Hands On: The Long Dark Early Access

The Long Dark is not a friendly game. I have starved to death. Frozen to death. Died of thirst. And been eaten by two wolves. And I have trudged. A great deal. It’s approaching early access next month, and while already proving impressive, certainly could do with some balancing. My impressions so far are below.

Survival games, somewhat ironically, are in huge abundance just now. This is, almost certainly, my fault – in 2010 I lamented that there were so few accessible games simply about surviving. Now there are twenty-billion of them, and like some fat, hairy Goldilocks, for me none of them ever feels quite right. None of them ever feels like letting me curl up in a safe cave, having worked hard to start a fire, eaten a rabbit, and collected drinking water, and just feel momentarily good about life.

I’m fairly certain this pathological desire for such a cave, in such conditions, comes from a childhood of reading Enid Blyton stories, of children living unrealistically wonderful lives in wooden homes of their own construction, eating potatoes they grew overnight, and bathing in freshly pressed lemonade from Susan’s lemon grove. (Seriously, read The Secret Island.)

The Long Dark, a brutal first-person survive-em-up, does not feature lemon groves. It features snow. Acre after acre of snow-covered forests, sub-zero temperatures, and scant food to scavenge. You begin, in its sandbox mode, in a random snowy place, equipped with some clothes, fire-starting materials, and not a lot else. And, if you’re me, you start dying almost immediately.

It’s not an entirely empty landscape, however. In my adventures I’ve found an abandoned railway and followed it to a collapsed tunnel, and then the other way to derailed carriages, and then had my head eaten by a wolf. I’ve found a park rangers’ building, equipped with a wood stove and beds to sleep in, and died in my sleep of thirst. I’ve stumbled upon small huts with corpses inside, corpses carrying valuable food, and then frozen to death. I’ve lit fires in caves, scavenged meat from fallen deer, and fallen off hills to sprain my ankle. I’ve bled to death, died of exposure, and have I mentioned been eaten by wolves? I just got eaten by another wolf.

Despite being pre-early access, it’s already impressively full of things to do. So long as you do them in the first few minutes before you’re dead. And there’s a lot more to add, including a story mode due by the end of the year. But I would argue that the most important job, before the addition of snow shelters, maps, and the promised story mode, would be balance. Oh so much balance.

Perhaps this is exactly where other people want the challenge. And that’s great – that’s here already. But there have to be others, like me, who want something calmer. Someone who wants a fire to mean you warm up in less than four in-game hours. And indeed someone who wants in-game hours to run, you know, in hours.

From The Sims onward, this notion that time in games should run four hundred times faster than in real life is a curse. I entirely blame Will Wright. It made no sense in The Sims, and it makes less sense here. I’m not trudging super-fast, I’m not capable of lightning-quick resource gathering – so why is time going by so quickly? In fact, in TLD, resource gathering currently takes an unrealistically long time already. In a game set in the woods, in landscapes covered in fallen trees, your character when told to “forage wood” will somehow take two hours to pick up one stick. That’s not an exaggeration. Melting snow on a stove takes an hour. In a world where the Sun is already getting dizzy from its whirling around the Earth, simple tasks take three times as long as they should. None of this is uncommon in such games, but I do so desperately want there to be more exceptions.

Why not let an hour last an hour? Since I’m walking at a human pace, why not let that pace travel a realistic distance in a realistic time? Why not let the gap between needing to eat, in a world where food is more scarce than on the Moon, be enough time to be able to do something else? And why not let eating an entire deer be something that fills me up for a good long while, rather than ten seconds? The Long Dark pushes at this realism with multiple counters, showing you how many calories you have left, external temperatures, wind chill, fatigue, cold, hunger and thirst, and so on. And then those numbers cascade like you just cut the wrong wire on the bomb timer.

I played again. I spawned immediately next to two wolves. One attacked me. I punched at it until it ran off, and I was left with 34% health. You start with some bandages, so I immediately put those on, but was told I also needed antibiotics and six hours’ rest to get better. Spotting a signpost in the distance, I climbed up a long path to a forestry look-out tower, in which I found food, a wood stove, beds and even some wood. And a first-aid kit! Containing antibiotics! (This is rare.) I scarfled them down, got a fire going, ate some food, melted some snow and boiled it so I could drink. And I slept for three hours. The fire was out, so with a hatchet I found in there I scavenged for two hours (an automated process, blank-screened), and found a whole four lumps of wood. That was enough to keep the fire going for the other three hours’ sleep I needed, but I was already down to 5% health. Fed, watered, and warmed, I figured sleep would be my only hope. And died of blood loss. And, I should stress, I enjoyed every brief minute of it.

There’s so much potential in The Long Dark. And I know for sure that what I’ve described is exactly what some want – seeing if they can add a few more hours to their survival time, incrementally improving, constantly struggling. But I know that there’s also me, and I want something that, in this strive for realism, offers options for a realistic passage of time, realistic effects of eating, and even a realistic likelihood that a wolf isn’t going to automatically attack a passing human every single time. I want my little wooden house, my flock of chickens, time to bathe in the warm stream, and home-made chocolate cake from the bakery I built out of twigs. And then maybe to thwart some smugglers. But I’d settle for a fraction of it.

The Long Dark looks like it could go a long way. Happening upon larger features like train tracks, buildings and other signs of a previous normality to this wintry landscape, is enormously fun. There’s very often a reason to try to keep going in a particular direction, and that’s crucial in these games. The sense of clinging to life is already vivid, and there’s certainly no let-up in the sense of imminent death. I would love to see time slow down, and there at least be a sliding toggle for hope.

The Long Dark is coming to Early Access in late September.


  1. rexx.sabotage says:

    Hinterlands, give John his “mercy update” but, leave this original mode intact and accessible for those of us who realise Losing Is Fun

    But yeah, make the scaling of time adjustable and fix food–Take more cues from UnReal World and fewer from the survival/immersion mods of Skyrim.

  2. J. Cosmo Cohen says:

    From what I’ve seen, despite early access or what-have-you, it appears surprisingly competent as something to be played a great deal right now.

    I’d actually never considered the passage of time in games as something that doesn’t make sense, really. I always assumed it was to show off pretty sunsets and weather changes.

    I do have one question that I can’t seem to recall: is it a permanent map or procedural?

  3. Eight Rooks says:

    I’m not bothered by insanely fast videogame clocks until they actually have some unwelcome relation to what I’m doing, so yes, a survival sim where everything’s “realistic” bar the passage of time certainly does sound like the kind of thing only the hardest of the hardcore could possibly enjoy, to be honest. If I’m forcibly slowed down to a crawl then the world should be, too.

    It’s fine to try and kill the player off at every opportunity – it is not fine, indeed can never be fine, to give them pretty much no time to react at all. Not in a game like this. Far too many core gamers see survival as some kind of idiot badge of honour, now. The ability to micromanage fifty thousand grimdark variables at once doesn’t make you some kind of superior being, guys.

    On the other hand, it’s not like I’m not interested in a challenge either! Much as I love Eidolon right now the “survival” element to that game seems like an afterthought at present. Spend a couple of days filling your Backpack of Holding with cooked fish that never expires from the bodies of water that never run out, and hey, you’re good to go! And while no sane player really wants wolves trying to eat their head every thirty seconds, in Eidolon you can go a week (of in-game time) without seeing a single animal at all (apart from birds, which won’t attack you).

    So… I’m still interested, I guess, and tough certainly isn’t bad. I wouldn’t mind tough. But I can’t help but worry that these guys are trying to appeal to the lunatics making Skyrim wilderness mods. If so, count me out. most likely, and I’ll just, I dunno, keep checking back into The Forest to see if they’ve added snowy mountains yet.

  4. Gog Magog says:

    Bethesda’s fuckforsaken Gamebryo engine does actually let you set how fast the clock spins via console, which I always liked. Same for Far Cry 3.
    And STALKER, I believe.
    It’s a nice thing. Taking the while. Looking around. Unharried by a sun berserk. Stole that one.

  5. Safari Ken says:

    I’m definitely looking forward to this. The art style is gorgeous, there are NO ZOMBIES, and the difficulty sounds great too. The time compression thing gives me pause though. I’m not saying it has to be 1:1 (though that would be fine by me), but it sounds like it’s a little extreme here. Does anyone know the actual day/night ratio currently in this game?

  6. Bill Tarling says:

    (all these are just my personal opinions)
    For time, the fast time counter is much better than being required to physically spending the time searching branch after branch for a twig that is usable [Canadian winters often tend to be damp as well, and a lot of areas here the branches actually soak in the water and freeze] — or you could spend a couple of days game time drying out some wood by a kiln I guess.

    For the snow melting, the devs could have overlooked an important factor (but they didn’t) — it takes a heck of a lot of snow to make a gallon of water… so it makes sense that a lot of time would pass by trying to collect enough snow for your water supply. (I had the same misconception at first until I checked)

    The game is still in very early alpha, but from The Long Dark forum there are already quite a few additional balances being implemented (as well as many more challenges).

    It definitely isn’t a casual game though… it takes a lot of experimenting and learning to survive longer and longer… no hand holding, The Long Dark requires a lot of decision making on the go. That’s probably why I’ve found so much replay value — it’s impossible to make a walkthrough solution because variables in every playthrough deleivers fresh survival challenges and choices. :o)

  7. Ed Burst says:

    Do you know how long it takes to cook and eat an entire deer? I’m not sure I’d want to wait several hours of real time while my character does that.

  8. shimeril says:

    I have read the Secret Island. Many, many times. Up to my third copy of it now (one fell apart, one lost). Love that story.

    And even more on topic, I’m really looking forward to this. Though the time issue does appear a little extreme. Just have a speed up option ala Banished so everyone can play their preferred way.

  9. soulblur says:

    I’m a backer of The Long Dark, so I’m keen to see how this turns out, and challenge was always part of the proposition. But I agree with John in that I’d really like a (different) game which was for the most part a fairly gentle survival game, punctuated with moments of extremity. For example, a Robinson Crusoe-based game, where building a base, hunting, farming and exploring all form the core of the experience, and are not in themselves very challenging, although do require forethought and planning. However, that core experience would be broken up by challenges: a typhoon is coming, and everything needs to be prepared beforehand, or sickness might strike, limiting how far the character can travel and what actions they can take, or pirates might appear.

    The first part of Tomb Raider was a little like this, before she goes and kills everyone everywhere.

    • Shadrach says:

      Absolutely, I am hoping the focus will be more on exploration than just catering for the “hardcore” survival game players. There’s a story in there somewhere, and I’d like to see it without getting frustrated. Sure some survival elements and challenge is good but I do hope they don’t overdo it.

  10. HisDivineOrder says:

    That’s the way of these games. You start them out horribly hard to get a lot of people talking, then scale it back over time so that people stay around.

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      keithzg says:

      And then the hardcore players complain loudly about how it’s too easy now.

  11. somnolentsurfer says:

    If time passed in real hours, presumably I’d have to play for about 40 of them before there was any sense of (non-wolf related) danger?

  12. MellowKrogoth says:

    That wolf screenshot is both hilarious and terrifying.