Survival Horror vs. Survival Sandbox: A Taxonomy of Survival Genres


The categorization of video games into genres is a useful exercise for both developers and consumers as it helps in setting expectations, aligning design goals, and facilitating discussions. However, the concept of ‘survival’ in gaming is somewhat fluid and transcends multiple genres. Thus, delineating a taxonomy requires a careful consideration of gameplay mechanics, thematic elements, and player goals. To that end, I’ll start by laying out some fundamental features and mechanics common to both “Survival Horror” and “Survival Sandbox” games before diving into their distinct characteristics.

Common Features Across Both Genres

  1. Resource Management: In both survival horror and survival sandbox games, players typically need to manage a limited set of resources. This could include ammunition, food, tools, and health supplies.
  2. Environmental Challenges: Players often face challenges posed by the game environment itself, such as harsh weather, darkness, or obstacles.
  3. Vulnerability: Both genres often involve elements of vulnerability; players are not omnipotent and must rely on strategy and resourcefulness to survive.
  4. Real-Time Gameplay: Time often moves continuously in these games, placing a premium on quick decision-making and planning.
  5. Immersive Atmosphere: Both genres aim for a heightened sense of immersion, often through detailed graphics, sound design, and world-building.

Survival Horror

  1. Narrative Focus: Survival Horror games usually have a more tightly woven narrative compared to Survival Sandbox games. Story elements are often integrated into gameplay, and the sequence of events is relatively linear.
  2. Psychological Elements: The “horror” part often involves psychological elements designed to induce fear, dread, or tension.
  3. Limited Resources: While resource management is crucial in both genres, survival horror games often have scarcer resources, which adds to the tension and challenge.
  4. Thematic Unity: Survival horror often uses thematic elements such as zombies, supernatural entities, or post-apocalyptic settings that tie into both the narrative and the gameplay mechanics.
  5. Controlled Environment: The game environment is usually predetermined and not alterable by the player. This allows developers to create specific set-pieces or encounters designed to elicit certain emotional responses.

Survival Sandbox

  1. Open World: Survival Sandbox games usually feature a large, open world that players can explore freely.
  2. Crafting and Building: One of the hallmarks of this genre is the ability to craft tools and build structures. This gives players greater control over their environment.
  3. Emergent Gameplay: These games often feature emergent gameplay elements, whereby the complex systems interact in unscripted ways, allowing for a wide variety of experiences.
  4. Multiplayer Option: While not exclusive to survival sandbox games, multiplayer options are more commonly associated with this genre.
  5. Thematic Variety: The themes can range widely from realistic survival simulations to fantastical settings, making it a more diverse genre in terms of thematic material.


In summary, Survival Horror tends to focus on narrative and psychological tension within a controlled, thematic environment. Survival Sandbox games, on the other hand, emphasize open-world exploration, crafting, and emergent gameplay, often in a multiplayer setting. Both genres share core features such as resource management and environmental challenges, but they diverge significantly in terms of player goals, thematic elements, and gameplay mechanics.