Deep into my second playthrough of The Long Dark's sandbox alpha, I died in my sleep. I'd scarfed down a can of pork and beans in an ice fishing house on a whim, and moments later I heard voice actor Mark Meer retching over in pain from the food poisoning I'd just contracted. I munched energy bars to no avail. I guzzled my only bottle of grape soda, thinking I could drown it. (Or something.) In the end I gave in to Commander Shepard's protests and collapsed on a bunk in an abandoned camp office under the belief that I should just try to sleep it out. I never woke up. Of the several thousand deaths I've died in virtual worlds since the early '80s, this has to count among the most pitiful.
It's a good time for this type of game. The Long Dark follows on the heels of open-world survival games like DayZ and The Forest, but it distinguishes itself with a minimalist aesthetic that resembles vibrant graphic novels and a wooded, snowy landscape that recalls Hinterland Games' own British Columbia. It's also just different enough to attract some attention of its own. Gone are the zombies and flashlight-helmeted cannibals that define previous efforts in the genre; in its place, Hinterland has delivered a single-player world filled the mundane dangers that await us when we step into any wilderness.
The nods to realism usually work, although (and I'm ashamed to admit it) I sometimes found myself missing gamey jump scares and a touch of action. In an interview with PC Gamer last October on the eve of the game's successful Kickstarter funding, creator Raphael Van Lierop spoke of wary, tense encounters with humans instead of the firefights we've become accustomed to. That may be true of the unreleased story mode that focuses on marooned bush pilot William Mackenzie in the aftermath of a vague worldwide disaster, but in the sandbox, the only humans I found were old, lootable corpses half-buried under the northern snow. If there are folks out there who want to nibble on my calves, I never saw them.
Snowbound corpses aside, The Long Dark's sandbox mode might as well be set in contemporary Alaska in late autumn. Its realistic approach works best when you're hanging on to life, which you'll know by the little DayZ-style messages that pop up letting you know that you're thirsty, infected, or plagued by some other malady of the everyday world. The stakes are high, especially considering that death dumps you back to the start menu. I once chanced upon an overturned railcar surrounded by starving wolves, and knowing I'd likely die if I didn't get a hold of whatever was out on the snow, I realized I could chase them away with a bundle of flares I'd found in the abandoned offices of a dam. By this point I could almost feel the hunger myself, and I wolfed down the peaches I'd found right there in full sight of the wolves. Such small victories yield only fleeting pleasures, though, as survival only prolongs the wait until your next scrape with death.
Performing this little dance grows easier with each restart, although I suspect much of that ease grew out of the constricted design of the alpha. Each new game dumps you in a different part of Hinterland's winter wonderland, but I never found myself so from from the scenes of my last adventure that I couldn't find the same shacks where I'd found supplies in previous lives. At times its current lack of randomness borders on the comical. By the sixth game, I'd identified a "favorite backpack" that always contained bottled water when I needed it most, and I could always rely on a corpse leading up to an overlook to pony up a down coat to keep me warm. If Hinterlands maintains this design, successfully surviving The Long Dark could end up relying as much on memory as Mega Man.
Here's to hoping it doesn't. The Long Dark's sandbox mode works best when you have to decipher its quirks on your own, and it nails this home by providing no explanation of hotkeys, caloric intake, or even the basics of starting a fire out in the open. It's a major testament to Hinterland's work that I never felt too frustrated--aside, perhaps, from my embarrassing repeated deaths from dehydration until I figured out I could make potable water from snow at any stove. And a rare bonus for a contemporary game in its alpha stage? The only bug I encountered as a tin of flame accelerant that resisted my repeated attempts to poke it with my mouse.
Several hours into my time with The Long Dark, my character awoke from a comparatively comfortable slumber to the sight of a blizzard raging outside the cabin he'd found. It was 10 in the morning, but it might as well have been midnight for all I could tell when I looked out the window and was able to peer no more than 12 feet into the snow. I like to think that this moment represents my time with The Long Dark, and that there's a whole sprawling world lying in wait beyond what I could see during my brief sojourn with Hinterland's creation. And after my time here, I'm looking forward to discovering what waits for me in that darkness.