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The Long Dark

The Long Dark

Written by Rob Larkin on 10/12/2020 for SWI  
More On: The Long Dark

On a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.

-Chuck Palahniuk

The Long Dark is a game I've been wanting to play for probably five years. I remember first finding out about it in early access long before its initial full release on Steam in 2017. So many times I had nearly pulled the trigger and purchased it only for my better judgement to take hold, take a look at my long list of unplayed games not in "Early Access," and take my finger off the mouse button hovering over the Add to Cart button. I did finally buy it last year on one of the annual sales, but still haven't found the time to fit it into my gaming schedule as I so rarely get in front of the screen of my PC for anything other than work. When I heard the game was coming to Switch, I was champing at the bit to finally get to play a game that had practically become a personal unicorn. I was enthralled with the concept of The Long Dark, and I so wanted to love this game. 

My first steps into this gaming world, well, it was anything but love...

You see there's this little thing about The Long Dark that I feel you should be aware of before jumping in. It's a survival game, where you are not really meant to survive, only last for as long as you can until you either run out of resources, run out of time scrounging for more, or run into a wolf. There is no "Congratulations, you win!" at the end of any playthough, there isn't even a "but our princess is in another castle." There is only death, and the long dark that follows it. Or short dark as you jump in for another run. The game is hard. It is meant to beat you; and if it's not, then you haven't amped up the difficulty enough yet.

Now, the core of this experience is in Survival mode. Survival mode is just like it sounds: survive. The game drops you into one of the maps, your drop is randomly chosen, resources are randomly generated and placed, and your starting gear is randomly rolled as well, but pretty much guaranteed to be not much more than some sneakers and a sweatshirt against the cold of the Canadian arctic. You are up against it from the go. Survival mode was how the game started way back in that Early Access period. It was the only way to play for all that time up until a story mode was tacked on for release. Survival mode is the core loop. 

But this genius here decided that he would be better off starting in the story mode, called Wintermute. My thought was story mode might teach me how to play, might introduce me to the basics, and maybe even hold my hand a bit for the first few hours. No, the only thing in this game looking to hold your hand is the icy grip of frostbite. Wintermute is a bit of a train wreck. Wintermute nearly turned me off the game entirely. 

Things started off rather wonderfully. The opening credits and background track of "The Lions Roar" by First Aid Kit set up an Atmosphere that had me on the edge of my seat. I took the controls of my avatar and was directed to build a fire, knowing that Jack London would soon be coursing though my veins. And then I got thrown into a messy and rather unexplained backstory that wasn't really resonating before being led headfirst in a propeller plane into a winter blizzard. We know how this part ends, but a funny thing happened on the way to the plane crash: there was the cataclysmic EMP type of Aurora Borealis event which knocked out the electrics.

I knew this whole game was meant to be placed after a rather disastrous worldwide catastrophe, but was surprised to see it actually take place before my eyes. I expected the timeline to follow this a great deal and plant me squarely into a period after society goes to hell, not see it unfold. Excited to play how this pans out, I made my way from the crash site to the first town only to find out, in storytelling terms, we're just going to cheat. We're going to place you simultaneously both in the cataclysm, and after it, and just explain it away with some hand waving about economic events and everyone's gone and its all a ghost town now, blah blah blah. So the characters that weren't really resonating have been placed into a timeline that isn't really resonating and my first real quest with an NPC is basically to fetch a bunch of stuff for me for no apparent reward, so we've got a gameplay loop that isn't resonating either. Oh boy.

I think I could have stomached it all, cringey as it was, up until the point where I could not find my way out of the first cabin and I slowly starved to death inside, twice. The first time I arrived so banged up my vision was blurred in the final throes before death. Assuming this was the reason I couldn't see the door I had jumped back in to replay the first two hours to arrive back at this point in better condition, only to again realize I can't find the door even with clear eyes. You see the story mode places you in this first building at night, and at night there is no light coming through the windows and no electricity to switch on a bulb. So stumbling around all four walls in the dark I could never even find a prompt to say "press B to open door," and I circled and circled, getting more and more frustrated by the design with every lap until I wasted away from starvation. "Press F to pay respects."

I loaded back in, miraculously now with a fuller stomach than the autosave when I arrived, and on a third attempt again failed to find the exit. I remembered the brightness settings I was prompted to adjust when first setting up the game and thought "maybe I've just set it all too dark." I popped into settings to discover the brightness options was missing from in-game play. Back to the title screen, into the settings, ticked the brightness up a smidge, back in. Still blind as a bat. Back out, into the settings, max brightness because this is getting ridiculous so let's get nuts, back in, finally find the door because on max bright I can at least see enough to make my way around a corner in an alcove where it's been hiding all along. 

I push forward at this point only because I have a review to write. The things I do for science... The plot goes from bad to worse and gives me just enough instruction to frustrate me. Go to the gas station and look for supplies. But there is an old man already there, he says a bunch of words and now I guess I am expected to rob him of everything so he can starve rather than me in this sticky floored Kick-E-Mart grave alone? I feel more like I am playing a game built around an episode of Epic NPC Man as I pilfer every usable resource from under the man's nose, dooming him to his own fate of starvation or frostbite or whatever might win the race for his soul. Not to mention by this point we've completely lost the original plot.

I set out from my plane crash desperately searching for my partner who also survived. That was yesterday. Now all of the sudden a new sunrise has shifted all priorities and I am searching for them with the urgency of a detective on a decades-old cold case. Somehow I've found plenty of time for fetch quests and rambling conversation trees with strangers who speak about seeing her pass by like it was ages ago. I'm getting to the point I'm just hate-playing and actually say to myself, "if I don't find a flashlight in the next five minutes I'm quitting," before stumbling upon a lantern. Oh, thank goodness. I also discover I can actually use matches to see in the dark and can finally tone my brightness back down to something lower than staring into the sun mode. But at this point I'm too checked out of Wintermute to press on. It didn't teach me how to play, it just taught me I didn't want to play. I'd need to take a break before jumping back in again.

A few days later, recharged and ready to head once more unto the breach, I switched gears to Survival mode and my playing experience instantly got better. There were still many things that made no sense and were left poorly or wholly unexplained. I get there is a large trial-and-error element to the gameplay. That's part of the experience, but to ignore a few basics and leave them obscured just makes for a lesser experience. Why is my map always blank? It's because you need charcoal to fill it in. Why can't I scoop snow into these empty containers to melt it later? It's because instead you are meant to first light a fire and it will automatically place a container and scoop snow for you. How can I see my way out of this building at night before I starve? Light a match.

These are the basics, but they are unintuitive and unforgivable, because to fail them just means your first few playthroughs are just quick deaths with little learned or gained to follow into the next one. It’s not just about surviving, it’s about finding the specific mechanics the game insists you utilize to let you survive. Any idiot knows snow + heat = water, but assuming you needed to collect it first from the source, actually picking up snow, instead of it just magically filling your empties when a fire source is the gameplay leap you have to unlock. It does not cheapen the experience to tell the player how the game design expects these basics to actually be initiated. Unless they are completely intuitive (Ron Howard voiceover: they're not) then fill in those blanks with the minimal techniques so that by the time the more complex interactions hit the player has that feel for how the world works. I know how the real world works: I scoop snow into a bucket and place it on the flame and one heat induced physical reaction later—water. I don't know how the game works, and the game is uninterested in teaching me.

But with those basics under you belt, Survival mode becomes a wonderful experience. You can live long enough for the sun to come up and finally appreciate the beauty in the minimalist artistic style in those few brief hours of the short light. The challenge is real, the space is lonely, but the struggle against the elements provide that constant, edge-of-the-knife danger. With frostbite and hypothermia setting in a cabin finally appears around the next snowdrift, sanctuary at last! Just when your core temperature is rising again, you find your hunger and exhaustion meters dropping to zero. Resting will fill up your stamina but your hunger continues to eke away at your life. Finally finding a box of salty biscuits staves off the hunger only to fully dehydrate you. Some more foraging, searching, picking up some better gear, and just when you're about to start cruising, you get eaten by a bear. It's brutal, but it's fun.

This is a game known for its punishing difficulty, but there are good ways to make a game hard simply because resources are scarce and every decision matters. These factors teach a player to be better next time, not to trudge up a mountain before they found warm enough clothes to survive the wind chill at the top, etc. This game has that difficulty in spades and does a great job with the actual survival gameplay loops. But there are other ways to make a game hard by simply not teaching the player the mechanics or the specific steps to perform otherwise hidden actions. This game also has that; and it's not real difficulty, it's just bullying the player and forcing them to fail not through design but from neglect. The Long Dark is a game where your experience is immeasurably enhanced by stepping outside the game and reading a quick spoiler-free manual developed by the playing community just so you know how the game wants you to execute its own mechanics. This is, in my opinion, bad design. I don't expect to have to scour google to learn how to play my shiny new game, but in the Long Dark, that's what I essentially had to do. (By the way, I'll save you some googling—just use this one: https://steamcommunity.com/sharedfiles/filedetails/?id=1375817441.)

As far as the translation from porting the PC experience to the Switch, I am happy with it. Cast from the dock to the big screen it's a faultless experience. In handheld mode, I found fonts large enough in the menus to be readable and the world popped to life on the compact LCD. I did find some of the controls a little jumpy at first. Your cursor is small, a bid fidgety, and no aim assist to pop it into place. But it wasn't long before I stopped noticing it entirely. 

So what are we left with here, how do we wrap this review up? There is a core survival gameplay loop in The Long Dark that is simply excellent. There is a feel and style to the visuals that play well with the loneliness and isolation of the game. There is a single-player campaign that falls completely flat. In the opening moments, instead of taking a welcome opportunity to introduce the player to the mechanics, it just shoehorns some NPCs into what is still a solo experience and loses the plot with side quests that make no sense. I don't know how the rest of the story unfolds, I had been too turned off my the first few hours to even care to find out. I'm not against making the player figure out the strategy of survival, but too often I felt the game was hiding the mechanics of survival. Displacing what is an excellent challenge with an artificial one that felt frustrating and cheap. 

The Long Dark is a game I have wanted to love for many years, and I might just yet, one day. But there were enough negative experiences early in that just cloud the positive play loop at the core, rendering the game simply average. The port to Switch is done well, and equipped with a spoiler-free guide found online and avoiding the story mode for the Survival mode, I think there is a better game here than the score I'm giving it, but these are lessons learned in spite of the game itself, not from the game. So do yourself a favor, find a guide and jump into survival first and find that better than average experience that I believe exists. 

The Long Dark sets a standard for survival games in its core gameplay loop. The tone and feel of the game is top notch and the challenge is brutal in a hostile and frozen world. Unfortunately, there is also another dimension to the game that cheapens the experience. It takes a frustrating amount of trial and error to figure out the mechanics of how you are meant to do something, even when the goal of what you are meant to do is fairly clear. There is also the missed opportunity to utilize the story mode to walk through these mechanics, instead letting the tale try to stand alone. Try to stand as it might, it instead falls rather flat with a progression and narrative that made little sense. There is a very good game in the center of an overall experience that ends up less than the sum of its parts at first glance, but one that if you are willing to put in the struggle and slog through to the other side can reward you with one of the better survival simulations there is.

Rating: 7 Average

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

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 First picked up a game controller when my mother bought an Atari 2600 for my brother and I one fateful Christmas.  
Now I'm a Software Developer in my day job who is happy to be a part of the Gaming Nexus team so I can have at least a flimsy excuse for my wife as to why I need to get those 15 more minutes of game time in...

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