Much of the survival game genre is an overpopulated, uniform mass of repetitive and formulaic games. For a genre so ambitious in intent, it’s funny how everything to come out of it seems so lazy. You could pick up nearly any indie survival game on steam and have a reasonable guarantee that it will be the same as any other. Hunger and thirst meters will need to be constantly managed, nightfall will bring a host of new dangers, and you will need to progress up the tech tree as the game progresses, starting with scavenged sticks and rocks and ending with some high-grade modern survival gadgets.
I’ve played a lot of games in this genre over the years, and if I had a dollar for every time I’ve had to relearn how to craft a torch, I could afford to finance my own game. Every once in awhile though, one of these games will rise above the shovelware that infests the Steam marketplace, making a true impression on me and leaving me with something to think about for months on end. Most recently for me, that game was Hinterland Studio’s The Long Dark.
Before I go any further, let me clarify that anyone sick of the aforementioned survival mechanics will still find them in The Long Dark. In fact, it’s a game that employs all the tactics and mechanics that I’ve come to despise in other games. Yet, as I was playing it, I realized it was doing something different, and it was hard for me to pin down exactly what.
The game is set in the frigid wildernesses of Northern Canada in the aftermath of an unspecific natural disaster. You play as Mackenzie, a pilot who was enlisted by his ex-wife to fly supplies out to a remote community in desperate need of them. On the flight there, the aforementioned disaster downs your plane, stranding you in a hostile wilderness. Your ex-wife survives, and you must track her down and uncover the nature of what happened to the world, while helping survivors along the way. There is an interesting story in The Long Dark, much deeper than what I had anticipated, and the world building that it achieves helps to elevate it in some of the slower sections.
It occurred to me as I progressed through the game that, while the story wasn’t necessarily what had set it apart from others in the genre, it was entirely indicative of it. It was a world that felt like a lot of effort had gone into planning it out. Everything I found while exploring, be it a ramshackle old structure with valuable supplies, or a rock outcrop that provided protection from the wind, felt deliberately placed. There’s very little random generation in The Long Dark, something that the survival genre, and the gaming industry as a whole, has come to rely very heavily on.
It’s a difficult game, too. As I played through, I constantly felt like I was in danger, like every step I took was a conscious decision, and like survival was always an uphill battle. That being said, I never felt like it was unfair. It always felt like I was scraping by with just enough like one wrong move could sink me. Just as I would be about to freeze to death in a blizzard, I’d stumble across an abandoned cabin in the forest with a warm bed, a wood-burning stove, and some canned goods.
Setting up camp for the night in that cabin felt like the greatest reward the game could offer me after the treacherous journey it took to get there. The next morning I would continue on towards my destination, but before bed, I set aside some time to maintain my equipment and cook myself a meal. Every trip in the game required careful planning and preparation. As night fell and darkness settled into my little abode, I debated burning some lantern fuel so I could continue my preparations for the next morning.
That’s when it sunk in for me why this game felt so much better than all the others I’ve played over the years. It wasn’t just that Hinterland Studio had set out to make a good game with passion and artistic merit (although that was certainly part of it), it’s that there was thought put into the experience of the player. I never felt as though The Long Dark had no regard for my time. Every aspect of it felt measured, as though the developer was striving to make sure each moment of gameplay added to the experience instead of taking away from it. When I found that cabin when I was on the verge of death, I had felt lucky, but it wasn’t luck. It was planned and carefully thought out as if the developer knew I would need a respite around that part in the journey.
This core design attitude permeates every facet of this game. Just about every action has a benefit and a drawback, and the key to survival is balancing those scales. The survival mechanics themselves can be very granular, but this never comes at the expense of the player having fun. It’s fun to manage the needs of your character, it’s fun to press on through the hostile wilderness to your destination, it’s fun deciding whether it’s worth trying to fit one extra can of beans in your pack.
I think back to another game with similar survival mechanics that I’ve played recently, Fallout 76. It’s a game I intensely dislike, both for its quality and what it represents. While playing that, I had the exact opposite impression that I got from The Long Dark. Having to manage my hunger and thirst felt like a nuisance, not a challenge. The limited inventory served little other purposes than to have you run back to base to drop things off every ten minutes. Every mission was stretched as thin as it could go, with no regard for player enjoyment. The fact that Hinterland, a studio that only has one game under their belt, cared more for their player experience than the company that made Skyrim, is a testament to the quality of their work.
The Long Dark made me realize that I don’t hate survival games, I just hate what they’ve become. I’m sick of procedurally generated worlds that feel indistinct from one another, of janky gameplay, of awful user interfaces. Now, more than ever, it baffles me that games like Fallout 76 can ask for my time and money, when games like this exist, and I can’t wait to play some more.