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The Eternal Beach

8666 Swimmers

7990 Surfer shapes 2

8516 Transient Alps  2

8800 Whitewash

8243 Aquatic

8679 In full flight B & W

7916 Shiny 2

8248 Bronte B & W

8281 Bronte

8817 Bronte surf

8576 Surry Hills, Sydney

8627 Rainy St John's college

8282 Into the Pacific

7981 Surfer's leap B&W

8495 A long way to Chile

8175 iPhone 2

7877 Pastel haze

8876 Donovan's Leap

I doubt I’ll ever get bored of the beach – it is simply far too beautiful and pleasurable. It is the key to life in Sydney for almost three quarters of the year, considering we usually swim from November through to the end of June. Sydney has many attractions, of course, and I never forget how fortunate I am to live in a society with such a high standard of living and sophisticated lifestyle. Yet, what makes the beach so wonderful is not merely the refreshing sense of well-being it offers, but the grandeur of the expanse, the light and space and the humbling, epic nature of the ocean’s power.

Years ago I came to these sea-cliffs at night and sat atop them under a full moon, pondering the incomprehensible vastness of geological history. Even the ancient sandstone cliffs tell a relatively recent story, compared to the oceans of time that preceded the laying of those sediments. I never fail to look at those cliffs against the backdrop of the Pacific and consider how deep and long is the history of the earth, and indeed, the universe. Thus the beach not only offers pleasure, space, light and beauty, but it also prompts philosophical considerations – our insignificance before both nature and time, our fleeting time in the light of our otherwise unremarkable sun.

Whilst the beach may never bore me, I do wonder how long I can continue to shoot it. It seems as though I take photos of nothing else at the moment, and yet, in truth, I hardly go anywhere else outside of work and various regular commutes. Still, considering how frustrated I feel when I forget to take my camera with me to the beach, it seems that inside I still have a burning desire to mine the sea and sand for gold. The new mission is to try to photograph surfers more, to capture the languid shapes they create as they balance themselves on their boards. One day, I’ll get around to learning how to surf myself…

3149 London

3148a London

3154 London

London, June 6, 2006

 

This sequence of shots was taken in London, near Hammersmith if I remember correctly, but I could be wrong. I was visiting a friend of a friend in June 2006 and so the details are a tad sketchy. What I most certainly remember is this curious vista of neatly divided backyards before a railway viaduct and the ladies playing badminton over the fence. The scene was a touching reminder of the cultural diversity of London; the reality of ethnic minorities living directly under a railway seems such a European trope that it has an almost fictional, invented neatness about it.

What I love about this shot is the obvious happiness of the subjects and the clear joy they get from living next door to each other and being able to interact in this way. They’ve clearly put a lot of effort into their new gardens and seem to be living happy, harmonious lives. I especially like the juxtaposition in this scene. The contrasting elements of the new – neatly bushy green grass with the fresh wood of the fences and the red brick – further juxtaposed with the dirty old brick of the railway viaduct under a ubiquitous grey sky seems in some way typical of London. I’ve always found London to be an ugly city with a bland palette, lacking colour and pleasing vistas. It’s certainly an amazing cultural and historical centre and a wonderful city, but it’s rarely pleasing on the eye and feels aesthetically harrowing much of the time. These families seem determined to create an oasis of beauty amongst the dull, industrial brick and uninspired architecture. Hear hear!

 

Easter Road Toll

In February 1988, at the tender age of 15, some friends and I decided to form a punk / thrash band. Like so many young people going through puberty we were electrified with the spirit of rebellion and longed to make ourselves heard. After some lengthy lunch-time discussions of possible band names, one good friend, Owen, suggested Easter Road Toll as an appropriately offensive moniker and we were all instantly taken with it. Six of us agreed to meet at Owen’s place on the following Saturday and, keen to drive the project and play a leading role, I went home that night and wrote 10 songs in a couple of hours.

Having no musical training whatsoever, being practically tone deaf and entirely unable to carry a tune, I just wrote lyrics with simple rhymes and meters. When I showed these songs to “the band” at school the following day the excitement around the project grew to a fever pitch and we eagerly awaited that first “recording session.”

What followed on that first Easter Road Toll Saturday was an awful mess of teenage boys screaming into a tape-recorder and making a tuneless, discordant racket in Owen’s bedroom. Only three of us – Demitri, Max and Chez – had any recognisable musical ability, yet with no preparation or rehearsal, very little of this shone through on the day.

That first “album”, which we titled Gate Crashing at the Doors of Hell, is really very painful to listen to. A series of poorly chosen drum beats on the Casio, the squealing of boys on the verge of adolescence, the hammering of misshapen chords on poorly tuned guitars, the thumping of various items of furniture and the gang shouting of incomprehensible lyrics, does not make much of an album. It was, however, a first attempt and it got us excited enough to strive for something more orderly and complete.

Easter Road Toll

Easter Road Toll, with “Chez” as guest bassist, c. 1988

Within a few months the band’s numbers had been whittled down to three – Demitri, Mike and me – and D actually took the time to compose music for the lyrics which I churned out at a rate of knots. I bought a guitar and started taking lessons, but I was far too lazy to practise properly and could at best provide a sloppy rhythm section. Mike, our drummer, couldn’t yet afford a kit and so we either recorded with a drum machine or got him to play – wait for it – chairs. The stretched pleather of the cushions had to suffice for any “live” recordings which were made in Demitri’s garage. Other noise-making implements were also employed, including a real whipper snipper, pots, pans and a bicycle, adding a hint of German industrial to something otherwise entirely unclassifiable.

The main problem with Easter Road Toll was not the lyrics, which were universally pretty awful, but the fact that I sang most of the songs. Whereas I’d like to think I could write some decent lyrics these days, and have spent years trying to improve my singing, I certainly couldn’t write anything worthwhile back then and I most certainly could not sing. We did improve over time – Mike got a drumkit and achieved a basic level of enthusiastic competence, Demitri developed into an accomplished guitarist and singer, and my guitar playing improved marginally, yet I remained by far the weakest link. The last recording we ever made was after a four-year hiatus – in 1994 – where we laid down a couple of old favourites – Schwarzenegger and Zombies are Philosophers on a four-track. Despite being drunk and stoned and the songs being unrehearsed, those two tracks are without a doubt the best standard we ever achieved, largely due to the fact that Demitri’s tradecraft had improved so much in the intervening years.

Easter Road Toll 8

Easter Road Toll 14

Easter Road Toll 4

The final line-up, D, Mike and Me – acne, angst and the garage

The reason I am summoning Easter Road Toll back from the grave is that recently I bought a USB cassette player and have begun converting all our recordings into digital format. I haven’t owned a working cassette player in roughly fifteen years and it must be almost twenty since I last chose to listen to the old ERT tapes. Initially, I was deeply moved by the process – the excitement of rediscovery, the very fact that the cassettes still worked, the deep nostalgia of hearing sounds from a time now long ago – but this soon deteriorated into a sense of impatient disappointment. Why? Because most of the songs were so utterly dreadful and reflected embarrassingly intolerant stupidity and naivety.

The basic remit was to shock and offend as much as possible, something embodied in the deliberately insensitive band name. As big teenage fans of 80s action movies, many Easter Road Toll songs revolved around killing people with shotguns, whipper-snippers, chainsaws, hacksaws and pretty much any other household implement you could get your hands on – an immature celebration of gratuitous violence. Somewhere, Somehow, Someone’s Gonna Pay – a title ripped off from the rather cheesy song at the end of the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Commando – is about killing the conservative premier of New South Wales and taking his whole damned party with him. Blow up your Relief Teacher is a song about having a relief teacher at school who makes the class do work, rather than letting the students “bludge”. Like most Easter Road Toll songs, it advocates an entirely disproportionate response: “Blow up the whole fucking class, burn down the school and blow it up with a howitzer!” Indeed, it finishes with a line about delivering the “coup de grace, with an 80 megaton ICBM”. Yep, pretty disproportionate stuff.

Rather too many of the songs focussed on the band’s title and featured people “increasing the road toll” by running over “peds”. Songs such as Hitch-hiker, Testing a Tank, Top 50 Victims, Roadtoll Rap, Car Accident, The Morgue ain’t a Bad Place to be and Shopping Mall Massacre all involved running people over just for the hell of it.

Easter Road Toll 2

Easter Road Toll “side-project” jam at Max’s, c. 1989

There was also a desire to express forthright political opinions, inspired by the fine example of Midnight Oil. The problem was, however, that when it came to writing lyrics, I knew absolutely nothing about politics – except that the conservatives were downright evil. At least I was right about something. There were a lot of songs expressing anti-McDonalds sentiments as well, mildly ironic considering how much I loved quarter-pounders at the time. Some songs were a genuine attempt at youthful wisdom and social commentary: You’ve got the Sack, Gun-toting Customs Officer, Fuck I hate Nazis, Drugs fuck you up and He’s no Value, all tried with astonishing naivety to make some kind of point that went beyond merely advocating massacres and banging on about “twelve-gauge shotguns”.

Most disappointing of all, however, was the degree of homophobia expressed in the lyrics of some songs. One such outing, That Winning Feeling, was about a guy running rampant through the Sydney Gay Mardi Gras in a Mack truck and killing as many people as possible. It would almost be funny if it wasn’t so deeply disturbing and so awfully ignorant. It is, however, curiously indicative of a time when attitudes to homosexuality were in a swift transition. Paranoia about AIDS and HIV was rampant and Australia was yet to tackle the problem of homophobia in its society. Indeed, the word homophobia was rarely ever used – the term de rigueur was “gay bashing” – and there was no education about it in schools and no public campaign to stop it – at least so far as I recall. As a teenage boy in a boys’ school I fell all too easily into the lazy use of the words “gay,” “faggot” and “poofter”, words I still continually hear from the teenage boys I now teach, despite the far greater degree of education and awareness of this issue.

I’ve written elsewhere of how, in part, in my case, this was a response to being a nerdy kid in my first two years of high school and being called a “faggot” pretty much every day by the jocks. My homophobia reflected a resentment that I should be stuck with a label that wouldn’t exist were it not for the existence of homosexuals. Go figure. My attitude at the time must also have been rather confused, considering I went to watch the Sydney Gay Mardi Gras when I was fourteen and fifteen and enjoyed the show and felt no dislike or resentment towards gay people on those occasions. Perhaps, in the desire to shock and offend, which is really what Easter Road Toll was all about, there was simply an absence of sense or judgement on this matter and everyone and anyone who could be labelled was an equally valid target. It probably goes without saying that my views are now unambiguously gay-friendly and I whole-heartedly support same-sex marriage in Australia and the rest of the world. This is the greatest source of shame and disappointment when I listen to these old Easter Road Toll songs, yet thankfully there are only two or three songs of a large collection which contain homophobic lyrics.

Easter Road Toll 11

Easter Road Toll’s gear – quite a collection of not especially great instruments

Fortunately there are a number of tracks which I genuinely enjoyed hearing again, if only for their energy and outrageous silliness. Lemmings Know What They’re Doing suggests that lemmings are right to jump off cliffs to avoid living an empty, meaningless life:

“What’s the point of living a life spent in a burger joint?” Fingers Don’t Grow Back is purely and simply hilarious – unless of course you’re an amputee. The chorus “Fingers don’t grown back, not even when you glue them back on, so be careful with chainsaws, and things like electric knives, cos it may cause your fingers to suddenly not be there anymore,” isn’t easily put to a tune, yet somehow, we pulled it off.

I’ve always had a real soft spot for Schwarzenegger, a celebration of the man himself, who was, at the time, our biggest action hero – and, dare I say it, my last action hero. This probably constitutes our most complete song, neatly structured and arranged, it flowed better than any of the others and I still find myself singing it.

Yet, after recently listening to all this “music”, I think my new favourite Easter Road Toll song, is, beyond a doubt, Car Alarms. Of course, it’s just another puerile attempt to make a rather offensive statement about how we all (fucking) hate car alarms, yet it is fast and punchy and has a certain verve about it. I reproduce the entire song here, with apologies to any law-enforcement officers.

 

One thing we all fucking well hate

is when people’s car alarms go off late

no wonder people steal their cars

the fucking Martians can hear ‘em on Mars.

Cobra, Piranha, they’re all the same

They all piss you off right out of your brain

 

Fuck I hate car alarms, they piss me off

cops should smash them, then go piss of somewhere else cos I hate them.

Fuck I hate car alarms, fuck I hate them

Fuck I hate car alarms they’re buckets of phlegm.

 

But most of all I hate car alarms

in every fucking street

cops should authorise twelve-gauge use

so we can get some fucking sleep.

Steal the fucking hub-caps, slash all the tires,

smash the fucking windows and cut out all the wires – aaaahh!

 

Fuck I hate car alarms they piss me off,

cops should smash them then go piss off somewhere else cos I hate them.

Fuck I hate car alarms, fuck I hate them

Fuck I hate car alarms they’re buckets of phlegm.

 

I do still dream of having a re-union of some kind and trying to record a few of these songs as well as possible. Modern technology makes this a far easier prospect, as does greater wisdom and experience, yet I can’t imagine how or when this is likely to happen. Fortunately all the members of Easter Road Toll are still good friends, so there is little risk of “artistic differences” getting in the way. As for now, our three “albums” Gate-Crashing at the Doors of Hell, Loitering with Malicious Intent and From the Maw of Oblivion, are never likely to be available on iTunes, but that is probably for the best.

7957 Amsterdam 2

“A lost weekend in a hotel in Amsterdam…” – February 3, 2007

This is the seediest hotel I’ve ever stayed in. To make matters worse, I’ve stayed there on no less than three occasions. The first two times were excusable – travelling through Europe in 1996, arriving and exiting via Amsterdam, it was cheap and functional for a couple of budget backpackers and we made do with it just fine. Returning to Amsterdam in 2007 and being silly enough to take mushrooms at 0830 in the morning after a night of no sleep – before organising a hotel – I found myself walking through their doors once again in the hope of a quick solution.

That was a very long day and something of a strange one  – soaring highs and spirit-sapping lows. Originally planning to spend the night in Haarlem, on arrival in Amsterdam I ate some splendidly potent Venezuelan mushrooms and set off for the Van Gogh museum. The world before my eyes soon started its customary psilocybin dance and before long I was not only lost, but entirely unable to focus on my map nor read any of the street signs. Realising that I was significantly impaired, I made a snap decision to head straight for the central train station and take a train to Haarlem. I’d visited Van Gogh before and I figured that by the time I arrived in Haarlem I’d be sufficiently on top of things to find my way to the Frans Hals gallery. The late Renaissance and early Baroque was hardly a compromise, and the shrooms would offer enough in the way of impressionism.

Surprisingly, I was right, and had a wonderful afternoon wandering around Haarlem and looking at what seemed to be freshly painted Dutch Masters. The weather was stunning  – a few degrees above, sunshine and wide blue skies. It was crisp and refreshing and there were windmills – enough said. Finding a hotel, however, proved more complicated than expected and as the day drew to a close, I left sweet Haarlem and made my way back to Amsterdam, a mere twenty minutes away by train. Now only interested in a quick solution, I headed straight for this hotel, whose location I remembered all too well. When they showed me this really rather disgusting room, I resigned myself to taking it.

This photo can only hint at the true seediness of the place. Note the cigarette burns on the sink, the broken cabinet door and the general crappiness of the fittings. The room is also only as wide as the wall to the right side of frame and the other side of the single bed – out of frame. It was tiny, a cupboard, and depressingly ugly. Consequently, in the mirror, I have something of a desperate, hunted look about me – whilst being, admittedly, rather ripped from carrying a pack all day : )

It was a night to get through and not to remember, yet here I am remembering it. Indeed, after that trip around The Netherlands I wrote a poem, which was never finished, about the experience. I include it here below, perhaps the most appropriate home for it.

 

Wet Oils

They came on like a tepid pronouncement

on surrealism. In the freezing, clean

sun I saw the road-stones soften

to cactus skin; saw the house-fronts boxed

like pine-forests; saw the sky close on the upper

storeys, all about flattening

to a single plane.

I saw the cycles chained

along the bridges, curved and prodding

from the rounded rails; saw the countless

imperfections (blooms of moss and rust and

blackened chewing gums); saw locks and leaning

gables down the quaint and wobbly symmetry

of concentric, radial canals.

 

They came on like a weakened blessing

cowering behind its disguise; as a song

one decides one does not like, while remaining

tantalisingly inaudible. On the shifting

succulents I walked through the windows

of women. They smiled and showed a working

thigh, and, gathered up, their creamy breasts

cost nothing more than money. Banging

on the glass to lure me, banging harder still,

the old ones grimaced. I took a turn and came

upon a crowd of aspirating men

lined up for a beauty shining

sex like jiggling sunbeams.

 

They came on like a rainbow siege

across my sleepless battlement; eyes

grew cataracts of winter sun bled through

the iron channels, ice blue sky distilled

the bronzed canals to spirit essence.

I took a train to Haarlem, saw the flower

market blossoms, humble brick, the towering

rooves and lost myself in painted Delftware.

In the shifting oils

of masters newly wet, the mushrooms crept up

glistening whilst treading parquet gallery floors

in a stealthy, growing complexity.

That first day ended smokily

in a hotel that stank of suicide.

 

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe

windmills on fire across the Binnen Spaarn;

high-lit tassels of the proud Nightwatchman

glitter in the Rijksmuseum; skaters racing

through the lowland’s frozen veins, and the sunset

blaze on the weteringen, smashed in the Kinderdijk polders.

0551 Hanoi 2

Hanoi, July 4, 2009

On most roads, however busy, the traffic usually stops at some point.. Not so in downtown Hanoi on a Saturday night, where it flows as relentlessly as a torrential river. I stood staring at this constant run of light, colour and noise for just under ten minutes, hoping to make it across to the ATM and ice-cream shop, before finally giving up and trying to find another way across. There was never a break in the traffic, and if there were lights somewhere along the road, nobody was paying them any heed. It seemed such a short distance – three narrow lanes – yet the vehicles simply never stopped coming and despite a rather cavalier attitude to traffic, I wasn’t about to make a foolhardy dash for it.

There is, no doubt, a method to this madness. The flow of traffic in busy Asian cities is astonishing in its intensity and density, yet no one ever seems to crash. Of course, the statistics indicate that many people do indeed crash, often fatally, yet the vast bulk of the time cars, auto-rickshaws, motorbikes, trucks, vans and bicycles weave through and whizz around each other like mosquitoes on speed, without blinking, and, seemingly, without thinking. It is as though they are mathematically repelled by each other and each finds their own crooked path.

When I did finally make it to the ice-cream shop, it felt curiously like Christmas. The pavement on the street corner, off the left-hand side of this image, was so littered with wrappers from ice-blocks that it was like the lounge-room floor after a bumper present-exchange, or some artificial autumn. I watched, amused, refusing to be disappointed by the complete nonchalance with which people simply threw their wrapper on the ground, without even looking for a bin, as though they couldn’t get rid of it fast enough. Having bought my ice-cream, I couldn’t bring myself to do it, and whereas in Australia I might discard something into a bin with pride, feeling like a good citizen, on this occasion, when I did find a bin in which to put my wrapper, I felt strangely like a fugitive.

Post-Magnus

7373 Washed up on the shore of the world

2015 Tag

5761 Little blue guy 2

5516 Half in light

5721 Tulips, Floriade

7661 Group Selfie

6702 Spring flowers

7402 V & M, back from the hospital

5757 Bonsai tree

7347 On the sand

7629 Zan

4285 Curly wurly

4251 Ferns

7326 On the sand

7531 Train window

5621 Halifax bomber

5274 Tree movement 3

4851 fullmoon flats

7293 Reading in the sun

5576 Jet Engine

8302 Sculpture by the sea

7312 On the sand

Again, a misleading title here as many of these shots were in fact taken pre-Magnus – in other words, before the birth of my son of the same name just a month ago. Without so many opportunities to get out since Magnus joined us, I’ve spent more time going through old photographs and picking out those which slipped through the net. I’ve certainly taken a lot of photographs of Magnus since he came out, but most of these will only really appeal to relatives as babies aren’t necessarily the most interesting of photographic subjects. I’ve certainly sent a lot to my mother, but, however cute we may think he is, a whole series of Magnus shots is perhaps not so appealing to others.

A favourite theme is once again represented here – that of the beach and the various ways in which people make use of it, and, indeed, the variety of people who use the beach. It’s been several weeks now since we’ve had the chance to go, but as soon as V is fully recovered physically, we’ll be back in the water with a vengeance. And a baby…

The Long Dark

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The Long Dark

When you’re not expecting it, permadeath sucks. It really hurts to die several hours into a game, only to realise that all saves have been wiped and all progress lost. Few computer games have permadeath (permanent death, requiring a fresh restart) – the vast majority allow the player to reload their previous saves. Much of the time permadeath is more of a niche choice by players – those who pride themselves on being able to complete something without a single loss of life. In The Long Dark, however, a survival game being developed by Hinterland, permadeath is just one of the many features that make the game so addictively engaging.

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Shelter in a blizzard – don’t forget to check the glovebox

I say “being developed” because The Long Dark  is presently available in alpha through Steam’s Early Access facility. Early Access allows players to purchase a game in development, not only funding the game’s ongoing production, but also play-testing the game and thus helping to improve it through their feedback, should they choose to give it. As the development progresses, those who opted in early will automatically have their game updated to the latest version. All told, it seems a great way to support new game developers in particular – something I’m very happy to invest in considering how much great narrative and art is being generated across the industry these days.

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Logging Camp, be wary of prowling wolves

The premise of The Long Dark is that after a geomagnetic anomaly all electronic devices have stopped working, causing the protagonist’s plane to crash in the Canadian wilderness. Starting as either a man or a woman, the only difference between whom is the voice (I much prefer the female voice), players must attempt to survive as long as possible in extremely harsh conditions. This requires a number of different strategies and techniques – a combination of finding shelter, foraging, hunting, looting, fishing, lighting fires to turn snow into potable water, repairing and crafting clothes and other tools, even using snares to catch rabbits. It is not an easy game at all, though you can certainly play it safe. Yet, however you do play the game, and wherever you go inside it, hanging over your head like the sword of Damocles is the ever-present risk of permanent death. It is this fact that gives the game its incredible intensity.

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The Coastal Highway

The initial experience of The Long Dark will be very different depending on which of two areas you start in: Mystery Lake or Coastal Highway. Exactly where you begin within that area and at what time of day is also initially very significant. Sometimes the toughest part of the game is the first half hour – usually a desperate bid to get out of the cold, away from wolves, and into some kind of shelter. There is no hand-holding, no tutorial, no explanations of how to perform any actions in game, just the ever-ticking calorie count, increasing thirst and fatigue, and the dropping temperature. It is, however, extremely intuitive and anyone with a capacity for lateral thinking will rapidly adapt to the character’s requirements.

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A rough start – injured and freezing

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Mystery Lake

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Warmth and protection

Mystery Lake is more difficult in that it offers far fewer available resources, fewer houses to loot and a great deal more empty wilderness. If you don’t starve to death, you may well die from the weather conditions as it is tough to find enough materials to repair clothing sufficiently to face the cold. The Coastal Highway offers far more abundant loot from the greater number of dwellings along the road, yet it also contains a higher density of wolves – the biggest obstacle to survival in The Long Dark.

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The Quonset Service Station

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Abundant supplies to be found here

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The fireplace – a great way to cook and produce fresh water

Survival can be achieved in a number of ways, but unsurprisingly it is about finding enough food, drinking water and clothing to stay fed, hydrated and warm, and finding safe places in which to shelter from the elements and the wolves. There are houses, huts, trailers and cabins from which to loot useful items and anyone who loves looting containers will enjoy the bittersweet process of entering a house and rifling through all the cupboards and drawers. Items can be found on shelves, in fridges, in cupboards, under beds, in medicine cabinets, chests of drawers, filing cabinets, toilet cisterns and, occasionally, on wall-racks. The sheer joy of finding something as simple as a can-opener can flood the player with a brief feeling of relief and respite in a hostile world where death seems just a matter of time.

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The humble can-opener, humble no more

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Water Purification tablets – not often necessary, but good to have

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After fighting off a wolf, you’ll need bandages and antiseptic

What The Long Dark offers in spades is immersion, immersion, immersion. I haven’t felt so completely entranced by a game since the launch of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim in 2011. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of very immersive games out there, but The Long Dark is almost entirely about immersion. In sandbox mode, without any script or clear goal other than survival, from the very outset the narrative is entirely up to the player. There are no quests, no quest-givers, indeed, there is no one at all to interact with. The only other people in the game are dead; frozen corpses, found very occasionally, lying in the snow or propped up against the furniture inside houses.

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This guy didn’t make it. Don’t forget to check his hands, sometimes they can be found holding a hatchet

The atmosphere in the game is powerful, full of a determined despair. For much of the game there is no music at all, yet when it comes it is spacious and moving, quietly melancholic, a Scandinavian cool. When one stumbles upon a corpse in a house, an alienating and haunting theme quietly plays; a beautiful addition to the interior atmospherics of muffled footsteps on floors and the whistling icy wind outside. The game also looks beautiful and minimalistic. The landscape, structures and vehicles are all highly stylised, somewhere between a water-colour painting and a cartoon, yet the art is so consistent and effective symbolically, that it punches above its weight and delivers an experience the equal of higher-resolution games. Shadows shift as time passes, as does the lurid colours of the gorgeous skies – blue, orange, salmon pink and midnight blue in the alpine night.

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Full moon rising

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The frozen coast

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Midnight Blue

 

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Wide horizon

Wind and snow effects are entrancing, from mild breezes to blizzards, fogs, white-outs, swirling winds and slow-falling fat flakes of snow. Fires cast a warm light and send smoke spiralling upwards, flares light the world blood orange red and the storm lantern is a welcome source of illumination in all conditions.

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Shelter

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Sweet comfort

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Jackrabbit Island

The mechanics of temperature are splendid and wonderfully intuitive. If a strong wind is whipping past, you will be considerably warmer standing behind something which blocks it. It is warmer in the middle of the day than at dawn and dusk. Interiors are usually warm enough without any source of heat, yet stripping naked can make one so cold as to even freeze to death indoors. Clothing carries both a warmth bonus and, in some cases, a wind-chill prevention factor. The weather varies frequently and, at times, very quickly. More than once I’ve been caught in the middle of a complete white-out and gotten lost wandering around on the frozen ocean, unsure whether or not I was going in circles.

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Blizzard in the Ravine

On account of its capacity for intense immersion, The Long Dark should only be played at night, with headphones and lights out. This is to maximise enjoyment, but also for practical reasons. The dark interiors are lit only by wan light through the windows and one doesn’t want to waste one’s lantern fuel unnecessarily. It is also vital in the game to be sensitive to sound. Hearing a wolf’s growl above the howling gale can be the difference between life and death, and wolves can take even the most experienced player completely by surprise.

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When shot, the wolves can yield a lot of meat, leather and gut

The Long Dark  is not a combat game; nor does it feature hordes of enemies in the form of zombies, mutants, psychopathic cannibals or any of the other stereotypical antagonists one finds in the genre. Arguably, the main antagonist is the weather and the constant wear and tear on one’s body and equipment, yet there are also savage wolves out there which can rip you to shreds in a jiffy. This is no exaggeration, for they are notoriously difficult to beat once they close in and attack. The game’s biggest flaw is its combat mechanic, which is messy and difficult and involves mashing the left mouse button to build up force to strike with the right. Getting it to work is seriously difficult and at best all that can be achieved is to drive the wolf off for a time, by which stage you will be so damaged and bleeding you’ll very possibly die of blood loss shortly afterwards. Frustration on this front is increased by the fact that it is possible to find a hunting knife and a hatchet, but these cannot be equipped as weapons. I accept that wolves should be difficult, and the character not necessarily a skilled fighter, but being able to take a swing with something would be nice. In truth, the best way to deal with wolves is to learn to avoid them, which often means giving them a wide berth, lighting a fire in the wilderness and staying beside it, or waiting and sleeping inside a house or hut until they wander elsewhere.

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At long last…

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Rifle Ammunition – most rare indeed

It is also possible to shoot wolves if you find the hunting rifle and some ammunition. Both spawn randomly in certain locations but rarely together, so one often goes for long periods with one but not the other. The rifle is certainly effective in taking down wolves, or deer, or rabbits – a head-shot will kill them, while any other kind of hit will see them flee yelping, often to be found some distance away, having died from blood loss. Animals now leave a trail of blood behind and can be followed. The problem with the rifle, however, is that ammunition is so rare and difficult to find that one often has no bullets at all, just a single round, or maybe, if lucky, a packet of five. This rather hinges on whether or not you can find the Prepper’s Cache in Mystery Lake – an old cold war nuclear shelter, the location of which shifts between five or so different locations and can be notoriously difficult to find.

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I can’t possibly express what it took to find this – give me a needle in a haystack anyday

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The bunker

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Prepper’s Cache is a bonanza

You can also risk braving the wrath of Fluffy – a wolf which can spawn inside the Carter Hydro Dam building. Both of these locations can provide a decent cache of ammunition, though I’ve never found more than 25 bullets in a single game – a rare abundance. It is therefore highly advisable only to use the rifle when there is absolutely no other alternative. In those moments, when a wolf is coming at you, don’t hesitate to shoot.

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Carter Hydro Dam – Beware of Fluffy!

I welcome these limitations so far as the rifle is concerned as they make the game far more focussed on basic survival, encouraging the kind of conservation of materials appropriate to the genre. It also leaves the player feeling far more at the mercy of this largely hostile environment, a bleak sense of powerlessness. And one is largely powerless before the elements. You can certainly improve your skills at fire-lighting, repairing and crafting, but it is not possible to level up in anyway, increasing, for example, durability and fighting prowess. The only statistics of concern are fatigue, hunger, thirst and condition, the air temperature and the protective bonuses given by clothing against the weather.

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Cold in the morning. Many chores to choose from

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Keep clothing maintained – always compare values

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Harvesting clothing for cloth patches

These statistics do require regular monitoring. Never go to sleep for long periods or risk waking up dehydrated and losing condition. Don’t set out on a long journey if you are fatigued. Always be aware of the time of day and the air temperature. Make sure you have the means to start a fire if necessary. If it is -12 degrees and you wish to harvest meat from a frozen deer carcass, light a fire beside it first or risk freezing during the process. Try to get hold of a hunting knife, a hatchet, a can opener, a prybar, some tools and a number of sewing kits. These things will also need to be maintained, for items deteriorate at an unrealistically rapid pace, according to use and exposure.

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Necessary for harvesting meat from carcasses. Can also open cans and cut through frozen fishing holes

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Cooking meat to avoid food poisoning risk. With a long enough fire, can make litre after litre of drinking water.

Spending time outdoors degrades clothing very rapidly. A pair of jeans might lose 35 percent condition overnight in the wilderness. It is therefore always best to sleep inside. If you do sleep rough, always try to light a long-burning fire first and never, never, never, forget to pick up your bed roll when you’re done.

There are certainly a few flaws in this game, though none that really break it. Many people complain about the speed of item degradation, yet, without this, things might be just a bit too easy. The blocky nature of some of the landscape makes it frustratingly difficult to move around small obstacles at times. There is no jump key and consequently you can get stuck behind a foot-high fence or be unable to walk up onto a patio half a foot off the ground without taking the stairs. There are also some areas where it is possible to get stuck, usually between boulders when descending steep slopes.

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The abandoned lookout

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Fishing Hut on the frozen coast

One of the game’s inherent problems, however, derives from its greatest strengths. The knowledge that there is, ultimately, no escape from the sandbox, nor any way to win the game, coupled with the fact that death is permanent and perhaps inevitable, whilst creating an intense and immersive bleakness, can encourage an overly cautious approach to game-play, discouraging exploration except when strictly necessary. At one point, having harvested eight kilos of venison and four of wolf meat, equipped with plenty of ammunition, clothing, tools and medicine, I couldn’t see any reason or incentive for leaving the house in which I was holed up. It was easy enough to forage for wood outside, providing a virtually endless supply of water from melted, boiled snow, and the meat was sufficient to last almost a week of caloric demands. I could have picked up everything and set off encumbered, but I couldn’t help wondering, from both an immersive role-play perspective, and a meta-game strategy perspective, what possible incentive there could be apart from the avoidance of cabin fever.

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Another quaint interior

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Well stocked

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Forestry Lookout – hard to get up here if the wolf is on the road

Perhaps this is the point of the game. Survival is arduous, exhausting, adventurous, yes, even romantic in some regards, but ultimately, it’s a slog. Sitting in a house for weeks until the food runs out would drive many people batty in the real world, and it can do so in The Long Dark. The desire for a change of scene, the thrill of risk, the determination to invent and pursue goals for their own sake all gnaw at the player, sending them back out into the wilderness, once more exposed to the fury of weather and wolves.

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The mesmerising night

It must be possible to survive long enough to consume every processed edible on the map, and I do wonder if the game assumes a whole new level of awesome when hunting, fishing and foraging remain the only options. It must be possible to run out of matches as well, I suppose, though they are certainly abundant in houses and shops along the highway. There are firestrikers and even a magnifying glass to be found, so it might be possible to light fires indefinitely. Should anyone survive long enough to reach this point, it would be an incredible achievement in itself, given the savagery of the wolves and the rapidity with which the weather can change.

The Long Dark may only be in Alpha, but already it is one of the most enjoyable and memorable gaming experiences I’ve ever had. I’m still playing it and I feel nostalgic already. I’m not surprised to see that it rates 10/10 on Steam from 2,431 reviews at present. I cannot stress how wonderfully atmospheric this game is. If you enjoyed reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, then this is the game for you. There might be no cannibals roving the land, nor anyone else for that matter, but for a deeply immersive experience of bleak isolation, of loneliness and struggle, of beauty, terror and heart-pounding moments of intense action and fear, this game is a cracker. Well done, Hinterland, and keep up the good work.

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