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Interview – Les Stroud Talks About Bringing Survival To Your Living Room Once Again With Survivorman VR: The Descent

When you think of survival tv shows, you’d be forgiven for thinking about the likes of Man vs Wild or Naked And Afraid, but the grandfather of those shows, and others like them, is Survivorman.

Les Stroud, better known as the one and only “Survivorman” started a new era of nature tv and survival shows when the first episode aired in April 2005, and he’s setting out to start another new era in media, though this time in games.

VR games, specifically, as he’s teamed up with Cream Productions to bring Survivorman VR: The Descent to life, a PlayStation VR2 title that practically puts you in the starring role of an episode of Survivorman.

PSU got to sit down with Stroud to talk about this coming title, and what he hopes Survivorman VR: The Descent will do for those who dive into the experience.

This conversation has been slightly edited for clarity.

Interview – Les Stroud Talks About Bringing Survival To Your Living Room Once Again With Survivorman VR: The Descent

PSU: Firstly, thank you so much for taking the time to chat today, I feel inclined to begin by saying that I am a big fan. I got flashbacks to watching your show as a kid when I was first reading about Survivorman VR: The Descent. Now I’ve been re-watching episodes, watching others for the first time, and it’s been really cool to look back on the show.


Well you know, your story is becoming quite common, and wonderfully so. There’s so many people I meet that are probably roughly around your age and you know, also some who are now having kids of their own and will be saying ‘I watch it with my five year old son or daughter.’

And it’s a thrill really, because I mean, I was doing new episodes for 18 years, and there’s a whole generation there of individuals like yourself, and it’s great. I bump into people all the time that will say, ‘Man I grew up watching your show and it was my only connection to my Dad’ or this and that. Love it. I absolutely love it.

PSU: Speaking of old episodes, I re-watched the pilot episode and the original documentary it was based on. Thank you for having them all up on YouTube, it was great to watch them and to be thinking about Survivorman VR now on its way. How did the idea for Survivorman VR: The Descent come about? Or just Survivorman VR? With a title like that it sounds to me like there’s going to be more coming in the future.


First of all, it’s been a thrill to put all my stuff up on YouTube and just make it free for everybody with everything I’ve ever done from Survivorman, Survivorman: Bigfoot, Beyond Survival, the new Wild Harvest series that’s on PBS stations in the States and it’s also on my YouTube channel.

There’s lots of stuff – oh and my music, the new music I’m doing. I love putting stuff up on YouTube and just making it free for everybody. But you’re so right, that connection between the VR and the show, some people are gonna go back and wonder if he’s got any episodes and then they find it on YouTube and there’s a whole channel full of them. It’s pretty cool.

As far as the VR goes, over the years it would make sense, you think ‘Why don’t you do a video game?’ you know, that came up over and over again.

It would be everything from ‘Well, here’s a really cheap and ugly way to do it, or try to do it another way it’s like a $35 million budget.’ It just never really clicked, it just didn’t seem possible.

I can’t release crap, I can’t release stuff that isn’t up to snuff, isn’t up to quality. And along comes an old production partner of mine who was originally there in the beginning days of Survivorman, a gentleman by the name of David Brady who has a company called Cream Productions.

We had stayed in touch, always talking about this or that, we’re always hatching little mini plans on what we should do. He said ‘I’ve got this whole wing of Cream Productions that were really focusing in on VR.’

And they’ve done it, they’ve done some forays into it in some other projects. And I said ‘Well, Survivorman is perfect for VR.’ And forgive me but I don’t really look at it like gaming so much as I look at it like it’s a simulator in the same way that helicopter pilots learn how to fly a helicopter with a simulator in the beginning, and when we positioned it that way I thought ‘All right, I can have fun with this, let’s see where we can go with this.’

But I was very hesitant in that, ‘Well let’s just see where it goes’ you know, this could fall flat on its face. Maybe the production team isn’t going to do their thing or the technology isn’t going to work.

So we started there, and that was probably almost three years ago. Now I mean, these things aren’t overnight builds you know, they take a long time, a lot of learning along the way. So that’s where we started.

PSU: What do you want people to take away from the experience of Survivorman VR? Do you want people to take away actual survival skills? Do you see this as both an interactive experience people can have but also as an educational tool?


Absolutely. I’m the idealist in the background, right? It’s my face and name and brand, all that is fine, that’s whatever. But in the end, I only ever did Survivorman to connect people to nature and teach survival skills.

I only ever did a lot of the other things I’ve done for the same reasoning, same thing for Survivorman VR. Because, you know I would go down to the production team and they would say ‘Oh we want to do this’ and ‘We want to do that.’

There were lots of times where I would just say ‘Well you can’t do that, that would never happen in survival.’ And they were so wonderful to work with because they never pushed back.

If Les says you can’t do that in survival, we’re not putting it in the game. So yes, absolutely I consider it educational, but it’s also a part of the gaming community too, so it’s got all that going on.

PSU: Do you think of this as a step towards a future where survival skills and being more connected with nature becomes more prevalent for people?


It’s a bit of a paradox, isn’t it? I know it’s a stretch for any, say, tree-hugger. It’s like ‘You’re not going to catch me playing a game’ sort of thing, but they’re missing the point here.

Let me go back a bit. My access to nature growing up was watching television, right? I’ve watched Jacques Cousteau, I watched Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, and some Disney shows. That was it.

Yet that instilled with me, is still within me, a powerful love of nature, that eventually I was able to get out in nature myself. So I look at it the same way, I think that if there is a connectedness to nature to be had, if you’re playing Survivorman VR: The Descent, I can imagine that even if just one person is doing that, and they finish and go ‘You know what, I don’t know why I just got to go outside.’

I think that what’ll happened, even if they don’t know why, it’s that they’ve been in this thing, learning these skills, and maybe I’m being a little bit naïve or altruistic, I’m not sure, but I think yes, yes is the short answer.

I think it definitely opens up a possible portal, no matter how thin it might be for people to remember nature. How about that?

PSU: What was behind the choice to make it an Arctic-based game, to do the Arctic first?


Well that was all Andrew, the designer Andrew Macdonald. I kind of let…I would have gone differently, but I’m not the one doing the 12 hours a day in front of some mega computers.

So it’s like, ‘Well what do you want to do?’ right, and that’s where he started so I just didn’t push back. ‘Okay, you’re going to go right to the Arctic area. Can’t we just start in you know, Upper New York State would be fine?’ Nope, right to the Arctic.

So that was really more Andrew, that was where they [Cream Productions] wanted to go. So then I turned it all on their heads and go ‘Okay, but if you’re gonna go there,’ and then I start correcting and correcting and fixing and holding their feet to the fire for authenticity.

And I’ll pre-empt one of your questions which I’m sure will come at the end about ‘are there other locations?’ oh man there are 1000 other locations.

PSU: Would starting in upstate New York have been your first choice if it was up to you?


Yeah probably. I’m still an instructor in a way, I’ll never not be, I still geek out on that stuff. If I go for a hike or snowshoe hike with my wife I might go ‘Hey, where would you make a shelter if you had to?’ and it’s not like I’m doing survival on my own now, you know, I don’t need to.

But I’m still a geek about it. I like starting small and you know, start simple, temperate forest in the summertime or something like that. But I think you know, I mean Andrew [Macdonald] had some good points with it.

I mean for one thing, it’s a game too, so it’s got to be exciting. Look, suspension of disbelief is also a wonderful thing. You know, I don’t go full bore, I don’t do reality television and I don’t believe in lying to my audience.

But by the same token, making it exciting matters. That’s why as Survivorman, I eventually went to the Arctic and to the jungles and deserts. So it’s kind of just a very exciting way to kick things off.

PSU: You talked about how the idea to make a video game had been tossed your way before, but that it never seemed to make sense. Now that it has with Survivorman VR, was there ever a moment along the way where you checked in on production or tried something new in the game and were really taken aback by the technology involved?


Oh yes, absolutely. In good ways and bad ways. It took me a while to get over the fact that I was living in a dream world, I though it would just be perfect. You know, I would look perfect, and it would be, you know. But I was living in a world where I’m comparing it to, you know, the budgets of Marvel Studios.

It’s like, ‘Well, if they can make a cartoon look exactly like Robert Downey Jr., why can’t my VR look like that,’ but I was being unrealistic. So it took me awhile to step back and go, ‘Okay, this is still a work in progress.’

But Andrew and the team at Cream, they are not just using platforms that exist and making Survivorman VR. They’re inventing platforms and inventing the process as they go and are bettering it constantly. And I saw that.

At first I was, ‘You know, hey, why doesn’t that look better?’ You know, and then the next time around, it did. ‘Oh, okay.’ And the next time after that it looked even better. So I saw progress. Where is it going? The skies the limit now.

Now, as you might know, a lot of things come down to budget, and we’re just getting going with this. I will hope that one day we have that kind of unlimited, you know, Marvel Studios-size budget, but for now we are definitely pushing the envelope huge with the budgets we have, and making what I think is something that’s really powerful.

The realism in it, so, obviously again they’re suspending some disbelief, I pop up on screen. So it is me, not only is it me speaking the voice, but when we would record these, any scripting they would do I would throw out and say I’m gonna do it my way. So you’re also getting my personality, not just me reading the script that the VR developers think I should say for that particular moment when you come over to the hilltop.

I’m saying, ‘Well, I wouldn’t even say that. But here’s what I would say.’ I like that. I think we’re bringing the realism in well with my own personality shining through because I’m establishing that, making sure it does. And I can go ad nauseum into the details of the survival side of it and the ways I would push the developers to do it correctly.

It’s a long way around answering your question, but I’m very pleasantly surprised. I went from high expectations that I had, brought down to reality and then they’ve gone right back up again.

PSU: When I was looking back at old Survivorman episodes, I was caught by something you said in the original documentary that became the pilot episode. Despite how difficult it can be to survive in nature, you called the experience “soul-filling” to be so far away from the “trappings of society.” So then where do you square the VR game with the soul-filling experience? Do you still think that ‘soul-filling’ quality is a part of Survivorman VR: The Descent?


It’s a great question because it would be really easy just to keep it hardcore. You know, it’s just about survival skills. And in fact, it was Andrew who – I mean, I pity the guys, Andrew and the team because I don’t know how many episodes of Survivorman they’ve had to watch or how often they’ve had to watch the same episode to see the kinds of things I do to bring that into the VR.

But by the same token, they picked up on the fact that I do exactly what you’re talking about. So yes, that’s actually part of the experience. There’s a moment in there, where I come to the edge of the mountain and we look out across the mountain, and that’s what we talk about. How beautiful it is.

So yes, we definitely squared that up, and it wasn’t even my idea, that was just Andrew who said ‘Hey, I was thinking about doing this, what do you think?’ and I said ‘Well I wouldn’t have even thought that we would have wanted to put that in there.’ Even as much as I would have wanted to put it in, and I’m so glad they did. And we’ll continue with that, absolutely.

Because you’re right, it is fulfilling to be out in nature like that. I wrote a children’s book called Wild Outside, it was directed towards 7-12’s, it was just to get them back out in nature again, me giving them ideas and things they can do, and it can be in the backyard.

And that has always been my mission, with Survivorman, and even the VR, it’s really what I’m doing is facilitating skills. A skill set that might just make you a bit more comfortable the next time you go on a hike in Algonquin Park, the next time you go on a trail in your neighborhood.

So yea, that’s definitely part of it. I mean, the skills are just that, there skills and they’re fun. But in the end, you realize ‘Oh, I know what to do now, in this situation.,’ because of Survivorman and Survivorman VR, which I think is pretty cool.

Before you go on to your next question I just want to make it known, I’m also thrilled at this, you know I cherry pick what to do with my career these days, and I’m doing an awful lot of music, scored films, scored all my own theme songs for my shows and I’m always performing and I’m releasing three albums this year starting February 16, 2024.

So I was thrilled when I realized – and we didn’t even think about it until halfway through – that ‘Why am I not scoring the music for this?’ So I don’t do all the music on the VR, but I’ve done a bunch of that and the next one around I’ll just do all the music. So that’s another thrill.

I bring all of my own artistic intent into this by being able to bring in my music, it’s fun.

PSU: Can you give me an example of something you got them to add to the game that wouldn’t have made it in otherwise?


Oh yeah, it’s kind of endless, because, and to their credit, they were doing the best they could but they haven’t gone out and actually done this stuff. Even if you watched my stuff from television, it’s hard to get it. So I worked a lot with Andrew on how to get a fire going using charred cloth.

We were back and forth and back and forth and ‘No, it wouldn’t be a flame Andrew, it would be an ember, it’s not a flame at this stage it’s just an ember’ and then Andrew would come back and I’d say ‘That’s a massive amount of embers, it would only be a tiny one.’

So we’d be going back and forth on the fine details. That’s me geeking out now on how to do charred cloth. Same thing happened with snaring a rabbit to get some food. So how do you snare a Snowshoe Hare? And again, they watched the show and everything, and it’s not right.

So I’m like ‘Well we can do it in the Arctic, but it’s tricky. So we have to do it a different way then you’re doing it. The way you’re doing it is as if it were in a forest, but we’re not in a forest we’re in the Arctic tundra, so you have to design it this way.’

To their credit, motor skills and hand manipulation in VR is hard, that’s really difficult to show. So I have to compromise. We have a thing where there’s a part when you repel off a cliff, and I was like ‘Well this is just all wrong,’ you know?

And the other thing we do in areas where there are greater experts than I, like, sure, you want survival? Don’t look past me. However when it comes to rock climbing, I mean I’ve done a little bit, I got a few skills and stuff. I think I got them in contact with Will Gaddd, an expert in rock climbing to make sure, ‘would it be a prusik loop? Which carabiner would be used, how tight would that be?’

But then we can’t show those fine motor skills, so here comes suspension of disbelief, you just touch on it and it’s tied. And with making snowshoes, you can make a snow shoe the way we show it in the game, but by the same token we can’t show those motor skills, so it has to be what it is.

But it is getting better and better and we’re able to show more and more all the time.

PSU: So do you think that one day Survivorman VR could be the best realistic survival simulation experience?


It already is.

I’ll tell you the truth though, you made me think of something. I don’t know what’s out there, and I don’t care. When I make television, I don’t know what the other networks are showing. I don’t care, I make what I make. I do what I do, and I do it to the best of my ability and I want it to be at a high standard, a high quality bar.

So you know I don’t know what else is out there, I don’t know what we’re up against because I’m not up against anything. You know when I did Survivorman and then other shows came along and were copying and doing certain things, and you know people say ‘Well why don’t you do this’ I don’t care what they’re doing.

I don’t even need to watch them, because I do what I do. Our new series Wild Harvest on PBS, we were the first on air with a foraging show, and now they’re everywhere. So I get another little claim, but the reality is that we were the first foraging show on television and I do not look at what any of the other shows are doing.

Because I do want to do what I do, from my level, my standard, stay where I’m at and be an artist about it as much as possible.

PSU: That brings me to another question I had, do you play any survival games, have you tried anything else that’s out there?


So I’m gonna break everyone’s hearts, I’m not a gamer. I was a gamer with my son, with Call Of Duty 24/7, but after we both drifted away from that I haven’t been a gamer since. So I feel like I have to be a little apologetic to the gamer community that I’m not a gamer, but I get it.

I was a Call Of Duty addict for a while, and other games as well. But I myself, I’m too busy writing songs and hiking in the woods.

PSU: I get that, can’t exactly take the controller with you on those hikes. You say you take your harmonica with you everywhere in Survivorman, is your harmonica in Survivorman VR: The Descent?


Short answer: yes.

PSU: Great.


And, there’s an Easter Egg in there as well, if you happen to be looking for a big, hairy walking creature in the woods, that might be an Easter Egg. But it’s not obvious.

PSU: A large-footed creature?


Exactly, some kind of creature with big feet, that might be one of our Easter Eggs. I mean Easter Eggs are obviously kind of a thing these days, but they’re fun, I love them.

PSU: Well I’m glad to have that confirmed. What would you like people to take away from this game? Do you think it would be great if someone played this and then had the urge to go camping?


I do, and that’s why I prefer to call it a simulation. Because you’re not cold, you’re not wet, you’re in your house, you’re not even tired. But yet you’re trying to mentally figure all these things out, get it right and do this. And I think it just naturally makes the connection.

It would be hard to gain a half a dozen skills or more from playing something like this and not remember them when you’re outside. That connection will definitely happen. Obviously that doesn’t happen with everything in Survivorman VR, but for a lot of it, it does.

I’m not even certain how to articulate why or how it happens, but just association, I guess.

It’s really wonderful, to actually create something that effects people personally, more than just entertainment. I love entertaining, don’t get me wrong, but that extra layer, that extra level is important, and I like that.

PSU: While the real thing could never compare to the experience in Survivorman VR, and you can’t exactly get people in the mindset that something is ‘live or die,’ do you think Survivorman VR is able to achieve putting players in those tense situations and mindsets?


Well yeah, a lot of that comes down to the wonderful design of Andrew and the team. You can die in this game a lot, and you don’t die by surviving correctly, you die by not surviving, by not doing the right things.

We’ve got film footage of people playing it, saying ‘Oh I’m getting too cold, I’m getting too cold!’ when they’re sitting in a chair inside. But they can feel that tension. With the watch that we have, I forget the name of it but there’s a watch that you wear, and it’s showing you your level of fire, and that it’s going out.

So you don’t just get a fire going and walk away, that fire is going to go out if you don’t pay attention to it. All these things happen in a succession that is actual, in the field, and because they happen in that succession you have to pay attention to them. So yeah, there is a tension and an excitement, to the whole game while you’re playing it, to the whole simulation I should say.

That I think was really kind of the point, and Andrew and the team were really good at bringing in some things that I wouldn’t know how to bring them into the gameplay, but they do. You can’t feel that you’re getting cold, but your watch is going to tell you that you’re getting cold.

When you die, you start to see this haze that takes over your eyes, and it’s like crystals and stuff coming in because you’re dying of hypothermia, you’re freezing to death. So yes is the short answer.

PSU: Mr. Stroud, I cannot thank you enough for your time today, it’s been a pleasure and a privilege getting to talk to you about Survivoman and Survivorman VR: The Descent.

Survivorman VR: The Descent is now available on PS5 and PS VR2, you can check out our review here.