Out now in early access, The Tribe Must Survive is Frostpunk for people who love being afraid of the dark


Yesterday I was off sick with a fever and, as I often do when I’m laid up ill, immediately set out to consume the most nihilistic and depressing entertainment media I could find. On the film front, I watched Session 9, in which some men hired to remove asbestos from a collapsing 19th century asylum do not have a very nice time. On the game front, I played The Tribe Must Survive, a colony management sim from Walking Tree Games GmbH and Starbreeze Publishing, which is now available in early access.


There is a Byron poem, “Darkness”, that could have been this game’s elevator pitch, given a sufficiently sluggish elevator. In the poem, Byron describes an Earth without a sun in which “all hearts / were chill’d into a selfish prayer for light”.

He paints ghoulish scenes of refugees gathering in the light of vast watchfires, composed of burning possessions. “Some lay down / And hid their eyes and wept; and some did rest / Their chins upon their clenched hands, and smil’d; / And others hurried to and fro, and fed / Their funeral piles with fuel, and look’d up / With mad disquietude on the dull sky”. This bit specifically is an exact description of the poor NPCs grouped under my banner during my first game of The Tribe Must Survive, with the important distinction that none of Byron’s sad/mad unfortunates are being abducted by spectral tentacles.


A 2D topdown representation of Stone Age villagers gathered around a campfire after darkness
Image credit: Starbreeze Publishing/Rock Paper Shotgun


The Tribe Must Survive is set in what the devs have called a Lovecraftian Stone Age – a grotesque, primordial reality in which humans and animals appear as cave painting silhouettes with unblinking white eyes. The colony management mechanics feel like another love letter to Frostpunk‘s radial base design and theme of surviving the elements. The heart of each game is your campfire, with facilities such as lumber camps, tents and crop fields placed on a surrounding grid. The difference is that rather than keeping the cold at bay, the purpose of the campfire is to protect you against the shadows after sundown, which creates an immediate, frantic rhythm of topping up wood supplies that are also, unhelpfully, needed for construction.


It’s not clear what exactly is lurking in the gloom – the campaign is sort of an exercise in probing such mysteries, with pop-up story events that mention the activities of an elder generation of Builders – but any tribespeople standing in total darkness are generally about 10-20 seconds away from being nabbed. Hunters, especially, need to be summoned home by the night horn at dusk.


While The Tribe Must Survive’s interface is a little hard to read on a smaller monitor, I do like the new game’s atmosphere. It’s as much about sound as anything. There’s a constant undertone of ambient noise from the deep wilds beyond the circle of firelight, mixed with instrumental music that heightens and dies away based on just how disastrously you’re faring. Your tribespeople converse in whispers as they pad about: even the ring of their axes and hammers seems deliberately muffled.


I didn’t survive long enough to test out this aspect of the game – an eclipse and subsequent shortage of firewood put an end to my fledgling settlement – but The Tribe Must Survive also features a pretty complex simulation of mental stress and social division. Each NPC has stats for fear, panic and discontent, which are affected by events such as other people going missing. They will also slowly form into factions devoted to different gods – The Shepherd, The Beast – with different ideologies. Let any negative stat rise to high and you’ll have to deal with people falling into a state of shock, during which they’re unable to work, sleep or eat. Other people may become delirious and wander off into the woods.


A story event from The Tribe Must Survive, with text describing an encounter with a dying explorer who has research secrets to share
Image credit: Starbreeze Publishing/Rock Paper Shotgun

At its worst, you might have to deal with a full-blown panic and bloody riots. The remedy for these cases of explosive bad morale is typically more light, though you can also perform spiritual ceremonies to rally the tribe. Further down the line, there’s the prospect of human sacrifice to appease a dominant faction. You can read more about the game’s social and mental health simulation in my previous piece about the game’s early access release.


I enjoyed my feverish time with The Tribe Must Survive. Another thing it leaves me thinking about is which videogames, exactly, have the most suspenseful and eldritch representations of night. Klei’s Don’t Starve is perhaps the more adventurous artwork about the primordial fear of sunset. But I’m not sure any game has ever topped Minecraft, in which monsters spawn in shadows, and no opening hour is complete without getting trapped inside your dwelling by a Creeper.

EDIT …unless it’s Darkwood.


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