In 2000, CBS debuted Survivor in the United States. It wasn’t the first iteration of the show—it had first gained prominence in 1997, as a Swedish production known as Expedition Robinson. The name, of course, is a play on both Robinson Crusoe and The Swiss Family Robinson. The format was almost identical to the later United States version, with two teams competing in challenges until they were merged into a single team, and participants competed for individual immunity.
With minor tweaks over the years, American Survivor still follows this baseline format. As an observer, we know it to be a constructed game, one that we watch for the drama, the excitement and comedy of it. We know that the contestants chose to be on this remote island where they all, communally, pretend that there are not camera crews watching them constantly. They exist fully in the magic circle.)
Survivor is widely considered to be one of the first shows that began the Reality TV craze of the early 2000s in America. It was tense, funny, infinitely watchable, and required very little of the writing budget traditionally allocated to prime-time television. This formula was, as you might expect, copied and rehashed time and time again, especially during the 2007-08 writers strike. Every network wanted their own island of desperate, dramatic players.
The game of Survivor is fake, at least on some level, and we know this. But the stakes are—to a degree—real. This combination brings out the most watchable of human drama, that of inner turmoil dredged up into external conflict. It is an artificial construction that facilitates genuine interaction.
Reija Meriläinen’s Survivor is a game that is definitely not CBS’s Survivor). But it’s… something like it. It’s a commentary on it, on the entire concept of a game built around artifice that we are meant to enjoy as a viewer.
Much like CBS’s show, Meriläinen’s Survivor takes place in an unfamiliar environment, populated with strangers, undergoing a series of “immunity challenges” before being sentenced to a final vote at the end of each preordained session where one contestant is eliminated. It is beat-to-beat drawing from the same game design.
But Meriläinen is not satisfied with this. There is something more here. Replace the lush jungles of CBS’s Survivor with a white box museum. Replace the real people with shiny, almost-human-but-not-quite-human homunculi. Replace announcer Jeff Probst with a nameless, increasingly frustrated female announcer. And, of course, use what is available in a digital medium to change the mundane challenges into the absurd.
In doing so, the game becomes a commentary not just on the unreality of the reality show experience, but on the way that we as viewers revel in inner conflict. The announcer, at first excited and enthusiastic, becomes surly and rude as the game goes on. Each elimination by vote ends with an announcer comment—which, as the player count dwindles, becomes more and more direct. She chastises eliminated players for not living up to their potential, for being the person who all their friends talked about behind their back, for not being good enough.
The game is framed not as a television show but as a sort of “how-to guide” on creating a game of Survivor to play with your friends. The other contestants talk to you about the television show of the same name, remarking how odd it is to be playing a game that is so similar, yet never addresses the similarity head-on.
Midway through the experience, a contestant dies, jumping from a railing and narrowly missing the padded landing surface. The death is barely commented on, except as a quick note by the announcer. It is surgically clean, not a person anymore but a beat—a piece of drama to be mined for content.
Reija Meriläinen’s Survivor thus makes itself two layers of constructed artifice: first, the game itself, the program that you launch on your computer, acts as the first layer. But inside that simulation is the simulation of the game Survivor. By making the experience multilayered, Meriläinen can comment on both layers of the game. We are both watcher and participant, both consumer of drama and actor in drama.
Meriläinen’s Survivor is hardly the first game to interrogate the participation of players. Even in the past few years, one could point to any number of titles that do so: Undertale, The Stanley Parable, even the original Bioshock. Where Meriläinen’s Survivor sets itself apart is through how blatantly it carries itself as an interrogation of not just the game as a participatory medium, but of the notion of consuming and enjoying the seeds of self-doubt that are sown in the reality show experience.
The action comes when someone breaks, when something fake becomes very real. When someone falls from a catwalk, or when someone is cast off from the island. Meriläinen’s Survivor throws a wrench into the entire system: When the whole game isn’t real, why do we keep playing? It also answers this: because we love drama.
Dante Douglas is a writer, poet and game developer. You can find him on Twitter at @videodante.