The Long Dark's creative director explains why the apocalypse doesn't need zombies

Tim Clark


From the Aztecs worrying about the sun disappearing from the sky, to Hollywood's endless variations on the end of the world, it seems like every civilisation is fascinated with the idea that it might be the last. Perhaps it's a sign of humanity's general narcissism, with each generation secretly hoping to be the one left staring into the abyss at the end of it all, because that might make us special. Or maybe folk just like seeing what happens when stuff goes really wrong.

The Long Dark is going to deliver a comparatively restrained, but no less frightening, vision of our demise. It's a survival game, funded on Kickstarter , which has already generated plenty of buzz for its startling visuals. The end of the world has rarely looked prettier. And it has also never been more popular on PC. MMOs like Rust, DayZ, and the forthcoming H1Z1 are dealing with the collapse of society in lurid, and let's be honest, often quite funny, ways, as players behave exactly as reprehensibly as you'd expect from survivors eking out a living in the End Days. But there are other games, like Telltale's hugely successful The Walking Dead episodes, which look to paint a slightly more considered, and humane, picture of the apocalypse.

The Walking Dead is the link I immediately make with The Long Dark, which is being created by Canadian startup Hinterland Games . I spoke with founder and creative director Raphael van Lierop about the team's goals for the game, starting with whether he thinks a free-roaming version of The Walking Dead is a fair comparison. "I think that's fair," he says. "Certainly, they were an excellent example of how to deliver a story-driven adventure game within a fairly confined, linear experience."

However, the games' paths start to diverge at that point. There are no zombies in The Long Dark. Your antagonists will be the environment itself, in the form of hunger, lack of shelter, and the cold, as well as the animals wandering around the stunningly illustrated Northern wilderness, and, of course, other people. Because people are the worst, and the total breakdown of law and order hasn't helped their manners at all .

Van Lierop definitely isn't trying to out-bleak The Walking Dead, though. "We won't deal with moral choices the way that they did," he says. "Like, 'you have four seconds to decide which of these two people is going to survive'. Our approach will be quite different from that." Part of that approach will be ensuring that players, who'll be exploring a world in which technology has failed entirely due to an unspecified geomagnetic event, get to experience moments of beauty and hope amidst all the tension and horror.

The easiest way to achieve that effect, according to van Lierop, is by giving mother nature a makeover. "We've adopted a very storybook, painterly art style," he says, "and we emphasise bright colours, and have these very dramatic sunsets." Once the stars are out, The Long Dark is arguably even prettier. As in Skyrim, the aurora borealis allow for some stunning skyboxes. Indeed, the Northern Lights are so important to the game's aesthetic, that in the original pitch video van Lierop describes them as a visual metaphor for the power of nature and how the world has changed.

The message seems to be: In a world gone to hell, beauty matters even more. "Nature is, in a lot of ways, neutral to your existence," says van Lierop. "Just like zombies are neutral to your existence. But you'll have these moments when you crest a hill and see this beautiful landscape. You might be in the midst of freezing or starving to death, but as a player you'll still think: "Wow. That's beautiful."

The team at Hinterland currently comprises 10 staff, most of whom have a background in AAA development. The dichotomy between nature's beauty and its inherent dangerousness is something van Lierop has carried over from the pre-production work he was involved with on Far Cry 3, where one of the key design ideas was 'savage beauty'. He's also drawn on a lot of his own time exploring the Northern Canadian wilderness: "You know that at any point if you make a bad decision, or you have an accident, that you could go from vacationing in a beautiful, exotic place to being in a very dramatic survival situation."

Van Lierop cites Cormac McCarthy's none-more-grim novel The Road and Fallout 3 as The Long Dark's other key influences. Bethesda's post-nukes RPG sparked his imagination because: "Everything you saw on the horizon was potentially an interesting place to explore. I found that so compelling, and I remember thinking: 'What would this be like if there was no combat? What if it was just wandering through the environment? There's no zombies, there's no nothing, you're just looking for places and trying to survive.'"

The design has evolved since then, and you will be able to shoot animals, but with resources inevitably scarce that often won't be the best approach. So, if combat isn't at the core of what The Long Dark is going to be, what is? The game begins in the immediate aftermath of your plane crash-landing in the wilderness as a result of the unexplained geomagnetic event. As pilot Will McKenzie, you stumble out of the wreckage, and presumably immediately begin to regret not wearing thermal underwear for the flight.

Though this is an open world, which you're free to explore as you choose, it won't be as open as, say, Skyrim. The comparison van Lierop makes instead is with Stalker. "It didn't have huge contiguous maps where you could just move seamlessly from one area to another—you would go through a connective portal, and it's the same for us." The point here is that it will make it easier for Hinterland to funnel the player and manage the narrative aspects of the game. Specifically, the encounters you need to have with other humans to drive the story forwards.

In addition to the not insignificant task of staying alive, you'll gradually discover how the world has changed in the aftermath of magnetgate, as no-one else is calling it, and perhaps eventually discover the cause of the disaster. That's a way off though. The Long Dark is being built in seasons, in both senses of the word, the first of which will be winter, and will comprise an as yet unspecified number episodes before the focus shifts to spring. The arc will cover an entire year, and the suggestion is that you can expect significant cast changes over the course of it.

Again The Walking Dead link seems clear, but van Lierop doesn't think you'll mind the lack of zombies. "I think the fascination with the zombie genre particularly is almost a cathartic thing. The more zombies we can shoot in videogames, the more control we might feel about the way the world is around us. Maybe the world feels like it's falling apart around us and that's our way of coping with it. [In The Walking Dead] they're not even that much of a threat. It's really the humans who survive, and how society's mores change in light of the zombie invasion: that's the real threat."

It will be key to the potential success of The Long Dark that your encounters with strangers have some subtlety to them. Something that's tricky to achieve, beyond creating ever more intricate dialogue trees. I ask van Lierop how they're hoping to handle player interaction with NPCs. "You have trepidation," he says, "you're skeptical about them, but you also recognize to some degree that your success depends on being able to interact with other survivors and learn what they know."

Again, in many instances combat will be a possible outcome, but likely a disastrous one for you, given your fragility. But as to how to give those meetings depth and nuance, van Lierop isn't ready to discuss what he thinks the solution will be, other than it's definitely on the to-do list. In addition to the main narrative mode, there's also a pure sandbox variant in which your goal will be to survive for as long as possible, which is what the team has been spending most of its energy on recently. "For a long time nobody could break through the two-day mark," he says, before excitedly telling me that someone just managed to hit five days.

Before we finish, I ask him for a typical example of how it can go wrong in survival mode, and he tells me a story about trying to make a nighttime dash from a lookout tower to a supply cache. As the sun set, and the weather began to close in, he began to hear animals in the trees. To help navigate better, he lit a flare, before climbing a hill only to find himself face to face with a wolf. Startled by the flare, it scampered off into the night. "I thought, 'Shit. If I hadn't had this flare in my hand, as soon as I came over that edge…'"

The story doesn't have a happy ending. The weather closed in, swiftly turning into blizzard conditions–but van Lierop designed the map, if anyone could find his way to safety in the whiteout, it ought to be him. "I walked and walked and walked," he says. "I came across various landmarks, and I thought I was on my way. I was very close to death when I thought I was at my destination, and I did that classic thing that you always read about in survival literature, which was I ended up realizing I was back at the lookout tower where I had started!"

About the Author
Tim Clark

Tim is Global Editor in Chief. Which means you can’t tell him to stop playing Hearthstone. Or writing about Hearthstone. He’s probably playing Hearthstone right now, honestly. And when he should be globalling.

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