The Long Dark: Survival Simulation

Hinterland’s The Long Dark raised over $250,000 on Kickstarter with the promise of a “first-person post-disaster survival simulation set in the Northern wilderness.” Right now, the game is in early access on Steam, granting players the chance to test drive an incomplete version for $19.99. I played the current alpha, and found it to be an intriguing but uneven experience that has yet to realize Hinterland’s final vision for the game.

A trailer for The Long Dark teases a plot about a bush pilot named Will Mackenzie in a desolate, post apocalyptic winter. Over mournful piano, a narrator intones, “First there was a brilliant light, then a great and silent darkness...many suffered beyond reason, now most are gone. Who will bare witness to this long dark? I will.”

The clip is highly effective, using a minimal approach to convey a deep sense of mystery. However, don’t go into this alpha in hopes of the same experience. The main campaign mode, which promises a quest, other A.I. survivors to interact with, and more locations, is currently not available. Instead, you can explore the sandbox mode, a barebones experience with one objective: stay alive.

After entering the sandbox, you're placed in a seemingly random location in the large open world. You have a few items of winter clothing and supplies, but not enough to last you long. Now, it’s your job to begin exploring, all the while monitoring your health, hunger, energy, and temperature.

The wilderness is harsh and unforgiving. Supplies are scarce, and must be scavenged from abandoned buildings and even dead bodies. Finding a simple device like a can opener in an old cabin could mean the difference between life and death, allowing you to open that precious can of pork and beans without having to smash it open and waste a portion. Finding adequate clothing and shelter is equally important. If you get stuck outside at night when a wind comes through, you quickly freeze if a wolf doesn't get you first. Walk, explore, eat, sleep that’s the life of a survivor. There are no puzzles to solve and no progression, just the endless struggle against the cold and your own failing body.

As such, this experience isn’t for everyone. There’s a certain power to sandbox mode’s minimalism, there’s nothing but the wind and the sound of your own footsteps to distract you. You’ll never know how excited you will be to find a simple pair of boots or energy bar until you’re on the verge of death. Still, it’s only a matter of time. Death will come sooner or later.

After my initial fascination with the alpha abated, I began to grow restless with the game. It starts to feel as though there’s no point to the experience, whether you delay it by a dozen hours or a few days, you’re going to die in the cold. These frustrations are com pounded by the fact that this game, which prides itself on realism, includes a few video game conceits that actually make it more difficult. Items like pry bars and can openers degrade at an unusually fast rate. For example, prying open a few lockers could reduce the lifespan of your bar by almost 50 percent. That’s both annoying and unrealistic. Also, your character burns through calories at a tremendous rate. Inching towards death, I ate cans of food and multiple energy bars only to find myself back on the brink of starvation in minutes.

In its current state, The Long Dark is a tantalizing, but incomplete, glimpse into what could be a truly unique gaming experience. That’s the nature of playing an early access game; it’s a small taste of what’s (hopefully) to come. If the core gameplay can be polished and wedded to a narrative structure that gives it some purpose, I believe Hinterland could create something great. As it stands, this is not that game.

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