Where most survival games like DayZ or Rust, both prime examples of how true survival experiences are meant to be done, put players into positions where they are up against the world and only the strongest will survive, Hinterland Studio’s The Long Dark puts you in a position where only the smartest will live to see another day. Unlike both of these games, however, The Long Dark pits you against no other darkness but your own. No undead hordes or player bandits, just you, your bed roll and one unforgiving and harsh frozen landscape.
It goes without saying that The Long Dark is a stunningly pretty game. While it favours cell shading, which is a rather unpopular visual style, it pulls it off magnificently. Balancing the cartoonish art style with a realistic detailing that looks eerily reminiscent of Telltale’s The Walking Dead, Hinterland Studios have truly done a great job with making the game’s snowy setting look enchanting, with a huge map to explore that was recently doubled in The Long Dark’s newest Early Access update. Where DayZ compensates for the map of Chernarus’ lack of detail with its sheer size and terrain, The Long Dark manages to pull of both scale and sophistication, all the while demonstrating masterful intricacy with the complex (If sometimes abstruse.) art style. However, while The Long Dark’s setting may be unparalleled in its charm, getting around the map (Which is something you’re going to find yourself doing a lot.) Is often a tedium. Especially with the few broken ankles I got from falling a mere few feet above the ground. It’s no wonder it’s lacking a jump function, I think the main character would somehow contract a bone marrow disease from simply lifting his/her knees too high off of the ground. Though, even with this issue, the map is admittedly easy to remember and after looking at a few maps on the internet, I had memorised most of it in just enough time to know where the rifle was. Oh, the glory of Wikia.
Probably the best thing about the setting of The Long Dark is that it feels otherworldly. Like you’re in a dreamscape or another plane of existence. Maybe even Limbo. You are (Supposedly.) an unnamed survivor of a plane crash caused by a geomagnetic storm which is never shown, presented or even found in the game, and you’re left to wander this void of very real danger with the main theme of the game being the inevitable darkness. Or maybe you just really are a normal guy stuck in a tundra on account of a plane crash that you’ve somehow survived, and I’m just overanalysing it. But I can promise you that as you play the game, you will more than likely sit there and feel pretty hopeless as you set out once more into the forests for the things you need to survive long enough for the next trip. Knowing that there is no hope in this game is really what gives it that convoluted feeling. The inexplicable feeling of emptiness inside that comes from knowing that no matter what you do in the game, there is no way out, but while still asking you, nay, challenging you to survive as long as you can, is honestly why I kept going back to play it. It’s a feeling that I’ve only ever experienced in Project Zomboid, a game by The Indie Stone, which seeks to provide the most realistic and unparalleled scenario of a Zombie Apocalypse possible, and right from the start has the audacity to tell you that there is no hope and this is simply the story of how you inevitably die. While you may think this would probably result in a decline of reasons to continue playing it, if all you’re doing is pointless, it really just acts as a way to entice you into proving the game wrong. Even though deep down inside you know that the game is irrefutable, and you cannot win. Such is human nature.
I think the best part of The Long Dark is how it makes you feel. If you’ve ever seen Liam Neeson in The Grey and you’re a relatively imaginative person, you can imagine that that’s basically how it feels. The experience purely bases itself on the premises of “You are totally screwed.” And “Better hope those wolves don’t eat you while you’re asleep!” And the eeriness of your surroundings mixed with a rather chilling soundtrack design composed brilliantly by Dave Chan, along with the way the game forces you into predicaments that literally test your mental capability in a dire situation all add up to make one perfectly done psychologically trialling experience that I’m confident to say is what is lacking in horror games nowadays. The game is almost totally devoid of jumpscares or supernatural entities that follow you around (If you don’t count wolves as supernatural. Though they are pretty scary to face when they attack you.) Instead, the entirety of The Long Dark’s grim and unnerving level of tension comes purely from its world, which as I’ve said, has been made in crystal clean detail and polishing. Loot in this game is placed strategically, and it’s fairly obvious a lot of thought has gone into where things have been placed in the game. You want to find wood? Go to the logging camp. You need some scrap to repair your trusty rifle that degrades with every shot, forcing you to spare every round of sacred and rare ammunition you can? Go to the dam. (Which is by far the scariest place in the game, though for spoiler’s sake, I won’t say why.)
Hinterland Studios have taken clear inspiration from Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’, which incidentally just happens to be my favourite book of all time. It’s a morbid and grim survival story of an unnamed man and his son as they deal with the struggle for survival throughout their constant travelling through post-apocalyptic North America. In fact, it takes so much inspiration, it even adds in a hidden bunker which spawns at random locations throughout the map which holds varying amounts of loot, which they stumble across sometime in the middle of the book, before having all of the supplies taken from it stolen from them by an unidentified thief. This illustration of false hope and the illusion of safety is what The Long Dark does so well. So often did I find myself with what I perceived to be enough deer meat and water that I boiled from snow to last me for the rest of my days, only to find a mere 24 hours later that I had run out of fuel, wood, ammunition and medical supplies, and by the time I acquired all that I was lacking, I had run out of what I originally stocked upon. It’s a constant recurring process of milling around the map trying to look for the things you need, and the game punishes you if you let up even for a moment. The smallest decision in how you spend your resources, such as if you decide to leave the fire on in your cabin while you sleep, or if you save your last bottle of keratin for the stove to cook your meat or for your storm-lantern when you find yourself stranded in the dark, could ultimately mean the difference between life or death. And that is the epitome of survival games, and indeed, art.
I’ve reiterated it once or twice throughout writing this review, but The Long Dark serves what I can honestly say is probably the best example of what art in gaming is supposed to be; an experience that makes you think and affects you on an emotional level , while still retaining all the aspects that a video game should have, offering sufficient gameplay features to still provide entertainment as well as thought provoking narrative or setting. Games like Dear Esther that rip away whatever agency the player has in the world and try to be overly minimalistic usually end up blurring the lines between what a video game is and what a video game shouldn’t be. The main problem with games like Dear Esther is that, for all its intents and purposes, it is still a video game, and will be treated and criticised as such. Unfortunately, this often means poor reviews are given, most purely based upon the game’s lack of features that give the player any reason to continue playing, if not for its intriguing storyline and narrative. The Long Dark is thankfully not by this, and I’m thankful Hinterland Studio has designed The Long Dark to conform to all of the traits of a good, standalone video game, not choosing to follow in the footsteps of games like Gone Home and Amnesia which have linear pathways and experiences that are admittedly subjective and can be interpreted in many ways, but are still ultimately singular and meant to be interpreted in one way and one way only. Games like The Long Dark are true examples of games that aren’t bound by the restrictions of the artistic medium that has become “Indie Game Art.” And choose to cross boundaries with regards to how video games as Art should be crafted. Because, if you’ll allow me to reiterate, they’re all still video games in the end, and should be treated like such.
Time is a key element to the game. Unlike most other games I’ve seen, time is actually something you can feel passing before you, and the night doesn’t serve as a way to be unseen by other players. Though the nights do make the environments very hard to see and only double the fear factor when you wake up hearing scuttling noises around you. Unless you manage to find a stormlantern or a flare or you have a million matches to spare, you will very quickly start preparing for the night time and trying your best to avoid being stuck out there on another emergency run. Not to mention the wolves that inhabit the frozen tundra prowl in more abundance during the night than in the daylight, and are a bitch to see when camouflaged with the thick black sky, as well as the fact that storms rage on frequently through the night, lowering the temperatures abysmally. Time isn’t your only enemy, however. Every action you do burns calories, and depending on how much weight you are carrying, what kind of temperature you are in, it even boils down to how much you’ve ate or drank that day and what clothes you are wearing, which can also provide bonuses against the cold and against the wind, which are two separate factors of the realistic temperature system The Long Dark uses.
Calories drop by the second, and that’s what gives you that sense of urgency and forces you to leave the confinements of whatever you’ve chosen to be your base. Though if you’re anything like me, you won’t have a main base. You’ll have 5. And all of them have at least three bottles of water and granola bars. Like in, say for example, Dead Rising 2; while you’re having all this fun killing zombies in extraordinary ways, there’s always the underlying pressure of knowing you need to find Zombrex within the next 24 hours for your beloved daughter. And the same applies to The Long Dark, only minus the zombies and chainsaw paddles and motorbikes. Time goes by slowly, and every action you do can make the difference on your chances of survival, and there’s never a moment going by where you can feel safe or complacent. Chances are you’ll probably be awake most of the game, because sleeping just takes up so much of your calories. In fact, it takes up so much that by the time you’ve gone back out and hunted yourself some more food to keep going, it’ll be too late. Of course, this all depends on the conditions you sleep in, but in the end it still amounts to nothing if you don’t have sufficient resources to compensate. Sleeping merely serves as a way to skip through the night to the safety of the day, though you can’t do it out in the cold without putting yourself at a severe risk and you definitely can’t do it within the dense forests because you’ll most likely be eaten in your sleep. However, just like in real life, sleep is also a requirement, and failing to prepare for it is preparing to fail.
Which brings us to the other feature that really heightens the game’s tenseness; the wolves. As much as I’ve mentioned them earlier, and while your biggest enemies will mainly be the cold and your essential needs, the real killer you’re gonna worry about when you’re patrolling the map is the wolves. With realistic and cunning AI, wolves will take advantage of the trees, mists (Which are spine-tinglingly atmospheric. Seriously. When the mist sets, you’d better pray for divine intervention.) And your failure to realise they’re there. When you do see them, you really ought to hope it’s just the one, because I sometimes found myself facing more than two at a time. Firing at them is a bitch, because they will often dart around your bullets, and in The Long Dark, you really really need to preserve your ammunition. Throughout my 40 day play-through, I think I must have found a maximum of 5 or 6 boxes of ammo scattered throughout Mystery Lake. That’s 30 bullets throughout an entire 960 hours of scavenging for food and supplies. I mostly relied on finding frozen carcasses which are left randomly by wolves throughout the wastes and can be found in abundance, depending on how many wolves spawn in that area, increasing the risk of getting food. Meat will be your prime source of nourishment in this game, and keeping your skinning and hunting utensils repaired with The Long Darks well done crafting system will be crucial for survival. Furs gained from skinning can be used to repair and upgrade clothing, where meat and guts can be cooked upon a stove at the expense of time and wood, and though time isn’t a limited resource (Supposedly.) Wood is. And you’ll find you’ll be out looking for it more often than not.
It is because of Hinterland’s decision to veer away from the mainstream form of “Indie Game Art” that The Long Dark is a true monument of a psychological tale told only through your experiences with the environment, all the while retaining enough features (Both included and planned.) To be a great video game by itself. While there is a story mode planned for the game, it’s already shown through the sandbox mode that it is perfectly capable of what I like to call ‘silent narration’, a form of telling a story without actually having any real objective other than the ones you give yourself, without the need for impressive set-pieces or linear sequences. This is what sets it apart from the mainstream of story driven Indie Games. In fact, so rare is a game like The Long Dark that I actually feel like the game could be released as a standstill game as it is and still merit my total and utter praise and admiration because for all it has and for all it’s planning to do, it’s nothing like anything I’ve ever played before. Each time you load up the game and step into it, you spawn somewhere new and with new opportunities for survival around you which you can either squander of seize, and the fact it’s all in single player truly give it that feeling of bitter isolation, which compliments the rest of the game perfectly. With this in mind, I’m actually looking forward to playing through The Long Dark’s story, and as a writer myself, I’ll be very interested in going into more depth of what this world is and how it’s supposed to be looked at, and especially interested to see how Hinterland will fit the sandbox elements into play with the story. Though I have no doubts the story mode will feel secondary to the sandbox, the backstory will surely be helpful when putting the experience into context.
In conclusion, The Long Dark has a beautifully crafted everything, and being held back marginally by its sometimes buggy interface and tedious travelling. The sound and art design is done to perfectly match each other, while inviting you to think of the game as you will, and with solid game mechanics that really work well with realistic contrast to how things would work in real life, The Long Dark is as much of a provoking experience as it is a fun game to play. And with the good badge of being an Early Access game, it’s only going to get better. Hopefully.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary PC code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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