The Long Dark
The Long Dark is a gruelling fight for survival in a snowy Canadian wilderness.
Amysterious geomagnetic anomaly has plunged the world into darkness and rendered all technology useless, including the plane you were flying over the frozen wilds of Canada. You awaken surrounded by flames and wreckage, and find yourself in a battle to survive in one of the most inhospitable corners of the planet. It’s a hell of a place to spend the apocalypse, and death lingers around every corner of this deadly, wintry expanse.
There are two ways to play The Long Dark. There’s Wintermute, an episodic story mode that follows bush pilot Will Mackenzie as he searches for his missing friend in the wilderness. This is a linear experience with stylish, melancholy cutscenes exploring Mackenzie’s past. Then there’s Sandbox, which lets you tell your own stories. The only objective here is surviving for as long as possible, and how you do that is left to you.
Wintermute is a good place to start. It begins with a series of tutorials designed to drip-feed the game’s systems to you. You’ll learn about treating wounds, foraging for plants, building fires and other essential skills. Sometimes you’ll meet survivors who need your help, forcing you to complete fetch quests, which grind the story to a halt and feel a little too much like busywork.
But it’s in Sandbox mode where The Long Dark’s survival knife is sharpest. Having the freedom to explore its large, interconnected regions is more compelling than following a prescribed path. Choosing how you spend each day is more engaging than ticking off objectives. This freedom and unpredictable elements, such as the weather, make every game fertile ground for emergent storytelling.
Some of my most vivid memories of The Long Dark were not created by the developers, but emerged naturally from its systems. I remember the unbearable tension of being on the
edge of starvation, one bullet in my rifle, and a skittish deer in my sights. Cowering in a cave at night, campfire about to burn out, listening to wolves howling outside. Limping half-dead through a blizzard, only to see the silhouette of a life-saving shelter through the wall of snow.
Wildlife is a nuisance. Wolves will catch your scent and stalk you, and if they attack you’ll be left with a number of serious wounds. Honestly, they’re miserable to deal with, spoiling the pensive mood of the game. Surviving the elements is far more interesting to me, and I’m glad there’s a difficulty mode in Sandbox that disables animal attacks. But in story mode you have no choice but to deal with them.
The weather is constantly in turmoil, which can change the mood of the game in an instant. One minute it’s a crisp, clear day with piercing blue skies. The next a stormfront is rolling in, the wind blowing the falling snow so hard it moves horizontally. Watercolour skies shift from a blanket of looming grey to the dusky pink of early evening, painting the snowfields around you in vivid colours. It’s an incredibly atmospheric game, with a gorgeous art style that lends it a peculiar, ethereal beauty.
Surviving the elements is far more interesting to me
ON THE MENU
Like a lot of survival games, everything in The Long Dark boils down to managing a series of meters. But thanks to the elegant design of the simulation, and a slick, minimal UI, it’s not a game where you feel like you spend half your time buried in menus. The abundance of progress bars is disappointing, however. Many actions, such as breaking a branch down for firewood or cooking food, happen off-screen, illustrated by a slowly filling circle. I would have liked to see my character interacting with the world a little more directly.
There are only a handful of great survival games on PC, and The Long Dark is one of them. Wintermute has its moments, and does a decent job of telling you how the game works, but it’s when you’re creating your own stories in the sandbox that it’s at its most absorbing. Beautiful art direction and rich sound design bring the deep forests, frozen lakes, and ragged mountains of Canada to life. And your endless struggle to keep the Grim Reaper at arm’s length is enormously rewarding, providing you have the patience to appreciate its slow, measured pace.