Feel inspired. Abandon all hope.
You’ll never have a travel experience as bad as the one in The Long Dark.
Here’s a typical day. It’s a week after your plane crashed in the far north of Canada, following some undefined apocalyptic event that has left you the only living human being in these parts. You wake in a bunk-bed in a wooden hut, freezing cold. After prising open a tin of peaches and drinking/eating the contents, then chasing it down with a can of pork and beans and a cup of boiled water, you wrench the door open. The temperature plummets. Out you trudge out into the numbing cold, your breath huffing in the air in front of you.
The landscape is beautiful, but if you stand around admiring it for very long you’ll probably die, so you set off in search of…who knows? Anything. Wood can be turned into a fire, but you’ll expend calories and warmth collecting it. You might find a body in the snow to loot, if you’re lucky. Or maybe another mountain hut, or cabin, or if you roam far enough, a remote mountain lookout. Everything is frozen and everything is about food and warmth and dodging the many, many different ways you can die.
The Long Dark is in alpha*. It’s profoundly unfinished and you can only play it in “sandbox mode” – no story as yet, no end to your suffering. In its current form, it’s a game of survival you can’t win. You’re doomed. Sooner or later something will get you. The cold. Hunger. Thin ice. Wandering off a cliff in a snowstorm. Your own gross stupidity. Something.
And somehow, that doesn’t seem to matter.
Weirdly, what this game doesn’t lack is hope. Sometime soon, Hinterland Studio Inc. are going to introduce a sense of purpose – a story that promises to get you out of this nightmare. When that happens, I hope enough of this game survives – because it’s oddly inspiring.
Contrary to popular opinion, intrepid outdoorsy expeditioners don’t go in search of suffering. That’s not what they’re after. The experiences they crave are just behind all the horrible, miserable stuff. Just behind. The moment where you finally get indoors and kick the snow off your boots and thrust your stockinged feet in front of the fire and warmth creeps into them. The satisfaction of looking back over the route you’ve spent hours fighting your way across. The times on the tops of mountains when the freezing mist is torn away by the wind and the sun streams down through a freak gap in the clouds and suddenly you can see for miles and miles, and since you’ve spent the last four hours looking at different shades of grey, oh, the colours, you’re not sure if it’s the wind making you cry, or, or…
There are many moments like this in The Long Dark. You can almost feel them. Starting a crackling fire when moments before you were crying out in pain because you were so cold. (I bet you’ll lift your hands off the keyboard and rub them. I bet you.) The hush of a cloudless day, the sun shining and the snow dazzling, no wind, just your feet crunching along. On days like that, everything’s joyful and you’re invincible. It captures that feeling perfectly. It’s a total lie, but a convincing, bewitching one.
I can’t wait to see what they do to this game when the story comes along. But right now, even unfinished, it’s a savage, lovely piece of world-building, unlike any game I’ve ever played, but unnervingly like some of my favourite hill-walks and winter adventures. I hope it keeps its merciless, profoundly un-gamelike core, a world that doesn’t feel designed for you, serving your needs, beholden to Player 1. You’re a nobody, wandering through a landscape that doesn’t seem to care what happens to you, and it’s humbling, unsettling and magnificently realized. Survival? Well, that’s up to you. Go earn it.
*The Long Dark is now fully released (but still being updated with new content), currently on Steam for around £20, with an “Overwhelmingly Positive” rating after 3,200 reviews.
It’s wonderful and horrible and will make you shiver. Best played when it’s snowing outside and your feet are nice and warm.