Wot I Think: The Long Dark’s Story Mode – Wintermute Episode 2

The Long Dark

After a save game mishap I’ve tagged in for the WIT of The Long Dark‘s [official site] second story mode episode. Don’t worry – the save game thing was a review build issue, not a thing for regular game owners to fret over! But it’s meant I’ve needed to try to marshal my frustrations and pleasures with the game into something approaching coherence. Stay with me as I pick through Wot I Think:

Right now I think a bear ate my shoes.

That happened yesterday and I am still cross about it. I mean, partly I’m cross about it because the animation of being mauled by a bear is very face-centric. The bear is an above-the-waist encounter if the struggle in the cut scene is to be believed so at what point did the bear ruin my shoes? Did it wee on them? Did it nibble them as I lay on the ground bleeding out? Did it tread on my feet like a toddler at a formal dance? WHAT HAPPENED TO MY SHOES?

The Long Dark

The remainder of the crossness splits two ways.

1. I’m cross because those were my special shoes which I maintained by cannibalising leather from other shoes I found around the area. Why would I carry another pair of shoes when I can repair these indefinitely? And so no building in my current locale has a single pair of shoes left. For reasons of this being a frozen wasteland I have decided that I cannot continue to hunt the bear barefoot (or in sports socks) and so my only remaining option is to trek two zones away (in my socks and thermal underwear) to an abandoned garage and hope I ignored a pair of boots in a locker during the heady days of pre-barefoot hubris.

I’f I’d been in the sandbox I would have tried to fashion myself a pair of shoes out of the cured animal pelts and animal guts with which I’ve littered the home of the guy who has beef with the bear. But this being story mode that information is gated and the workbench has no crafting options for clothing. An experienced trapper wearing a whole bunch of animal clothes who gets you to hunt thing and thus maybe also have a surplus of animal skins and cuts to hand feels like a really good point at which to introduce crafting clothing. Especially given one of the tasks he makes you perform is fetching a cured bear pelt and using it to repair his bearskin coat.

Instead the trapper acts as a knowledge checkpoint only for fishing, hunting and foraging (which manifests as “putting mushrooms in a box outside his house”). I get that the devs want to make sure you definitely have those skills, but at this point in the game I’ve been foraging on and off for hours – mushroom tea has been a useful meal and lichen a vital salve – with the game interface itself providing info as I picked those things up. It feels weirdly late to be bunging in some more tutorial.

Maybe there’s a sweet spot where there are people who will have survived until now but might have bypassed that other stuff or not played the sandbox mode, but for everyone else you’ll either have made slow enough progress you’ve started to find and use those items on your own, or you’re one of the people who can get through story episodes in record time because you’ve perfected your survival skills in the sandbox and so wouldn’t a mushroom/rosehip/lichen/cattail fetch quest just be boring busy work?

It’s the relative open-ness/meandering of the game’s survival coming into conflict with a linear story progression. The Long Dark story mode keeps throwing up conflicts between what I know both inside and outside this playthrough and the rate at which it wants to impart that knowledge itself.

The Long Dark

Anyway, this dude has made me jump through some Hogger-level hoops with foraging stuff attached to a boring fetch quest and now he’s all “I will only do the magical thing to ungate the narrative if you take out this shoe-eating bear”. It’s a McGuffin of the highest order but complaining doesn’t make me any less shoeless or any more bear-less.

I also tried to give him some objects to increase my level of trust with him in case better interpersonal relationship stats meant he would shower me with gifts (or shoes). But the game seems to have bugged out on that front and despite a heaving inventory I can’t gift him anything he wants as it won’t show up. That’s been my only experience of bugs in the game, by the way, although I know people have experienced worse. Hinterland seem to be aggressively patching out problems which is to their credit, though.

2. This bear situation is just not interesting. You follow it about and shoot it in a specific number of locations, often incurring a mauling along the way, and thus sitting through the same boring mauled-by-a-bear animation.

I have shot the bear in 4 out of 6 locations. It was 3 out of 6 but then the shoes became a pressing concern. Then the shoe thing turned interesting for a while and now I don’t really know where I am with the game or who it’s for or whether it works or doesn’t in story mode

What happened was I decided to put the plan I mentioned earlier into action, trekking across a frozen lake, through a tunnel in the rock and back out again, then along some rails in a blizzard at night, desperately trying to remember landmarks on my way to this garage. I’d been in such a huff I’d left my bed roll behind and thus couldn’t rest (which is how you save progress) until I got to the garage and thus the bed in the garage, but if I saved there and there were no shoes to be found… A conundrum.

And so my uninspiring story mode journey has now been punctuated by a furious stomp across the wilderness, tapping into landmark memories I didn’t remember forming, battling wolves, taking strategic campfire stops, circling wolves, snacking on bulrushes, then almost blinded by the snowstorm, just pushing onward, hoping that one of the silhouettes would turn into a building and the absolute relief when it did. Oh, and then the stumbling around, lighting matches just to find my way through the clutter to the office with the bed in it and then the stress of whether daylight would yield shoes and the fact that it DID! Oh my.

The Long Dark

Here’s where I am with the game, then. In story mode a lot of what Hinterland have given me to do just feels like tedious fetch quests as a way of directing your survival attempts. Go and repair this, go and collect that, head over to here, visit there. Role-playing as a stranded bush pilot comes into awkward conflict with any knowledge you have as a player from early access too. You know how to make far more than Mackenzie, how to do far more than Mackenzie, and yet you’re trapped inside his brain, waiting for other people to offer their knowledge.

Curious to see how other players were finding the experience, I’ve read accounts from people frustrated by the difficulty as well as by the easiness – some are finding the bear a slog like me, others are craving an ironman mode to give them a challenge. To me that speaks to the fundamental difficulty of what Hinterland need to do here in story mode. The simplest way round it (conceptually rather than technically) would be to allow players to set the difficulty according to the experience they want to have as you can in the sandbox. But then that might mean players don’t get the shoe-trek type rush of emotions I did because I’d have whacked the whole thing down to peaceful and enjoyed the scenery and thus where is the drama of Mackenzie trying to survive?

The Long Dark

But in the current scenario I’ve had my shoe trek but I’ve also boredom-quit the game a few times which I never do in the sandbox. I don’t care about the characters I’ve met and Mackenzie’s quest to find his friend feels bizarre given the amount of time it’s taken me so far. The bear nonsense has been pootling along for so long that I’d actually forgotten that I was doing it to trigger a McGuffin and that the friend was even out there waiting. I mean, presumably she’s got grandchildren by now, or has been frozen in an ice cave for thousands of years or something.

I’ve also not mentioned the aurora stuff which is pretty telling in terms of how I’m viewing it in relation to what I’m spending my playtime on. The aurora is the one thing I remember players kept coming back to with each patch – was it in the game yet? Is it in sandbox or just single player? CAN I SEE IT? WHERE IT IS? PLEASE ADD IT! And so now I’ve see it and I’ve screenshotted the heck out of it and recorded videos of it – it is interesting and beautiful – but it feels so divorced from what I’m doing right now which is trying to stock up on fish so I have the energy to care about the bear again.

The Long Dark

All of which is why I honestly don’t know where to place story mode on the scale of bad and good. The story itself feels slight at the moment. You’ve been given the symptoms of the mystery but nothing to really flesh it out. Instead the episodes have been about surviving from point A to point B or collecting a certain amount of X. I’ve met some characters but the stories they’ve told have also been slight and not very interesting – coming to The Long Dark off the back of my Tacoma review really didn’t help given the latter’s virtuosic environmental storytelling and characterisation.

But then The Long Dark put me in a situation where I had a rush of emotions you’d hope to provoke in a survival game and a story I enjoyed fleshing out for friends. I can’t save scum (easily) because I can only load either the most recent save or the most recent narrative checkpoint and so I’m hanging on to this run like grim death, knowing the alternative is to lose all of that progress and work. That’s… a good thing? It’s a good thing in that it makes me inclined to stick with the struggle and forge on, but it’s a bad thing in that if I get into a particularly tough spot – like if there had been no shoes at the garage – I would have lost too much time and progress to be willing to invest again.

The Long Dark

I think Hinterland are trying to give players relatively simple objectives in an intentionally difficult environment to try to provoke stories, but that framework is too reliant on repetitive busywork and too unpredictable in terms of whether it induces those cool stories. It also keeps veering back towards being a tutorial when, as a game which has been in early access for years, I’d say a lot of players will know far more than the game assumes.

As for me, I’m going to go trundling after that blasted bear again just to force an advance in the narrative via this irritating trapper who won’t teach me what to do with the remnants over everything I’ve trapped. Once I’ve managed that (if I manage that) he can sit in his stupid shack reminiscing about that weird bush pilot who now carefully takes off his shoes every time he goes to hunt a bear.

18 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    teije says:

    I’m only on episode 1, but I’m already getting annoyed with the fetch quests – why am I stocking the wood box and now the fridge of this person I just met? With lots of hours in sandbox, it just seems odd. I’m going to try to stick with it to follow the story, but am quite tempted to just start a new sandbox and muck around as I’ve enjoyed so much in the past.

    The other thing that seems odd is the presence of other people in the world – gotten so used to it just being me and the wildlife not sure I like NPCs existing. But that’s my issue, nothing against Hinterland’s design.

  2. Premium User Badge

    Drib says:

    I just started the second section here.

    I don’t know about shoes, but the NPC in the first chapter will teach you about rabbit mitts if she trusts you enough. Maybe she teaches about shoes too? I’m not sure.

    I am mostly currently trying to find my way to the dam. The lack of compass or showing where Mackenzie is on the map means that I’m wandering around half dead all the time, and honestly I have no solid idea of which direction I’m going. It’ll be a long trip.

    I didn’t really get into this game before having a storyline, and even if the storyline is a bit daft, it’s better than just aimlessly collecting bits of rabbit to stay alive so that I can aimlessly collect more bits of rabbit. Survival mode doesn’t hold much interest for me, I guess.

    • Claudia Lo says:

      She’ll give you a very nice pair of boots if you’re good friends with her, but that’s it. It seems like, for now, each NPC only teaches you one crafting recipe.

      • Premium User Badge

        Drib says:

        She also gives you a whetstone and teaches you the ‘repair stuff’ action.

        But alright. Good to know I didn’t miss anything then.

  3. Pogs says:

    Did you ‘bearate’ the bear that ate your shoes?

  4. Meiteron says:

    It really can’t be overstated how egregious the handholding is in the second episode. I want to give some context to this tutorial trapper the review mentioned – this is someone you interact with in the second episode, after you have spent multiple hours going through the first episode which already went over the fine details of collecting food and staying warm and pretty much all the core survival mechanics.

    The second episode even starts very well, with giving you places to go and more or less leaving you to go to them and get back alive. You get the sense that the game has given you the basic skills you need to know and now is letting you exercise them, and it works! It works for a good 2+ hours into the episode.

    And then you get back to the trapper and it’s then that suddenly the game decides you need more tutorials, hours after you’ve started Ep 2 and certainly long after you need them. I guarantee that 3/4 of the things he wants to teach you, you have already done, even if you never played early access. But you have to do them anyway.

    The pacing was already a serious problem with Wintermute and this entire section stopped me dead in my tracks. It shouldn’t be there at all.

    • Premium User Badge

      DoubleG says:

      Can’t agree with this more — immediately after the difficulty spikes enormously and the game gets interesting, it forces you into a second tutorial for things you learned hours ago.

      Really wanted to like the story mode but this is some of the worst pacing I’ve ever seen in a game.

    • Someoldguy says:

      I’m not an aficionado of the survival genre, but this description of a hunter wanting you to tackle a bear not just once, but multiple times, is a huge turnoff for me anyway. Tackling a bear even once is not something an amateur should ever contemplate, unless you can do it indirectly with a purpose built trap, poison or a high powered hunting rifle from a very safe distance.

    • RayEllis says:

      Totally agree. Ep 2’s seems like the kind of busywork I expect from an MMO. By the time Jerry wants to train me to hunt, I had already shot both a deer and a wolf. As for the bear… chasing it to a couple of locations would have been alright, but six? That’s excessive imho.
      Funny story about the bear… I shot it at a third location and, because it couldn’t get to me, it ran off. So I followed it and tracked it to where it had gotten itself stuck in a little terrain hollow. There it was, running on the spot to try and get me/get away from me. So I put a bullet in its head. Then another, and another, and another. At least six rounds at point blank range into its skull until my rifle was empty. I foolishly thought that, despite the heavy scripting, I might be able to just make an end of the whole tedious “bear chase”. Nope. It was still alive, and still running on its treadmill and I realised that I had exhausted my supply of ammunition for nothing. The only option at that point was to quit the game and hope that the game hadn’t saved me after my gun ran dry.
      I still haven’t had the courage to reload the game and see yet. I think if it has, I’ll be done with the story mode for now.
      The problem is just too much handholding. I get that a lot of new players on consoles will need to learn how the stuff I learnt in the sandbox works. I get that. But, as an old hand, I have to say that the story mode so far seems more like an overly extended tutorial on how to survive, rather than the story I hoped it would be.
      In particular, the training quests in Ep 2 seem more like they should have been in Ep 1, since what they teach are the basics of survival in the game. I think folks would have taken less exception to a tutorial heavy Ep 1 than they have with the overly handholdy Ep 2.
      I can only hope they take comments like this to heart with future installments. Less handholding and more story. Or, at least an option to skip any tutorial missions. Say, a “I already know how to do that!” option in the dialogue options. That would likely satisfy both new, and old hands alike.
      Also, story mode needs more than a single save slot, I think. If someone messes up badly, then are they really going to want to go through all of Ep 1/2 and later episodes, just to get back to where they were? I’m thinking of things like the bear ruining clothing, or running out of ammunition. I get that you can remedy all these kinds of issues, but not if you don’t have the blueprints to make replacement clothing. Likewise with the ammunition, you can probably find more. But new players are likely to just get frustrated at these setbacks and set the game aside, I feel. A handful of save points, perhaps at key story points, would at least allow them to not feel like they are useless, or the game too unfair.
      After all, this is a story mode. It’s supposed to be enjoyable, not frustrating.

  5. Galilnagant says:

    The Story Mode has just been a massive disappointment for me. The initial conceit of the game world has been garbled by the poor writing (apparently there was a global earthquake apocalypse and a global financial collapse apocalypse before the game’s opening global EMP apocalypse, according to text and dialogue in Episode 1,) the characters are unlikable, and worse, uninteresting. The loss of a child as basis for interpersonal drama works about as well in TLD as it does in Fallout 4, which is not at all.

  6. Vilos Cohaagen says:

    I’m not surprised it’s not great. They’ve had several years to build up expectations but also spanned the entire journey of survival games from “oh cool, so new” to “ug survival games? Why are you demanding i eat 20,000 calories per day?”

    It’s an ok game but honestly not one I’ve felt any urge to revisit. But there are worse things than merely being “ok”

  7. racccoon says:

    Loved the review, :)…I’ll have to dig it out from the graveyard of mass steam uninstalls & re try it.

  8. BaronKreight says:

    Wanting to get my hands on this game. Its single player survival in a Siberia like conditions. What can be better?

  9. Aphex242 says:

    I love it. I am partway in to Ep 2, where he’s making me fish and all that stuff, and it was a little, “Ugh, REALLY?” but I’m generally happy with it. I got it while in early access, and played the sandbox quite a bit, so I feel pretty comfortable with most (but not all) mechanics. Falling through ice multiple times was no picnic, but I muscled through it lol.

    Anyway I agree the plot for Ep2 is feeling really lazy. The game itself is fun, however.

  10. L3TUC3 says:

    I’m a new player to TLD. I love it, it’s been a ton of fun so far.

    Episode 1 does teach you the basics pretty well and after I read the criticisms of Episode 2 I can’t help but agree that the second bout of forced tutorials are a bit out of place. You just trekked halfway across the island and back and did most of those things, why do it again? The fetch and side quests at least gave some lore exposure and gave you some pretty cool items.

    The only mission that wasn’t a complete waste was the fishing one. I didn’t even know you could do that, plus it gave a me a reason to actually keep a prybar handy. Made me feel pretty Canadian sitting in a shack waiting for my line to break.

    The hunting/foraging/repair ones were a big bag of been there done that. I especially loathed the foraging one, I just gave Jerry an entire zone’s worth of Old Man Beard for the trust! I trekked a few zones looting the crap out of bushes trying to get high on rosehop tea.

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