Before the Battle Royale genre had any solid mainstream footing, a seemingly endless plague of survival games would (mostly regrettably) come to life. Funnily enough, and apart from the film of the same name, you could argue that Battle Royale titles were a result of survival games becoming a bit too stale. For when you’ve done all the surviving you could, it becomes a mission for most in a server to be the only survivor.
Back in the most prosperous days in the survival game lineage, however, there stood a game unlike the rest. A game with no multiplayer, no dinosaurs, no zombies or aliens or even zombified aliens. A game where one of the scariest and most life-threatening phenomenons is the wind. A game where you can chase a rabbit as you starve to death, only to run into a pack of even hungrier wolves. It was long, it was dark; it was The Long Dark.
What Is It?
The Long Dark is about as poignant and descriptive a title a game like this could have. For whatever cosmic reason that involves physics I do not wish to explain (fight me), the sun decided to fart. This is what people in lab coats call a “geomagnetic anomaly,” and what I call the Canadian Wilderness Experience. The “anomaly” fried the whole world’s electrical everything, basically rendering any and all technology past fire useless. No phones, no heat, no Seinfeld reruns, and no lights. I guess you could say it’ll be a long time in the dark (fight me, again).
The game’s pacing and mechanics are altered depending on your choice of game mode – Story, Sandbox, and Challenges. But they’re all pretty much the same where it counts: You’re some dude who crashed his plane into the snowy, hell-froze-over forested landscapes of the Canadian wilderness. And without speed, fortitude, ingenuity, and food, you might as well just crawl into a bear’s mouth.
What Makes It so Special?
Well for one, you’re alone. Well, in Sandbox mode at least. The three-part episodic Story mode does have interactions with a handful of other folk, but they’re not much in the way of any real help, mind you. Just quest givers and people you have to waste time listening to. There is not a single other human soul in this single-player hellscape, and that’s perfectly fine.
The Long Dark excels at atmosphere where many have crashed, burned, and evaporated. And part of this atmosphere is knowing that you are without help, without friends, and without distractions from simply trying not to freeze to death. There’s wolves, so many wolves, but they’re not good company (quite rude even).
Luckily, you don’t need friends. You have yourself – a grizzled outback pilot who’s grown in the woods and sustained himself as men of yore have. Sure, Canada is too damn cold, there are wolves and bears; and finding a bullet for your (severely damaged) rifle is as much cause for celebration as a birthday. But those are only more flavour added to the icy crockpot. Survival in the Long Dark is a slow, methodical approach that more-or-less mirrors what it’s like in reality, under similar circumstances. The wolves suck, but they don’t cover the ground, nor do they dramatically whittle down your health all the time outside of shelter. I’m talking about the weather here for those of you not attuned to natural phenomena.
A light breeze is enough of a reason to run away scared back into the nearest open door in this game. And if it wasn’t bad enough trying to not become a Popsicle, there’s afflictions in this game, positive and negative. Literally not starving for three ingame days can give you a well-fed affliction that buffs your health and carry capacity. Whereas getting bitten, bruised, lacerated, mauled or just falling a bit too long can impart a heap of negative afflictions that dramatically waste your health and energy (and will to live).
If that wasn’t bad enough, there’s diseases: think you’re safe if you stay indoors all the time? Say hello to Cabin Fever. Decided to take a drink out of this nice, crystal-clear ravine? Dysentery. Feel like curing your nasty dysentery? You’ll need extremely rare antibiotics, and about two litres of purified water, which you have to slowly prepare yourself, being careful not to boil it all away.
The Story mode has a start and an end, much like your average story, and it introduces the game’s mechanics slowly and when necessary. Sandbox – the game’s best experience – is basically just survival. That’s it. No missions. Nothing. Try to survive as well as you can, for as long as you can. And if your boy dies, that save file is permanently locked. You’ll have to start all over again. Thankfully, achieving a lot in the game (like literally walking 1000 miles) can net you some really cool feats. Stuff like increased carry capacity, health, or even movement speed can be unlocked for all your modes. So not everything is lost; you’ll have a faster time of getting it all back.
Why the Hell Would I Play This?
The Long Dark isn’t a game you play after a stressful day at work, Doom 2016 exists for that. It’s a game for somebody who is absolutely sick of the fast power creep that other survival games are plagued with. It might be hard to build yourself up a bit in a game like DayZ, but it’ll take you a total of two hours to be a nigh-unstoppable force of nature. The Long Dark? You’re always fucked. It’s always cold, the wolves and bears are always hungry (and they can hurt you even if you run back inside). Bullets are scarce, and your gun jams; unjamming a gun means having to eject the round in the chamber, meaning you’ll need to pick your unspent cartridge back up. Diseases are fatal, supplies are few and far between. You’re being challenged.
And challenge is exactly what you need in this day and age. Especially the kind that lends itself to immensely haunting atmosphere, and near-perfect immersion in the game’s world. You’ll hardly ever reach a point in the Long Dark where you feel like you’re on top. You’ll always be hustling, keening for so bandages or just to trap a rabbit. It’s a challenge you deserve, in a world as bleak as it is fortuitous.