The term ‘survival’ has a storied history in video games, from the dark days of seeing how long you could endure the sound of screeching load screens to conserving ammo in fights against abominations in spooky mansions, all the way to rushing back to your dirt hut before dark to eat pork chops and stare at the beasties sniffing around your fragile abode.
The market is currently awash with games that claim to be about some form of survival or another, but few manage to take the term quite as seriously as The Long Dark.
Whether you play The Long Dark in its pure survivalist form, or in its freshly-minted episodic story, the rules are always the same. Survive the chilled death that is the great wintry Canadian wilderness.
It starts with the player being stranded after a plane crashes in mysterious circumstances, and almost immediately, The Long Dark is demanding action. You’re cold, hurt, hungry, and very much lost. The most pressing thing is getting warm, so job one is grabbing twigs and sticks to make a fire, and rummaging about in the strewn items from the crash wreckage to find clothing, food, and more (if you’re lucky) before seeking a nearby cave, train carriage or abandoned hut. So far, so every survival game, but The Long Dark is all for the minutiae of survival, so twigs and sticks aren’t enough to build a fire.
You need a tinder plug (no, not a dating app tie-in), you’ll need matches (which you do have some of mercifully), and maybe even an accelerant, if you the situation is dire. Building that fire then takes a bit of time, and it’s not even guaranteed to ignite. If you are successful in lighting it, then you have to keep it fed so it lasts long enough to allow you a quick kip, but also you need to cook that can of food you found (which you have to smash open, losing some of it), and you’re thirsty by now, so you could do with melting some snow over the fire, too.
Oh, and you best boil it so you don’t get sick from it. It’s been ten minutes and already the player is having to decide whether to freeze, go hungry, or risk sickness by drinking dirty water. The Long Dark is not kidding around. Everything can kill you, and over the course of my time with it, pretty much everything did. From wet socks to wolves and beyond.
The design of The Long Dark is fairly minimalist, keeping the UI and menus hidden away on a button press to keep you from being distracted from the haunting, murderous beauty of the vast, cold outdoors. As everything is covered in snow, there’s a bewildering uniformity to the landscape (save for some absolutely gorgeous splashes of orange during sunsets) that will prove more often than not incredibly easy to get lost in.
Going a few hundred feet from relative safety to search for supplies is as risky as travelling a couple of miles if you don’t pay attention to the tiniest details of your surroundings. That’s just on a clear day. Throw in snowfall and storms, and you can’t even rely on your own tracks as a guide, and snowstorms reduce visibility to a frightening degree as well as biting away at your core temperature.
While the emphasis is indeed on survival, there’s a note of survival horror to The Long Dark as well. There’s no undead, no ghosts, or demons, just the elements and certain members of the local wildlife that can fill you with dread just as easily. Fumbling around, panicking in the pitch black of night for more fuel for the fire, as the howl of wolves gets steadily closer, and the wind slices through to your core is genuinely among the most effective examples of horror from a videogame.
This is balanced by the joy of discovery. The utter desolate bleakness that paints much of The Long Dark’s maps is daunting, sure, yet when you see a flash of color, or an unfamiliar shape on the horizon, it excites.
The anticipation and desperate hope that it will be shelter and/or supplies is exquisite. The smart use of circling birds to denote the locations of carcasses (both animal and human) also ties into this, but of course, with potential reward comes potential punishment.
Firstly, shelter may look inviting in any state out in a vast wash of cold white, but the gamble is that it could be too open to shield from the cold, or it could lack supplies or forageable items to make it a place worth staying. So you could end up stranded and likely dead before the day is through.
Likewise, if you find a carcass or supplies, it’s going to be massively helpful for your short term well-being at least, but food attracts animals, and The Long Dark’s predators are almost as chilling as the wind. On higher difficulties, they’ll seek food out aggressively, with wolves stalking you, following any unintentional breadcrumb trail you leave.
That’s a fascinating dynamic. Everything has its risk and reward, but neither are guaranteed. The idea of one small error practically ending your life down the line is bound to be a turnoff for some.
The fairly ambiguous nature of the information you’re handed about survival certainly won’t endear The Long Dark to every survival fan, but there’s no denying there’s a sadistic joy to be found in enduring, scraping by, and barely making it through each day.
Even as you begin to fashion weapons, make clothing, and live somewhat comfortably off the meager offerings of the frozen land, one bad encounter with a wild animal, one accidental tumble off a rock face, one dodgy can of peaches is all it takes to humble even the greatest survivalist. It’s survival at its most brutal, and that makes it all the more refreshing.
The flipside is that it can sometimes feel desperately unfair as the whole world conspires to turn you into a meat lolly for predators. There’s no denying that this can be the case. The wandering you’ll do means obstacles and hazards can be minimal or many depending on a variety of factors, and while you can strategize most of these, there are instances where you’re better off succumbing to the deathly embrace of winter and trying again.
There’s nothing quite as frustrating as being forced into an unwinnable corner after hours of work, but it seems to be an unfortunate byproduct of how The Long Dark functions.
In the story mode (Wintermute), things are a touch more controlled to guide you down the correct path, but it gets frustrating when all you want to do is take in the next narrative morsel and you’re on hour two of holing up in a dark shack, listening to the howl of wolves. In both modes, patience is a necessity, but in Wintermute, it runs at odds with the storytelling.
Wintermute is a welcome addition to the package though, especially as its story is an unusual one for the medium. It contains little in the way of bombast, and focuses more on the central strained relationship between pilot McKenzie and his estranged wife than it does on the mysterious cause of the crash. Yet I found the best stories in The Long Dark came from survival mode, where you create your own moments of despair, hope, joy, and terror.
Still, it will be interesting to see where Wintermute goes from here (so far it’s just two episodes of the first season with more to come),as there’s an understated use of mystery I’d like to see expanded upon.
Little of the impact The Long Dark does have would be possible if the technical side wasn’t up to scratch, and developer Hinterland shows what you can get out of the infamous Unity engine if nurtured correctly.
Only minor framerate hiccups occur, and do little to draw you out of the scenario. This is coupled with a fantastic choice of art style that accentuates the contrasts of the Canadian wilderness impressively with inky blacks for the oppressive nights, gradients of white for the day, and some neat uses of color and shape to add character to a rather large canvas of white.
The Long Dark feels different to the majority of its peers. That is enough to cause a divide in opinion on how ‘enjoyable’ it is, and while I personally felt invested in the tough, grim reality of its survival, it could just as easily be seen as cheap and infuriating with a different mindset.
If you want something to revitalise your interest in survival games though, then you owe it to yourself to seek out The Long Dark.