(Staying) Alive in the Superunknown of “The Long Dark”

Concept art from "The Long Dark" courtesy of Hinterland Games

Concept art from “The Long Dark” courtesy of Hinterland Games

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?

Raphael van Lierop, Creative Director of Hinterland Games

Raphael van Lierop, Creative Director of Hinterland Games

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 dawn of a new day. Making the unique art style translate properly from concept to virtual reality was an adventure by itself. Screen cap courtesy of Hinterland Games.

The dawn of a new day. Making the unique art style translate properly from concept to virtual reality was an adventure by itself.
Screen cap courtesy of Hinterland Games.

“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.

Challenge accepted.

For more information on The Long Dark, go to www.intothelongdark.com.

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About Toriah the Mom

Mom, quasi-librarian, gamer, writer
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5 Responses to (Staying) Alive in the Superunknown of “The Long Dark”

  1. lucyfalls says:

    I hope this comes for console! It looks really interesting, and I definitely could use a change of pace (especially since I’m playing through Diablo 3 right now). Great article!

    • Thank you!

      I know plenty of folks who are console-only gamers and, for their sakes (and yours, obviously), I hope this game makes the jump to console, too. If not, then I am more than happy to sit my friends down at my computer and say, “Here, you need to play this.”

    • Bill Tarling says:

      From Hinterland posting on Kickstarter about 7 days ago:
      “A version for PS4 and Xbox One is very possible, but only after we ship for PC/Mac/Linux as promised. We are using Unity, and we are planning controls and interface to be console-compatible. In fact, you’ll be able to play the PC version entirely using a gamepad if you like.”

      Side Note: TLD will have Oculus Rift support.

      • Thanks for the info, Bill!

        For some people, console gaming is about using the gamepad/controller as opposed to a keyboard/mouse combo; others like it because it lets them game on the couch with the TV, and I’m sure there are numerous other reasons in between. So, keep those fingers crossed, Lucy! Or, if one of those options suggested by Hinterland suits you, I’ll see you on launch day! \O/

      • lucyfalls says:

        Nice! So hopefully it’s just a matter of time….

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