A survival video game about collectively building a civilization.
I came into the world a wailing infant. My mother picked me up and I stopped crying. “Sorry little one,” she said. “You will be a gatherer.”
Another woman walked by and another baby spawned, mewling into the world. The woman ran off and my mother stared at the new kid. “If I save you,” she said. “Will you be useful?”
“N,” the little idiot said.
“Sorry then,” Mom said. “Too many mouths to feed.” The baby died a few seconds later. In minutes, I could feed myself and Mom had given me a primer on how to use a snare to trap rabbits. She sent me north to the rabbit dens with a snare and a "good luck." I starved to death moments later.
This is One Hour, One Life, a new multiplayer game from developer Jason Rohrer, who we previously wrote about when he published a game that made us feel like we were gambling online with satan. One Hour, One Life is a survival game similar to Don’t Starve, where players interact to survive in a harsh world, but it's about much more than that.
It touches on issues of sustainability, morality, and civilization, and asks impossible questions like: are humans inherently good or bad? Rohrer shows that these issues are not as confounding as they first appear. They are systems we're a part of, rules we make up and follow to get along. The world is a kind of video game.
Players navigate One Hour, One Life's 2D world, collect resources, and combine them to create objects. Harvest milkweed and combine two of them to make thread. Pair thread with a flat rock to create a needle and thread. Every minute of gameplay represents one hour in the life of the character and no life lasts longer than 100 years. The best I did was 24 minutes.
One Hour, One Life exists in a persistent world. The first player in the first game began with nothing. That person—who Rohrer called “Eve”—existed in a world full of resources but little to no knowledge of how to exploit them. As players work together, they construct rudimentary villages, tools, and farming systems. Once, I was lucky to be born into a thriving colony with houses, enough food for everyone, and a work schedule.
When a player dies, everything they’ve built stays behind. It’s possible for one village to thrive and spread and become a city.
The game is impossible to play alone. When a player logs in, they randomly spawn as another’s player's baby. As a baby, you can only type one letter and it’s impossible to feed yourself. You are completely dependent on other players to survive through the first few minutes of life in One Hour, One Life.
I had a few bad parents during my time in One Hour, One Life but only one of them outright abandoned me. Most of them, even if they could barely care for themselves, tried to keep me alive. “We’re going to die,” one mother told me when I spawned into the game with her in the middle of a barren wilderness. We did, but she carried me with her every step of the way through our brief lives.
Online gaming communities are famously toxic and Rohrer thought of One Hour, One Life as an experiment exploring gameplay systems that would force people to work together.
“Most people thought it wouldn’t work,” he told me in an email. “But it's generally working. Players are caring for their babies. Players are working together. Division of labor is happening. Teaching of the young is happening. Culture and laws are emerging.”
Those emergent laws and culture are important because they reinforce cooperation. If players don’t cooperate, they’ll fail.
“I've come to see challenge as the beating heart of all games,” Rohrer said. “In order for those challenges to be real, new players are going to have to fail at them...as you get better and better at the game, you will fail less and less frequently, but you will always fail eventually, even if it's at the meta level of your whole trans-generational village failing in the long run.”
Rohrer has teased advanced tech trees players haven't discovered yet, filled with atomic powered robots, highways, and flying cars. It’s also possible for a civilization to over farm, overhunt, and completely ruin its environment. “It is possible to destroy the world in a given area,” Rohrer said. “That is a danger that players are collectively fighting against.”
That’s if a tribe can survive long enough to get there.
“Twenty-two generations in the longest family line so far,” Rohrer said. The game has been live for about a week and that family line lasted about five hours before it collapsed. “But that number keeps going up, day after day...people are collectively getting better at the meta-challenge in this game.”
According to Rohrer, that meta-challenge is about exploring “the mystery of human civilization.” Most multiplayer survival games—think Ark: Survival Evolved and Rust—allow players to collaborate but the incentive is competition. One Hour, One Life does the opposite. Players must either work together or perish.
“In human life, every single person who ever existed had parents,” Rohrer said. “Even orphans had caretakers ... it is impossible to do it alone. Your parents are effectively strangers to you when you are born. Why do they care for you and not just leave you to die? Because caring for you is the point of it all. The whole thing falls apart if they don’t. I’m sticking players in a similar situation here. Sure enough, they respond to this reality by caring for each other.”
In one of my early games, the one I survived into my 20s, I was part of a thriving community that taught me how to water crops, prevent overfarming, and the basics of sewing. Sustainability is important in One Hour, One Life. It’s possible to use up all the animals or plants in an area and make it uninhabitable, and because of that players are developing taboos around certain crops and animals.
Rohrer sees these emerging taboos as the beginning of One Hour, One Life’s morality. “I don't thank that ‘morality’ is an abstract ideal that exists in a bubble apart from reality,” he said. “I think morality evolved over time for very important and practical reasons...I don't think players ever bring their own morality into a game. They never make a move in a game due to external moral reasoning.”
There’s a plant called milkweed in the game that goes through several life cycles and if you pick it at the wrong time, it will never grow again. “Only pick fruiting milkweed,” is a maxim I heard over and over again playing One Hour, One Life. “Any culture that does not develop this moral will perish in the game in the long run,” Rohrer said. “The systems are the reality.”