Why I love The Long Dark's painstaking search mechanic


In Why I Love, PC Gamer writers pick an aspect of PC gaming that they love and write about why it's brilliant. Today, Joe frantically applauds The Long Dark's searching system while fending off head injuries from angry wolves.

I can still remember the first time I set foot in Skyrim. Everything seemed so big—its map, its trees, its mountains, its townships—and I spent my first couple of hours aimlessly wandering around its world. Having completed not one quest beyond the game's de rigueur introductory exchange, my under-powered hero was often left pegging it across the plains from far stronger foes and, of course, I revelled in the occasions where I rode my luck and came out on top. 

One particular battle of note saw me going toe-to-toe with a tenacious bandit. It was a tiresome affair as we fought back and forth, exchanging trivial single blows from Windhelm all the way up to Winterhold. By the time I'd run out of potions of minor healing, I threw caution to the wind and went in for the kill/valiant defeat. At the time I remember being amazed by how good close-quarters combat felt—how important each weighty jab felt, and how satisfying it was to see the beleaguered bandit finally fall before me. 

It was then that I was equally amazed by something else: this bandit was carrying gold, two minor stamina potions, a secondary sheathed weapon and an apple. And as if that haul wasn't surprising enough, my character—who could barely swing a sword at this point—was able to determine the fallen enemy's concealed inventory instantly. Sure, the shield and the sword and the fur armour were readily recognisable, but how the hell did my hero know this dude had a piece of fruit tucked away in his pocket just by looking at him?  

Despite Skyrim, BioShock and Dishonored being among my all-time favourite videogames, one thing that inherently annoys me in their self-acknowledged quests for seamless realism and 'immersion' is how unbelievable instantaneous looting is. Even with x-ray vision, it would take decidedly longer to ascertain what's on our foe's person than the respective lightning-fast evaluations of the Dragonborn, Jack and Corvo. 

Hinterland's survival exploration game The Long Dark does things a little differently. In a game where weapons are a curious luxury—and where your ability to use them is almost nonexistent—scavenging and looting is not only central to its makeup, but is also key to whether or not you make it through the night alive. A simple 'Searching' meter dictates how quickly you're able to case containers, shelving units, supply crates, corpses and more—and its speed in doing so reflects how quickly, or slowly, you might expect to sift through an old drawer or a frozen, lifeless body's pockets in reality.  

At first you'll shrug off the searches that wield nothing, as you quickly move onto the next stuffing your pockets with whichever treasures you happen upon. But before long, when you're starving, dehydrated, injured, sick, freezing, or, as is often the case, all of the above, a single search can be the difference between life and death. Suddenly, an instantaneous search doesn't seem so bad, as that once innocuous 'Searching' bar takes on a whole new level of urgency and importance: whereby the closer it gets to completion without spoils, the further your heart generally sinks.

And yet, conversely, that extra wait can result in flashes of unparalleled joy. During one venture into the icy wilderness, I'd become slightly over-encumbered and, of course, stumbled upon a pack of blood-thirsty wolves. I spotted an ice lodge up ahead and decided to try to circumnavigate the mob by going wide into the encroaching trees. Or so I thought. Before I knew it I was being hunted down at speed and the forest in front of me that I'd attempted to use for cover did nothing but impede my beeline for safety. I wound up on the deck with a ravenous wolf gnawing at me. After shaking the beast off I was gravely injured, bleeding out and carrying entirely more than my weakened body could handle. 

I tried ditching a few bedrolls to lighten the load, but it was clear my priority was sourcing medicine and fast. I hobbled along to the lodge leaving a trail of blood at my back, only to discover I had a wolf bite on my head of all places that had a 50 percent chance of becoming infected. Carrying just one dose of antibiotics, I was equipped to stave off the infection, but without any bandages I wasn't going to last much longer. 

After a quick scour of the room, I spotted a locker, two drawers, a plastic container and a first aid box. Rejoice! Over to the first aid housing. Searching… a flare! Okay! Not the most useful item, but back to the search. More antibiotics. Search over. Shite. Onto the container. Nothing. The first drawer. A chocolate bar and a pair of worn gloves. The last drawer. I'm done for. Searching… Another chocolate bar. The search drags on. A bandage. A F****ING BANDAGE! I'm saved!

And of course by 'saved', I actually mean 'able to treat my wounds, sleep, and leave the cabin only to be mauled to death by the pack of wolves who'd camped outside my door overnight'—but let's not split hairs, eh? 

That urgency, that forced and uncomfortable searching pause, and that moment of elation when a game that's otherwise brutally unforgiving throws you a bone is nothing short of marvellous. I've of course had umpteen useless searches end my life in The Long Dark as I fight against the clock, but the anticipation of each scramble is a thing of beauty—which can equally relate to discovering food when you're starving, firewood when you're freezing, or, if you're especially lucky, a firearm when you want to get your own back on that blasted wolf pack.

A few weeks back, The Long Dark launched a mysterious counter which we're almost sure is tied to its much-anticipated and as yet absent Story Mode. That timer expires tomorrow—stay tuned for our coverage once we know more.