Survival gets serious in The Long Dark

Last week I wrote about the problem with survival games . Some of you loved the idea of the hypothetical game I described—which sidelines monsters and overt danger for a more atmospheric battle against the elements—and some of you thought I was mental. After the article was published I was tweeted by Hinterland Games creative director Raphael van Lierop, who said that their game, The Long Dark, is exactly what I'm looking for. So, of course, I had to try it.

You play as Will Mackenzie, a 43 year-old bush pilot whose plane crashes in a remote wilderness after a mysterious 'geomagnetic disaster'. The finished game will feature an episodic story that reveals more about this event, but the alpha build I'm playing is dedicated entirely to what Hinterland call the survival sandbox. Here the only goal is to stay alive for as long as possible, which is easier said than done in the harsh frozen landscape they've created. I spent a good chunk of today playing The Long Dark, and I think it might be the closest anyone's ever come to making my dream survival game.

I start a new game and find myself gazing across a sea of trees. I'm immediately struck by the art style, which looks like concept art come to life. It's remarkable how much atmosphere they've managed to squeeze out of those stylised, hand-painted textures. Snow swirls in the wind as I make my way down a hill into a forest. It's a stark, barren landscape, and I feel like I'm being swallowed by it. Mackenzie is played by Mark Meer, voice of Commander Shepard in the Mass Effect series, and regularly vocalises how he feels. “My stomach feels like an empty pit.” he'll grumble if he's hungry. “That smarts, but I'll be fine.” he says if you sustain a minor injury. It's a nice, immersive touch.

As I wander through the forest, I notice words appearing at the bottom-right of the screen: freezing, starving, dehydrated. I haven't found anything useful yet; just a few skittish deer that I have no hope of hunting. Night is falling and I'm about to give in and start a new game, but then I see something in the distance: a wisp of smoke. I trudge through the snow towards it, revealing the silhouette of a cabin. Relief washes over me as I open the door. There are supplies scattered around: bandages, matches, a lamp, canned food. I light the wood burner and it casts a warm glow over the room, which raises my temperature when I crouch next to it. Against all odds, I've survived the first night.

Or so I thought. I didn't pay attention to my status—accessed with TAB—and went to bed on an empty stomach, dying of starvation in my sleep. Game over. Even for a survival game, The Long Dark is merciless. Mackenzie's comments give you a general overview of your condition, but you'll have to keep a close eye on your hunger, thirst, fatigue, and temperature meters to effectively manage them. I love how a lot of the tiresome chores that usually define survival games, like endlessly hitting trees to collect wood, can be automated. I can instruct Mackenzie to spend a set amount of hours foraging for wood, and the game will tell me beforehand how many calories this will burn. If I have an axe I'll have a better chance of finding something, but without one there's a good chance I'll fail and find nothing.

Everything you do burns calories, and the more physically demanding the task, the more you'll burn. To keep them topped up you'll have to find food. One of the easiest ways to do this early in the game is to scavenge venison from deer carcasses and cook it on a fire—but there's always the risk of contracting food poisoning. You can also find candy bars, soda, and other packaged food in buildings by rifling through drawers and cupboards. The wilderness in The Long Dark is not a vast, empty, procedurally generated expanse of countryside: it's been hand-designed, and there are a lot of interesting locations to discover, including an abandoned logging camp and a hydroelectric dam.

Let's take a moment to talk about atmosphere, which is something The Long Dark absolutely nails. In my second attempt I find myself crouching by a fire I've built in the broken shell of an old cabin. It's warm enough, even though it's full of holes, and I'm well fed, but a blizzard has rolled in, trapping me inside. As the fire crackles I hear the wind roar. Nearby is the frozen corpse of some unfortunate soul who succumbed to the wilderness before me. Occasionally I hear the howl of a wolf, which sounds too close for comfort. The light from the fire dances around the shelter—the dynamic lighting effects, incidentally, are really impressive—and an impenetrable wall of snow surrounds me on all sides. It's a perfect, and totally unscripted, little moment. An evocative marriage of image, sound, and circumstance that immediately sells the game to me. This is what survival should feel like.

I place my bedroll next to the fire and sleep through the night. The blizzard is gone by morning, and I emerge once again into the wilderness. I explore some more, stumbling upon a derailed train whose payload of logs has spilled over. The environment is always eager to tell stories, and I get a distinct sense that something has gone horribly wrong with the world. Then I encounter my first wolf. I've seen a few in the distance before, and managed to avoid them, but this one catches me unaware as I'm busy scavenging meat from a dead animal. It leaps at me and the game instructs me to hammer the left mouse button to build up my strength, then press the right to strike. But my empty belly means I can't work up the strength, and the beast mauls me to death. Game over, again. From what I've played, animal attacks in The Long Dark are, thankfully, incredibly rare. You won't be constantly attacked by wolves as you explore, which would have ruined that carefully crafted atmosphere.

There are some things I don't like. Not being able to build fires indoors makes sense in small cabins and the like, but when I had to leave the cover of a large, high-ceilinged generator room in the hydroelectric dam to light one and warm up, the illusion was shattered. Not being able to save is frustrating too, but I suspect the final game will have the option. This is an alpha, after all, but one that feels like it's on its way to becoming a complete game, rather than the glorified tech demo so many developers are releasing these days. Overall, I'm really impressed with what I've played so far. With a focus on atmosphere and environmental survival, it stands out in an increasingly crowded genre, and I can't wait to explore more of this deadly, snowbound wilderness.

Andy Kelly

If it’s set in space, Andy will probably write about it. He loves sci-fi, adventure games, taking screenshots, Twin Peaks, weird sims, Alien: Isolation, and anything with a good story.