More Thoughts on The Long Dark

I reviewed The Long Dark a while back (go here to read it), and in the time since then I’ve broken the 100 hour mark with the game.  I’m not really all that satisfied with my review, to be honest.  I wrote it under Steam’s strict word limit for reviews, and even though I was proud of my single-mechanic-focused review gimmick at the time, it really fails to capture quite a lot of what makes the game special.  So, that’s today’s blog.  I wanna talk more about this game.

The Long Dark is the kind of game that rewards you for spending a lot of time with it and learning all its ins and outs.  Probably the most important skill you can have is map knowledge, which of course comes with time and lots of exploration.  But there are a bunch of other little things you pick up and start putting together once you’ve got about 100 hours in.  And what I find really remarkable about The Long Dark is how that familiarity and accumulated knowledge comes to shift how you relate to the game over time.

This is not an easy game by any stretch of the imagination.  It’s brutally difficult, particularly on higher survival difficulties.  On the Interloper setting (where you’ll usually find me), the game is a razor’s edge with very little margin for error.  There are certain things you have to find, or you will die very quickly.  You learn to approach the game as a series of compromises with the RNG, and being much less comfortable moment to moment than you would be on any other difficulty setting.  If you’ve got more than 50% condition, you’re doing pretty damn good on ‘Loper.  You’re usually starving yourself during the day, eating scraps just before you sleep, to maximize how much time you can put those precious calories to use.  You need to know exactly where every major landmark is on the map, and where all the potential spawns are for critical items, like firestarters, so you can check multiple spots quickly.  Wolves are furry, angry homing missiles with teeth, and if one catches you, you are definitely dead.  There are no knife or hatchet spawns (you have to forge them yourself), and no hunting rifles to be found.  Herbal tea and bedrolls are worth their weight in gold, and most containers are empty.

Even on lower difficulties, when you first start playing The Long Dark, it’s a lonely, intimidating experience.  The game’s systems are more or less transparent, but as a new player, you have no idea how to best put them to use.  The kinds of decisions the game demands of you, things like when to pick up and move out of your home base, or where to site your base in the first place, or how best to use limited resources and where to get more, whether to turn back or press on when the weather changes, strict inventory management, all these things come with experience and time.  So, your first playthrough is likely to be very short and stressful.  An uncomfortable outing in a brutal wilderness. You’ll make a series of ill-informed decisions, and die.  The way the game depicts death is very well done.  As your condition gets lower, your vision deteriorates and your controls get wonky.  Your connection to your in-game self becomes tenuous.  You may black out, or stumble around out of control.  Many of my early deaths were falling over into my own campfires, or losing my way in blizzards, unable to see a foot in front of my nose, the world a blurry mess.  Losing and dying in The Long Dark is something you see coming a long way off, but are mostly powerless to stop beyond a certain point.  It’s the sum of your decisions, and those decisions have weight and momentum that’s not easily undone.

Other times, death comes swiftly and unexpectedly.  Wolves can be very stealthy, particularly if you’re zoning out not paying attention, and many newer players complain of getting blindsided by them.  Shortly after taking the screenshot that I used for this post, I bedded down in my comfy cave home on my nice warm bedroll after a dinner of rabbit, and promptly froze to death in my sleep.  A rookie mistake, I’ll admit.  I wasn’t far back enough in the cave to stay warm once the fire died.

What I find really fascinating and compelling about the game, though, is how oddly comforting and relaxing I find it.  In the midst of a mid-life crisis wherein I’m contemplating and fearing the inevitability of my own death in an immediate and immanent way, I find myself returning to The Long Dark.  Its empty, spacious wilderness is gorgeous and quiet, every sound meaningful, every action weighty.  With my depth of knowledge about the game’s maps, diving into a fresh new survival mode game is like coming home, in a way.  I can wander the familiar, peaceful landscapes, greeting wolves and sticks and reishi mushrooms like old friends.  New games on ‘Loper start you in a random location, but I look around and I see a jet engine in the snow.  Ah, I think, this is Timberwolf.  I know I need to try and get to the shack by the lake first, check there for supplies, make a fire to stave off frostbite, then decide where to go next.  If I climb the summit, there’s lots of goodies to be had.  But can I make it?  I’ve played lots of games to (and past) the 100 hour mark, but few apart from this one have created such a visceral and immersive sense of place.

I no longer find the game stressful in the least.  I know what needs to be done, and I’ve failed and died often enough that the prospect of that thing happening is no longer all that scary.  The interplay of mechanics, the contemplative atmosphere, the static maps, all blend together to create a place where I can perhaps rehearse for my own death when it arrives and find some peace with the idea.  I probably won’t go out fighting a wolf or falling into a campfire, though, I mean, you never know.  It’s not like I expect the game to train me in outdoor survival; I read the disclaimer, after all, and I know enough to know what’s inaccurate or wrong in the game.  It’s more about facing the certainty of death and realizing that it’s not that big of a deal, that it’s part of nature.  We make the most of our time.  And I’m very pleased to discover not only that The Long Dark is amenable to this sort of examination, but also how comforting its brutal depiction of nature can be.

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