RimWorld, the venerable deep space survival sim, was originally released in 2013 and requires less than a gigabyte of storage space. It exists entirely on a two-dimensional plane; the fauna and infrastructure looks to be constructed out of scrap paper, and characters resemble tiny, Flash cartoon jelly beans rather than flesh-and-blood human beings. That hasn't mattered, because RimWorld's core formula is strong enough that its most dedicated adherents routinely dump thousands of hours into their settlements. (There is no sicko quite like a RimWorld sicko.) But graphically and artistically, the game is in dire need of a fresh coat of paint.
That's the thought I kept returning to while I homesteaded in Stranded: Alien Dawn, which hit early access in October 2022 and is on the cusp of its first major content update. Yes, this is a shameless replication of the established RimWorld precepts, and yes it is almost mercenary in its predation, but maybe that's exactly what this genre needs.
To reiterate: Stranded: Alien Dawn is already in early access. You can purchase and play the game right now, on Steam, for $30. The preview event I attended wasn't some watershed unveiling of a brand new product, but instead an announcement of a swathe of additional material coming to the beta, under the update name Dunes and Moons. The headline addition is a new biome to play in, taking the form of a desert planet called, *sigh* "Desertum." But all of that trimming won't mean anything to you if you're coming to Stranded for the first time, so let me explain the basics.
Just like in RimWorld, Stranded makes you responsible for a small band of survivors who've crash landed on an unfriendly, unknown hostile planet. You manage their lives with a tableau of mechanics that blend both Terraria-esque base-building and Sims-ish psychodrama. You'll be dispatching your party to various jobs—salvaging raw materials, harvesting exotic fruit, or examining the migratory patterns of the strange insect-like creatures encroaching on your makeshift borders—and along the way, you'll get to know who the people you're stranded with are, on both the inside and out, for better or worse.
As the days woosh by, you'll find yourself with a little hardscrabble community to call your own, with climate-controlled bedrooms to steel against the harsh environs, and the promise of further expansion on the horizon. Suddenly, these lonely souls are no longer scavenging for food every day, because the gardens at their feet bloom with fresh produce, and the refrigerators are stocked with preserved animal meat.
Yes, Stranded keeps you on the brink—you're always one bad run-in with a carnivorous band of invaders from a game over screen—but generally, developer Haemimont Games keeps its focus on the experience itself. These refugees possess their own tics, biases, and specialties, even here, a long way from Earth. Sometimes the most fun you can have in Stranded is sitting back and relaxing while the pressure cooker boils over.
All of this should sound familiar to any RimWorld veteran. I cannot emphasize enough how brazenly Stranded apes from its forefather. But Haemimont also renders its survival sim with adept graphical immersion. You will be peering down from a celestial panorama, onto a realm that seems to radiate with enticing mystery. In my playthrough, a bundle of white, Seussian brambles encircled our perimeter, gleaming with berries that looked both delicious… and also a potential honeytrap. (After enough research, we concluded that they were fine to eat, and could even be brewed into a nice tea.)
A pod of dastardly scorpion creatures lingered at our north. We knew not to mess with them just by eyeing at the gooey pustules that marked their hives. My camp had much better luck with the four-legged bovines to the south, which we quickly claimed as our hunting grounds.
Other games leave this safari to your imagination. It's up to you to dream up the shape and texture of the meals the refugees are eating around the fire, with only the help of a brief, expository text box. Stranded goes much further. This isn't a roughshod indie drawing heritage out of ASCII roguelikes. Stranded pops off the screen with radiant alien splendor. The developers clearly took on its worldbuilding duties with confidence.
Of course, any survival game requires much longer than an hour to reveal all its wrinkles. I was barely getting my lean-tos up by the time my demo was over. The impregnable fortresses of the late-game—towering stockpiles, enough food to feed an army, an enduring sense of fearlessness in response to any threat—could not be achieved with my small pile of wood and iron. For now, my troupe slept in thatched cots, with the faint hope of upgrading to linens, maybe even wool. A man can dream. We probably won't know if Stranded: Alien Dawn has legs until many more shifts under the burning Desertum sun. But there is one thing I can say for sure: RimWorld finally has some real competition, and that's good for the genre as a whole.