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.