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.
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.
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.
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.
A rough start – injured and freezing
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.
The Quonset Service Station
Abundant supplies to be found here
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.
The humble can-opener, humble no more
Water Purification tablets – not often necessary, but good to have
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.
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.
Full moon rising
The frozen coast
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.
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.
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.
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.
At long last…
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.
I can’t possibly express what it took to find this – give me a needle in a haystack anyday
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.
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.
Cold in the morning. Many chores to choose from
Keep clothing maintained – always compare values
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.
Necessary for harvesting meat from carcasses. Can also open cans and cut through frozen fishing holes
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.
The abandoned lookout
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.
Another quaint interior
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.
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.