Expeditions: Shackleton

Here is a thought. A lot of games center on the idea of discovery and exploration. From Text Adventures, Roguelikes, RPGs, First-Person Shooters, Point & Click adventures and whatnot, only very few games avoid tapping into this theme. The most iconic representation of this idea is the dungeon. A hero or a group of heroes ventures inside a cavern to explore it and to retrieve something or to kill something.

The problem is that the actual activities the games depict are actually never the activities that real expeditions consist of. Almost all games seem to boil down all dangers and challenges of exploration to just combat, perhaps with the exclusion of Point & Click adventures.

I decided to dig into books on real expeditions to get a feel of what challenges real exploration involves and to perhaps find inspiration for alternative interaction. The first book I stumbled upon is called Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage. It an account of the Imperial Trans-Atlantic Expedition. Here is a documentary if you are interested in details.

The general story is that Shackleton wanted to cross the Antarctic after failing to reach the South Pole on numerous other expeditions. He had a crew of 28 men or so. He had a formidable, new ship – The Endurance. He also had lots of supplies and plenty of experience from other expeditions. Unfortunately, the expedition failed very early and it turned into a lengthy battle for survival. The Ship got stuck in pack ice of the Weddell Sea off the coast of Antarctica. The crew spend a couple of months there. Eventually, the ship was crushed by the pressure of the ice and they had to use boats to venture back home. Here are the different phases of the expedition.

  • Ship Voyage The Ship voyage took 190 days counting from it’s departure in England. But the ship stopped at multiple locations to pick up supplies and crew members. The duration from it’s final port was 71 days. It was a dangerous sea voyage. The biggest concern was avoiding the pack ice and to find a way between the ice floes. Sadly, the ship eventually got stuck.

  • Stuck in Ice The Ship was stuck for 252 days. They had to spend the entire arctic winter there – which is a time where the sun doesn’t rise and the temperatures outside are deadly low. They had plenty of supplies. The activities involved hunting seals and penguins and trying to chisel away the ice – which soon turned out to be futile. Otherwise, the biggest problem seem to be boredom and morale. There were various activities, including the training of the numerous sled dogs they brought with them.

  • Camping on Ice The ship eventually got crushed and they had to set up camp on ice. This period lasted 164 days. They moved their camp multiple times during this period. Initially, the idea was to just travel to the edge of the ice field by foot until they would find land or open water. However, the ice field proved to be impassible due to pressure ridges and the various attempts were stalled. However, they were on ice and they were actually drifting away from Antartica much faster than they would travel by foot. So they pretty much decided to camp out until the ice loosened up and allowed them to continue on foot or on boats. The activities during camping involved moving the equipment, scavenging the wreck for supplies as well as hunting seals and penguins. One team member was attacked by a Sea Leopard. There was also the challenge of the management of resources, protection against the elements (cold, moisture, wind) and the maintenance of morale. Some troublesome crew members almost started a mutiny. By the end of this period, the ice started to break up, so there was the additional danger of losing people and equipment when the ice breaks underneath.

  • 1st Boat Voyage At some point, a major break up encouraged the team to pack their stuff into the 3 boats they had and to sail to a nearby island. This lasted only 6 days, a very short and intense period compared to the lengthy previous ones. However, it turned out to be also a very dangerous and exhausting one. The biggest problem at this point was navigation of the boats and the struggle against currents, winds and ice obstacles. This also involved the question of destination. There were multiple islands nearby and there were multiple variables to consider. Another challenge was the physical abuse by the low temperatures, constant moisture and wind as well as the resulting lack of rest. Initial attempts to camp on ice bergs and ice floats turned out to be almost deadly. Ice floats split apart. Ice bergs can suddenly turn over as they melt away. The last few days were spent on the open sea. Hardly any of the men slept. One lost a foot due to loss of circulation in the cold. One suffered a heart attack upon arrival due to the exhaustion. But all of them survived.

  • Camping on Elephant Island For the first time since almost 1,5 years, the men were on land. Most of them would need to camp out on the island called Elephant Island for another 138 days. Elephant Island in some regard was less hospitable than the pack ice. It was exposed to constant, strong winds. There was no vegetation. The only accessible part were two small, rocky beaches. The one they landed on turned out not to be safe from floods, so they had to move. The challenges involved finding or building shelter against the elements, hunting of seals and penguins and the management of supplies which were running dangerously low at this point. Some men were incapacitated due to the sea voyage and needed medical attention. Amazingly, the group somewhat stabilized eventually.

  • 2nd Boat Voyage Just a few days after arrival on Elephant island, Shackleton selected a crew of 5 men and himself to travel to South Georgia to finally get help. The voyage lasted 16 days. South Georgia was around 1500km away on the other side of the Drake Passage a particularly dangerous patch of ocean. The biggest boat they had, the James Caird was upgraded for the voyage. They installed a deck for protection against the elements and a second sail. The voyage lasted 16 days. Again, the biggest challenge was navigation, exposure to elements, physical exhaustion and management of resources. At some point, one of the water containers they had turned out to have a leak and to be polluted by sea water. The last few days they went without water. The deck protected the men against the elements somewhat, but because the boat was small, they were constantly drenched in water anyway. The temperatures were so low, they had to chisel away ice that occasionally accumulated on the boat. Most dangerous was perhaps the last section, where a storm threatened to smash the boat against the cliffs of their destination – South Georgia.

  • Treck across South Georgia They arrived at South Georgia but on the wrong side. Stormness, the whaling station they needed to get to, was on the other side of the island. The boat they had was damaged during the landing. Shackleton decided to get there on land. He decided to travel lightly with two other men and to get there in a single attempt. The distance was around 50km. They did it in 36 hours. They terrain was incredibly dangerous. The island consists of rocky mountains and glaciers. It was deemed by the inhabitants of Stormness as “impassable”. They were the first ever to make the trip. The group only had a rope, boots they upgraded with some screws from the boat and an ice pick. They weren’t equipped to camp on their way. In fact, they couldn’t sleep on their way as they would freeze to death at those altitudes. Challenges involved navigation and the traversal of terrain.

After arriving at Stormness, they send out ships to rescue the 3 men left at the other side of South Georgia. Rescuing the men on Elephant Island took multiple attempts and a couple of months due to pack ice. The entire story is quite remarkable. They spent 1,5 years in ice. A long period of it with almost no shelter. Nobody died. Especially the travel across the Drake Passage and the trek across South Georgia were almost miraculous feats.

In comparison to exploration in video games what stands out is the length of the trip. There were very long periods of relative stability where the challenge was to survive at a certain spot for some time. There were also multiple, shorter periods of intense danger. They usually involved travel of some sort. Only one period – the last one – didn’t involve camping out somewhere. Even in this period, fatigue was a huge challenge. Speaking of which, here are some recurring challenges that could and perhaps should be modeled in a videogame about exploration:

  • Navigation and Traversal Figuring out where you are. Figuring out where to go. Figuring how to get there. Overcoming obstacles and dangers (pressure ridges, ice bergs, floats, rocks, waves, currents, winds, cliffs, etc.).

  • Shelter Figuring how to find shelter against the elements – cold, snow, rain, wind. Figuring out safe places to sleep and to stay for longer. Avoiding cracks in ice, unstable ice bergs. Depends very much on the weather. Not being able to rest properly leads to rapid deterioration of health.

  • Management of Resources Figuring how to distribute resources. Stretching out of provision leads to loss of strength and morale. Repetitive diet also lowers morale. “Treats” can raise morale. Also, some kinds of consumables last longer than others. Consumables can get spoiled or contaminated. Not limited to just consumables. Equipment also plays a role – sleeping bags, clothes, tents, cooking equipment, boats, sleds. Often resources need to be transported or left behind.

  • Hunting and Scavenging Probably closest to video-game like combat. The Shackleton expedition killed Seals, Sea Leopards and Penguins. Sea Leopards were the only ones that were remotely dangerous. In general, hunting wasn’t so much combat as slaughtering. The difficulty was spotting the animals and to kill as much animals as possible before the packs dispersed and fled. Scavenging is pretty well modeled in games with looting.

  • Health and Fatigue Health works different than in games. Health is not so much a linear value. What instead counts are individual injuries and illnesses. A man, who freezes his feet off will never be able to walk anymore, no matter how well you tend to his wounds. Minor injuries such as frost bite can heal if the men can rest. A more important aspect rarely modeled in games is fatigue. This can be modeled as a linear value. But the effectivity of a team member is slowly diminished as fatigue increases.

  • Morale An aspect rarely modeled in games is morale. This refers to how much the crew members are willing to obey orders. This can also mean a general belief in the success of the operation or simply mood and motivation. Shackleton observed the morale of his crew very carefully. Especially in times of great distress such as the boat journeys, he managed the resources and provisions very carefully to keep the morale up. In less dangerous times, he managed the living quarters. He kept team members with low morale close to him so he cold keep and eye on them and so they wouldn’t spread their bad influence on others.

Whew, this got longer than I had expected. I will dig into more expeditions and compare the notes eventually. Until then, I can wholeheartedly recommend the above book. It is very well written and the incredible account rivals a lot of fictional stories in intensity and drama. I’m open to suggestions if you have other expedition accounts I should check out.

Krystian Majewski

Krystian Majewski was born in Warsaw and studied design at Köln International School of Design. Before, he was working on a mid-size console project for NEON Studios in Frankfurt. He helped establish a Master course in Game Design and Research at the Cologne Game Lab. Today he teaches Game Design at various institutions and develops independent games.

6 responses to “Expeditions: Shackleton”

  1. Thomas Grip
  2. Krystian Majewski

    Yeah, well Shackleton turned into survival very soon as well. Thanks! I saw this book during my first skim but wasn’t quite sure. Now I’ll certainly give it a try!

    I think I remember you guys mentioned something about research into the psychology and social phenomena among Antarctic research stations for Penumbra? Do I remember correctly or am I mixing up something?

  3. Alex Moseley

    Great post Krystian. I’ve been fascinated by exploration voyages for years, and Shakleton’s (and Scott’s) ’scientific’ and explorative voyages are some of the most enthralling as you recount beautifully here (it also helps that journals and photographs are available, and now in clearer and widely available versions, which adds to the sense of wonder: maps of ice-shelves, frozen ponies on ice, the South Polar Journal and other contemporary journey newspapers etc.). My colleague at the University of Leicester, Mark Rawlinson (@nosnilwar) is dipping into the literary value of these journals and records; but now you’ve awoken my eyes to a (now obvious!) link I can make between one interest and my ‘main’ research interest in games design. Thank you! And may the journey be kind, and thrilling, for us!

  4. Jackson Lango

    If you haven’t played The Thing, I’d recommend it. In it you have to deal with team morale and the cold (as well as fight off aliens)

  5. Thomas Grip

    “I think I remember you guys mentioned something about research into the psychology and social phenomena among Antarctic research stations for Penumbra?”
    You might are probably mixing things up (or I have been unclear), becuase there was very little research done for Penumbra :)

    On the subject though, there is an interesting documentary on present day antarctica researchers here:

    Another interesting artctic expedition is the Franklin one. For a slightly supernatural twist to it you might want to give The Terror by Dan Simmons ago. It is pretty much factually correct (the book has like 10 pages of small print references + most of the happens are fragmental), but adds a monster that is stalking the crew. Great stuff though.

  6. Robin Saunders

    I haven’t had a chance to watch this in full yet, but it looks like the sort of thing you might be interested in: http://vimeo.com/33967921


The Game Design Scrapbook is a second blog of group of three game designers from Germany. On our first blog, Game Design Reviews we describe some games we played and point out various interesting details. Unfortunately, we found out that we also need some place to collect quick and dirty ideas that pop into our minds. Hence, welcome to Game Design Scrapbook. You will encounter wild, random rantings. Many of then incoherent. Some of them maybe even in German. If you don't like it, you might enjoy Game Design Reviews more.


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