What is it about the survival genre that inspires such grim scenery? You've got DayZ with its zombies and decaying cities, The Forest with its mysterious caves full of dead bodies and cannibals, and Rust with its ramshackle player homes and gun-wielding bandits. These are games where the world around you is often just as dire as the task of staying alive.
The Long Dark is not one of those games. Developed by Canadian startup Hinterland, a team comprised of veterans from studios such as Relic, Ubisoft, and Volition, The Long Dark drops players into a gorgeous and highly stylized vision of the northern wilderness. Its striking art design blends a clean, minimalist look with vivid colors and exaggerated angles to create a setting that feels like a piece of hand-sketched concept art sprung to life. The Long Dark is, in a word, beautiful.
But there's a twist. What you soon realize is that this is one of the most brutal, unforgiving survival simulations to date. It doesn't just present you with a meter to gauge your hunger; it tells you the precise number of calories stored in your body, and how many of those calories you're currently burning per hour. You have to keep tabs on not only the outside air temperature, but also the windchill factor and the warmth bonuses for each piece of clothing. Forget to stack enough wood in the fire before you crawl into your bedroll and you could very well freeze to death in the middle of the night.
Indeed, death is constantly peering over your shoulder in The Long Dark. As a bush pilot who's crash-landed in the frozen Canadian wilderness, you're left wandering through deep snowbanks and dense forests as you search for anything to help you survive, whether it's a can of peaches you find in an abandoned logging camp or a pair of boots you've unceremoniously pilfered from an icy corpse.
In my first playthrough, I managed to find a ranger watch tower stocked with food and equipment. There was a fireplace, bottled water, and enough beef jerky and chocolate bars to last me for days. The only problem was, I was perilously low on firewood. With the sunset casting a yellow glow across the horizon, I could tell things were about to get real bad real soon.
So I set off in search of firewood, descending from the cabin's hilltop perch just as the sun began to set. After wandering around for long enough to see my character's breathing become more and more strained, I found enough wood to last me through the night. And just as I began to proceed back toward the cabin, a blizzard set in and visibility dropped to practically zero.
I could no longer see the cabin perched atop the hill, or even the hill for that matter. Just a fierce snowstorm and a tragic lack of any maps or compasses. I did my best to get my bearings, but to no avail. I wandered around for what felt like hours only to die cold, starving, and alone.
In my next playthrough, things went better. I survived the first night before setting out in search of supplies the next day. Feeling confident, I found myself running through the snow in an effort to soak up as much of the picturesque scenery as I could. And just as I crested a large snowbank, I spotted a lone backpack practically calling out to me from across the way. I dashed toward it only to discover that the drop down from the snowbank was more precipitous than I realized. With a nasty pop, I sprained my ankle and had no choice but to limp gingerly toward the bag of supplies.
I searched through the bag, but it was just food--no medical supplies. Without any bandages or painkillers to treat the injury, I painfully trudged off in search of more supplies. But as it turns out, I wasn't the only one canvassing the woods that afternoon. In the distance, a wolf spotted me limping along. He barely had to run with the condition I was in.
The Long Dark does not hold your hand. It's a harsh, demanding survival experience that punishes you for your carelessness and rewards you for studying every last hazard before you. And even with all the data it throws at you--hit tab to pull open the interface and you'll see all kinds of calories and kilograms and status bars--there's a certain elegance to it all. It leads to a situation where the most satisfying reward is simply being able to exist in this place for that much longer.
And that, I think, is what makes this game so alluring. The survival genre is a crowded place and it's getting more crowded by the day. But so far, The Long Dark seems to be one of the few games in this genre focused on capturing the solitary wonder of fighting to staying alive in the brutal wilderness. It's a game that relies on this idea that the natural world is a big, beautiful, dangerous place and we're a small and insignificant part of it. There are no enemy players waiting to loot your gear, no zombies roaming the woods. It's just you against the elements.
That being said, The Long Dark is a game that's still very much in its early stages. While Hinterland is working on a full story mode, as of right now The Long Dark exists only as a survival sandbox available to those who donated to the Kickstarter last year. That will change in September when The Long Dark makes its way onto Steam Early Access. It will release with the survival sandbox at first, followed by the story mode once the game hits completion.
You can find out more about The Long Dark on the game's official website.