The Long Dark

The Long Dark is a survival sandbox game developed and published by Hinterland Studio Inc available under Steam's Early Access program.  This one was a bit of a sleeper for me, I must admit.  I kind of got it back when I was looking at The Forest, and Ark: Survival Evolved, and was kind of on a kick of different survival games on Steam, but when I first played it back when, it didn't really grab me and so I played maybe 15 minutes and left it to look at later when it was more refined.  And wow, it was some time before I did look at it again, but it really took me in the past week, so it seemed like it would be remiss of me not to write about it, and here I am.  I tried it again a few days ago as a sort of time sink when I wasn't feeling well, and it just completely drew me in with an absorbing survival experience.  I think the thing that draws me away from the gaming ennui I found with the typical survival sandbox games is that ultimately they just end up quickly becoming creative sandboxes, and while that can be an entertaining time sink sometimes, they quickly lose the survival element that initially sucked me in.  Not The Long Dark.  Sure, it has a crafting element, but the laser focus is on that survival element, and it benefits greatly for it.  It is not perfect, but this has quickly become my favourite survival game of the many I've played on Steam.

The development of the game has been quite long

No doubt the observant and savvy readers looking at this immediately saw the 2014 release date and thought to themselves: "2014?  And still in Early Access?  What is this, DayZ?"  And you'd be right to be sceptical of that development cycle, given how many games have just burnt out, or like Spacebase DF-9 get shoved out unfinished and buggy.  That development cycle is a concern, and if this is a game that you've been reading the review to and think to yourself "that sounds nice but I'd like some additional feature", well, you might as well quit reading now and check back in a year or two, because the development time of this game has been quite tortured indeed.  And while I'm relying on memory from years ago, I can't say too much of it feels very fundamentally different from when I played a couple years ago.  There's more of it, certainly - additional maps and some challenge modes, as well as a few balance tweaks, but when it comes to actual meaningful content patches, the game has been very slow indeed.

To be fair to the developers, what is here already represents a mostly-complete experience.  While you could add additional items, weapons, or environs, which I'll get to in more detail in their respective sections, the core mechanics are here, there's a base set of items already, and the world to explore right now represents a sizeable enough world to explore to feel worthwhile.  If you're someone that likes ARK's development cycle where stuff is being added pretty heavily and pretty quickly though, you're likely to get frustrated at The Long Dark, where there are considerable gaps between content patches.  This was hardly a breaking point for me, since the game that's here is great in my opinion, but it can be to some people, and so thus, I note it.

And if you want the story mode, it's been "coming soon" for a long, long time now.  Don't hold your breath.

The Long Dark's piece of the northern tundra is captivating

So now that I've spent a good five-hundred words going on about what isn't in here, or more specifically complaining about the speed at which those things are being added, what is in here?  Well that's where we get into the much better part of things.  I said that this game is great as is, and I wasn't saying that just to offset the criticism or as some sort of empty reassurance.  I figured last weekend to play it again after getting burnt out on Rust, intending to maybe play half an hour or something after bed, and well, fast forward to like five hours later and I'm realizing I probably should take a break now because I still haven't eaten, and also the sun is going down and I might want to sleep.  That's how much it grabbed me, and ultimately the experience absorbed me so much is why I recommend it, but how did it accomplish that?  Well, that takes some back engineering that gut feeling, as it were.

Probably the chief element to me is how much the world made me want to explore it.  It's presented with just enough information available that you might be able to piece together little stories.  One example I came across in my own travels was one survivor curled up in the relative shelter of a hydro-electric dam with bloody bandages at hand surrounded with broken arrows and a pretty obvious bite wound.  I've spoken at some length before about how much I adore the environmental story-telling in games like Thief II, and this game has that kind of thing in spades.  It also provisions it sensibly across the map too, and you're left wanting to explore the white space to find these captivating stories of what happened in the disaster that is the premise of the game and leaves you stranded in those northern woods.  As I came across successive little pieces of events telling a story without narration or even a pause, some of which you could entirely miss if you weren't attentive, I found myself very interested in exploring that world and poking through it's various nooks and crannies.

Survival mechanics that the game presents are strong

The game is a pretty easy thing to go into, you select the Sandbox or a Challenge mode, choose the difficulty level, then whether you want a male or female survivor, and then which level or challenge you want.  The challenges are what you might expect out of this kind of game.  There's a few at present: one where you essentially have to get a flare gun from one location and fire it off at another to hopefully be rescued, with the challenge aspect being getting to one and then the other covering a large amount of ground without getting eaten, and then the second involves you being on the run from a bear that can only be killed with a high-calibre rifle, that is actively hunting you, so you have to attend to all the needs of survival, while on the run, and seeking out that rifle.  There's then a second part of the hunted one with the bear that I didn't unlock because that is a very great challenge indeed, and then Whiteout that's basically "you have thirty days to stockpile enough food to outlast a blizzard" and Nomad that sends you to random locations in succession and basically becomes a game of how well you know the maps.  The levels on the other hand are basically just choosing the sandbox you start in, but one deceptive element is that they all connect together, so it's more choosing the general area you are spawning in, than a specific sandbox you're confined in.  It's one or the other: you cannot choose to have a challenge mode and choose your spawn location - the game has pre-set ones in the challenges.

Once you've chosen the parameters for the game, as it were, you're dropped in one of a handful of locations in your chosen sandbox, or the chosen start area of the challenge.  And that's it, there's no hand-holding, something one of the game's introduction screen trumpets.  You basically have four statistics you have to watch: how cold you are, how tired you are, how hungry you are, and how thirsty you are.  On the face, these operate pretty much as you expect it would: warmth is a factor of how warm the clothing you are in compared to your environment's ambient temperature, you get more tired as you go longer without sleeping, and hunger and thirst are basically also bars that slowly deteriorate, though they will do so generally more quickly as you exert yourself in a variety of ways.  To replenish hunger and thirst, you eat or drink appropriate food and beverages, to combat fatigue you sleep, and to warm up you either find warmer clothing, a warmer environment (going inside in a house as opposed to outside for instance), or you start a fire.

There is a subtle depth to these mechanics that is a good iterative progression and I find that the game really nails the "easy to learn, hard to master" gambit that so eludes most games.  It does this by having a variety of complex interactions "under the hood" as it were.  For instance, while many foods will fill you up and thus replenish your hunger, they will also make you thirstier, especially foods that are usually rather salty, such as boxes of crackers.  There's a variety of interactions like this that come into play, and they represent a considerable deal of depth to the game.  There's a lot of stuff that I could get into at some length -  treating injuries with medical supplies for instance, but I could easily be here for another 3000 words if I did.  Suffice to say there's a lot to this game, and while it's easy to get into its also easy to get lost in a pleasant way in its depth.

The crafting system eschewing building is a canny decision

Adding to this is the crafting system.  This isn't a building system, such as is present in Ark: Survival Evolved, or the Forest, but rather purely crafting: making things you need to survive.  While this is probably going to be a sticking point for many people because the creative building aspect is indeed a considerable appeal to many, it is a pretty apt decision on the part of the developers, I feel, because it retains the focus of the game on survival.  Any of the more building-oriented games eventually reach an equilibrium where you are essentially so safe as to never be under threat, so they lose the survival aspect, and become more creative.  This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but for a game that bills itself on being a purist survival experience, the Long Dark is probably enriched by having very minimal building elements.

To specify, you can craft a handful of things, but there's only one thing that could be called a building, and that's the snow shelter.  It requires a very considerable amount of resources, and is just this little tiny shelter you can fit a bedroll in, nothing more.  It is more an emergency thing to bunker down in during a blizzard than anything resembling a base to operate out of or similar, as you often end up with in other games.  The other things you can craft are all apparel and arms - bows, arrows, and clothes made out of hide.  All of them are pretty much objectively better than the stuff you'll scavenge with the exception with a few of the rarer items, but require you to hunt and skin deer, bears, or other wildlife to get them, which are no mean feat, especially since you need to either make a bow, find one, or come across a rifle and ammunition, which entails a considerable amount of exploration in either case.

While good, those mechanics are not without flaws

If there's any complaint I do have about the game mechanics, it's that sometimes when you die, it might not be immediately obvious why.  Most cases of death - falls, getting eaten by animals, or whatever - are pretty self-evident, but others aren't.  In one case, I went to sleep in a cave and died.  Was it from exposure?  Did a bear find me and eat me?  I don't know - the game doesn't tell me.  Just "you faded into the long dark" which is the game's death message and a summary at the end.  Now Maiya, you might say to me, surely the summary indicates cause of death?  Well, I thought of that too, and I looked, but if it's in there, then I'm missing it entirely.  You might be able to suss it out if there's an injury or ailment you don't recognise in the status ledger, but there is no line that states this unambiguously.

I'm somewhat on the fence whether this is an objectively bad thing.  The iterative process of going through different approaches to things is part of the learning experience inherent in survival, but for that to be effective, you do need some level of feedback, and when I'm left not knowing what did me in with a given situation, then I can't really learn.  I don't really know what I'd suggest here since making it completely obvious with the usual "X killed you" sort of death line you see a lot in first-person shooters, for instance, would probably break the experience to some degree, at least some indication more than we already get (such as perhaps your vitals at the time when you died) would be helpful.

There's a few more minor gripes.  You can construct torches with a handful of commodities but theres no option to just stick a decent branch in a fire and use that as one, which I guess branches off from the lack of improvisation complaints I'll get into in a moment.  Animations can get interrupted so sometimes this ends up obscuring animations that are given as feedback something doesn't work, and thus making it unclear that something didn't work, or why.  These are minor quibbles at best, but happened enough that are worth mentioning.  The shooting if you have a rifle leaves a lot to be desired as well - it feels floaty and impactless.  I don't exactly expect iD quality shooting when it isn't the focus, but man, this is basically the ur-weapon in the game, the most powerful thing out there, and it feels like you're using a slingshot.

The lack of ability to improvise is a somewhat glaring flaw

Another issue I have with the Long Dark is that while the existing mechanics are rather well-thought-out and present a pretty decent set of skills and tools to use to survive, they also end up restrictive.  This was probably best and simultaneously most frustratingly punctuated by one playthrough in the Pleasant Valley sandbox map where I scoured every container in that map, and didn't find a single hatchet, so, when I got caught in a blizzard with only a fir limb in sight to collect for firewood, I ended up dying of exposure, because you need a hatchet to harvest these larger branches in the game.  This represents a pretty artificial seeming limitation.  You could easily break down a large branch with a hunting knife by chopping or batonning, it would just take considerably longer.  Hell, if it meant the difference between life and death, believe you me I'd find a way to take it apart with my bare hands if need be.  This feels like it should be a continuum rather than a hard requirement - with the ideal tool representing the fastest and most efficient method of getting it done, requiring the least time and calories spent, and less efficient tools requiring more and more of both time and calories as one goes across to less and less efficient tools.  You're given no such option to try to improvise and so, if the procedural generation decides not to give you the tools you need, in some cases, you're just going to die, and there's absolutely nothing you can do about it.

I find this a particularly egregious flaw for two reasons.  First of all, as I noted above, this can place you in situations where you are left without the tools to succeed, and you essentially are left with what we used to call in adventure game circles "dead man walking syndrome."  You can't win and you will die, but it's not immediately obvious until fairly further on.  This ends up especially wasteful of the user's time, and I cannot say I'm a fan of it.  In a survival game this could be argued to be part of the experience, but I have never advocated unfair or artificial difficulty, and I certainly don't advocate no-win scenarios, which are even worse.  Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, this is a survival game, and at the heart of the idea of woodlands survival, or for that matter, survival in any extreme environment such as the northern tundra represented in The Long Dark, is the idea of improvising cunning methods with which to survive against the odds.  Indeed, we have a whole branch of stuff on television like Survivorman or Bear Gryll's series which encapsulates just that: interesting and ingenious methods that perhaps one might not have thought of, to survive in these dangerous places.  You're not given much opprotunity to improvise in many cases: you either have the appropriate tool and can do something, or you cannot.  It is a binary one or zero, and so very often, your survival depended on it.

Accessibility Notes

  • FOV defaults somewhat low but can be changed in settings
  • Plays well in fullscreen or windowed modes
  • Doesn't capture the mouse properly on multi-monitor setups; I required a third-party tool to keep the cursor on the proper screen
  • Rebindable keyboard controls
  • Controller support, but without rebindable controller buttons

While there is obviously more the developers intend to add, The Long Dark as is now, is already a compelling survival experience.  There's a few rough edges - but not many, and the experience itself offered an absorbing and somewhat surreal survival experience in that frigid north.  If you're looking for a building-oriented game, you should look elsewhere, but if survival is what you want out of these games, none does it better than The Long Dark does right now, in my opinion.  While there's some areas for improvement, including most notably better allowing players to better improvise, they don't ultimately detract enough from the experience that I was ever taken out of it.  This is a game of exploration and survival, and boils it down to its basest essence, and given an interesting world to explore, and strong survival mechanics, it comes easily-recommended.