Winter Isn’t Going: A Return To The Long Dark

I’ve long loved The Long Dark [official site], each time I’ve returned to it. It’s been six months, and I’ve seen that a new zone has been added along with some major changes to crafting, so it seemed about time to take a look. But I don’t want to go outdoors.

Alice recently wrote about the latest update to the game, pointing out that in her first experience of it, she found comfort within the first twenty minutes and saw no reason to carry on – she accepted her fate. I’m not the sort to be so sensible, and every time I’ve played it’s been over-ambition that’s seen me polished off, usually on the inside of a wolf’s tummy. But this time back, well, I’m beginning to see Alice’s point.

I started off in a newer region, Pleasant Valley, inside a building. It was very dark, but stumbling around I found I was in some sort of shop-front, with a warehouse behind. Exploring, digging through cabinets, drawers and lockers, I quickly found enough supplies to re-open the place as a convenience store. If only anyone else were alive in the world, I could have made a comfortable living. Dotted around were a few more houses, and each was replete with goods and equipment. Soon I’d gathered a lifetime’s supply of stuff, popped it in the lockers in the warehouse, and starting crafting some bits and bobs on the workbenches in there. (The ability to store things in looted cupboards is one of the best recent additions.) And everything was grand! I had food, water, more soda than I could ever drink, enough wood to keep the fire burning perpetually thanks to the new option to break down wooden objects into firewood, warm clothes, a comfy bed – why would I ever leave?

Of course, I’d made the same mistake I made last time – I’d put it on the “easy” mode for the sake of quenching the tiresome hunger rates, and not getting randomly eaten by wolves every fifteen seconds. Sadly, my lament then remains my lament now: the absence of a difficult option that has realistic food and water consumption, slightly more sensibly tempered wildlife (yes, they excuse the savagery of the wolves with their meteorological anomaly or somesuch, but it’s still far too daft), but without providing you with so many supplies that the game’s rendered pointless. Right now, the more “realistic” settings are so wildly unrealistic in your character’s voracious, insatiable appetite that things swing far too far the other way, meaning you can’t sit still for instantly starving to death, despite having consumed your bodyweight in meat a couple of hours ago.

So I restart, and yup, it’s still the other end of the scale. I don’t know about you, but if I down a couple of cans of soda before bed, I’m weeing through the night, not desperately thirsty. But this is definitely the preferable way to play, with everything rare, survival tricky, and the cold constantly threatening your every decision.

It’s here that the new crafting makes some sense. As well as being able to break down items in your inventory for scrap, such as creating tinder from newspapers, or scraps of cloth from old clothes, you can now scavenge more effectively from the world around you. Curtains hanging inside buildings can be torn off and used as cloth. Cardboard boxes, wooden tables and even metal shelves (should you have found a hacksaw) can be broken down, giving you firewood, fuel and metal scraps. And then all of this can be more effectively put to good use if you can find a workbench. These allow a more complex set of crafting options, from creating torches from wood, cloth and fuels, to fishing lines (from guts!) to bearskin bedrolls and bows and arrows. Yanking bits and pieces from all around you and putting them to use is perfect survival fun, and the crafting doesn’t impinge on the brutal atmosphere of the game at all.

It’s such a desperate struggle to not die. Night is barely worse than day for temperature, and being outside for a few moments is enough to send you into hypothermia. The only solution for that is keeping your ambient temperature above 0C for 24 hours, which is near impossible in the early stages. Trying to stay alive long enough to gather wood to keep your fire going so you can sleep for enough hours to find the strength to gather more firewood puts you in a position of wondering if there’s any point in trying to go on. Perhaps it’s better to accept your fate and just die in the snow.

And then be reincarnated afresh, back at the start, of course.

So therein lies The Long Dark’s ongoing issue. It has a difficulty mode that’s far too easy, and another that’s far too hard. (And then a third that I daren’t even touch.) I’m not for a moment suggesting they get rid of any of the current ones, as they’ll certainly suit the ultra-casual and the hardcore, but it so desperately needs something in between. Something that pushes scarcity, but isn’t utterly bonkers-ludicrous about food and water. I get the image of this vastly fat man waddling around the Canadian wilderness, ultimately searching for the end-game of a gleaming McDonald’s, but in the meantime gorging himself on every jar of peanut butter and tin of dog food he can get his enormous hands on. “Oh boy, I haven’t eaten for an hour – I’m LITERALLY STARVING.” The fastest way anyone would really die in The Longest Dark is rupturing their stomach by stuffing it so full of chocolate bars.

I’ve not managed to find my way to the newest area added in, Desolation Point. You need to discover the way there, and just now it’s the best I can do to run from fireplace-less building to fireplace-less building, trying to get an established start. And I’m absolutely loving it. I’ve died in heavy fog meaning I couldn’t find anything. I’ve died in a blizzard that slowed me down and froze me to death. I’ve died because I jumped off a cliff after spraining my ankle, because really, what other chance did I have?

It’s a real shame that six months on there’s still no sign of the Story mode appearing in the alpha, which is what I’m achingly waiting for. And it’s also a shame that six months on there’s still no sensible balance of difficulty on offer. New regions are great to have, and the game’s sense of place, of discovery, and that idiotic striving for hope amidst such utter hopelessness is delivered better here than in any other survival sim. But it’s crucial that the smaller details get tweaked too, if it’s to keep its audience for a long enough term. Me – I’m certainly looking forward to checking back in another few months.

39 Comments

  1. slerbal says:

    I completely agree with you about the difficulty levels. I want a challenge but the rate the middle difficulty level (and most survival games) make you go through food and water means you do nothing except continuously eat and drink and you never get to experience the environment. Aside from that, I love the game and am likewise holding off playing any more until the Story mode turns up.

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      Wisq says:

      Honestly, all they need to do is split out the difficulty settings into separate options — e.g. item scarcity, how fast your stats decrease, how aggressive animals are, and any other factors they currently adjust. Then, just have the current difficulties be presets that adjust all of those.

      Given that they’ve been showing off the game for a long time and this is not a recent complaint, I’m really surprised they haven’t done this yet.

  2. Nasarius says:

    Are either of the difficulty modes realistic? It’s not terribly complicated to come up with plausible numbers for calorie and water intake, and if “hard” mode is just using those, that seems like very much the intention of the game.

    Of course, your desire for a pleasantly-challenging difficulty is also completely reasonable, but not necessarily something that you want to focus on in the middle of development.

    • Nasarius says:

      Just for reference, a quick search shows that Arctic explorers use somewhere around 6000-7000 calories per day. That’s a lot of food.

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        Skabooga says:

        What is that, about three times the normal adult male recommended calorie intake? That is a lot of food.

        Hmm, a Snickers bar has about 215 calories. So, roughly 30 candy bars in a day would suit the caloric needs. Although that’s just to prevent losing weight; it should be possible to function on sub-6000 calories per day by running off of reserves. Still, even eating 20 candy bars in a day sounds monstrous. Any wolf that ate you would get diabetes.

        • aleander says:

          So, don’t go off into the Arctic based on this couch-potato (okay, Dutch countryside cyclist) advice, but I’ve heard the answer is butter. 250g of butter is 1793 dietary calories. Efficient, eh?

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            Skabooga says:

            Oh snap. This is going to be the most delicious Arctic expedition of all time! (For whatever reason, eating 6 sticks of butter doesn’t sound quite so bad as 20-30 candy bars).

          • JamesTheNumberless says:

            Peanut butter is a good one too, as is anything that’s mostly animal fat. The big score when you’re scavenging in the Long Dark is the military ration packs. A couple of those in a day, plus snacks, and you’ll easily hit 6000.

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            phuzz says:

            Pemmican is what you want. It’s a mixture of lard and meat (and maybe berries).
            Nowadays we might think of raw fat as being bad for you, but when it’s freezing and you’re burning 6000+ calories a day, it’s perfect.

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        Mikemcn says:

        If your character is working as hard as an arctic explorer then that calorie intake would make sense, and the 10000-candy-bar a day diet would be justified in the Long Dark. But i’ll spend 3 hours sewing clothing, indoors, without moving, and use up as much of my food meter as if I had just hiked half-way across the map.

        That’s silly.

  3. TheAngriestHobo says:

    I’ve never found the rate at which your needs meters fill to be too problematic – certainly not compared to other games in the genre, like Subnautica or Don’t Starve. I play exclusively on the middle difficulty setting, and I usually have to chow down about 3-4 times a day, depending on what activities I’m doing. It’s worth noting that walking against the wind or up a hill both consume calories extremely quickly, and even more so if you’re running. Encumbrance is also a factor in how often you need to eat. If you’re finding your needs meters depleting too quickly, I recommend setting up a depot nearby where you can store excess goods, and trying to avoid exerting yourself whenever possible.

  4. Battlemedic says:

    The first tag i read about this game was atmospheric and i feel thats what we all like in this game mostly, not forgeting the survival side of the game what greatly completes the experience. I absolutely agree with John about the problem of the difficulties. They should be changed to support the survival experience, but thats also true, they should not make the player run in circles and just eat and drink. The great question is i think that: how can be the atmosphere be even more powerful? I think putting some notes with random stories (not connected with the base story) would have place even in the sandbox mode, or the game should tell stories through the voice of the character, like it was in the dear esther. I dont know if they had been put into the game, but if they are, dont eat me pls. Furthermore I would love that, if the creators would put some paranormal events into the game, like things falling down in the rooms or going into the house and finding a candle lit, but still nobody there. It would give first a creepy feeling, but along time, when the players get used to it, it would make a great contrast with the loneliness, making the feel even more powerful.

  5. MadPen says:

    I just don’t even understand how the medium difficulty could be considered too hard, let alone “far too hard”. And I do not enjoy difficult games.

    Water’s easy. Boil snow. So food. At medium difficulty, it feels like you consume just enough for there to sometimes be slight pressure to keep moving. But I’ve rarely felt like I couldn’t wait out night or a snowstorm.

    Maybe you kept starting in Pleasant Valley? That’s a remote (hard) area.

    • Raoul Duke says:

      What about the fact that wolves spot you from 10 kilometres away and then relentlessly hunt you down and savage you while you frantically try to mash buttons via the terrible combat system?

      • MadPen says:

        I just don’t have this problem. I see a wolf, I give it a wide berth. I *hear* wolves, and I’m very careful in terrain with limited visibility. All that fails, I light a flare, drop it in front of the wolf and head in the opposite direction. I’ve also never been pursued by a wolf more than a hundred yards out, tops. I’d guess closer to 50. Honestly they are barely more perceptive than the orcs in Shadows of Mordor. Okay okay, I exaggerate there.

  6. fupjack says:

    I’ve been working on weight loss for a while now through caloric restriction and exercise (about 40ish lbs gone) , and looking at the calorie totals for what can be consumed and what exercise you get in the game – it’s pretty realistic. I’ve never been trapped in the wilderness after a geomagnetic disaster, but I have done things like eat. It may not feel right for gameplay given that an entire day’s food is compressed into… 20 minutes? But still, it’s generally accurate.

    Part of the strange thing is that it’s sort of like Grand Theft Auto or any FPS, in that you start out weak (no weapons, inadequate protection), but unlike most other games, it doesn’t gate you into a safe area when you are starting out. Instead of having a world where your path through it is designed to match your needs and level progression, the whole world is equally dangerous everywhere, and it’s your acquisition of stuff through scavenging or crafting that will change it.

    That can be initially frustrating to someone used to a normal arc, which might mean story mode would be more interesting to that player. I like the semi-roguelike ‘die to learn’ approach of the sandbox, though.

  7. Elliot Lannigan says:

    What is it that seems to be so hard about making a survival game with realistically time-scaled bodily needs? It shouldn’t be very complicated. Do all the developers of these games eat so many Doritos that they are hungry ever 45 minutes and think that’s what life is like for everyone?? I’m not even completely kidding, I really do not understand. I would be so much more interested in these games if their central mechanic were not such a complete fantastical contrivance but something at least slightly similar to actual wilderness survival.

    • drinniol says:

      It’s timescales. They usually aren’t 1 to 1 so either accelerate requirements to match or fudge the system.

  8. JamesTheNumberless says:

    I’ve never really had a problem with food in the Long Dark but I do think they need to change how the hunger feedback works. You simply don’t need to worry too much when your calories are low – even having your food bar empty has little effect on your condition compared with thirst and cold.

  9. DinoSteak says:

    Yeah I’m right there with you on this article. Tried so hard to enjoy the game (both settings) and I just can’t get into either even though I love the atmosphere/art/gameplay..in theory.

    A lot of these newer crafting games need some balance tweaks to increase the fun and accessibility a bit to smooth out the edges, The Long Dark needs a chainsaw (which coincidentally you won’t find in the game…logging camp really..?)

    Good write up!

  10. Grovester says:

    I don’t mind the difficulty, the amount of food you have to consume, the viciousness of the wolves, the bitter snowstorms, the fear of spending a night out in the open, all of it. Makes it fun, as long as you’re not playing on Easy, which is a waste of time unless you just like wandering around.

    What I don’t like IS THE WOLF IN THE BLOODY DAM.

    WHAT THE HELL IS A WOLF DOING IN A DAM? HOW DID IT GET IN? HOW HAS IT SURVIVED? WHY HASN’T IT EATEN THE FOOD?

    HOW DID IT GET IN???????

    Sodding Fluffy.

    I hate that wolf.

    • Shinard says:

      I actually really like Fluffy. Go in there with a few bandages and you can punch it to death quite easily, and get a few kilos of delicious wolf meat.

      • Grovester says:

        Last time I went there I was starving and bleeding following a previous wolf attack and was on my last legs. One of my finest The Long Dark moments, that trek was. So I had to find the nearest shelter and it was the dam or death.

        He started growling at me, then my gun jammed and didn’t have the energy to fight him off.

        WHAT THE HELL IS A WOLF DOING IN A DAM????

      • JamesTheNumberless says:

        I actually feel quite sorry for Fluffy and try to keep him alive if possible. I save all my flares for the damn and try to keep scaring him off. However last time I was in there I ended up in a fight with him. I thought I’d just scared him away but after exploring the first few rooms, I went down that narrow passage and found him lying there dead :( I cried through every mouthful of delicios roast wolf meat.

    • MadPen says:

      There’s a broken window by the generators :)

      • Grovester says:

        True, but there’s broken windows etc in other buildings and you don’t find wolves in there, do you? Eh? EH???

        Sorry, I’m being rude. I just really hate that effing wolf.

        • MadPen says:

          No rudeness detected. So I once cleared that dam, and then came back later all messed up. Went to sleep, woke up, started rummaging around in the dark, heard a shuffling noise, and thought “oh fuck”, and then preceded to die. That was an unpleasant surprise, because I thought Fluffy was there at the beginning of the game or not at all.

  11. ffordesoon says:

    This piece actually reminded me of the brilliant Hardcore Mode in Fallout: New Vegas. It is precisely balanced (at least on Normal) to give you the feeling of eking out an existence in a harsh post-apocalyptic wasteland without turning the whole game into a constant struggle to survive. When you go for hours in FNV without food or water (and I mean real-world hours), the effect tends to be minor enough to be manageable, but just detrimental enough that you’re concerned. It also gives a purpose to all of that useless junk strewn about in the base game and 3, and it makes a lot of choices that would be no-brainers more interesting.

    A lot of people (usually your “I one-shotted Ornstein and Smough, why do people say they’re hard again?” 2 hardkore 4 u types) say Hardcore Mode is too easy, but that misses the point. It’s not about making the game harder, but leaning more heavily into the survivalist aspect of the “wasteland wanderer” fantasy for those who found Fallout 3 lacking in that regard.

    Which may seem a digression, but John’s talk of a “mode in the middle” made me think he might get on with Hardcore Mode pretty well. After modding out companion permadeath, anyway. Which I recommend doing, because the companion AI is ridiculously suicidal even when you tell them to hang back.

  12. Sinjun says:

    The fact that they’re not even talking about the story content yet tells me we’re at least a year out. It’s what the game desperately needs more than anything, I’m hoping the reason they’re adding all these other things is because they need them in place before putting the narrative in.

    • JamesTheNumberless says:

      I’m not impatient for story mode, I’m just worried that the emphasis of the game seems to be shifting from exploration and survival, to gathering and crafting. I hope story mode will put some sort of extra pressure on you to keep moving towards wherever you’re trying to get. At the moment I’m finding it too easy to just be completely self sufficient and survive forever within a fairly small radius from my base. Metalworking eliminates what was really the only problem with that, the fact that tools would wear out.

      Well, at least the main character should have an absolutely fascinating backstory explaining how they’re adept at tanning, tailoring, blacksmithing, fletching, herbalism, etc… I guess when you’re a pilot in a climate where planes are often grounded you have a lot of time for these hobbies.

      • JamesTheNumberless says:

        I just prefer the original idea of being a resourceful but otherwise unremarkable person having to adapt and survive while making their way through a post-apocalyptic wilderness. Playing as Rambo kind of takes away a lot of my connection with the game and makes me wonder why I’m not just playing Far Cry instead.

      • MadPen says:

        Agree. This is definitely not a crafting game, or an RPG, and I really hope it doesn’t head in that direction too much.

        I like that I can craft things, but I also like that it is not necessary.

  13. racccoon says:

    This is a reasonable survivor game I didn’t mind it till I got stuck before this update ..but as witht he comment “down a couple of cans of soda before bed” I tend towards home brewed beer its much better experience for your teeth n sleep, ya might still have to get up though, for a pee..

  14. horsemedic says:

    John often seems to get himself into trouble that I never experience with the same games. Unless they radically changed temperature in the latest build and didn’t mention it, you should never need a fire while sleeping on regular difficulty … unless you’re sleeping outdoors … which should never happen unless you explore too aggressively and can’t make it back to safety in time … which I learned to stop doing after a couple playthroughs.

    • JamesTheNumberless says:

      If you have hypothermia and your clothes are in bad condition you will need a fire in some (if not all) of the indoor areas – places such as the lakeside cabins and the bunks at the logging camp in the first area don’t provide as much warmth from being indoors as some of the other locations (like the trapper’s cabin) do. Also, it took me a long time to find the correct path between the first two areas, during which I was forced to sleep outdoors at one point.

      The problem for me when you’re outdoors is when you want to do something that takes a while such as butchering a carcass, or breaking up a large branch, if you don’t make a fire first you can end up freezing to death as the game won’t interrupt you if your warmth level starts to get dangerously low.

  15. white_bundies says:

    I am certainly not a die-hard player and really just want to wait for story mode, but even during my first couple plays of this game I was getting 40+ days of survival. I don’t know if this is because I watch a lot of Survivorman or I just pay attention to the numbers. I am always shocked by how many players are having trouble with this game. Watching anyone on twitch usually leads to 30min of game play where they run everywhere trying to find a rifle and then die of hypothermia. I think this is because many current or past survival games adapt themselves for faster gameplay when actual survival in the wilderness is a slow and grueling process. I think “voyager” mode is probably the closest to a well-balanced difficulty level.

    There are certainly balancing issues with resting calorie intake that don’t seem intentional. But for the rest of the game, I feel its fantastic. Wildlife is obviously unbelievable but that is specifically explained and intentionally implemented by the developers. None of the subtleties of the game are really explained yet, which seems to be the biggest problem. I am betting story mode will provide some sort of guide or pages of a book that help you build up your skills and learn about survival in the Long Dark world. Can’t wait!

  16. Xordus says:

    I completely agree with almost every point. I think part of the reason they want you to eat so much is to fill up the game with goals. I must get food and sticks, then in the morning get some H2O. You’re always pressured to do things, which is why its fun.

    They need to find some more things for us to do so they can keep the same pace but relax the food and water requirements. It is really dumb to eat an entire wolf and then be literally starving within 24 hrs.

  17. rickr000 says:

    Thanks for sharing your views on the difficulty, or rather the balancing of difficulty. I’ve really struggled with the Long Dark, really wanted to like it and have had to keep that quiet as its revered somewhat – yes it is beautiful and atmospheric.

    However, looking at what other small teams have accomplished in similar times on Early Access, and how little work has gone into balancing (running from super evolved wolves feels like punishment not survival) this has become a game that I hope will be a pleasant surprise in the future but not one that brings out the joys of Early Access.

    In fact when are you guys going to run a feature on Darkwood? It’s criminally overlooked and is a deep experience right now – what they have done to combine survival, rpg, horror, crafting, story is nothing short of amazing for such a small team. Looking at Steamspy numbers these guys need help – it’d be a shame if we focus too much on this ‘indie AAA’ space with the likes of Ark, Long Dark, Subnautica, Flame and the Flood all coming from experienced teams.