Playing The Long Dark for any length of time makes you feel cold and hungry. ‘Do we have any moose left?’ Jacq asked me. ‘I could really go for some chicken-fried moose.’
A mysterious geomagnetic storm has brought your plane crashing down into the Northern Canadian wilderness. How long can you survive?
I lived in bush Alaska for five years. My partner, a park ranger, lived there for twelve. While I don’t really consider myself a backcountry expert, I’ve been lucky enough to spend a lot of time around people who really, really are.
It’s enormously tempting, therefore, to come up with a long and detailed list of the inaccuracies of The Long Dark. Snow’s harder to walk through than that. The night’s way too short for a Northern winter. Anyone flying a bush plane in the Great North is legally required to carry way, way more survival gear than the player starts with. Cotton kills. Light aircraft wouldn’t be downed by electrical failure alone. A combination of factors (big trees; coastal; mountainous; Pacific salmon) strongly suggest that you’re in British Columbia, which is not really very far north as Canada goes.
Realism quibbles are never justified for their own sake, though. (Future post.) Art is not, and should not be judged as, a perfect imitation of life. The map is not the territory, and realism pedants are weenies. Games need to omit and simplify some things in order to work as games – but which and how are artistic choices that deserve attention, because they can reveal a great deal about what the piece really cares about. Art’s distortions are the spoor of its purpose.
All that said, The Long Dark is pushing towards a much more realistic approach than most games in its general space (survival horror, post-apocalyptic). There are few overtly-fantastic elements (there’s a geomagnetic storm which destroyed everything electrical and made wolves super-aggressive), no gravity-defying jumps, a weight limit that’s closer to ‘the heaviest backpack I might even consider hiking any distance with’ rather than ‘what my 1-max-rep deadlift might be after a few years of intensive training.’ Any move towards realism generally brings pedants swarming around like starving fruit-flies (probably 75% of user-made mods for Crusader Kings 2 include some version of the phrase ‘greater historical realism’).
I think that it’s important to consider its uses of greater-than-normal realism in terms of effect. This is a game that wants to show you the woods and the mechanics of survival, yes, but fidelity to that isn’t its core purpose. It’s a highly atmospheric piece – while its graphics are relatively low-res, its colour palette and use of light is really strong. The sound is understated: it is mostly very quiet, just the scronch of footprints and perhaps the wind blowing. This is a Clue: it’s very much a mood-and-tone piece with a particular suite of emotional responses, generally cool and downbeat but flecked with anxiety and panic.
The Long Dark isn’t really set in the wilderness. Rather, you inhabit a thoroughly anthropic environment, even accounting for the compression of space that’s standard in 3D open-world games. There are roads, railway lines, logging camps and clearcut, a hydro-electric dam, a fire tower, more cabins than you can shake a stick at. And you’re almost entirely reliant upon human-crafted stuff, particularly in the early game. TLD is an apocalypse piece, with a mood of sic transit gloria mundi. (That trope needs human remnants to work, but normally it’s about, y’know, glories: monuments, thrones, great cities, wonders of culture and technology. Not so here.)
Having been lost in the Northwoods before, I can say with all confidence: the biggest, scariest threat you face is that you will walk for days and days and never, ever see a single trace of human influence. Never encounter anything shaped by humanity into something that facilitates transport, shelter or food. As moderns, we are hugely, continuously dependent upon the work of other hands. That fear, the fear of a totally non-anthropic environment, is something that is almost impossible to make interesting in the purely human-made context of a game. The closest you can get is to generate procedural environments – but procedural environments that are genuinely varied and engaging are no easy matter.
A core experience of the game is being lost, getting turned around, having no idea where shelter is. (There is no map. The weather often reduces visibility to a stone’s throw.) But this isn’t an experience that’s sustainable for very long in a game, I think. You can’t ask a player to trudge through spruce thickets for hours on end; it’s not just that it’s boring, it’s that they need some kind of grasp. And, indeed, you can generally get by on dead reckoning, or just trudge onwards until you find another cabin. You have long enough to get freaked out, but it’s unlikely to be how you die. (Do not attempt this at home, kids.)
As time goes by, you begin to realise that there’s a finite amount of salvaged gear, and it slowly wears out. The dwindling stock of granola bars and canned food can be replaced by hunting, trapping and fishing – but that relies on equipment which will itself start to degrade. Things can be repaired, but you need to cannibalise other stuff to do it. (There’s a small amount of things you can craft from scratch, much of it made from animal parts – it seems likely that this part of the game will be expanded to some extent, possibly making indefinite survival a practical prospect.) Scavenging here is not archaeology: it’s destroying things that cannot be replaced, pulling apart the last scraps of civilisation for the sake of a fleeting respite. It’s burning books to stay warm (a thing you actually do in This War of Mine).
A problem with a number of post-apocalyptic games is that they tend to progress fairly quickly from scarcity to ever-expanding glut. If you can just kick enough asses (spoiler: you can), you’ll have an unending supply of resources. (In Fallout 2 you start out as a hapless innocent, shirtless and spear-wielding; but fear not, before too long you’ll be behind the wheel of a fly ride, wearing something rugged in black leather, and with more cash, guns and bros than you know what to do with.) The Long Dark has a nice balance here: killing an animal gets you a heartening boost of resources, but resources aren’t really fluid. You can’t turn deer hide back into rifle bullets.
Nasty, Brutish and Short
The Long Dark really wants to be a survival-horror game with the horror part taken out; it explicitly pitches itself as having no zombies. Instead, it has wolves behave very much like zombies: slower, more stupid, and less observant than the player, but single-mindedly aggressive. I’m not convinced that it has the balance quite right yet – the zwolves work for gameplay purposes, but they’re a bit mixed as far as the mood goes. (There are difficulty modes that affect this, but the balance there isn’t quite there; at low difficulty wolves never attack, and at medium difficulty they account for a substantial majority of your deaths.)
An important mechanical difference is that it’s possible to drive wolves off: they’re wary about approaching fires or flares, and will often break off attacks and flee if they’re injured badly enough. I’m glad of this, because too many games treat death as the default – often, the only – resolution of violence. I wish more games allowed enemies surrender or retreat. (I wish I could walk up to a bandit camp in Skyrim, loosen my longsword in the scabbard just enough to let the blade’s dark coruscations show, and have the bandits go ‘fuck, nope, not fighting anybody with a weapon that literally steals your soul for use as a disposable battery’, rather than hacking their heads off as they cry surrender, lest they heal up and attack again.)
The other thing is that violence in TLD is scarce and risky. The rifle is the only way to kill wolves without being badly hurt in the process; it is among the rarest items in the game, and you’ll have no more than a handful of scattered bullets for it. It usually makes more sense to avoid conflict. Wolves aren’t enormously common, which makes them more potent: if you see just one wolf off in the distance, it has a significant effect on your plans. It’s an effect… well, wolves don’t really work like this in the real world, but it’s very similar to the real-life effects of seeing a grizzly bear in the backcountry. If you see it in the distance, you’re going to be constantly thinking about where it is, checking back on it over and over, possibly delaying your journey and hanging out until it moves on. If you run into one another up close, you get a good solid jolt of adrenalin. (And then the bear generally runs away, or shrugs and ignores you, but no matter. I’d say that grizzlies would be a better choice than wolves in this game, but honestly I’m such a bear-attack nerd that it would probably just send me into a tizzy.)
More than anything, wolf-fighting isn’t fun, or something you can get mastery over; it’s not a whole lot more complicated than button-mashing. You never get enough bullets to really get practice with the rifle. Stabbing wolves as they try to eat your face off isn’t interesting, just frantic. It’s not the core of the experience: it’s a secondary shade in the mood palette, and the apprehension matters more than the attack. But I still think that its present level detracts a bit from the game’s core message. ‘I could easily survive in the woods if it wasn’t for these ridiculous zombie wolves’ has some truth to it, at this point.
The Long Dark is still in early access, sandbox mode only; its focus is likely to evolve considerably, particularly as the story mode gets added. (The game’s performance thus far is not a great indicator of how well that will do; narrative is a different beast.) But it would be a significant accomplishment even if that never happened.