Alright, picture this: it’s a bone-chillingly cold night and you’re searching everywhere for something to keep your feet warm. You search drawers and cupboards for anything until finally, you come across a clean and woolly pair of socks. You know the kind. They’re like wearing scarves on your toes. You sit on the edge of the bed and put them on and it’s a fantastic feeling and small victory for yourself. Now, take that feeling, amplify it by about 1,000 percent, surround yourself by potential blizzards, endless snow and ice, ravenous wolves and the occasional frozen corpse.
That’s the central theme of The Long Dark: small, quiet victories. Trapped alone, cold and hungry in the Canadian wilderness, you are left to your own devices to survive with a bare minimum of supplies. I have no map or sense of what lies beyond the trees in front of me. I can hear a wolf howling from somewhere over a hill. My stomach is grumbling and I sorely need rest. But my main priority is to find someplace warm so I don’t freeze to death. So when I find enough matches, fuel and newspaper to light a small pot-belly stove in an abandoned ice-fishing shack, it feels like a massive triumph.
The concept and elation of discovery is something that video games excel at. In The Long Dark’s sandbox world, stumbling across areas and items that you can put to good use in order to stay alive is executed perfectly. It borders on an addiction, as all good discovery does. But it’s not all easy times. Seeing a house on the horizon is incredibly exciting but you must make sure you can survive the trek over there. Wolves are very dangerous creatures in this wilderness and visibility reduces to almost nothing if a heavy blizzard descends upon you.
There’s nothing as predictable as zombies in The Long Dark. An electrical storm has knocked out the power and you’re totally alone. You versus nature. Which makes for a very solitary experience. But once you manage to find (or create) warm clothes, food and water, the desire to search the nearby forest or snow-covered railway car becomes too strong to ignore. It’s a great feeling to set up a base in somebody’s dimly lit lounge room but you can’t linger for long. You’re probably running low on food.
The Long Dark is still in an Alpha stage and all the modes are not present. It’s currently an endless sandbox game with three difficulties and two massive areas. Still to come is a story mode and more features. Hinterland Studios have taken risks to design a game where unusual aspects such as windchill, fragile tools and sickness play a huge part. The adverse effects of the outdoors are highly detailed and need to be managed with care if you hope to survive more than a couple of days. Some developers might be nervous to commit to such a realistic simulation but frankly, it’s a relief to play.
Not nearly enough games allow the player room to breathe. Standing in the deathly quiet control room of a dam while you set up a bedroll by the light of a single match is oddly satisfying. You can take your time to achieve your goals. I don’t just mean that it’s an open-world game and you can do whatever you want. The world created by Hinterland Studios feels ancient and stoic. It will be there long after you run out of water or get killed by a wolf so you might as well think about your actions long before taking them. The only reason to rush is to avoid dying alone, cold and hungry.
I’ve always wanted to visit Canada and while I’m aware this isn’t a fully accurate portrayal of what it has to offer, I’m still excited more than ever before to find out. Liberties have obviously been taken (killer wolves and no need to dig latrines) but there’s a tranquility in The Long Dark that few games possess. A sense of being at peace. I can momentarily enjoy that before heading out into the snow for another hike of discovery and wonder. And hopefully, a can opener.