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