With no visibility I trudged on carrying the carcass of the deer I shot and tracked for over a mile. The weather became bad while I was harvesting those last few precious kilograms of meat and now my shortsightedness might be the death of me. Luckily, through gusts of snow I barely spot the cabin I’ve been holed up in and bring my haul inside before I collapse from exhaustion and hypothermia. I am able to survive another day, but any small mistake might mean certain death in The Long Dark.
A first-person survival simulator developed by Hinterland Studios, The Long Dark is a test of patience and planning. Either in a scripted episodic story mode or in the free-roam sandbox survival mode you face off against nature itself. Based in the Canadian wilderness after an apocalyptic event, humanity is dying and nothing is left but the beautiful, barren wasteland. The stark, cold beauty of the landscape is portrayed almost as a water color painting in an art style that is unique and masterfully done. The visuals shouldn’t fool you – death is quick and merciless in The Long Dark. Even the slightest mistake can start a slow cascade of problems that could eventually lead to death.
Started as a Kickstarter project that was funded in October of 2013, The Long Dark has been sitting in Steam early access for years. It seems somewhat rare to see a game successfully leave Early Access, what makes The Long Dark even rarer is that it is a survival game that has. Perhaps that is due to The Long Dark’s laser-focused design. There are no zombies or other players to fight – there is no multiplayer at all. Instead, the focus is on balancing your temperature, hunger, hydration, and fatigue for the simple purpose of surviving to see another day.
While balancing hunger and thirst isn’t a novel game mechanic, The Long Dark implements it in a way that is not overly frustrating. There is a constant threat of starvation, but it does not feel as though you starve for no reason. Each calorie is counted, and actions take more or less calories depending on their intensity. Repairing clothing or harvesting unusable clothes for items takes fewer calories than chopping up a chair or a tree limb for firewood. Food can be foraged for with many buildings containing canned food or energy bars. Finding a consistent hunting ground or a place to catch fish makes finding food easier. Staving off thirst is as easy as melting snow at any fire. Getting a fire going and having enough fuel to keep it going aren’t always easy, though. Of course, once the snow is melted you have to boil it or otherwise purify it to be safely consumable.
The Long Dark’s oppressive cold must be guarded against with multiple layers of clothing, but even the warmest most layered survivor has to seek shelter from howling blizzards. Coming across houses and other interesting structures to explore is one of The Long Dark’s treats. Unfortunately, the vast majority of enterable structures are not seamless – entering and exiting most structures requires a loading screen. This prohibits you from being able to look out a window to see what the weather and visibility is like, but you still hear outside conditions as howling winds batter and make even sturdy buildings creak. Still, it would be nice to glance outside to check for the threat of wolves or the possibility of game to hunt.
If merely surviving isn’t enough, The Long Dark also contains an episodic story mode called “Wintermute.” This scripted campaign follows the story of Will, a bush pilot who is caught in a storm while trying to courier an important but mysterious item. The plane crashes and you must survive while trying to find out what happened to Astrid. Using most of the same mechanics as the survival mode, you must follow the trail of Will’s ex-wife. There are five planned episodes, with two available at release. Each episode is pretty lengthy, usually requiring the completion of multiple tasks to continue forward. While just surviving can be tough in sandbox mode, “Wintermute” seems to throw the player a few bones to help the story move along. There is still the tough-as-nails survival gameplay, but resources seem plentiful and the narrative’s guiding hand often helped me find purpose and survive in ways I wouldn’t have discovered on my own. Ironically, the second episode is heavily themed on teaching Will how to survive – but it’s a task the player has been undertaking for several hours of game time by that point, and most lessons taught were long learned. “Wintermute” also attempts to answer questions about the nature of the event that has caused the world to collapse – but the last episode is not expected until sometime in 2018.
The Long Dark has succeeded where many other survival games have failed. Eschewing zombies and player vs player combat, it instead focuses on providing a man vs. nature survival simulator that sets a new bar for its genre. Its muted palate and watercolor landscapes are inviting, but the harsh realities of a frozen Canadian wilderness challenge even the most diligent players. While not for everyone, fans of the genre – or those just wanting a game representative of an actual survival experience – will absolutely love The Long Dark. It is available now on Windows, Xbox one, PlayStation 4 as well as Linux and Macintosh operating systems.