How The Long Dark Makes Me Feel Alive

7 minute read

Hinterland Studio’s survival simulation, The Long Dark (TLD), sets itself apart from the overcrowded survival genre with its fundamental aspects and themes of practical action and intuition. The game’s vast “Northern Wilderness” world, the indifferent natural threats found within it, and your own instincts navigating it all lead you to think and act practically to survive. Add in epic atmospheric scores, beautiful minimalistic winter scenery, and some good old-fashioned solitude, and TLD delivers what I can only call a “real” feeling experience. However, the game’s pseudorealism sometimes presents inconveniences instead of thrills, perhaps depending a little too much on the player’s curiosity and time. To show you exactly what I mean, here’s an experience I had with The Long Dark:

I enter the game in a small trailer I’ve been resting in through a snowstorm—I can still hear it whipping against the outside walls. I reflexively check my vitals: body temp, fatigue, thirst, and hunger—you know the kind. I see I’ve burned some calories sleeping through the previous night, so I also take a quick inventory of my food; two tins of peaches and a handful of cattail heads I picked earlier: low.

I conservatively eat and drink what I can, and pull up a map of the area I’m in on my phone. I’ll go into more depth on why I decided to “cheat” here later, but here’s basically why. The Long Dark expects you to form your own routes and general understanding of the land from memory—time after time of crossing past paths and discovering far-reaching landmarks to help you better nomadically navigate the world—but this is just an unnecessary step towards uncovering an essential aspect of the game, goal-setting.

Underlying and supplementing the game’s survival aspect are special items and optional mechanics. Snares to catch small game; a natural antibiotic berry; a coat that will enable you to move around in cold conditions longer. These items all play to the game of survival The Long Dark is all about, and of course, using them feels nifty and empowering, but what you’ll be doing more of is getting to them or components required to build them. From a map, you can create a route to make your way.

My goal now is to gain access to an abandoned watchtower which may hold a hunting rifle; a means to a steady flow of food, and a more reliable method of defense against wildlife. Referring to my map, from the trailer, I’m nearly half way up a mountain trail to the tower. But just up ahead, wolves patrol, and beyond, at the trail opposite of where I’ll be entering, lies a bear’s den.

Remembering my previous games, I decide that I can outrun any wolves to the tower. But not a bear, who, even if I avoided her first charges, would stalk me down the trail. I know that I’ll need that rifle to get past the bear and down the mountain alive.

The wind howls on outside as I sleep, holding out for clearer conditions on my last rush. But after three hours, the storm still hasn’t let up, and fearing for my dwindling food supply, I decide to take my chances and step outside.

Through the freezing haze, I find the trail’s slope, and begin trudging my way up, and before long, detect the trotting of a pair of wolves somewhere behind me. I begin to run, slower and slower as the wind shifts against me; now close behind, I hear the dogs pick up pace, snarling. I try to look ahead through the storm but cannot help anticipating the wolves, nearer every second, gaining, until I finally come to a bend in the trail—from there, I spot the watchtower, stark, gray, and obscure in the midst of the snowy miasma. I take one fast glance back down the trail and mark the pair of wolves, now running up after me full-speed, yelping fiendishly, and make my final sprint to the tower and up its staircase. It feels like I slam and lock the door behind me.

After a quick scan of the room, I spot my prize atop a small wood stove. I check that it’s in decent condition, equip it, and load it with ten rounds I’ve scavenged earlier. I’m pleased to find my new tool, but still not ready to relax. I haven’t found food here, so the case of movement over starvation remains. In the back of my mind, I’m still anticipating a confrontation with the bear, but with the rifle, I might be able to face her.

With no time to lose, I step out onto the staircase and scan the visible ground area with my rifle, clear. I note the footprints I made coming up, and begin moving down the trail opposite to them when the dark, predatory figures of the wolves emerge from the storm once again, confronting me directly this time.

Confident, I quickly steady and aim my new weapon at the closest dog, but hugely miss, firing somewhere into the background, when the second pounces at me, latching her jaws onto my forearm. By the time I pull away from her grip, I realize I can no longer effectively, nor confidently, wield the rifle. All I can think to do is get away, so I turn and continue to sprint down the exit trail.

Tearing through the wind, I once again hear their trot pick up into a dash, growling, closer and closer—only, this time, the path stretches straight and narrow, on and on. There’s nowhere to go.

Thinking fast, I turn to run off the trail, jumping off of a long, steep, and snowed hill. I try to safely scale it in small hops and slides, but it’s no use, I’m going too fast. By the time I’ve reached the bottom, I’ve heard two bones snap.

I instinctively check my general status to see I’ve suffered blood loss, broken a wrist, and sprained an ankle. My condition, or HP, is at 30 percent, and I am near freezing and collapsed from exhaustion. However, I’ve obtained the object of my goal and successfully escaped a more immediate, more deadly threat. I’m alive.

images I clean and dress my torn wrist—this is all I can do for now. I see that there is less than an hour of daylight left, and realize I won’t be able to travel both injured and in the dark. I spot a cluster of trees some ways off the road which might shelter me from the wind, so I lay down my sleeping roll, start a large fire, and begin to cook the last of my food in preparation for the night.

Experiences like this are what make The Long Dark. Navigating to an advantage—a special tool, a geographically useful area, a shelter—will greatly expose you to the unforeseeable dangers of a vast and indifferent wild. The natural challenges you’re presented with along your way force you to make tactical decisions with a moment’s notice, but obtaining the advantage at hand may give you more options to work with the next time you’re in peril.

Conjointly, what stands out about the game is how practical the decisions you may make are. As a prime example, falling through some ice at one point during my playthrough prompted me to remove all of my clothing that wasn’t wool, greatly reducing my risk for hypothermia. At another point, I used footprints I had left in the snow to find my way back to a cave shelter in the dark. This practicality makes the world and its consequences feel much more real, and that connection is great.

Of course, other survival games have implemented these types of borderline pseudo-realistic mechanics, but the setting and atmosphere of The Long Dark evoke a sense of danger that feels as if it can only be defended against by cunning practical methods. It gives life to something in games that has often felt more like a style.

Transversely, however, TLD’s overarching aspect of “making your own way” can be a huge bore. Coming into the game initially, a player will wander from landmark to landmark until she’s exhausted an area’s resources, and won’t know what to do or where to go to continue surviving in the game.

As I said before, this is because The Long Dark expects players to learn the landscape and uncover tucked away places on their own. That sounds all well and good, but it’s difficult to dedicate so much time to essentially learning how to play and enjoy the game. As a remedy, players can refer to fan-made maps online, as I have, but a real fix from Hinterland would obviously be preferred.

Besides the game’s current state, good and bad, Hinterland has brought TLD a long way from its first alpha release in 2014, having updated the game with improved user interfaces, new mechanics and areas, and special challenge modes for adept players. Currently, the team has most of its efforts focused on an episodic “Story Mode,” where players will take on a more definite role in the game world, and interact with NPCs, something unexplored in the game.

That being said, don’t take The Long Dark as a game with “future promise.” It’s a complete and quality game full of content by the highest standards, and players should expect new upcoming updates that will make it even more so.