Mewnbase: On Emptiness and Earth

My high school English teacher used to have one of those posters with the ‘you can’t eat money’ proverb. ‘Only when the last tree has died and the last river been poisoned and the last fish been caught will we realise that we can’t eat money.’ I feel like I only really got that idea once I started playing survival games. This week we’re talking about Mewnbase, an early access survival and base-building game. The game’s premise is ‘what if Don’t Starve, but on the moon, but with cats,’ hence – yeah, Mewnbase. It definitely comes across as a skinny, easy version of Don’t Starve, which is not necessarily a criticism. Gather resources, build a base – it’s a formula for a reason. But after playing for a few hours, something became pretty obvious. There was no fucking shit left.

Again, this isn’t a criticism or something bad about the game – it’s a pretty basic feature of how its difficulty works. You start off in a central spot with your landing craft, and make excursions out to gather resources. As you play, you exhaust the resources closest to you, and so you need to go out further, stretching your oxygen limits. You eventually need upgrades, or vehicles – things to allow you to go further into the world around you. It’s essentially the same mechanic that Subnautica uses to direct your progress. In Subnautica, you’re swimming around in the ocean, and the depths you can reach are gated by the size of your oxygen tank. At least in the early game, you can only go to a certain depth before needing to ascend to the surface for oxygen. Mewnbase is doing the same thing, but in two dimensions. The difference between the two games – well, one’s set on the moon with cats, but – the main difference between the two games is that Mewnbase uses scarcity to force progression. You mine all the shit nearby, and then you have to go further out to find more. That slow push out eventually forces you to think about increasing the distances you can reach – either with vehicles that increase your speed, or with spare oxygen canisters. It also creates a lot of very empty terrain that you spend a lot of time travelling across. Occasionally, it might even prompt you to think – fuck, there’s no fucking shit left.

For me, what Mewnbase illustrates is this strange tendency for survival games to separate out land and resources. Resources are important. They support your survival, they can be used in all sorts of ways, some of them can be made renewable and sustainable, they can be combined and farmed and collected and refined – and none of that is true of the land. The land is just backdrop. It’s just a flat image, a background. It has no mechanical function, and no meaningful relationship with either your survival or the resources scattered around the place. If you take away all the resources, as I’ve done in the image above, there’s no value left. It’s just empty, useless space. On reflection, that seems like a weird quirk of the survival genre. This shouldn’t need explaining, but – you know, in real life there is no sharp division between ‘the land’ and ‘the resources’. Metals and minerals are all part of the land. Vegetation buries its roots into the earth, and can be affected by the quality and type of land available. The sharp distinction between land and resources in survival games, and the ensuing uselessness of land in and of itself, is just a little bizarre.

Once you notice this trend, it’s hard to un-see it. There’s a very clear distinction between the resources in the foreground, and the land in the background. Don’t Starve does it too, although that game never deploys scarcity in the same way as Mewnbase, so it’s not as immediately apparent. One place you can spot it, though, in both games, is in the way they treat crops. If you think about growing vegetables or whatever, you know how it functions in the real world. You break up the earth, plant your seeds, and then water and wait. There’s a pretty obvious relationship between the land and the vegetation – you plant one in the other. But in Don’t Starve and Mewnbase, in order to grow any crops, you have to create a farm – essentially a miniature vegetable patch, as below. Instead of putting your seeds into the earth, you place a construction on top of the land and put your seeds into that. The land remains a blank, functionless canvas, and the earth that you grow your seeds in is an artificial construct that you superimpose on top of the land as something entirely separate and distinct. It’s fucking weird.

I should reiterate here that I don’t think either of these games are bad for how they position land and resources as separate to each other. It’s just something that’s worth thinking about, particularly as we often talk about survival games as – you know, supposedly they integrate us into natural ecologies and force us to live within the constraints of ecosystems and biospheres, which gives us a sense of connection to nature and the natural world. I’ve written about these ideas myself, both in relation to Don’t Starve (here) and Stardew Valley (here). The distinction between land and resources doesn’t invalidate those ideas, but it helps us think in a more nuanced way about exactly what these games are doing. It also gives us a way to think about how these eco-games might develop and become more complex. How would these games be changed by the introduction of, like, a hill? Suddenly you have to think about where to plant your crops. How much sun do they need? Do they go on the sunny side, or the shady side? And maybe it takes you a little longer to go up, and maybe it’s a little quicker coming down. Maybe flooding and heavy rainfall would work differently. There are a whole bunch of things that would change just by adding this one simple characteristic to the land around you. At the very least, it would make the earth a force of its own, instead of the video-game equivalent of a blank sheet of paper.

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