The Long Dark (**)

Two stars.

There are important things we can learn about people from what games they choose to play, and how they choose to play them. It isn’t hard to envision a future in which playing a game to completion is a critical component of therapy.

Let’s jumpstart the process by asking what might be the most important question in gaming, the one that really gets to the heart of the kind of player (and by extension the kind of person) you really are.

How many megalixirs are in your inventory in your last FF7 save?

I theorize that there are two fundamental types of game player in the overall taxonomy of gamers. The first type are those who have no megalixirs left in their inventory, no Elixirs, no Turbo Ethers, no X-Potions. They found them and have long since used them to get through a boss fight. I think of these players as ‘immediate players’. They live in the moment of the game, considering their entire arsenal of tools at all times, using whatever’s available to win a fight.

The second type are those who have all the available megalixir pickups still in their inventory. They have all the available X-Potions and Elixirs. They have 99 potions in that final save, and 99 antidotes, and 99 ethers. If they have less of any consumable item, they have it in an even number: 10 hi-potions, 50 echo grass, 25 phoenix downs. I think of these players as ‘state players’. They’re concerned with the overall state of the game. A particular fight isn’t relevant to this player; the average number of fights, and the difficulty of those fights, in a given segment of the game is what matters.

My confession is that I don’t use consumables.

I know why I don’t use them, and I know why it’s wrong, but it’s a deep embedded fear in my worldview, and I can’t easily overcome it without actively forcing myself.

One of the earliest RPGs I played and beat was Phantasy Star. A friend had a Sega Master System, and he brought it over to my house and left it there. We’d play Phantasy Star together, one of us at the controls and the other with graph paper, mapping. I have fond memories of the whole game, but I was baffled when I later played it in emulation. Not that it didn’t hold up — it has held up astonishingly well for what it is and how old it is. Rather, I was baffled that the early part of the game, the part before you recruit Odin and Noah, when it’s just you (and then you and Myau), was so short.

That part of the game loomed so very large in my memory. It seemed like weeks passed while we struggled through those early parts of the game, and recruiting Noah, the final member of the party, felt like the beginning of the endgame. In reality it was the end of the beginning, the start of the actual game and the point where the real challenges began.

We’d been so focused on finally getting Noah that his (or her; this was unclear to us) entirely pedestrian magical skill-set seemed to be godlike power. What couldn’t we kill, with Noah on our side? Everything had been preparation for this final unlock, after which we’d just head over to the boss and win.

This didn’t happen, of course; the game’s most hellacious dungeons were still ahead of us, as well as a handful of baffling plot twists and false final bosses. Even having experienced it first-hand, though, the feeling persists. To this day when I think of Phantasy Star I think of the long, complex exploratory period before Noah as being at least half, if not two-thirds, of the total game length.

When I re-played it, I expected a painful and brutal slog through the early portions when it’s just poor Alis, alone against whatever bugs, birds, and rats are loose on the planet. Instead it was quick, almost trivial, to recruit Myau and pick up the item we needed to free Odin. Before I knew it, I was looking up maps for the dungeon in which Noah was hiding (one of the ways that modern playthroughs will always trump nostalgia for pre-internet games is the ready availability of maps). Why was it so simple?

I thought about my memories of playing those first few days, and I realized they were entirely populated by burgers and colas, the potions of the Phantasy Star world. I remembered spending a lot of time buying burgers, eating burgers, fleeing from battles when I had no burgers. I remembered running back to safety and the comforting embrace of the lady in the fast food shop, over and over again.

The difference was my desperate focus on the game state. It goes like this: go outside and fight a monster. How much money did you make? Compare that to the cost to restore the hit points you’ve lost. Did you make enough to pay for a night at the inn, or a new set of potions? What’s your income? What’s the profit margin on each trip into the wilderness? So what I’d do is, I’d run outside, fight one monster, then flee back inside and heal up. Rinse, repeat. When do you stop?

Well, you stop when your current state feels stable. When you believe the game is now static, with your income sufficient to maintain your supply of items. When you believe that anything new you choose to do will not use up all your stored resources and force you back into a kill-monster-buy-burger cycle again. Step one in Phantasy Star is an overland journey east to another town to pick up Myau. You can probably make it on your first trip out of town. Or instead you could grind for an hour to be extra-super-certain you have enough burgers to make the trip.

You can guess which one I did, that first time through the game. And it’s a hard habit to break; I’ve caught myself doing it in replays, in other games, in games where it honestly makes no damn sense to grind for resources. How many Humanity Shards does one Hollow need? Enough to recover from a death-and-soul-loss at least three times, maybe more. Twenty? Probably need thirty.

It’s a risk-mitigation approach. You don’t want to take risks that could reset your progress, or (horrors) put your game in an unplayable state, assuming such a thing is even possible.

Here’s another metric, another sign you might also be a state player, mitigating risk at the expense of fun. How many save game slots did you use on the PS1? Remember that PS1 memory cards only had 16 slots. How many did you use? If you’re the kind of player I am, and you hear that someone used only one slot to play through an entire FF game, do you feel a twinge of stress-panic? Did you ever have to justify to yourself why you didn’t need a save from just outside of Midgar anymore? Talk yourself into saving over it with a Disc 2 save?

The approach I’m describing ends up being about sustainability of play-style. Think about the resources you’re about to use, and then ask: can I get more of them? How long will it take to do so? If the crafting item you just got drops only three times ever in an entire play-through, and you won’t see it again until your next pass through the game, do you use it and craft something? Do you look up a FAQ to make sure you’re ‘supposed’ to use it?

The question is always ‘how do I get more’ and ‘how do I establish an infinite supply’ and then ‘how do I establish a convenient¬†infinite supply’. It’s part of the deep appeal Minecraft has for me, that so much of the survival aspect of the gameplay is about getting to a near-infinite, renewable supply of every resource you might need, and then gradually using the game’s tools to make every one of those resources convenient, chests automatically filling with gunpowder and blaze rods, and the ultimate expression of the concept: a small secure room in which you can kill the Wither as many times as you want, over and over, farming Nether Stars at will, because you might need them. You might! You never know!

The megalixir represents the ultimate finite, non-renewable item. It’s powerful but not necessary; you will not get many of them, and you typically can’t farm for them. What you get is what you’ll ever get. When is the right time to use them? What fight is hard enough to warrant using them?

The immediate player doesn’t care. Is this fight right here a hard fight? Could I win it if I use the megalixir? Go for it; winning the fight is the immediate goal. The state player also knows the answer: it’s never. No boss fight is worth using the megalixir. Because if the fight is hard enough that you need to use a non-renewable resource on it, you’re simply not prepared for that fight. What will you do on the next boss fight, which will presumably be even harder? Use another megalixir? What do you do when you run out? You’ll be right back where you were, stuck on a fight without access to any resources except the renewable ones.

What the state player is really saying is ‘the non-renewable items are not part of the game state right now. Later they may become renewable, but for now I should consider them a preview, not a tool.’ What she’s saying is can I sustain this gameplay forever? The ethos of the state player is: use only what you can re-acquire. Do not expend more than you can obtain. Try to reach a stable accomodation with the game, where the current conditions can persist indefinitely.

We can make some broad and possibly inaccurate assumptions about the state player. She’s not necessarily interested in winning the game as a primary goal; she won’t burn out all her resources to make a mad dash for the end. She wants to know that each piece of the game has been fully mastered before moving to the next piece. She values stability in her gameplay, even predictability. She’s more likely to look up the next boss fight, find out what skills she should have mastered before she arrives. She doesn’t like dungeons that encourage her to rush through; she wants to be able to step through each dungeon slowly and deliberately, finding everything there is to find. She absolutely loves finding a save point or healing point right next to a place to encounter monsters. What better way to ensure a completely stable gameplay loop than having an escape hatch available right there at all times? She probably played Bravely Default and found the bedroom with the hard fights outside the door and stayed in that bedroom for hours. Maybe days. Maybe even weeks, but perhaps at that point I should drop the pretense that I’m talking about anyone but myself.

The key to The Long Dark is that it is not possible to achieve a stable game state.

The Long Dark is a survival game. It’s not a horror game, or at least it’s not survival horror as currently understood by the game industry. There’s horror to be found in it but none of it is of the ‘flayed zombie dog bursts through a window’ variety. There are no zombies. There are no flayed dogs. There are enemies, in the form of starving wolves that will stalk you through the snowy landscape, but they’re almost more of a feature of an implacably hostile environment than anything volitional. There are no other survivors to fight, no competitors for resources.

There are three dangers. There is the cold, there is starvation, and there is the dark.

It feels that all three of those should be capitalized. The setting is a northern Canadian wilderness, with only the barest scraps of civilization, little outposts of angularity and structure in a softly rounded world. The cold is brutal; not freezing to death in a blizzard, with howling winds all around you and visibility of only a few meters, is your first and most critical task. If you’re lucky, you start within sight of a place to hide from the wind. If not, you will look for one, and if you’re clever and you navigate the wilderness competently, you will find one before you die.

Others have failed; you’ll find their corpses frozen in the snow, with a nearby backpack or a hatchet suggesting what they were doing before the cold overwhelmed them. You’ll perhaps balk at searching their frozen corpses at first, but that delicacy won’t last long. Eating beef jerky you stripped off an icy dead body will soon no longer even register as a moral, or hygienic, quandary.

Once inside some kind of shelter, so that at least the wind is no longer tearing you to pieces, you’ll need to make a fire, and you’ll grow more and more frustrated with the difficulty of doing so. If you’re someone who’s made a real fire in real life, you’ll grimly nod: fire is tricky under ideal circumstances, and at a degree or two below freezing, bundled in thick mittens and a coat, with a few scavenged matches and whatever broken furniture you can find, these are hardly ideal circumstances.

What will you eat, now that you’re warm? As I said, delicacy goes out along with thoughts of hygiene, because the game is not shy about letting you know that you’re dying. Canned beans, no can opener? Smash the can open and eat whatever doesn’t spill. Grape soda isn’t nutritious but does it have calories? Drink it. Elderly candy bars and beef jerky are interim snacks, eaten while you look for something more filling. If the game would let you, you’d eat the rolled up newspapers you’re saving to make a fire.

You see deer in the distance, but you quickly learn what people have known for millennia: hunting an animal that doesn’t want to be caught is really hard. You won’t be getting far with your bare hands, and in fact the game considers this so absurd that it won’t even let you try. There are no melee attacks in The Long Dark. You shoot your targets, or you watch them flee, helpless to stop them, as you slowly starve. So you don’t hesitate when you find the half-eaten, frozen carcass of a deer, the remains of a wolf kill. It’s disembowelled and looks like road kill, but it’s meat, enough meat to keep you alive for a whole day.

Every day is circumscribed by the insistent UI telling you just how few hours are left before sunset. This is a critically important bit of information, because with night comes the dark, and the dark in this game is the real thing. The game’s backstory has a handwaving ‘electromagnetic event’, the causes of which aren’t ever explored. The upshot is that there’s no electricity at all, anywhere. No generators, no batteries. The cars don’t work. The propane tanks are empty. Light is a function of fire, and fire is a function of your ability to find fuel and matches.

When the darkness closes in, you’re trapped. You will find things by running into them. You’ll navigate interior spaces by stumbling against the walls, hoping to find stairs or a bed or anything to give you a landmark. Outdoors, you’ll have fewer options; the stars, perhaps, but this is not the night-time of games, this is the night-time of the deep wilderness, black endless darkness. Not that you’ll have a lot of time to find your way.

At night, the wolves will stalk you. And they aren’t limited by your merely human vision. They will follow you in the dark, and they will kill you and eat you.

Maybe you’ll run, in the darkness, and you’ll slip off the edge of an embankment. Perhaps that first time, you won’t twist your ankle and be reduced to limping, desperately hoping the howls you hear are far enough off that they haven’t spotted you. You can’t tell; all you can do is struggle through the snow towards whatever imagined safety you think you remember seeing back in the sane daytime.

The Long Dark is not an action game. In an action game, you might expect to fall as far as your height without issue, and you would definitely expect to scale over the chest-high walls you find. If there’s no explicit wall, you’ll expect to scale the slope ahead of you. And you’d run everywhere, absolutely everywhere, and curse any game developer who made ‘walking’ the default speed. But in this game, you look down a drop of just a few feet and ponder: is it worth the risk, to save a minute of going around? In this game, you look at that slope and think about how little you’ve had to eat, and you reconsider. In this game, you run to stay warm but you’re always aware of your body’s ever dwindling reserves, the fatigue and hunger that will ultimately lead to a fatal mistake.

There are no savegames in The Long Dark. The game autosaves at intervals, and is particularly cruel when you’ve just been injured; injury triggers an autosave right away, so the game won’t forget how battered you are.

There is no respawning in The Long Dark. If you die, you start over.

There is no victory condition in The Long Dark.

After all that, what would you imagine a victory would look like? A deus ex machina, arriving just in time to save you from a global catastrophe that’s become a very, very personal catastrophe? No; you can survive, and the game will help you count the days of your survival, but there is no final day of survival. There’s no point at which your survival takes on a greater meaning than what it already has: another day of struggle.

This is an important point, and one that sets The Long Dark apart from almost every modern game: there is no stable game-state. Nothing is renewable. Nothing can be recovered, once lost. No resources will respawn in the empty houses and offices you’re looting. Whatever you pick up, that’s what you have; whatever you lose is gone. What this means is that not only is there no victory condition, there is only a single end condition: you lose. You die. You fail.

Bleak, huh?

Here’s an example. You want to hunt for food. You find a rifle, so good for you! You can hunt now, and a deer can give you food for days, if you can haul it all back to your safe house before it spoils, or wolves take it. But you have about 10 bullets. You might find more, but you might not. And the total number of bullets in the entire world, ever, is a fixed value. Once you’ve used them all, your rifle is junk. Imagine what it means when every successful shot is days of food, and every missed shot is days sliced off your lifespan. Not potential days; actual days. You could probably do math to find out how much shorter your life just became when you fire and the deer sprints off unharmed.

So you decide to make a bow. This seems better; it at least doesn’t require you to use bullets. But arrows must be made from saplings, and they don’t grow fast enough that you’ll find more after you’ve harvested the ones you locate, deep in the woods. Every arrow is a non-renewable resource, as well, and when one breaks, or is carried up a hillside by an injured animal and lost, you’ll cry.

Meanwhile, your bow will need repairs. So will your clothing. So will your knife, and your hatchet. You can make fires with your matches, but you have about a hundred of them and they’re not making any more. What will you do when you run out of matches? What will you do when you run out of scrap metal with which to repair your tools? You can buy yourself time by salvaging your old clothes, your broken can openers, but you can’t get more of those, either, so it’s just staving off the ultimate fate for a bit longer.

The Long Dark is a game where you cannot win, and you cannot avoid losing, and where you can never come to an equilibrium with the game. It is a game that asks you to use the megalixir on day one, and again on day two, and on day three when you have none left, it shrugs. Guess this is it for you, it says, and dispassionately watches you die.

So given that it’s effectively the anti-state-gamer game, why do I love it?

It’s possible that you, if you were born after a certain span of time in the 80s, find the idea of a game that has an inherent countdown to your inevitable demise shocking. How can a game be fun if it has no attainable ending? What kind of artsy-fartsy game developer would create a game like that, with just struggle and hardship and then, inexorably, death?

We called it Space Invaders, and we played it in arcades until we wore out the cabinet hardware, so that sometimes the stick, when pushed left, would leave your spaceship jittering along, barely moving, as the contacts inside the console desperately tried to make a circuit and signal to our poor spaceman: dodge! They’re shooting at you, dodge!

The no-win model isn’t anomalous or new. It’s very old, and it’s one of the earliest models of game design. How long can you play on one quarter? How far can you get? How much bullshit can you dodge, and for how long? You’re going to lose; it’s just a question of when. How long will you hold out before you etch your initials (or, let’s be real here, ‘DIK’) on the high score list?

There’s a better model, though, for exactly what The Long Dark is trying to tell us, one that doesn’t rely on the strange coin-op economy of the 1980s arcade. It goes like this joke, which I’ve always liked: Life is a sexually transmitted disease with a 100% fatality rate. Or, if you prefer: don’t take life so seriously; nobody gets out of it alive.

Perhaps we play games to find a kind of life that we can win, that we can escape from alive. Perhaps we play games the way we read fairy tales: we want ‘… lived happily ever after’ followed by ‘THE END’ and that’s all, a full-stop at the end of a life that we can then file away under ‘Completed Life, Happy’ in our mental catalogue of lives. The hero gets the girl. The ugly alien is killed. The characters learn a valuable lesson about respecting each other’s differences. The fridged women are appropriately mourned. Nobody goes on to appear in a Cracked article about 10 fictional characters whose lives were actually ruined.

THE END.

But The Long Dark proposes a different kind of ending. It’s the kind of ending that we’re all pretty familiar with, although not with the fond familiarity of a Disney story brought to resolution in a neat 90 minutes of singing and dancing. It’s the kind of ending where you get a call: he had a heart attack. He didn’t make it. It’s the kind of ending where nothing is resolved, because nothing ever is. No questions are answered, no victories achieved.

The Long Dark. I mean, it’s not rocket science, when you call your game The Long Dark, what you’re really talking about.

You can’t win The Long Dark. All you can do is survive. Maybe you survive a really, really long time, and set yourself up a nice house, and fill it with all the things you think you need to keep on surviving. Maybe you’ve got this ‘life’ thing down, you’ve got food and shelter and water and clothing and tools, it’s been 17 days of struggle, and you’re thinking ‘now all I need’s a deck of cards’. And then you get tag-teamed by wolves within sight of your front door, in the dark, and you didn’t remember bandages, and you bleed out trying to drag yourself back to safety while the wolves circle, waiting for you to die so they can eat you.

It’s just life, man. Don’t take it so seriously.

Maybe you get lost in a blizzard and freeze to death. Or you fall down an embankment and twist your ankle and can’t reach shelter before exhaustion drops you face-first into the snow. Or you get trapped in a car by a pissed-off bear, re-enacting Cujo, unable to leave while you slowly starve.

Nobody gets out alive.

Or maybe none of that happens, and you’re the best at fighting wolves and managing your health and food and water and supplies. And then one day you are out of arrows, and out of bullets, and you’ve used up all the canned goods you’ve scavenged. And your tools are all broken and you’re out of metal scraps to repair them. And you’re scavenging for something sharp so you can harvest this deer carcass the wolves left behind, and you ask yourself: when can I rest? When am I done?

Do you struggle for just one more day, and one more after that? Or do you quit?

Is the Steam client UI the afterlife?

The Long Dark sets up a situation that forces us to ask: is there a point to all this struggle? And its answer is: is there ever? It neatly sidesteps the megalixir question. What are you saving your megalixirs for? There is nothing to save them for. You may as well use them now.

So I slog grimly onwards, tearing up sweaters for cloth scraps to repair my coat, looting abandoned shacks for a roll of bandages or a can of peaches. I don’t want to give up. I don’t know why, but I can’t stop trying to hang on a little longer.

Perhaps I think there will come a day, if only I can survive for long enough, when a rescue will arrive. Maybe a dogsled team. Maybe a vehicle miraculously restored to working order. When a siren will go up, and I’ll rush towards it, and there will be salvation in the form of a military caravan or a group of other survivors or a helicopter.

The Long Dark is a game that’s asking you questions about faith in the face of inevitable death. It wants to know why you’re still there, lighting fires with books and newspapers, day after day. Are you hoping for the Rapture? It will never come, but is your hope for that Rapture-rescue enough to keep you struggling?

There’s no upbeat message here, but this is a profoundly affecting meditation on the nature of survival, of what it means to struggle to live.

I can’t give this game three stars, as much as I have taken from it, and as much as I want to. I can’t give an unqualified call to action for a game this bleak. Ask yourself if you need your games as an escape from futility and the inevitability of death, if games are escapism and that escapism is an important part of why you play them. If your answer is ‘yes’, don’t play The Long Dark.

If, however, you’d like to explore the solitary emptiness of being the last person on Earth, of knowing that your struggles are meaningless and your victories hollow, and see just how far and how long you’ll go to survive? Join me in playing The Long Dark. You’re going to lose, but you might learn something along the way, and anyway you shouldn’t take it so seriously.

Nobody gets out alive.

2 Comments

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2 Responses to The Long Dark (**)

  1. thratchen

    I do need to add one comment that didn’t really fit into the overall discussion: this game needs more granular difficulty adjustment. The survival challenges are quite distinct from the combat challenges, but these cannot be adjusted independently.

    I’d like to play this game with the survival difficulty at maximum, struggling to find food and shelter, without also needing to play the battle-a-wolf minigame several times a day. It is not, if I’m being completely honest, a very fun minigame.

  2. Gretchen

    I gave this article to my sweetie to read, and he laughed, because I am a state player and he uses consumables the moment they seem useful, regardless of if he thinks he can restock them. (Other than when he knows they’re crucial to a run, such as in a game series where hoarding a few specific consumables from prior games actually made the last game much easier to get through.

    Interestingly, he looks over at me as I play Don’t Starve and says, “Why would you ever want to play that game?” There is something about my desire to have all of the right consumables, to have them repeatable, that makes that game compelling to me and almost offensive to him. I can’t even explain why I like it, why I enjoy feeling like I’ve gotten to a pretty stable state (I survived the winter!) and then having it all go south because a monster or event I was previously unaware of comes and upsets all my assumptions.

    An example: I figure out what the resurrection stones do, and realize that it’s important to have a stash of goodies waiting near one. So I build a chest nearby and stock it with all sorts of useful resources. I’m very pleased at my forethought when I slip up and die…. and then remember, the hard way, that _lightning strikes_ upon resurrection, and my beautifully stocked chest was in the middle of trees, which naturally caught fire from the lightning, so I got to watch in horror as the fire swept over the chest and destroyed everything but the stones. That feeling of having been clever, but not clever enough, was very memorable.

    I definitely have my eye on this one, since I like Don’t Starve so much. However, I agree that I’m not that interested in being forced into constant conflict with wolves, so I’m waiting to see if that can be tuned down so I can focus more on the far more interesting to me elements of survival against the elements.

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