Last week, I listed all of the potential reasons to fall in gaming love with The Long Dark from indie company Hinterland Games. One of my main reasons was the developers’ approach to gameplay and their decision to make combat situations rare.
The majority of the games I play, and have played, are rather combat-centric. It’s how players get to “do stuff” in the game, after all. The gameplay is all action, interrupted by brief bouts of conversation or mission updates. Everything else is fluff. They’re all about advancing your character through the layers of lore, story, and mechanics like a torpedo, getting you from the main menu to the action— in the form of combat— as soon as possible.
As my husband once said so eloquently, “Enough talky-talky. When can we kill stuff?” And, be honest: How many of you truly read the quest text or listen to the quest-giver?
Look at your typical raid in an MMO like World of Warcraft. Even the stuff we kill in between bosses is called “trash.” And, yes, there are players who still complain about “too much trash” in raids. We’re so focused on the strategy, our gear, the upgrades to our gear, optimizing our abilities, rotations, and loadouts— it’s all about maximizing our virtual lethality and effectiveness against an enemy.
Oh, well do I remember the days of crunching numbers in an optimization calculator and changing gems and enchants to make sure I did the best DPS.
So, what happens when the tables are turned? When your biggest enemy changes from moment to moment, and is oftentimes intangible? When you can’t solve all of your problems with a bullet? What happens when your proverbial carrot-on-a-stick is just making sure you have enough to get through the night?
I got a chance to field some questions about the gameplay of The Long Dark with creative director of Hinterland Games, Raphael van Lierop. My curiosity got the better of me and I just had to ask him, “Why go with a ‘combat is rare’ gameplay model?”
“When the core of your experience is shooting, it becomes very difficult to expand beyond situations that don’t involve shooting, or can’t be solved by shooting someone,” Raphael says. “We always knew that The Long Dark needed to be about survival in its purest sense. Not avoiding bullets as much as facing the struggles of day to day survival within an environment that, frankly, is neutral to your existence. And then putting the onus on the player to learn to read the information we put into the game world, and to learn how to manipulate the game systems to survive.”
As gamers, we like numbers: how many health points we have, what’s left of our resource meter, how many materials go into crafting an item, what can we do with the resources we have, where should we allocate stat points to be the most effective, etc. These are the things that help us get a grasp of what’s going on in our virtual reality and how we react to our environments through our character. In the prototype footage from the game, the player still has numbers to look at and must keep a close eye on them to live— everything from available calories to body temperature.
Yet, if we aren’t supposed to wander the world until we find something to fight, what exactly are we going to be doing this whole time?
“The heart of the experience is the survival sim,” Raphael says, “which accounts for environmental factors like weather, temperature, wildlife, etc. and access to resources like food, water, rest, etc. The survival simulation layer is quite deep and there’s a lot to balance. We layer the narrative on top of the survival simulation. This is much more than a passive story experience. This is an experience that will require players to think and be invested in their own survival if they want to make it out alive.”
If you’re still looking at the game rather skeptically and thinking, “What else do you have in store for me?”, Raphael has an answer for that, too.
“The Long Dark is a more thoughtful experience about survival. In essence, [gamers will] come to us because they are looking for something different,” he says. “When they find us, they’ll be drawn into the beauty of the world and the aesthetic experience of this atmospheric game, and then will stay because they’re motivated to survive and want to know more about the world we’re creating for them.
“We want to explore the silence, the psychology, the vulnerability you feel in the face of this dramatic, world-changing situation.”
Considering the amount of time I spend taking apart video games and looking at their innards from an anthropological POV, this is pretty much a socioculturalist’s dream-come-true in the gaming world. Nothing makes me happier than a game that forces my brain into action from moment to moment. It’ll be interesting to see how well one reacts to an unpredictable environment where you can’t just look up a strategy guide to help logic through everything.
The Long Dark is a welcome chance to refocus on what it means to be human through the scope of video games— without the distractions of special effects, explosions, gear optimization, or combat. With any luck, we can learn some applicable real-life and ethical lessons from the game, as well as have some fun along the way. The new, post-apocalyptic world is one big puzzle and it’s up to you to solve it or die trying.
For more information on The Long Dark, go to www.intothelongdark.com.