Serving your crew: DREAD HUNGER (eight-player cannibalism game)

Imagine you are trapped on a ship surrounded by ice in the Arctic, and some of your friends might actually not be whom they seem. Dread Hunger, a New Zealand computer game in which players can cannibalise their friends, has become a huge success, mainly in China.

I usually blog about cannibal movies here, or news stories about cannibalism when they break. This is the first game I have covered, although I am waiting to see the game “Borneo: A Jungle Nightmare” which is due for release this year – it is scripted and directed by Ruggero Deodato, who brought us one of the seminal cannibal movies in 1980: CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST. This game was originally going to have the same title, but is not a remake (in game form) of the original, but more like fourth in Deodato’s cannibal saga. Due out sometime in 2022.

Anyway, back to DREAD HUNGER! When the Christchurch company, Digital Confectioners, released the game earlier this year, they were hoping they might reach 10,000 players in the US. To their surprise, they found that more than 260,000 people in China play the game every day. Due to time zones, says Director Sam Evans, the demand is mostly between the hours of 12.30am and 5am New Zealand time (which for computer nerds is a fairly normal operating time).

Dread Hunger is a survival game set during an Arctic exploration in 1847-48. Players can build fires, fight off wolves, and hunt for food, including, sometimes, human flesh from their shipmates.

There are various weapons, and the players can also “pick up severed heads and limbs and use them to kill.”

One of the strategies is:

Betray Your Friends
Feed them tainted food, lure animals to attack them, hex them with blood magic, or if all else fails… just shoot them in the back.”

The game has become a target of hackers, including DDOS attacks and “cheats” where hackers find a loophole in the game code they can exploit to give players an unfair advantage.

Dread Hunger has just passed 1 million copies sold, a figure Evans called “insane”. The graphics are splendid and, well, graphic.

This has led to some new, if profitable, challenges.

“The American market largely treats games like a product. They buy the game, they play the game on average 10-15 hours over a few weeks, then they move on. But in China when they find a game they like, they play it for hundreds of hours, for years and years. This forced us to treat the game like a service. We now have to focus on continual development and regularly updating the game to add more cool features over time.”

The game is mainly based on the 1845 expedition of 129 men led by explorer Sir John Franklin, which left Britain for the Canadian Arctic in search of the elusive Northwest Passage. Their ships, the H.M.S. Erebus and the H.M.S. Terror never returned.

Rumours that the crew resorted to cannibalism have swirled around the doomed expedition since the nineteenth century. Evidence suggests that Franklin’s crew may have not only consumed the flesh of deceased compatriots, but also cracked their bones, to eat the marrow inside. In 1854, interviews with local Inuits described piles of human bones, cracked in half.

In 1864, Sir Edwin Landseer‘s painting Man Proposes, God Disposes caused a stir at the Royal Academy exhibition for its depiction of two polar bears, one chewing on a tattered ship’s ensign, the other gnawing on a human ribcage. Cannibalism did not get a mention – yet. 

More recently, in the 1980s and 1990s, researchers recovered remains of the crew on King William Island. Knife marks on the bones backed up early accounts of human cannibalism. A newer analysis of 35 bones by anthropologists Simon Mays and Owen Beattie suggests that the men did indeed eat each other. The bones showed signs of breakage and heating—indicating that the crew members probably cooked them to extract the marrow. Mays and Beattie published their results in 2015 in the International Journal of Osteology.

Horror writer Dan Simmons‘s 2007 book The Terror was developed as a 2018 AMC television series also called The Terror. The expedition has, over the years, taken on the mythic value to the British that the Donner Party holds in the USA.

One of the lines from the launch trailer (above):

“I have heard it said that this land can change a man. Turn him into a beast. Well, to that I would say—men were always beasts. Some you see, well, they’re just better at hiding it than others.”

Dread Hunger is what is called in games parlance a “social deduction game”. This is a category of game in which players attempt to uncover each other’s hidden role or team allegiance. It’s an ideal formula for a population who never know quite who the agents of their government might be. And also an ideal cannibalism game for the recent history of man-eating, in which the cannibals like Albert Fish, Jeffrey Dahmer, Issei Sagawa and Armin Meiwes all appeared as very ordinary, normal neighbours.

We all need to do some social deductions, it seems.

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