Why I love the beautiful isolation of The Long Dark

Why I love

In Why I Love, PC Gamer writers pick an aspect of PC gaming that they love and write about why it's brilliant. Today, Andy endures, but ultimately enjoys, the trials of The Long Dark's wasteland. 

A geomagnetic storm has rendered all technology useless and plunged the planet into a quiet apocalypse. Suddenly humanity is no longer at the top of the food chain and every day is a fight for survival. This is the harrowing premise of The Long Dark, an atmospheric survival simulator created by Canadian studio Hinterland. Your only goal is to stay alive, but this freezing, merciless landscape doesn’t make it easy. 

It’s a bleak, hopeless game. But there’s a strange serenity to be found amid the devastation. There are moments when the weather is calm and you have enough food and water that survival briefly takes a back seat. You’re free to enjoy the atmosphere and beauty of your surroundings. You hear the crunch of snow under your feet and the wind blowing through the trees. You see tumbling waterfalls and silent, snow-dusted valleys. You forget about about the apocalypse, at least until a blizzard sets in or you start running out of food. 

Hinterland’s painterly wilderness is one of the most evocative settings on PC. Every location has its own personality. Whether it’s the rugged slopes of Timberwolf Mountain, Pleasant Valley’s rolling fields, or the abandoned cabins in Mystery Lake, the places you visit tell a story: of what life there was like before the cataclysm, and what has happened since. The feeling of isolation is powerful, but occasionally you’ll see traces of life. Smoke curling from a chimney or freshly-cut firewood stacked on a hearth. Signs that maybe you aren’t as alone as you think, which is both eerie and reassuring. 

But the only people you see are dead, lying frozen in the snow. A grim reminder of how life hangs in the balance in this frigid wasteland. While exploring a cave, the warm glow of my oil lantern revealed the body of a man sitting hunched by the remains of a fire. It was a sombre scene, reminiscent of British climber David Sharp who died on Mount Everest and was found in a cave in a similar position. For all its beauty, the game also has moments of melancholy like this that bring home just how grave your situation really is.

The Long Dark also has remarkable sound design, which is a big part of why its setting is so transporting. When you’re indoors by a crackling fire, listening to a blizzard wailing outside, you can almost feel the warmth of the flames. If your pack is full of firewood it rattles and clunks as you walk. Cross a wooden bridge and you hear it creak under your feet. Hike through a valley and your footfalls subtly echo. It’s an incredibly rich, dynamic soundscape, and sparse use of music brings the excellent environmental audio to the fore. 

A recent update improved the game’s weather effects, giving Hinterland an even broader palette of moods, feelings, and colours to paint its wilderness with. Plump, gently falling snowflakes give a misty morning a sense of calm, then the wind picks up and suddenly you’re trudging through a hail of ice. Sometimes the sky will be grey and overcast, then the clouds part to reveal a piercing blue sky. As the sun sets, it casts a pink glow over the forests and valleys, and on a clear night the moon shines like a spotlight surrounded by twinkling stars. The weather and light change constantly. 

I love how all the environments are connected, enabling you to travel freely between them. Hiking from Mystery Lake to Timberwolf Mountain involves crossing a treacherous ravine and navigating a maze-like coal mine, and when you reach your destination you feel you’ve been on a real journey. But there’s no map, so you have to find your own way—or, if you want to make things easier, search for maps created by the community’s talented cartographers. 

The next step is a story mode. I’m excited about it, but I wonder if the loneliness of the sandbox will be as alluring when you encounter other survivors. There’s something captivating about feeling like the last person alive, which makes this one of the most compelling post-apocalyptic games on PC. But I trust Hinterland. It knows what it’s doing. 

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.