-written dramatic novel, and I may find plenty of holes to poke in it, but I could spend a worse afternoon than digging into a chapter of a fun book, even if it is the literary equivalent of junk food.