The Long Dark


EDGE - - GAMES - Pub­lisher Hin­ter­land De­vel­oper In-house For­mat PC Ori­gin Canada Re­lease Out now (Early Ac­cess)

Fiery wa­ter­colour skies and shim­mer­ing auro­ras are how Hin­ter­land chooses to show­case its take on the end of the world, but even the most at­mo­spheric screen­shots can’t con­vey the sound of Canada’s deep north – the thun­der­ous wind that scorns cloth­ing and shakes win­dow panes, or the thought­ful si­lence that fol­lows fresh snow­fall. Ab­stract­ing heav­ily, this Van­cou­ver Is­land­based team of 13 is cre­at­ing an escapist’s game, and it’s one that achieves an even bet­ter sense of place than DayZ’s hy­per-real coun­try­side of Ch­ernarus.

Cur­rently in Early Ac­cess, The Long Dark has you take on the trou­bles of a plane crash sur­vivor in the wake of an as-yet-un­spec­i­fied ‘ge­o­mag­netic event’. Alone in the moun­tains, you for­age, craft and do what you must to sur­vive, which mostly means keep­ing warm. There are no mon­sters in this waste­land, nor psy­chotic fel­low play­ers; The Long Dark is a staunchly sin­gle­player game. Oc­ca­sional wolves might do for you, but the per­va­sive, un­re­lent­ing threat is the cold, which can kill you in min­utes – sunny days in north­ern Canada can still be well be­low zero.

“It was all about com­ing up with a dif­fer­ent take on that post-dis­as­ter sce­nario,” cre­ative direc­tor Raphael Van Lierop says. “I’m very care­ful not to call it postapoc­a­lyp­tic, be­cause for me postapoc­a­lyp­tic al­ways has the wrong con­no­ta­tions. We’ve been taught that postapoc­a­lyp­tic means Mad Max, or Fall­out or zom­bies – that’s not what we are.”

The Long Dark’s ram­pant colour cer­tainly seems the ob­vi­ous coun­ter­point to the drab eastern Euro­pean set­tings com­mon to this genre. The im­pres­sion­is­tic style begs to be screen­grabbed, the dis­play of nat­u­ral majesty en­forc­ing an aware­ness of your pre­car­i­ous hold on the world. In­spired by the work of chil­dren’s writer and illustrator Jon Klassen,

The Long Dark’s world was less sat­u­rated early in devel­op­ment, but the team soon re­alised it would need its screen­shots to stand out.

“It started out as a prac­ti­cal thing,” says Van Lierop. “When you’re a small in­de­pen­dent stu­dio, you don’t have the re­sources of a big pub­lisher to help mar­ket and pro­mote your game. You need to have what mar­ket­ing peo­ple would call an ‘own­able look’, and I say that with a lit­tle bit of cyn­i­cism, but it’s true. With­out sound­ing too high­fa­lutin about it, the in­ten­tion be­hind The Long Dark is re­ally to cre­ate an artis­tic ex­pe­ri­ence that is emo­tional and hope­fully thought-pro­vok­ing.”

Me­chan­i­cally, The Long Dark is in less of a hurry to break with tra­di­tion. For ex­am­ple, play­ing in ei­ther of its two ex­tant sand­boxes means rum­mag­ing through cup­boards for canned peaches to keep food and thirst

me­ters topped up. Hin­ter­land has tried to strip back the typ­i­cal in­for­ma­tion-heavy UIs that ac­com­pany this type of game, of­fer­ing vis­ual cues as to your well­be­ing – the colder it gets, the more your breath fogs – but me­ters and lists re­main in force. The team con­cedes that it can’t find a way to ditch the UI en­tirely with­out mys­ti­fy­ing the game’s deaths, but pledges a more vis­ual, in­tu­itive adap­ta­tion of the menus for fu­ture up­dates.

The ab­sence of player an­i­ma­tions is also a point of con­tention at Hin­ter­land. The timer bars that rep­re­sent ev­ery ac­tion are the only bar­rier to full sub­mer­sion in its sur­vival­ist fan­tasy, a dis­con­nect that al­most caused the com­bat sys­tem, in which you might strug­gle in­vis­i­bly with a wolf, to be pulled. “I’m not say­ing we’ll never get there,” Van Lierop says, “but at any point when we’ve asked, ‘Is now the right time to tackle that?’ we’ve al­ways had other things that felt more im­por­tant.”

Re­gard­less, Hin­ter­land’s in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the sur­vival for­mula is ro­bust, thanks again to the sever­ity of the en­vi­ron­ment. Just as any good hor­ror has its au­di­ence un­con­sciously hold­ing their breath, the de­scent of a bl­iz­zard can in­duce a psy­cho­so­matic chill in play­ers as visibility drops and you stag­ger into the wind.

Ef­fec­tive though the cy­cle of for­ag­ing, up­grade and sur­vival is in the short term, this genre has an endgame prob­lem: one lucky raid or ef­fi­cient day can see you stock­pile sup­plies, grant­ing im­mu­nity to na­ture’s at­tempts on your life as you gather still more essen­tials. Once you be­come self-suf­fi­cient, the game has been beaten with­out cli­max, leav­ing play­ers to drift away un­ful­filled. Ac­cord­ingly, Hin­ter­land be­gan re­ceiv­ing com­plaints that

The Long Dark was too sur­viv­able soon af­ter im­ple­ment­ing the Coastal High­way map.

“We knew we were go­ing to cre­ate clus­ters of build­ings,” Van Lierop says, “but we hadn’t quite an­tic­i­pated how it would make the game feel easy for peo­ple. We tend to think about sur­vival in the game as a longer term ex­pe­ri­ence, so it’s easy for some­one to go into the Coastal High­way and get to a clus­ter of five or six houses and sur­vive for five or six days with the re­sources that are there, but that doesn’t mean that you’re go­ing to sur­vive for a hun­dred days.”

In light of the feed­back, the team cre­ated a new sand­box that brings the playable area up from ten to 19 square kilo­me­tres. In con­trast to the com­par­a­tively built-up Coastal High­way and the scat­tered houses of Mys­tery Lake, the new Pleas­ant Val­ley is a res­o­lutely ru­ral moun­tain re­gion com­prised of farm­land and un­spoiled wilder­ness.

Hin­ter­land goes fur­ther in ad­dress­ing the endgame prob­lem, too. The team’s longterm goal isn’t just a pol­ished sand­box in which to ex­ist, but an episodic story in which sur­vival is but a me­chanic. “We’re fun­da­men­tally sto­ry­tellers,” Van Lierop says. “The Long Dark wasn’t con­ceived as a sur­vival game – we built The Long Dark from first prin­ci­ples. We said, ‘This is how we want to make the player feel. What are the me­chan­ics, what is the aes­thetic we need to de­liver on that?’ Our full launch will be for the story mode. Story mode is the launch! No­body wants to play a story mode be­fore it’s fin­ished, and we knew that the sand­box could be tested on its own, in­de­pen­dently of nar­ra­tive.”

Designing sur­vival as a means to an end rather than the end it­self is a life­line for a genre in which many games stag­nate in Early Ac­cess. Af­ter all, popular dis­as­ter se­ries such as The Walk­ing Dead are about hu­man drama, not daily rou­tine, and Van Lierop pre­dicts that en­coun­ters with NPC sur­vivors in the course of the story will be far more un­set­tling than the wolves that prowl the wastes.

Af­ter its re­cent boom, the sur­vival genre is al­ready look­ing short of ideas, but The Long

Dark has stum­bled in with fresh sup­plies. In­spired by the view from Van Lierop’s win­dow and treks along lo­cal log­ging trails, Hin­ter­land has cre­ated an au­then­tic slice of Canada com­plete with toques and red maple leaves. As a re­sult, its sur­re­al­ist’s pal­ette and ex­treme weather en­force not a sense of high fan­tasy, but a real place at the end of days. And now, rather than wait to ex­pire, we can ex­plore what comes af­ter.

“We said, ‘This is how we want to make the player feel. What are the me­chan­ics?’”

Raphael Van Lierop, cre­ative direc­tor and founder of Hin­ter­land

For many games, mar­ket­ing screen­shots are heav­ily touched up be­fore re­lease, but this trap­per’s homestead ap­pears as is, aurora and all

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