Where Darwin professes allegiance to the cult of Hunger Games, SOS stakes its claim on another such cultural artifact: the dismayingly-popular mode of entertainment known as the American reality show. And while it shares the many-contestants, few-winners approach with other BR games, it’s ultimately much more of an experiment, an odd cocktail that combines the social ingenuity that powers old-school chat rooms and Twitch streams with the high-stakes weapon-fumbling of survival games. You’re dropped on a deserted island populated by roving hordes of zombies with fifteen other survivors, and only three can make it out. The game is built from the ground-up with Twitch integration in mind, and it shows - in my experience, nearly a third of the participants of any given match have their streaming handles visible. The audience can even vote to trigger supply drops for their favorite castaways.
“One of the things we’ve seen in the games business - especially in AAA - is that it kinda seems like all the games are slowly turning into the same game,” says Ian Milham, the creative director of SOS. “Honestly, I’m okay with SOS not appealing to everyone on planet Earth. I think that’s part of having a point of view as a designer. I think that’s how interesting stuff gets made. I think a lot of games have tried to do the idea of temporary alliances - people meet, people have similar goals, people betray each other - a lot of games have tried to do that, and I feel like we’ve done that better than most. SOS isn’t a zero-sum game. The fact that three people can escape together leads to much more interesting dynamics than most.”
As Milham indicates, SOS is an extremely divisive experience - after only a few matches, most will either fall in love with its unique but threadbare charms or cast it aside without a second thought. Since it relies so heavily on player interaction, Outpost puts a lot of faith in its competitors to carry the day with sincere performances and strategic play. And while I’ve certainly seen that happen in a handful of games - betrayed at the hands of a trusted ally who spoke with a immaculate German accent, or otherwise lured to an undignified demise - I spent the vast majority of my time with SOS trying to make friends with players who just wanted to sling a knife into my throat on-sight, or bonk me on the head with a skull when I turned my back. Though I occasionally broached the expected patina of immaturity and racial epithets that usually accompanies such extended use of voice chat in multiplayer games, as a whole, I found that the biggest issue with the game isn’t toxicity - it’s apathy. Like most games that turn almost entirely on social interaction - the collected works of Jackbox Games comes to mind - a match of SOS lives or dies by the composition of the players participating in it.
But as Milham himself says, this isn’t necessarily an intractable problem. That’s part of why they’re introducing tournaments with actual cash prizes - dubbed “Prime Time,” in another nod to its televised inspirations - that combine eight of the most mechanically-adept fighters with eight of the most “entertaining” players in the game, as chosen by Outpost. Much like Survivor, watching these clashes unfold in real time on a streaming service might make for a fun evening of guilty indulgence, but I’m not sure if I’m game for participating in the festivities myself. Even so, I’m glad that games as strange and bold as SOS can exist in our current cutthroat gaming climate.