Below, a thin crevice carved into the rock. Above, the stars. I wasn't quite at the roof of the world but I was definitely in some sort of grim penthouse. The cold didn't bother me anymore, frostbite having chewed the nerves out of my extremities, and the cold wouldn't claim me. Nor would the wolves that seemed determined to keep me on the mountainside. I'd decided to die on my own terms. I stepped into the void.
That morning, I'd been reflecting on how grand life can be as I cooked freshly caught whitefish on a pot-bellied stove, snug inside a lonely cabin by a frozen lake. This wasn't The Long Dark [official site], this was an escape from the rat race, and I was happily prepared for the challenge of Timberwolf Mountain, looming overhead.
My previous adventures in The Long Dark seemed like the actions of a fool. No more stumbling through blizzards and getting lost a few hundred feet from home, no more hoarding of water and meat in anticipation of disaster, and no more fear of the dark. I have several healthily stocked bases, spread across valleys and tiny settlements, and my loadouts make me a lean, mean exploration machine. I don't stumble into the wild, I make plans, whether I'm scavenging, scouting or hunting, and I take what is required and no more, knowing that my safe havens are like links in a chain that I travel along.
I'm not just surviving, I'm living.
Predictably, the relative comforts of this new life soon exert their own strange pressure and I feel a need to find new challenges. Timberwolf Mountain calls to me.
On the whole I've been avoiding external source of information, like wikis and forums. If I don't find it in the game, it doesn't exist. I haven't looked at maps and I don't know anything about the other areas in the game – Pleasant Valley is where I began and it's where I have built my new life.
Unfortunately, none of the abandoned shops and farms contain maps or notes about the surroundings. Whether that's something that will be added later, most likely in the Story mode rather than the Sandbox I'm currently playing, or whether I've simply been unlucky, I don't know, but I'd like to discover clues about bunkers and landmarks nearby, or at least evidence that they exist. The promise of carrots to lead me into the unknown rather than the sticks of starvation that have been beating on my back.
Lacking any of that in-game, I turned to the Long Dark wiki, not wanting a route plotted for me, but wanting to know which areas were connected to my valley. That's when I saw the name Timberwolf Mountain for the first time.
I explored the edges of the valley for a couple of days before finding the route to the mountain. I'd spent a night in an abandoned house close to a road that is cut-off by what appears to be the aftermath of a landslide, and following the steep incline thereabouts, I eventually found a climbing rope tied in position. Full of energy and packing enough supplies to survive a couple of days in even the harshest weather, I clambered up the cliffside and through a narrow ravine. One brief loading screen later, I was at the foot of Timberwolf Mountain.
The first sign that my new surroundings weren't quite as cosy as my previous digs came with the discovery of a chunk of metal with a wheel attached. It was the landing gear of a plane and the first clear indication that whatever had caused the world to wobble might not be localised to the tiny tract of land I'd already explored. There are frozen corpses aplenty and those wolves are far more aggressive than actual wolves (the game acknowledges that in its opening text, explaining that an electromagnetic incident has disrupted the natural order of things), but now I'm thinking that planes were pulled out of the sky. Sure, this wreck might be the result of an ordinary accident, but it's ominous.
It's also a promising sign for a scavenger like me. The wreckage is that of a cargo plane and this is just one small part of it. If the rest is scattered across and around the mountain, there could be all sorts of useful things in among the wreckage.
A short distance beyond the landing gear, a frozen lake came into view, with a small fishing hut in the centre and a picturesque cabin on the shore. A new home.
It's a strange feeling, seeing something new for the first time and knowing you'll never experience that again. In the time I've been playing it, The Long Dark has been two games. There's the one where I'm in a new place, lost and afraid, looking for shelter, and there's the one where I can read the land and find my way to safety, stranded in a place that I know.
Because the regions are hand-crafted, you learn the layout as you play, making every successive character a very different experience to the one before. You don't have to roleplay the fear of the unknown and the desperation of the lost the first time you start a game in a new region because unless you've checked maps online beforehand, you'll have no idea which way to turn, or how close the nearest habitable building might be. Play for long enough though and every new character is thrown into the world with your own knowledge of the area.
To my surprise, I actually prefer that later variation of the game, the one in which my own memories force me to roleplay a more knowledgeable survivor. Nothing will ever replicate my first sight of the Pleasant Valley farm, seen from atop Signal Hill as a day-long blizzard lifted and revealed what would be my home for several pleasant weeks, but seeing known landmarks from afar and figuring out locations and routes based on their position is its own reward.
Timberwolf Mountain, and the lake beneath, were new to me though. I was stepping into the unknown and I was about to find out just how many teeth it had.
When I first entered, I worried that the cabin wouldn't be properly habitable. There are holes in the roof and the windows aren't sealed, allowing the cold to creep in. It's still warm enough to sleep in without the need for a fire though, unless the weather is particularly brutal. For the first time, I found evidence that someone had been alive in these parts recently: a note, describing the broken up plane wreck scattered across the mountainside. Whoever had written the note had ascended the peak, hoping to find the bulk of the cargo somewhere along the route.
Idiot that I am, I saw this as the first breadcrumb on a magical trail rather than a dire warning. Figuring I'd struggle to carry a heavy load up the mountain and wanting to leave plenty of space in my pack for the goodies up there on the mountain, I set out after only a couple of days in the cabin. There's a fishing hole on the lake and I caught fresh food though and ate well before leaving one morning, coffee warming my belly and putting a spring in my step.
At first the ascent was simple enough. The only living things I saw on my way to a handy climbing rope – perhaps attached by the person who'd written the note in the cabin – were deer, and I reached the first stage of the climb winded but optimistic. A steep slope that looked just about manageable was the most obvious route upward but I decided to circle the peak, looking for another climbing rope rather than risking exposure to the elements and any watching wolves. I found a shallow cave and made a mental note of its location, knowing it could be a lifesaver if the temperature dropped and the winds were too high for me to start a fire in the open. I could sleep there, if need be, though I wanted to make much more progress before resting for the night.
Ideally, I'd only be spending a couple of nights on the mountain. Three at most. Any more and I'd have to resort to hunting for food. I'd brought a hunting rifle and plenty of ammunition, but I wanted to save the bullets for protection against bears and wolves rather than spending them making meat that'd mostly be left to freeze. For nutrition and energy, I'd brought military rations and lots of energy bars, and soda to drink. Water is easy to come by – melt snow, boil for safety – but creating the necessary fire takes time and, more importantly, requires wood, and I hadn't brought a great deal of timber. Sure, I could use the deadwood lying around but that would mean stopping and chopping and gathering.
Anything that delayed me brought about a greater chance of being caught in a snowstorm. I'd picked a clear, (relatively) warm morning to start the tip and I wanted to spend it climbing rather than scavenging for sticks.
Contrary to everything I'd expected, the mountain seemed hospitable. I was making good progress, stopping briefly to drink grape soda and dine on the fish I'd brought with me, and the views were breathtaking. One of the things I appreciate more and more about The Long Dark is how the same scenery can appear brutal and bleak, or breathtakingly beautiful depending on the weather and your own state of body and mind. On that day – my last – I could see off into the distance the air was so clear, and at times I felt like a tourist.
And then a bend in the trail brought me face to face with a bear. I hadn't seen one up close before, always having managed to spot them from a distance and maintain that distance. In the current build, animals are predictable, triggered by proximity rather than sightlines, and I've worked out the safe distance that allows me to observe, figuring out which direction a threat is heading in and avoiding it.
Up on the mountain, caught between rocks and a hard place, I had no way of scouting the land ahead and I practically fell into this bear's lap. I did manage to get a shot off before it savaged me, and then I was pawed and mauled, and left for dead. Vision faded and I assumed I'd be back on the menu screen in short order, but the bear had other ideas.
I don't know what they were but I do know that when I regained consciousness it was ambling way from me, seemingly without a care in the world. Bleeding and barely capable of standing, I'd fired another shot into its back before even thinking about what to do next. As soon as I heard the crack of the rifle, I knew it was the stupidest thing I could have done. I'd been spared, miraculously, and I'd shoved my face straight back into the hornet's nest, which in this case was a bear's jaw.
Shrugging off the bullet, it turned and almost apologetically set about my face and chest again, ripping and tearing. Fade to black.
And then fade in again, to see the bear's backside bobbling away and leaving me even more bruised and battered. Instinct might have caused me to shoot again but thankfully the gun had been knocked out of my hand. I was, in fact, surrounded by my supplies, spilled into the red snow. My shoes had been torn to shreds, which made me think my feet had probably been chewed into mince, and my coat was ruined. I was bleeding and my blood was freezing and steaming as it left my body.
I crawled away, assuming I'd be dead from the cold or my injuries within minutes, and was amazed to find a cave close by. Unlike the tiddly thing I'd seen earlier, this was a different sort of cave. It had a loading screen, so I knew it meant business.
In I went, hoping it wasn't home to the other residents of what I now thought of as Timbearwolf Mountain.
Bandages and antiseptic applied, painkillers downed and fire started, I checked my remaining supplies and the state of my clothing. I was barefoot, which seemed like a very serious problem given that I was on a mountain. My coat was completely ruined, leaving me in two torn sweaters, a thick pair of longjohns and some patched up cargo pants. Even my balaclava, which had always made me look like an extra in a low budget Mad Max fan film, was barely hanging together. Oh, and I'd left my gun behind in the panic.
At least I was warm for now though, sitting by the fire that was consuming that last of my wood. I slept for an hour and when I awoke, I decided to explore the cave, hoping to find another exit either back at ground level, where I could head back to my cabin, or higher up the mountain and close to the plane's cargo, which might include warm clothes and fuel.
What I hadn't counted on was the dark. I mean, sure, call me a fucking moron if you like because it's in the damn title but I was in a bad way and I wasn't thinking straight.
Occasionally, as I'm playing, I wish that The Long Dark had monsters in it. Blasphemous, really, to find such a brilliant game and want something as obvious as zombies or Cthulhus to be dropped in, but where that desire really comes from is the game's own quiet sense of horror. Out in the woods at night, you'll hear the creak of trees and the howl of the wind, and even when safely inside a shelter, there are sounds like footsteps on the stairs or doors inching open in the dead of night.
It's the loneliness that becomes oppressive. Every sound is a possible intrusion on that loneliness, and that's both welcome and dreadful. You learn to anticipate companionship but know that it only comes in the form of fangs and fury.
Nature has reclaimed the world and, intruder that you are, it seems possible that if the cold isn't enough, other measures will be taken to wipe you off the face of the planet. Sure, the wolves might do their bit, but what other ancient things might be awakening now that humanity has exited the stage (pursued by a bear).
The Long Dark isn't a horror game though. Until it is.
I had one flare and over a hundred matches. I hadn't realised I was carting so many matches around and would probably have dumped most of them if I had, but I was glad to see them now. Not that I could see very much once the brand I took from my dying fire burned out. As I explored the cave, I sparked up match after match, holding onto the flare for an emergency. Like the health potion that's still in your pocket when the final boss devours you, at this rate the flare was probably going to go unlit as emergency after emergency overcame me until I died. What exactly could be worse than limping barefoot through a freezing cave, barely able to see and panicking every time a match burned down?
Wolves. Bears. I was convinced I'd hear a snarl at any moment, or strike a match to see teeth illuminated in the dark, inches from my throat. And that's when I'd light the flare, using its light as a protective shield, driving back whatever was hunting me.
All of that changed when I found an apparently bottomless chasm in the middle of the cave and nearly walked straight into it. I lit the fucking flare and decided I'd flick matches at whatever cavedwellers I encountered.
I hated that cave. It might have saved my life, sheltering me from the wind and the cold, but it was dark and scary and I still have no idea if the layout was confusing or if I was simply confused. I found a tunnel that sloped downward and followed that, hoping to get off the mountain, and at one point I remember finding a corpse, frozen by the remnants of a fire. I didn't want to die like he had, alone beneath the ground. Remembering how much I'd been enjoying the view from the mountain trails earlier, I was determined to see the sky again before I died.
My return to the surface was about as dramatic as a bowl of muesli. I noticed that snow was crunching underfoot and that I could see even though the flare was long gone and I hadn't lit a match for a while. I was in the open air but the sky was as gray as the rocks around me, the sun having bedded down for the night. The moon wasn't giving off much light at all.
I didn't have a clue which way I should go next. There was a path to the left that had a definite upward incline while the one to the right seemed to be heading down, and since I'd had more than my fill of the mountain, I turned right.
That's when a wolf decided to turn my tiny tragedy into a full-blown farce.
I'd taken a few steps when I heard it, growling, and then it darted from behind a bush and made straight for me. Somehow, I managed to outrun it, which I can only put down to a burst of adrenalin on my part and a possible geriatric condition on the part of the wolf. When I realised I wasn't being eaten, I risked looking over my shoulder and saw it, off in the distance, huffing and puffing but failing not only to blow anyone's house down but to keep pace with a half-dead idiot whose feet resembled overcooked crispy bacon rashers.
Seeing the whites of my eyes obviously encouraged the ancient beast though and it burst forward, forcing me to flee once more.
A sequence of fleeing, turning, mocking and then fleeing again repeated several times and it was only then that I realised the bastard thing had chased me back up the mountain. Maybe this was its plan all along? Maybe the wolves that gave the mountain its name were herders of men, gathering them from nearby settlements and rounding them up so that they could be farmed somewhere near the peak.
The path ahead took a sharp left turn and I followed it. What a punchline it would have been if I'd come face to face with a bear but no. It was another wolf.
Behind it, some way in the distance, I could see a huge angular object, surely not natural, reaching into the sky. I realised it was one of the plane's wings as I turned away and ran in the only direction that didn't contain wolves. It was the edge of the path and below, there was a thin crevice carved into the rock. I looked up one last time and there was the moon at last, free of cloud cover and with no higher peak to hide it. I wasn't quite at the roof of the world but I was definitely in some sort of grim penthouse.
I knew I'd never leave the mountain. Even if I were to find cargo crates by the wreckage of the plane a few hundred feet away, food and fresh clothing would only hold off the inevitable for another few hours or days. I'd behaved like a tourist and I was going to die like one. A sightseer in a world made for survivors.
I decided to die on my own terms. I stepped into the void.