Taking a chance on a 20.00 early access game sometimes pays off. The Long Dark being developed by Hinterland Studios out of Canada is such a game for me. It isn’t finished. It isn’t nearly finished. It’s graphics are not high fidelity. Yet, while stylistically minimal, they suit the game just fine. They just work for me…those stylistically minimal graphics that resemble a Matisse or Paper Cutout Illustrations. Illustrations that capture the cold and loneliness of the game. Like a game visually cobbled together with paper and glue where dust motes against sunlight while in buildings seem to look like confetti. A game where a train car or fence rail feels pasted onto a background.
Whatever stylistic sensibilities the developer intended one thing is for sure. Baby it’s cold outside and it looks and feels that way.
The Long dark is a sandbox and story driven survival game where your survival needs take center stage. You will search, forage and count your caloric intake. You will fight wolves, build fires, harvest meat, shoot game, and sleep.You will decide how long to sleep. All these things and more to…survive!
The game runs well and has simple mechanics but it’s the inventory and backpack systems that make the game shine. It is absolutely and perfectly intuitive. While many survival games have inventory and backpacks I have found most of them to be cumbersome. In my mind excessive time spent in those systems takes away from the immersion that survival games like to promise. Light a fire? With the right items and a progressive skill level it will light. Lay down your bedroll and recover from your miserable condition. Hit tab, click, click done. Sleep time is an option so you may use it as a survival tool. You can choose to build a fire and sleep near it’s warmth or use sleep to hibernate somewhat till the sun rises. Wake up and you will have to deal with your dehydration. And there is much more. The crafting screen promises extensive crafting. Some of which is not implemented at this time such as building a snow shelter.
The game is deceptively serene and absolutely deadly at times. Explore an abandoned dam and scavenge it’s contents and suddenly a wolf is upon you and you must fight it off by mashing the left and right mouse buttons. Of course, if you take some damage and live, you will have to heal yourself if you have the items. Twist an ankle? You are given the choice of sleeping for awhile to recover.
The background music and ambient sounds seem to lull you into a false sense of comfort and the voice overs are convincing and never become the forefront of the game. They are more of an inner dialogue because you are alone, so far as I have experienced, in the sandbox. Video game voice actor David Hayter well know as the voice of Solid Snake is a nice get for this game as well as Jennifer Hale from the Mass Effect series.
The game is so deceptively serene that it captures the cold and loneliness along with the risk of dying in the wild. Pretty realistically too. Of course we associate death from hypothermia as just going to sleep but many victims experience “terminal burrowing behavior”, which happens predominantly with slow decreases in temperature. And of course the lovely “paradox reaction” which refers to the undressing of persons in a state of severe (lethal) hypothermia. This is the result of a peripheral vasodilatation effecting a feeling of warmth. Hey there’s a feature to add! Burrowing and undressing while dying….ah ok ! Who asked me anyways?
The long Dark by Hinterland studios is definitely a game to watch and it’s promised story mode, to be added later, will be episodic. Yet, even in it’s early state, with just one open sandbox level there is more than enough gameplay to keep you busy for more than a few hours.
At $20.00 this game pushes the envelope as to the amount of content you get at this time. I get the sense that the development will be smooth. I don’t get the sense that the team has bitten off more than they can chew and it should be easy to develop. The real challenge will be the story mode. Will the storytelling be good? The story is being created with award-winning writer Marianne Krawczyk who is probably best know for the God of War series. It will have to be very good to carry the game along and to give value to the product. It’s simple graphics style and serenity will need great episodic writing to create a counterbalance to it’s own lightness. Hinterland describes that mode as such:
“The Episodic Story mode tells the story of bush pilot Will Mackenzie, who crash lands deep in the Northern Canadian wilderness in the aftermath of a geomagnetic disaster. He has to survive long enough to understand the profound ways in which the world has just changed. This episodic story experience is layered atop the rich simulation found in the Survival Sandbox”.
Another risk, I think, is whether the game will take itself too seriously. On the opening splash screen there is a disclaimer that cautions against confusing the game as a real training tool for outdoor survival. That seemed overly cautious to me. I was also waiting for a heavy environmental message that never came. Instead there are literary quotes on splash screens that help add weight. I am not a fan of message games but that’s just me.
Hinterland Studios describes themselves as: “a boutique independent game studio headquartered on Vancouver Island, Canada”.
And : “Although this is the first game for Hinterland, the core studio team are all veterans of the “Triple-A” games industry, having worked on major franchises at studios including Ubisoft Montreal, BioWare, Relic Entertainment, Volition, Sony Santa Monica, and others. Most core team members at Hinterland have been making games for 10-15 years. Games this team have worked on include: Red Faction, Saints Row, Company of Heroes, Dawn of War, Space Marine, Mass Effect, Jade Empire, Knights of the Old Republic, God of War (series), etc”.
I have my fingers crossed for The Long Dark and it’s progress from this point.