Wot I Think: The Long Dark’s Story Mode – Wintermute Episode 1

The Long Dark‘s [official site] story mode, Wintermute, is finally with us. Well, the first two fifths are, of what developers Hinterland are calling the first season. Due to review code only showing up yesterday, I’ve been able to complete the first (“Do Not Go Gentle”) of the two eps before launch, so below am reviewing that episode on its own. I’ll be back with more details about episode two (“Luminance Fugue”), very soon.

It’s been three years to the month since I first played The Long Dark. Back then in 2014, I wrote about how the story mode was due by the end of that year. Coming back to it a short while later I chronicled my uncanny ability to be eaten by a wolf. The game grew much bigger over the next six months, but no story mode appeared. In February 2015 I went back, and concluded, “Once a story mode appears, goodness, this could be The One.”

But instead of a story, the game just kept growing larger. Come September 2015 I went back yet again, and yet again concluded that the story mode was what I was “achingly waiting for”. That December it received a trailer, and hope returned! Its first part of a first season would arrive in spring 2016. Come that spring, no. Delayed to become bigger, more elaborate.

Updates kept coming, Adam took over from me in the Being In Love With The Long Dark duty, by the beginning of this year creating his own stories within. And now, some three years later, it’s here. Well, the first two of five episodes are, far longer than previously promised. Goodness me, that’s a lot of build up for it to deal with.

Of course, a story mode in a sandbox survival game has two roles. It needs to both, you know, tell a story, but at the same time, introduce players to the concepts of the game to hopefully guide them through to the larger, more open sandbox that lies in wait after their scripted tales are over. And while both are necessary, getting that balance right is essential – you don’t want a multiple-hour tutorial, not after the game’s been available for three years. But you also want to be true to the survival challenge of an incredibly difficult game.

As the story opens, it can afford to be slightly more generous than its sandbox mode ever would be. You have, as ever, crashed your plane into the snowy wilderness of Canada, although this time matters of how, or why, are going to be more important. But first, live. The game introduces the most important elements: heat, health, water and food. In that order. You’re given tasks to complete and an incredibly small play area, on a frozen plateau sticking from a cliff, in which to complete them. Search through the debris for first aid equipment, forage for wood (which, for those who played the game in 2015, now means just picking it up or breaking it down, rather than a daft menu choice), start a fire, bandage your wounds, sleep. The next day is about water. The day after that about food. Small, sensible tasks, just keeping yourself on the brink of alive.

It hammers home those key concepts in a way that’s both realistic to the setting, and ensures a calm, moderate start while still demonstrating the brutal difficulty. Although it’s nothing yet, because wolves can’t get you here.

As the first lengthy episode progresses (it’ll keep you busy for a good six hours), you’re funnelled forward by a series of tasks, all centered around trying to find your missing companion. Flashbacks begin to fill in the background to your accident, and who it was you were with when you crashed. There are signs of your companion having travelled ahead, and you follow these while still carefully learning the ropes of the game.

This is a fairly relentless and tough jaunt, although the game is definitely much more generous with items than you’d usually expect, and – thank goodness – food is more sensibly balanced than in the sandbox’s tougher modes. It is slow to kill you through exhaustion, although it will if you wander too far, too dangerously. It is not, however, slow to kill you with wolves, and as ever the peculiar magnetic storm that hit this region (and indeed your plane) has sent the usually skittish beasts into a more deadly and ferocious frame of mind. They are always best avoided, although you can expect to frantically patch yourself up with crafted first aid items after at least a few attacks over the episode.

Things eventually settle a little after you find a small town, and indeed a static source of quests. With a home base, your play style shifts significantly, as the emphasis switches from scrabbling to find enough of anything, to being frustrated by the 30kg weight limit that makes you pick and choose between all the items you’ve scavenged that feel absolutely essential. You pick your way through the recent history of this snowy village, and through the former citizens’ drawers, combining both survival and story.

It’s this combination that is The Long Dark story mode’s biggest strength and weakness. The world the game has occupied for so long has always felt like the ghost of a story hangs around it, all these places so recently abandoned, all these lives so recently lived, and having it be filled in can be a pleasure. But rather unfortunately, the story they’ve decided to tell is… well it’s really boring.

I’ve done my best to avoid giving anything away, since not knowing a thing is pretty much the point from the outset. So I’m not confirming either whether this is a game about being the only survivor in an abandoned region, or if it’s a place where others remain and can be engaged with. Clearly not establishing either makes it trickier to critique in a meaningful way, so bear with me. The issue is, the nature of how it does choose to give out quests, and the results of completing them, are just so bizarrely bland. What could have been unfolding tales of either recently departed, or only just remaining, citizens that explore their emotional and relational reactions to the cataclysm that’s taken place, is instead a faintly mystic snorefest of fetch quests. The stories I ended up accidentally creating for myself were always better than the ones on offer from the script.

Which is, I suppose, also the saving grace. Because that time I was making my way back from the farm in a horrendous snow storm, having retrieved the safety deposit key for the abandoned bank, and somehow found myself entirely off course and barely alive a good mile from where I’d been intending to walk – that is the moment that most sticks in my mind. I was certain I was following the road, but the conditions had become so severe I couldn’t be sure, and I’d been turned a good ninety degrees from my intended direction. I was somehow back at the church, my energy so low, and my burden too heavy. I had so much food and water with me, and none of it was a bit of good when I was so damned cold and tired. And then I heard the howl.

Diving into a nearby car, the wolf ran up to the door and growled outside, while I regathered myself and plotted for how to reach the town again. I could run back up to the church, attempt to warm up in there, then try again, but it felt like backtracking, and the storm wasn’t easing. So instead I made the decision to just pelt. To run, exhausting myself even further, but if I could only make it to the bank I could warm up, get rest. I opened the door, threw a lit torch at the wolf to temporarily scare it, and sprinted to the bridge. And then staggered, wearily, dizzily, the distance longer than I’d remembered, and then finally collapsed against the bank door and dove in.

Amazing moments! Moments of course already available in the sandbox. But moments that are undeniably made more meaningful when I was always doing that run, having that experience, because I was trying to get that key.

And that, appropriately enough, is the key. What The Long Dark has always lacked up until now is motivation. Less so admittedly in the last year since they added challenges, but even so, it was hard to answer satisfactorily why you were surviving. In similar games like The Forest there was the notion of essentially becoming self-sufficient. In Stranded Deep it was about infinite exploration. But The Long Dark had a finite location and the utter inevitability of death. So giving you a reason, a purpose in getting from A to B, definitely invests a lot. I come away from episode one just wishing it had been a better purpose, a more interesting motivation.

The acting is great, your character sounding spookily like George Clooney, as he laconically and sincerely gruffs his way through the tale. It’s a proper shame, then, that at moments the dialogue drops from audio to text, mid-way through a scene. But by the end, by this episode’s revelation, my reaction was, “Sure, okay,” rather than anything more involved. It tries for a Walking Dead-style emotional beat, and fairly colossally misses.

However, the result is something that feels like the game I wish The Walking Dead could have been – a free-form, free-roaming tale of brutal survival, but with a story to experience too. The two conflict as you play, knowing that the game has deliberately supplied you with what you need to follow its threads, but then also let you wander off into the wilderness at your own discretion. And it handles this well, letting you hunt and forage to scrape by when stepping off the path. With a better, more involving path, this could have been really something. As it is, it’s the glorious The Long Dark with a reason for surviving, and that definitely proves enough.

The Long Dark is available now for £26.99 via Steam for Windows, Mac and Linux, costing

32 Comments

  1. Stevostin says:

    I want to love this but… it’s so damn ugly. I see the angle for the art direction. I don’t like it to start with, at least not for an immersive sim, but even though I’d like it, I don’t know how on earth someone can create those awful blurry texture, this very poor lighting and that horrible quake I style geometry and think : it’s perfectly ok in 2014. Especially when we’re actually in 2017.

    • Premium User Badge

      John Walker says:

      I think the game is very beautiful.

    • noodlecake says:

      I imagine the choice of art style is partly to make the game not particularly demanding. I think it works as much as a 1st person game that doesn’t seem to use normal maps or ambient occlusion can work graphically. I’ve seen a lot of other games that aren’t going for styles that aren’t particularly intensive graphically that look much worse. The blurry textures is probably just part of that. Maybe they use 512×512 rather than 2048×2048.

      I haven’t played it but I think it looks quite nice based on the trailers, particularly the interiors. It could just be that the trailer uses a lot of nicely composed shots and the game looks much uglier when you’re actually playing though.

    • UncleLou says:

      I am with John, it is a very pretty game, with quite evocative landscapes. Nothing poor about the lighting, either.

      “and that horrible quake I style geometry”

      Look at these nasty spots of ink:

      link to jnaa.co.uk

      ;)

    • Synesthesia says:

      I think that it’s very pretty, and therefore you are wrong on the internet.

    • draglikepull says:

      I rather like the visuals. I’ll take good art direction and a unique look over realism any day.

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      subdog says:

      To add to the chorus: It’s not like photorealism has ever been a foundational fixture of immersive sims. If anything, Arkane has shown that painterly textures and cartoonish proportions work just fine in the genre.

      • noodlecake says:

        They can do, but there are graphics styles that aren’t meant to be realistic that don’t work too. I’m not saying The Long Dark is one of them, just that there are cases where either can be visually unsuccessful if they aren’t done right.

        I’m saying that from experience. I’ve made some horrible looking work in the past with awful choices in palettes, bad compositions and have used shapes and forms that are jarring and unpleasant when they weren’t to be. It’s a lot harder than it looks.

    • duns4t says:

      I put in a lot of time with the sandbox mode which is quite beautiful, but the style of that man’s face is just too much and is terrifying.

    • sevenape says:

      I think it’s a good looking game. And I’m grateful I can run it on my thinkpad :-)

    • Icefoxy says:

      Got to agree with Stevostin about the art style in relation to the characters (but not the rest of the game), sorry guys. It does not in any way fit the serious style of the narrative and really makes it hard for me to take it seriously.

      That said, as noted, I’ll disagree with the OP and agree with the rest of you that the REST of the game is quite beautiful. The landscapes are great, especially given the min specs here. But the characters look like they’ve put on an insane amount of blush. I realize it’s cold and there is going to be an effect there, but it’s taken to the point of being a cartoonish caricature (or at least not drawn on well enough to appear as it should), making the characters look clown-like to my eyes. I do not think the theme of this game fits something like that remotely.

      This is all just my opinion though. I know a lot of people like it! It just doesn’t work for me. That said I ADORE THIS GAME! HIGHLY recommend it to all my friends and anyone reading this. An amazing experience through and through. Do NOT let my nitpicky personal critique of their choice in character design deter any of you sitting on the fence ONE IOTA. This game is a gem. Buy it. Now.

    • VeggyZ says:

      Hmm, have you actually played it at all? Screenshots might not be all that impressive, but while you’re walking around in the game, it’s completely different. Filled with atmosphere – there are a lot of scenic views, that are hard to imagine when you’re just looking at a still image.

    • BlankedyBlank says:

      Turn off the crappy post processing effects to reveal the beautiful game underneath.

  2. GunnerMcCaffrey says:

    Wait… death is inevitable in sandbox mode? You can’t claw your way in to a survivable loop?

    • TheAngriestHobo says:

      There’s a finite amount of food in the world. Northern Canada isn’t a setting in which a stranded survivor could conceivably set up a sustainable farm, so I think that makes sense.

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        teije says:

        IRL, you could definitely survive off agriculture & trapping in Northern Canada – problem is it’s always winter in the Long Dark. The weather gets worse over time, and key equipment deteriorates, so even if you craft your clothes and trap those rabbits, you’ll run out of something crucial eventually.

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    garfieldsam says:

    Think the story would be more compelling for people like me who haven’t played it at all yet? I can’t tell from this review if it would be more compelling in combination with the act of siscovrring the world and the fame systems

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      John Walker says:

      The act of discovering the world and playing the survival sim is compelling first time or tenth. The story is still bland nothing either way.

    • VeggyZ says:

      I have a feeling it’s “boring” because the premise is already known years before the plot came around. It’s just the first episode, though – I really do think it’s too soon to actually judge that. In survival situations, you DO spend most of your time doing mundane tasks… you won’t be on a quest to detonate a nuclear weapon or the like… you’ll probably be doing things like getting a safe-deposit box key and murdering forest animals for sustainance.

  4. malkav11 says:

    Personally, I backed The Long Dark as a story-driven survival sim, something which seems almost unheard of in what is at this point a massively overpopulated genre. To me, the sandbox mode isn’t a thing the story mode is there to guide you into, it’s a side mode that’s become a massive ongoing distraction from developing the game that I pledged for and wanted. Now, the developers have explained that it’s been a helpful testbed for the mechanics and design that they could then roll into the story mode, and fair enough. But I surely hope the emphasis isn’t going to turn out to skew the direction you’ve presented in your review.

    • spaced says:

      This is the most relevant comment in the thread.

    • VeggyZ says:

      I’m rather pleased that they built a full game, much larger than initially intended, before creating the story mode. I’m one of those players who held off from playing the game all that much in the beginning though, so I know I’m in for one heck of a treat.

  5. Cvnk says:

    Aww. You can pet bunnies!

    • Guy Montag says:

      I’m pretty sure John’s about to extract that bunny’s ADAM.

  6. Ragnar says:

    Forgive my ignorance, but how does story survival work? Are there checkpoints and saves so you can try again if you die? Or is death permanent, and require that you restart the chapter from the beginning?

    • CarthAnne says:

      The game saves whenever you sleep, but even so its still possible to back yourself into a corner and make it very difficult for yourself to progress if, for example you’ve stripped the local area of food and you saved in a state of hunger without carrying any food on you or stored near you.

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        John Walker says:

        This is true, although getting myself out of such a scrape was possibly the best moment I had.

        • CarthAnne says:

          Apparently Patch 1.01 has applied a condition buff to the player after death to avoid players getting stuck in a continuous death loop, but I haven’t played the game since the patch yet so I can’t say how much it has changed gameplay feel.

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    Harlander says:

    I’m curious about whether or not, as the title suggests, the whole endless winter situation stems from an overzealous implementation of the Meteorological AI from Fate of the World

  8. Zaxwerks says:

    That’s what’s desperately missing from No Man’s Sky at the moment, a motivation, a purpose for being there, a peril. Some of that can be more difficult when you’re dealing with a procedurally generated system that consists of millions of planets as opposed to a hand crafted finite area, but at the moment the only motivation for exploration is “get to the centre of the galaxy” which as we know is a complete damp squib. So alternatively in essence if you want to “homebase” then you only care about a handful of local planets.

    NMS needs meaningful questing, consequences, a way to concentrate certain procedural elements to certain clusters of stars and the further you travel towards the centre of the galaxy as giving each planet access to the entire generation library gives little purpose to roam most of the time.