I had the worst concievable opening experience with ARK Survival Evolved. I was grumpy at unrelated real-life things, so when my boyfriend created a private server and insisted I give the game a fair shake, I was hypercritical about not being able to instantly figure out how anything worked. How do I build a campfire? Why is it different how you gather wood from trees vs berries from bushes? Why’s it so bloody dark at night that I can’t see a damn thing? This game sucks!

Flashforward two years later, and I have what feels like a lifetime of stories from adventures all over our private island.

ARK Survival Evolved is one of the most immersive games I’ve ever played, and once you overcome the (admittedly steep) initial learning curve, it’s an amazingly-scalable experience where your ambition is limited only by your imagination. It took a pretty standard survival game plot (waking up naked on a dangerous tropical island) and added dinosaurs into the mix, which is already a pretty unbeatable combination, but the devs really took it a step further by adding a very long and expansive tech tree that levels your character at roughly the same speed you’re figuring out how things work. Right as you’re starting to find your bow-and-arrow isn’t good enough to hunt large game, you unlock the crossbow. Right as the beaches start feeling too limiting in exploration, you unlock boats.

The stronger you get, the more dangerous locales you can brave, from coastlines to forests to swamps to underground molten caves. The scariest parts of the map for us were the underwater sections, but they were also the most nutrient-rich, offering ready supply of oils, crystals, and other valuable materials for any intrepid scuba diver.

Of course, taming is a massive part of a dinosaur-themed survival game, and almost everything on the island can be tranquilized, domesticated and bred to create a prehistoric platoon at your beck and call. We found Argentavis far and away the most important species in our roster, and Asmund’s bird Czar Cider went on so many aerial dogfights and long-range rescue missions that he’s outleveled us these days.

The game doesn’t skive on customization either; all the animals, buildings, and even your own avatar can be painted to look however you like. We also both enjoyed creating editable signs to label the various outposts we’d created, organically turning the island into a map of our own construction.

And we’re not even playing the game properly! The two of us played exclusively on a private server, and I’m even more impressed at how much fun we were having without any MMO in our MMORPG. ARK takes its gameplay philosophy from the Minecraft playbook, in that it can effortlessly scale between any number of players from 1 to the server maximum. Not many games can pull that off.

At this point, our save file is showing its age, with the years of updates having left a couple unusual bugs in its wake (trees and rocks don’t respawn anymore, some of our painted constructions have reverted to unpainted, dinosaur spawns seem to have migrated from their original habitats, an NPC human somehow spawned into the server one time) but we’re still having a load of fun with it. If you’re in the market for an open-world survival game, ARK Survival Evolved is one of the best available right now.