There are lots of great ways to make a video game, but what really gets me excited these days is when a game does something which no other medium can do. Watching a movie about a crazy guy chopping rocks and building elaborate underground caverns will never be as fun as Minecraft. Reading a heartbreaking tale about a man who struggles to balance his personal moral convictions with doing whatever it takes to feed his family at a depressing Soviet border check point will never be as compelling as controlling that guy in Papers Please. And now we have The Long Dark. Though survival stories have been around since Robinson Crusoe (and probably before that), never has a game so well systematized the planning, decision making, and perseverance that allows an individual to live off the land in a state of desolate isolation.

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On my first playthrough of The Long Dark, I managed to last a little over 17 days by myself in the middle of the Canadian wilderness, in the dead of winter. I ended up freezing to death in a tiny shed on a frozen lake which I erroneously tried to stay in. This was after temporarily abandoning my make-shift home in an amply sized farmhouse. I ran out of food and decided to make a last ditch effort to avoid starving to death by fishing in a remote lake, only to run out of daylight and soon afterward, run out of fuel for my fire. Honestly, I don’t think I did too badly on my first run.

The Long Dark is quite the unnerving game. It may not be scary in a survival horror sense, but it is sure as hell nerve-racking. I found myself on edge for my entire seven hour playthrough, with never enough of a food supply to guarantee my survival for more than another 30 minutes or so of gameplay. And when I wasn’t worried about food, I was concerned about my clothes falling apart, or my tools wearing down, or those damn wolf attacks. Not to mention whether or not I would ever be able to save up enough supplies to make a trek out of my immediate surroundings. And to make matters worse, there are finite resources that will deplete. Seriously, I do not recommend this game for people with anxiety conditions. I could scarcely bring myself to play it for stretches of longer than an hour.

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The Long Dark lets the player choose a gender, a difficulty level, and one of five interconnected starting locations. Then you’re plopped in the middle of snowy nowhere with the explanation that every electrical device in the world has been knocked out in some sort of apocalyptic event and so your plane crashed and now you have to survive. That’s it. There is no map, no quest markers, no tutorial, and no prompt on what to do or where to go. You’re free to walk in any direction to scavenge resources from nature or whatever abandoned structures you might happen upon, or you can just sit on the ground and sulk until you freeze to death, which you certainly will because your clothes are nowhere near sufficient enough to keep you warm in the frigid tundra that is America’s hat.

And that’s the whole point of The Long Dark. I don’t think I have ever played a game which forced me to rely so heavily on what I call “informal mechanics.” That is, mechanics which are entirely operated by the player without direct assistance from the game, but which still pertain to choices and consequences within the game. This is a game where figuring out what to do and how to do it isn’t just unexplained within the game’s systems, but is almost entirely dependent upon the player’s ability to put himself in the player-character’s shoes and think like a real person would in the game’s situation. And it works brilliantly.

And the game looks gorgeous too.

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To understand what I mean by informal mechanics, consider how in-game maps in modern video games normally work in comparison to The Long Dark’s navigation system. Over the last decade, in-game maps have become utterly ubiquitous, especially in open world games. Between Assassin’s Creeds, Far Crys, Grand Theft Autos, the Witchers, Elder Scrolls, Fallouts, etc, it is presumed by this point that open world games include little maps in a corner of the screen with indicators for quest dispensers, enemies, procedurally generated events, resources, towns, and just about everything else the player may ever want to interact with in the game world. While experienced or perceptive players may eventually memorize portions of open world maps, doing so is literally unnecessary since the game itself will always dutifully carry that burden for the player.

In comparison, The Long Dark has no mini-map, nor a big map. The player can’t put markers in his HUD or fast travel between points of interest. It actually has no in-game navigation system at all. What the player must do instead is make mental notes of where self-designated landmarks geographically exist in relation to each other, which on a 30 square kilometer map consisting almost entirely of snow, mountains, and trees, is pretty damn difficult.

In my first playthrough, it took me about three or four hours of random travelling around a relatively small valley before I figured out the rough geographic relationships between locations. Some examples are the radio tower, the orchard farm house, the hay barn, the road, the path to my starting position, the fishing pond, the store near the bridge, and the sapling patch (most of those locations had real in-game names but it was easier for me to remember heuristic titles that I invented). Remembering where things are isn’t just helpful, it’s absolutely crucial. Recalling where I left, and how to get to, an emergency stash of food and another stash of cloth (to repair my clothes) meant the difference between life and death on multiple occasions for me.

The result of The Long Dark’s informal game mechanics is to put the player in a wonderful state of trepidation and risk calculation which so few games successfully attain. Granted, every RPG provides the player with stats which indicate statistical outcomes of success for particular actions, but in those situations all of the variables are known and accounted for by a presumably accurate and omnipotent game system. With The Long Dark, the odds of success aren’t based on designer-created algorithms, but my own knowledge, confidence, and optimism, or lack thereof.

305620_screenshots_2014-09-27_00004 For example, there was my hunting debacle from Day 13 to Day 15…

After scavenging my immediate surroundings for almost two weeks, I had burned through nearly all of the candy bars, granola bars, and salty crackers I could find, so I decided it was time for me to abandon my cosmopolitan, modern pretensions and go make my own food like a real man. Using a bow and arrow to hunt rabbits or deer seemed like a good idea, especially since I had found some arrows at an archery range, but to build a bow, my helpful in-game crafting guide informed be that I needed a “cured” sapling branch and two “cured” animal intestines. Great.

Fortunately I had found a sapling a few days earlier but for some reason it didn’t seem usable. I discovered based on the item description that it had to be “cured” by being left to dry indoors for five days, which given my arduous progress thus far, seemed like an eternity. I really wish I had started this process earlier, but what the hell do I know about “curing”? But ok, I dropped it on the floor of my make shift home in a barn and decided to go try to shoot a deer for the intestines I needed and enough food to tide me over until I could start hunting rabbits like Katniss Everdeen.

I set out to hunt deer with a rifle I had found in the trunk of a car, and four precious bullets. I have never hunted IRL, but I assumed I could just sneak up on a deer and shoot it, which I did. But rather then immediately collapse and die, the apparently animal-shaped Terminator ran off and I ended up following it for two in-game hours. Eventually it ran over a hill and disappeared from sight. When I saw it again, it was dead and a wolf was standing next to it, I don’t know if it died from my shot or the wolf finally put the machine out of its misery. Either way, the wolf lunged at me, I shot it, and fortunately it went down without further delay. By that time there was only five hours of daylight left, so I butchered the wolf, took all of its meat, guts, and furs with me, and high tailed it back to my barn, with plans to go back to the deer the next day.

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Of course this is Canada, so the weather is awful. I ended up sitting in my barn and eating wolf meat almost the entire rest of the next day because of a blizzard, and by the time it cleared, there wasn’t enough hours left in the day to find the deer, so I ate the rest of my wolf and prayed that the deer wouldn’t be too frozen and/or rotten by tomorrow to eat.

The next morning, I remember being furious with myself when upon exiting my make-shift home in the barn, I couldn’t remember if I should follow the snow path near the tractor or go across the river to the hay field to get back to the dead deer. When I was there two days ago, I half-sprinted back to the barn because I was so cold that my life percentage was declining, so I didn’t pay close enough attention to my surroundings to memorize them. In a normal open world game, going the wrong way would cost me scarcely more than a few minutes of strolling past some pretty scenery, but in The Long Dark it meant more time in the cold weather to reduce my heat metric and less daylight during which to butcher the by now frozen deer so I can lug its meat, guts, and fur back to my barn. I ended up going across the field, realizing two in-game hours later that I was going the wrong direction, turning back, and having to wait in my barn for another two hours to warm up again so I wouldn’t freeze to death while butchering the deer. And I still hadn’t found the carcass! By the time I finally did find the deer, disembowel its frozen corpse, and get back to the barn, my character was starving, freezing, and exhausted. I ended up sleeping for three hours and then getting up in the middle of the night to cook the meat out of a metal barrel.

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As you’ll notice, the developers (Hinterland Studio) are still figuring out how to deal with the tricky balancing issues that are endemic to informal game mechanics. The main issue is determining what information should be provided to the player and what should be left up to player experimentation and discovery. It’s perfectly fair to force the players to memorize the landscape, figure out how to use available daylight hours, and how many bullets it takes to kill a deer, but it would probably be unfair to expect me to know what “curing” something means, let alone how to do it.

Currently The Long Dark is still in alpha, and has been since September, 2014. That’s quite a long time, but it’s understandable, player-testing balancing issues can make or break this game. If food is too abundant and crafting too simple, then players will easily hit a steady state wherein they are able to attain infinite resources reliably, which not only removes the game’s difficulty, but also its precious sense of uncertainty. On the other hand, making the game too punishing will cause each playthrough to feel like a painful slog towards an inevitable death. The key is to create a system which balances the ease by which players can scavenge basic resources while slowly transitioning into a sustainable harvesting system, and then to introduce enough natural uncertainty (ie. weather patterns, animal scarcity, etc.) to require the player to constantly alter his steady state to maintain it. There is no easy way to figure out how to tweak every aspect of the game until the balancing is sorted out, only lots and lots of player testing will do.

As The Long Dark exists now, it is highly playable despite lingering in alpha. The only available mode is “sandbox,” where the player is dumped into the game world and tries to survive until he starves, runs out of water, gets sick, freezes, or succumbs to some combination of the previous ailments. Even in this early state, it’s a great system and I can’t wait to jump into my second game in a new part of the map, armed with a more sophisticated understanding of the game’s world and what I need to do to survive. Of course there are aspects which need to be corrected too. The inventory is still a bit unwieldy, everything degrades a bit too quickly (my sleeping bag shouldn’t be at 20% quality after ten uses), and as everyone who has ever played the game can confirm, the wolves are ridiculously aggressive and annoying. I won’t claim to be an expert on wolf behavior, but I’m fairly certain I shouldn’t suffer seven wolf attacks across 17 days in the Canadian Rockies.

(And while I’m nitpicking, I may as well bring up that if a standard, 20oz, freshly brewed Starbucks coffee has 5 calories in it, then whatever canned coffee I found in some cabin in the woods shouldn’t provide me with 100 calories per cup.)

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The game also has a yet-unreleased campaign mode for which I am extremely excited. As much as I love The Long Dark’s core mechanics, I need some sort of goal for my games. In its current state, I would likely only play a single round until I reached a steady state, at which point I wouldn’t see the need to continuously hunt, fish, and/or repair my tools and clothes every day for eternity. But with a properly made campaign, this game could be a true masterpiece.

I would like to see a campaign with distant, time and space-variant goals. For instance, imagine at the start of the game the player’s task is to locate the plane’s transponder which fell out some distance away from the crash site. The game could program the beacon to be in any one of ten different locations between 10 and 15 km away from the player’s starting point. The player would have to navigate towards the beacon with a homing device which beeped faster when the player got closer, but would run out of power in a few days. Such a set up could easily be designed, and provide the player with lots of variance between playthroughs, thereby always maintaining a sense of uncertainty. Maybe in an individual’s first playthorugh the beacon was easy to find in half a day, but in the second, even with efficient travelling, the player necessarily runs out of power after three days and is still another half day away from the beacon.

But that’s just my spitball ideas. Hinterland Studios has done a great job so far and I can’t wait to see where they go from here. I will be eagerly awaiting every update to The Long Dark and I recommend every gamer who’s interested in survival, open world gameplay, or innovative game ideas to jump into this world as soon as possible.