A Quiet Apocalypse — The Long Dark Appreciation Post

Point of view shot from the computer game The Long Dark. The character holds a torch in their right hand. It's night, and snowing.
“I probably shouldn’t be out at night in a snowstorm. Pleasant Valley is a killer.”

I died today. Permanently. While hiking towards safety, hungry, cold, and tired, a wolf attacked me. I ran to the nearest shelter, an abandoned church, chased by a whole pack of wolves. Inside, I realized I had no bandages, nothing to stop the blood loss of my painful bites and scratches. Woozy, fading, I tried to tear up my socks and staunch the bleeding.

I was too late. After 106 days in the northern wilderness, I faded into the long dark.

I laughed and then started a new game.

Death in The Long Dark Survival Mode is permanent. There’s no going back. You can only begin anew, on Day 0. The game, from Hinterland Games, is meditative, methodical, and I find it compelling and immersive.

We Do What We Must

The game is survival. Your character is dropped somewhere on the fictional Great Bear Island, the victim of a plane crash, with only the clothes on your back and a handful of items. If you’re lucky (or on lower difficulty levels), you have matches and a hatchet or knife. If not, you’re nearly naked in the snow and ice, far from any shelter. The only score that matters is how many days you can live, looting abandoned human structures or hunting and killing the abundant and often aggressive wildlife.

There are four needs you have to watch and maintain: rest, warmth, thirst, and hunger. Every one of them responds to the actions you take, as well as the environment in which you find yourself. For instance, warmth goes down slower when you’re bundled against the cold, or when you’re inside a house, it goes down faster if your clothes are soaking wet or if the wind is blowing. The game gives you plenty of options to manage all four needs bars—except they’re scattered across the map and randomly placed, with very few exceptions.

Every tool you can find has a purpose. Can opener? You can get more calories from the cans of soup or peaches you scavenge. Prybar? Great for breaking into car trunks or lockers—or for beating up an attacking wolf. You can use the charcoal from burned-out campfires to map your surroundings. Oh, right: you don’t start with a map. Learning the layout of the various regions is part of the learning process of playing the game.

Some tools can be crafted, but only at workbenches or, for the more critical items, at one of the three forges. When you can’t repair your machine-made clothing, you should have been curing hides and guts that are needed to make animal-skin replacements.

It’s long stretches of silence, just the wind, and your character’s footsteps and breathing, punctuated by bursts of intense action as you stab and try to dissuade a predator from making you a meal. The games’ vistas are beautiful; seeing another sunrise after enduring a long cold night in a blizzard is just as rewarding in the game as it probably is in real life. Many of the elements I enjoy from games like Skyrim and the Fallout series are here distilled down to one compelling narrative and milieu: resource gathering and crafting, exploration, management of opposing needs.

Death Is Always An Option

My first real survival mode playthrough was on the second-easiest difficulty level, called “Voyageur.” I wanted to learn the layout of the various regions in the game and see how far I could get. I expected to die much sooner than 106 days, to be honest, even on that level. And there were several points where I very nearly did.

Once, I was trying to reach one of the aforementioned forges by crossing a frozen lake when I attracted the attention of a wolf. I didn’t have a rifle with me (too heavy for this trip); all I could do was light a flare, hoping the flame would keep the wolf at bay. I didn’t want to turn my back to the creature, so I walked backward, waving the flare, only occasionally turning to make sure I was headed in the right direction.

Except… I hit some thin ice, which cracked and plunged me into the frigid water below. I was instantly at risk for hypothermia (on a greater difficulty, it wouldn’t have been only a risk), but the salt in the wound was that the wolf opportunistically savaged me as soon as I was able to climb back out. That time, however, I survived by running carefully across the remaining ice to reach my goal, the forge barn.

What’s The Story, Morning Glory?

It’s OK to loot all these houses and shops because you’re all alone. It’s just you against the environment. If there’s an answer to why no one is there, it’s found in Story Mode, called Wintermute. In the two episodes that have been released, “Do Not Go Gentle” and “Luminance Fugue,” you play as Will, a bush pilot. You find out your plane crashed due to a massive electromagnetic pulse, accompanied by the strange behavior of electrical items when the Northern Lights are in the sky., and your goal, on top of survival, is finding your passenger, Astrid, your ex. Both characters are voiced by veteran actors Mark Meer and Jennifer Hale (also the voices of male and female Commander Shepard from the Mass Effect trilogy, another series of games I love.)

The third episode, “Crossroads Elegy,” follows Astrid’s adventures after the plane crash, and it will drop in less than two days, on 22 October 2019. I can’t wait to play it. The beauty of the game, the thought, and care that the developers have obviously put into balancing all the interconnected systems, and the talents of the writers and actors will make for compelling storytelling.

It might be difficult to tear myself away from struggling to survive in the sandbox, though. This time I’m playing on a harder mode—but not the hardest. Not yet.