Team17’s next game, The Survivalists, appears to glorify colonisation

In channelling Robinson Crusoe, The Survivalists seems to treat colonisation as a fun adventure. And yes, that includes killing the natives.

Yesterday at Nintendo’s Indie World showcase, British developer Team17 revealed its next game: The Survivalists. Described as an “adventure-filled survival sandbox”, the game was shown off with a trailer that depicts the chief pillars of its gameplay. All of said pillars are yearning calls to the (European) glories of colonisation.

The trailer begins with a man washing ashore on an island and subsequently crafting objects to survive. The player character then encounters dark-skinned, mask-wearing natives who he combats in order to survive; trains monkeys to perform menial tasks for him, and then seemingly invites other men to join him in his quest to survive.

It’s a setup that immediately calls to mind what is widely considered a classic of English literature, Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe. The book’s titular character is also a castaway, who finds himself forced to survive against the wilds using only his own wit and determination.

Later in his ‘adventure’, he encounters cannibals, and then frees a prisoner of theirs. The prisoner is given a name, taught the English language, and converted to Christianity. The pair are then rescued by an English ship, and Crusoe returns to Europe, where he decides to live off of the wealth he has earned from his estate in Brazil.

Robinson Crusoe was written at a time of high European colonialism and it popularised several myths that bolstered the colonialist spirit. Over the next two centuries, European colonists would continue to establish dominion over not just the Americas, but also Africa, Oceania, and large parts of Asia as well.

That the myth of the survivalist castaway represents colonisation is an interpretation that goes back to at least James Joyce, who saw Robinson Crusoe as representing the British Empire.

Team17’s The Survivalists riffs off of this very myth to make a case for the hapless colonist (who the trailer explicitly depicts as a lighter-skinned male). It begins by putting him in a pitiable position: alone on a tropical island and forced to fend for himself.

The colonist then begins to craft and build in order to survive, implicitly claiming the island for himself. When it turns out that he is in fact, intruding upon the territory of a different people, the colonist is once again forced to survive by killing the dissenting natives.

Robinson Crusoe

A special note about the natives: they’re dark-skinned, and they wear masks. Masks have been used in fiction since times immemorial to make the “baddies” seem less than human. If you can’t see them as having human faces, you don’t need to feel empathy for them. It’s why the stormtroopers from Star Wars are such effective baddies, for instance.

On the other hand, the player character and his friends’ friends do not wear masks. Their (light-skinned) facial features are left plenty visible as they endure hardships, so that they might attract our sympathy. They’re the ones you need to feel bad for and to root for, according to The Survivalists. Never mind the native savages whose lands you’re invading.

Perhaps the lack of masks also makes it more palatable when our team of player-controlled colonists directly intrudes upon native settlements and steals valuable treasures from elaborately-designed temples. This utter disregard and contempt for native culture and religion plays well with the same colonial myths that drove Crusoe to convert Friday to Christianity.

The Survivalists screenshot

We’ve already covered many of the hallmarks of colonisation by this point: seizing territory to establish your own economy, killing the natives, stealing from them, and desecrating their religion.

The Survivalists valorises each of these actions and depicts them as a fun ‘adventure’, but it doesn’t seem to be done yet.

Because surviving by yourself and within your own means wouldn’t be exciting enough, the game allows you to train monkeys as well. Judging by the trailer, you can pay them in bananas to perform menial tasks for you, like chopping wood or fighting on your behalf.

It does seem convenient that the “monkeys” of The Survivalists are intelligent enough to chop wood and launch arrows for you, but they cannot be considered intelligent enough to make independent decisions or to govern themselves.

Perhaps they’re not really meant to be monkeys after all, but rather, stand-ins for co-operative natives who have been ‘tamed’ into serving the project of the player’s dominion. They’re monkeys, though, and not humans like you, so they can’t possibly deserve human rights. The idea of turning native creatures into efficient cogs of your colonial machine is quite visibly at play here.

Of course, it should also come as no surprise that monkeys and apes have been common slurs against darker-skinned and colonised populations for centuries.

The Survivalists screenshot

Team17 makes no mention of colonisation in its pitch for The Survivalists, and with good reason. It’s a poorly-regarded concept in the modern day and it’s not quite a great marketing buzzword.

Even so, this rose, by any other name, smells just as sour.

Update 12/12/19: We have reached out to Team17 to comment on this article, but they have not yet responded. This article will be updated if and when they do.

Also have a look at our interview with Baba is You creator Arvi Teikari, and our round-up of game releases for this week.

This Article was written by: Rahul Shirke

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