The Long Dark: interview with Raphael van Lierop

Raphael van Lierop may have never had to worry about surviving alone in the wilderness, but he's been close enough to sense the threat. Reminiscing about hunters who would accompany him for protection in college while conducting seismic surveys, he told me of tense months he spent in the wilds of British Columbia and Alberta, where news of grizzly attacks would sometimes drift in from other camps. Even now, working from his home on Vancouver Island, reports occasionally surface of unwary hikers getting lost deep in the woods.

More than Cormac McCarthy's The Road, more than the stories of Jack London, it's that danger that's led him to serve as creative director for The Long Dark , an upcoming survival sim that's designed by him and a team that includes veterans from hits like Mass Effect and God of War. And now, with only four days left to earn the $200,000 necessary for the project to survive, he feels some of the pressure of lost wanderers who know their fortunes could change within seconds.

That moment-to-moment focus on survival lies at the heart of The Long Dark. Just last week, he and the newly founded Hinterland Games released a brief gameplay video showing what we can expect if the project goes live, and it's compelling stuff. Against a stylized Pacific Northwestern landscape smothered in snow, we watch as a brush pilot named William MacKenzie forages and struggles against the elements after an unexplained cataclysm.

The resulting focus on exploration prompts facile comparisons to Skyrim and Fallout 3, but here the environment poses true perils. When MacKenzie jogs a for a short distance, we see a spike in his caloric usage, which proves hazardous in a landscape that isn't exactly littered with food. Later, MacKenzie lights a fire to shoo off a lone wolf, and the minimalist UI shows how the surrounding temperature shift comfortably as he nears it. Van Lierop insists that the roughly five minutes of footage amounts to a mere rough draft, but it's one that bears the promise of greatness for the end product.

Still, I voiced my concern that the focus on minutiae like caloric stats and temperature contrasted strongly with the way the fire essentially appear out of thin air. For his part, van Lierop claims it was an oversimplification for the purposes of the video, but that the final process wouldn't be too complicated. "We're certainly not going to get down to the level of granularity where you have to find a shovel and dig a hole," he said, "But we will have a fire-starting technique, and it'll get better the more times you start fires. That'll have an impact on other factors as well, such as how quickly you can start the fire and how long the fire will burn for."

Part of the reason for decisions like this lies in Hinterland's emphasis on discovery and its desire to let players figure out key concepts on their own. The idea, he says, arose out of his realization that he admired the simple act of exploration in games like Fallout 3 more than the combat. "There's no manual; we don't want to make a game that's going to hold the player's hand," van Lierop said. "It's not going to be full of tutorial popups and waypoints and quick time events for fighting bears." He mentions Falcon 2.0 as a simulation that comes close to capturing what we has in mind. "What's amazing about that game is that you as a player feel such a strong sense of accomplishment because the game didn't do it; you did it."

And apparently there will be a lot to accomplish. The video revealed only a large backyard's worth of territory, but van Lierop speaks of upcoming "seasons" that will take the player down to the coastlines, into forests, and even into towns and hunting lodges. That sparked a note. Drawing from my own experiences in Montana's Elkhorn Mountains, I asked if we'd be able to hunt and fish in order to survive. Van Lierop was cautious about giving a straight answer. "If we can figure out a way to do it well, we'd like to put it in there," he said, "because certainly it fits into the whole survival experience." Such a move would likely involve combat of a sort, which marks a shift from the original concept's almost exclusive focus on exploration. But it will come with severe penalties.

"We kind of realized that leaving combat out would feel out of the place with the scenario we were trying to create--as if we'd just left it out to prove a point," he said. Conflict, he argues, lies at the heart of The Long Dark, whether it's conflicts with nature, conflicts with yourself, or conflicts with other people. "We want you to take stock of everything that happens you and understand that when a dog bites your leg, you're going to be in bad shape," he said. "The infection doesn't go away in 10 seconds just because you ran away from the thing." How to cope? Van Lierop envisions players hunting down other survivors to learn remedies and new survival techniques, or simply finding First Aid manuals while foraging. You'll even have to lay low in safe houses for several days to heal, but van Lierop adds that they're not going to make you sit through that in real game time. "We're really expecting our players to think ahead, much like they would in the real world."

Van Lierop's so eager to capture that experience that he and Hinterland have enlisted the help of Chris Fragassi, a wilderness survival expert, to assist them with creating a believable experience. They're so determined, in fact, that Hinterland plans to spend several days in the wilds with Fragassi to learn how to live without the comforts of civilization. But don't expect that to translate precisely into the game. "I said, 'Chris, I want you to understand that we're not making a training simulator for people who want to live in the wilderness,'" van Lierop said. Fragassi understood, apparently expressing his dislike for people who believe that Deer Hunter teaches them how to be good hunters. "It doesn't work that way," van Lierop said.

There are other people in MacKenzie's world, too, but what's less certain is how they'll figure in. Just yesterday Hinterland announced that they'd secured the talents of Jennifer Hale, known for her voice work as the female half of Commander Shepard in Mass Effect, hinting at much more interpersonal interaction than the gameplay footage suggests. Van Lierop added that they'd even considered letting MacKenzie team up with other NPCs, but later decided that may not be good for the project's scope. "Certainly you'll interact with other survivors along the way, some of whom will be hostile," he said, "but we're still deciding on how the interaction will look." He wouldn't give any details, but added that The Long Dark's narrative would have a definite beginning and end.

"I'm a big believer in the importance of story," he said, adding that he hopes the project expands into a larger franchise. "The game is the nexus of the entire experience, true, but I want people to be invested in The Long Dark and find it wherever they want." Van Lierop means that literally. He spoke of the possibility of Long Dark graphic novels, a Long Dark web series, and even a TV series that would yield new insights into side characters and the world beyond MacKenzie's tribulations. "You can't really do that effectively if you don't create an interesting setting and a scenario that asks a lot of questions that people want answers to," he said, "and that's really what we've set out to do here."

To accomplish this, Hinterland plans to release the game's segments in "seasons," or episodes that vaguely recall Telltale's work with The Walking Dead. "The seasons kind of borrow the TV model of storytelling, which I think is very well suited to games," he said, "probably a lot more than the movie model of storytelling which a lot of games still try to follow." The first season will focus on winter, but, van Lierop adds, "but it'll feel like there's something that comes after this."

At the time of writing, Hinterland is only $15,000 away from its goal , with the numbers shooting up with each refresh. The outlook seems so promising, in fact, that van Lierop didn't dare to speculate on what would happen if they missed the magic number. Van Lierop believes he and his team have a truly unique project on their hands, and that the singularity of its experience would see it through.

"For us, it's about not taking the easy way out," he says, joking that it'd be really easy to throw zombies into The Long Dark and call it a day. "I want to provide an experience that's more meaningful than hitting people on the head and shooting them in the face." Indeed, he adds that the stylized artstyle imbues The Long Dark with a sense of hope that's absent in the bleakest of post-disaster scenario, and that it reminds us that it's ultimately about the strength of the human will. (Even Will MacKenzie's name, it turns out, is kind of an in-joke in this regard.)

"I think that's going to make us a less-mainstream successful game, and I think that's okay," van Lierop said. "We're not going after 10 million people; we're going for a small, hopefully dedicated audience that's looking for this very specific kind of experience."