Hot Right Now: Prehistory in Games

CaptMattSparrow
Games
Games

This week’s release of Far Cry Primal is the latest example of a recent resurgence in games based on our prehistoric past. Though dinosaurs and cavemen have long been a consistent trope of games, this year alone we are getting three games that prominently feature themes normally relegated to the halls of natural history museums. Let’s examine how our long-extinct past has been featured in the games medium to date, and why it is becoming so Hot Right Now.

Why Is Prehistory a Good Fit for Games?

Unique Setting

Prehistory makes for a unique game setting, free of modern comforts or weaponry, where the player is forced to fight for survival, often with crude tools and weapons. Prehistoric man didn’t have it easy, and every day was a struggle to find shelter and food while they themselves were in danger of becoming the next meal for a variety of predators. Mix in some creative license with history and the ability to have dinosaurs and man coexist, and you have a great setting in which to base a game.

Another variation of the prehistoric setting that is quite popular: science-fiction meets prehistory. Because what could be more awesome and deadly than a Tyrannosaurus Rex? How about a T-Rex with laser beams… in SPACE!!!

Some games, such as Dino Crisis, use experiments gone awry to bring dinosaurs into modern times. Other games have your character travel back in time, as in Chrono Trigger, or have your character travel to a primitive planet populated with dinosaurs, as in Star Fox Adventures. Still others use some strange combo of these devices, as in the Turok series, where you are a time-traveling warrior that travels to a primitive world called The Lost Land. In the upcoming Horizon Zero Dawn, your character hunts down robotic dinosaurs to salvage for scrap and resources on a post-apocalyptic Earth. They had me at “robotic dinosaurs.”

Cartoon Cavemen

Bonks-Adventure

The representation of prehistoric man in pop culture has often been cartoonish or silly. Google “caveman” and you are confronted with the typical image of a burly, hairy man in a leopard-spotted tunic, holding a giant club, or the GEICO pitchman from the mid-2000s. This representation is iconic and pervasive throughout pop culture, so it is easy to see how it seeped over into the gaming world.

Games took that stereotypical representation and ran with it, often including cavemen characters using clubs, spears, bones or even their own rock-hard skulls as weapons, as seen in games such as Bonk’s Adventure, Joe & Mac, and Chuck Rock. In addition to triggering a healthy dose of nostalgia, it is also just plain fun to play as a character with the sole motivation of going around whacking stuff.

Dinosaurs Make Awesome Enemies

Let’s say you are a game designer and need to design the perfect enemy. Dinosaurs meet all of the key criteria:

  • Sharp teeth? Check
  • Tendency to eat anything they come across? Check
  • Instantly recognizable? Check
  • Come in a variety of shapes and sizes to fit any game situation, from lowly common enemy to level boss that takes up the entire screen? Check

It’s no wonder that dinosaurs appear across a variety of game types and settings, from the raptors of World of Warcraft to the residents of Terrydactyland in Banjo-Tooie.

Why Are They Suddenly Popular?

While dinosaurs and prehistoric settings have never really gone away in games, recently they just seem to be popping up more and more often. Why is that?

Everything Old is New Again

You can go back to Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon from 2013 to see how dinosaurs reemerged from the ranks of unremarkable run-of-the-mill enemies to being featured prominently in the game as an enemy to be feared. I know they are technically called dragons in the game, but who do does Ubisoft think they are fooling? Those are dinosaurs. Radioactive dinosaurs that shoot lasers, perhaps, but dinosaurs nonetheless.

far-cry-blood-dragon
The art for Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon featured the titular enemy shooting laser beams out of its eyes. So rad.

Blood Dragon channeled a bygone era of ’80s action movie and game excess, epitomized by a laser-shooting dinosaur. Perhaps game developers took note and remembered that games don’t need “Turok” in their names to feature these prehistoric behemoths.

Another way of looking at this is to say that game trends — and entertainment trends in general — are cyclical. Perhaps developers had grown tired of churning out zombie games, and were looking for a new adversary to terrify their heroes. 2013 just so happened to be the same year that Jurassic World was announced. The reaction to that announcement, and then the success of the movie last year sends developers a clear message: audiences are ready to think dinosaurs are cool again.

Survival of the Fittest

Another possible explanation for the emergence of prehistoric settings would be the recent surge in popularity of survival games, where the player is placed in the middle of a wilderness with little food, clothing, or resources, and is tasked with surviving for as long as possible. Games like DayZ, Don’t Starve, and Rust have had tremendous success while being based on a very similar premise.

Since prehistoric settings are tailormade for survival games, it was only natural that soon games like ARK: Survival Evolved would come along, blending a robust crafting and survival system with a deadly menagerie of prehistoric enemies.

What Prehistoric Games Should I Play?

Here are some recent and upcoming prehistoric games worth checking out.

ARK: Survival Evolved (PC, Mac, PS4, XBox One)

In this survival game from Studio Wildcard, you are stranded on a mysterious island called ARK, where you must hunt, farm, and build shelters to stay alive, all while outsmarting dinosaurs, primeval creatures and even other players in order to survive. The game has been in early access since last year on Steam, and recently launched console versions.

Far Cry Primal (PC, PS4, Xbox One)

Take all of the insane, unexpected craziness of the Far Cry games, then set them in the Stone Age, which swaps out elephants and tigers with mammoths and sabre-toothed cats. The game features an all-new companion system that allows you to tame animals to assist you in your quest for survival. Now I just need to think up a good name for my pet jaguar… Got it: Atari.

LEGO Jurassic World (PC, PS4, Xbox One, Wii U, PS3, Xbox 360, PlayStation Vita, 3DS)

The obvious choice. This LEGO game lets you relive moments from all four movies, as well as create your own dinosaur hybrids. Because that always works out just fine, right?

Horizon Zero Dawn (PS4)

Horizon Zero Dawn made a big impression when it was announced at the Sony press conference during last year’s E3. People were blown away by its unique premise, setting, and art style, not to mention the giant robotic dinosaurs featured in the demo. The game doesn’t have a final release date, but is slated for sometime in 2016.


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