Fending Off ‘The Long Dark’: A Preview
The Long Dark is a cruel inventory. A geomagnetic disaster. A near-empty and frighteningly cold Canadian landscape. A single player and so much quiet. The constant pangs of hunger and chattering teeth. Auroras and the howls of sometimes-nearby wolves. And best of all: no zombies.
That departure just might be one of The Long Dark’s most popular features as the game marches toward completion. For those who are interested in playing only a survival game, not a survival-and-zombie-hacking game, it’s a welcome breath of (brutally cold) air. Unlike DayZ or The Forest or plenty of other recent titles, there are no undead or otherworldly creatures haunting the post-apocalypse. It’s just a person (you can choose between a male or female character) and the basics: the balance between exhaustion, hunger, cold, and thirst.
Currently, the game is in an “alpha” state and can be purchased via Steam’s “Early Access” feature, which allows gamers to purchase an in-progress version of a game at a discount while still receiving all the future updates, including the final product itself. The Long Dark currently features only a sandbox mode, in which there is no true purpose other than to survive as long as possible. That’s not particularly easy, but it is surprisingly fun.
In starting a new sandbox game, the screen fades-in to a snowcovered landscape. You have an always-diminishing store of calories and are wearing a few meager pieces of clothing. In the first few seconds, you’re already starting to die. Finding shelter is a good first step, and then food, perhaps. The game features a warning in its splashscreen that the game should not be considered as wilderness training, although it is an interesting play on our logic, and how little most of us probably truly know about surviving in the wild. Even in the first fifteen minutes of gameplay, you’ll be forced to start making decisions—stay inside where it is warm and go hungry, or venture out into the cold to perhaps stumble into some food, or a half-frozen deer carcass.
Aside from the most basic of foraging through the various structures dotted around the near-empty landscape, players can go foraging for wood, “harvest” materials from spare pieces of clothing, use those materials to repair that nice warm coat you don’t want to lose, and more. A recent update also added in the ability to create snares, which can be used to catch rabbits. Not surprisingly, fending off the “long dark” for any significant amount of time will rely on a crafty balance between all of these needs.
I experienced a curious dissonance playing The Long Dark similar in feel to playing through Gone Home, another game that is similarly exploratory in nature—for the first hour or so of gameplay, I was in a constant state of worry about what creature might be hiding out over the next hill, or down that dark corridor. After years of playing games that rely upon jump scares after periods of quiet and calm, dusty ambiances that are thoroughly shattered by some new horror, it’s at once frightening and relieving to play a game that hones in on the horrors of the self: cruel hunger, or a cold that haunts.
There are, of course, wolves that need to be kept aware of—wander too close and they’ll start to stalk you, then give chase. Flares can sometimes be used to scare them off, but it’s not a reliable means of staying alive. Being a game still in development, however, those threats just got increasingly difficult to manage via a major update released on October 29—my first game, in which I survived for three in-game days, ended at the jaws of an angry wolf. And the next two? I could barely make it past a half-hour.
The game’s developer, Hinterland Games, is making some compelling promises about the final version of the game, including an episodic story mode, in which the player will follow bush pilot Will Mackenzie as he tries to navigate the brutal landscape and the few other survivors still lingering. Hinterland is teasing new survival techniques, new features, and a hefty set of moral questions when it comes to the other survivors you might stumble upon during the game: team up with them or take them down in order to commandeer their shelters and eat their cans of beans?
The first episode of that storyline, along with the final version of the sandbox mode, are slated to come later this year.
It’s hard to say how that storyline will play out, and if it will live up to the expectations planted by this early exploratory version of the game, but the promise of sheer survival was compelling enough to get me to fork over the $20 to see that in eventual action. We need more human survival stories—yes, one can cram a human story into a world haunted by zombies, but there will always remain that filter—another dissonance, perhaps—that prevents us from truly experiencing the basics of survival. Other apocalyptic games, even brilliant ones like The Last of Us, lose realism in the lack of the day-to-day. How to find enough food. How long one’s toes can stay numb and still be alive. The challenge of lighting a fire when there are only so many matches to go around.
There is a wide gap in the survival genre that has yet to be filled with a game that offers a compelling, human storyline balanced with the most basic needs of survival. The Long Dark might still be forthcoming, but it’s the best candidate we have yet in filling that niche. It certainly forces you to take stock of your own surroundings and your own immediate needs. I recently opened up my pantry and tried to estimate how long I could survive on the current stock. But even more impressive is its simple nuance—the chattering of teeth, the sharp intakes of breath at the cruelly cold Canadian temperatures—that make this writer appreciate the desert in which he lives, and the 90+ degree days that brutalize even in the end of October.
Even for now, the game is worth its $20 for that feeling alone.