Dark Light

Survival doesn’t always have to be horrific – we look at what makes dying in The Long Dark so lovely.

Since I’m in a cold frame of mind at the moment, the next logical place to go (from snowboarding and Alto’s Adventure) seems to be cold climate survive-’em-up The Long Dark, from Hinterland Studios in Vancouver. It’s every bit as stark and beautiful as Alto’s Adventure, with gorgeous flat textures across dream-palette skies and searing backlit sunscapes, but in a very different way. We talked recently about the art of Firewatch, a title that if it didn’t play so damn interestingly would be accused of being an exercise in beauty alone – and to me at least The Long Dark is every bit as gorgeous as Firewatch – it just looks like White Witch of Narnia got her hands on it in a pique of temper, and turned the sweeping forests from burnished reds to crisp, cool blues.

If you can argue that Steam Early Access games can be a success or failure, when the principle is one of community-driven testing and continuous improvement, it would be hard to dispute The Long Dark being one of the biggest success stories. Steam community feedback for The Long Dark has been overwhelmingly positive and while there is a discussion to be had as to whether the playing community as a whole are expecting too much from Early Access titles (and ignoring the spirit of the disclaimers) it’s still hard not to be impressed with The Long Dark for being so well received.

Let’s take a look at some of what makes it so great, and what we’d like to see tightened up in the full version.

The good

Let’s be clear: The Long Dark is a post apocalyptic survival game. You might not know it at first glance because of the lack of hideously mutated monstrosities trying to kill you, but it’s been clearly pointed out by the developers that this calm beauty is following something of a global killer; a massive electromagnetic event that has plunged the world into a natural darkness, in fact. A few weeks ago Robin discussed the tendency for games set after the end of the world to be a touch on the grim side, with humans turning upon each other in an orgy of destruction and cannibalism, so The Long Dark truly is a remarkable change of pace and we love it for that.

The Long Dark

Currently only the (very solitary) sandbox mode is available in Early Access, so we can’t promise that Hinterland won’t add an unpleasant human factor into the final version’s story mode – it almost seems impossible to imagine a survival game without some form of human antagonist – but here’s hoping they stick to their guns. So if roving bands of Mad Max-style psychopaths clad in the human-leather waistcoats of their victims aren’t the key danger in The Long Dark, then what is? That would be the cold itself.

It’s unusual to find a temperature as the chief antagonist. To be fair, nowadays in survival horror it’s unusual to even find the zombies as the chief antagonist – again, that would be the aggro human populace – with the zombies as more of a slow creeping tide lapping up around your ankles, and before you realise what’s happened, you’re engulfed. The cold serves the same function in The Long Dark, but it’s arguably more deadly, and infinitely quicker than the aforementioned zombies.

In the real world, if you find yourself stranded on a mountainside close to the Arctic Circle then it will be the cold that kills you, and The Long Dark captures this perfectly. There’s not much of a heads-up-display to speak of though, so you won’t be treated to precise temperature readings. You’ll know it’s getting colder because the condensation from your breath will got thicker, your movements more sluggish, and your status condition will gradually slip through a word-palette of increasingly severe-sounding adjectives for “dying of exposure”. You’ll need to keep your calorie intake up too – you can also die of hunger, thirst, or something altogether more violent (more on that later) – but even if the cold isn’t the final nail in the coffin, you can still chalk pretty much every death up as an assist for the temperature, at the very least.

The bad

For everything we’ve just said about how great the cold is as a mechanism (and ultimately an enemy) it’s possibly a little too hard to defend against.

The Early Access sandbox is set in a secluded valley of sorts, with an assortment of buildings – fishing lodges, holiday cabins, even a spill of derailed boxcars just off a railway line – to offer shelter and ultimately some variety from the trees, lakes, and endless snowy carpet. It therefore seems a little odd that these remote bastions of warmth and shelter are not better stocked with things to keep you, well, more warm and sheltered. Even if you have found a little respite you’ll soon burn through all your resources, put holes in your thermals, and ultimately have to risk the cold (and face even harsher temperatures en route) to find more resources or a better shelter, and ultimately try and stay alive.

The Long Dark

When you’re out there you’ll probably make a fair amount of noise – you may even need to light a fire to stave off sub-zero temperatures through the night, or a flare to light the way through the gloom – and in doing so, you will attract wolves. And they will kill you. You can fend off the odd wolf with the aforementioned flare or (if you’re really lucky) an actual weapon, but if you’re overrun and can’t get indoors quickly, they will kill you. Every. Single. Time.

Now it’s fair to say the wolves are interesting as a game mechanism and certainly spice up what some might see as a pedestrian survival experience – and to be fair, they are exactly the correct amount of hard when you do face them – but in the real world, you wouldn’t be facing them nearly so often, if at all. A pack of wolves would rarely attack a human unless it were really desperate or threatened, and with a solitary wolf, it just wouldn’t happen.

I suspect the balance of wildlife will be better in the final release – that’s the point of Early Access, after all – the developers can learn from the playtesting public, and make the final release the very best it can be.

And the beautiful

The Long Dark is so very, very pretty. As someone who loves cold parts of the world and prefers to holiday among frozen white snowscapes than on golden sandy beaches, I can vouch for how well Hinterland have captured the beauty of the environments, and I love the stylistic way the fizzing roar of the Northern Lights have been captured in its… you know what? That’s enough words. Let’s finish with some more of those remarkable visuals.


  1. It does look like a snowy Firewatch, but I’ve never been sure about these surviva-thons. They’re working towards some sort of narrative, right? Sure I read an interview about this.

  2. Correct! The Early Access release is a ‘sandbox mode’ designed to test and fine-tune the survival mechanics themselves, then the full release will have a story mode too.

  3. I usually find survival games too tense. (Even the old GBA game Survival Kids gave me the chills) but this looks interesting, harsh but interesting.

  4. The Long Dark is harsh, but then it should be given the scenario – it’s still a joy all the same – some people are treating the sandbox mode like an endless runner (with the ‘score’ being how many days/hours they lasted before death) which is an interesting way to approach it.

    If you found Survival Kids tense then you *really* don’t want to play The Forest, though…

  5. Lovely article, Tom.

    Choose the ‘Pilgrim’ experience level when you start, and all your cited ‘bads’ go away.
    – Wolves avoid you. Flee from your approach. Like any solitary non-rabid wolf would.
    – The cold is still the first thing you learn to defend against, by scrounging for clothing, and by repairing clothing. [A perfect thing to do in the warm cabin at night before you go to sleep.
    – And since wolves avoid you… but single-mindedly pursue, down, and feast on deer… well, I leave it as an exercise to the apt pupil on how you are going to get your venison.

    I am about ready to go to the next experience tier [Voyageur] after having grazed in a focused but not desperate way on surviving for 30 days. [Well. I was desperate from time to time, but only for brief periods, and only because I got careless sometimes. I lost my gun. *Really* Total idiot. But… not dramatically implausible.]

    You certainly got the lead right, though, on the keyword ‘beautiful’. I still look forward to dawn and dusk, clearing weather after a snowfall revealing distant peaks, sharp, cold nightfall, with the audible crunch of popcorn snow underfoot.

    By the way… the avoidance behavior of wolves in ‘Pilgrim’ mode robs you of the excitement and terror of wolves. On balance, a perfect experience for a Pilgrim. But now you need to play at Voyageur to get that experience.

    Ooops. Did I just hear a *Brilliance* audio cue?

    Because… now you get to play two games for the price of one. [I haven’t played ‘Stalker’, yet.. the third experience tier, and a direct reference to very fine FPS STALKER… with suitable associations with the open-world challenge of that game.]
    – Add that two- or three- game experiences for one purchase, AND the fact that Long Dark is still only in Sandbox for Early Release, and you have an even more compelling case for the Long Dark as a poster child for STEAM’s Early Access scheme.

    “Be all you can be.” And then keep increasing your scope and ambition.

  6. Hi Ken, thanks for the advice – you’re clearly an experienced woodsman! I’m not sure I want to scotch the wolves completely by modifying the difficulty though, and I certainly don’t think I want the game as a whole to be too easy – it’s meant to be a challenging experience, after all.

    And to be fair, I only referred to them as ‘bad’ because it fit my the good/the bad/and the ugly motif – I really wanted to phrase it as ‘the good/the very minor inconveniences that I can totally live with and aren’t really a big deal/and the beautiful’ – but it wasn’t quite so punchy when it was written down 🙂

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