The McMaster Files

The Slow Quiet Mortality of the Long Dark

A repository for games and ennui.

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This column is a reprint from Unwinnable Monthly #94. If you like what you see, grab the magazine for less than ten dollars, or subscribe and get all future magazines for half price.

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All I can hear is the crunch of the snow and my labored breathing. I haven’t seen the wolves lately. They’ve been lurking for days. I guess food isn’t only scarce for me.

The Long Dark is a survival game by Hinterland Studios. Recently, the game left early access and launched with the first two chapters of its single player story mode. The story mode is intriguing and I enjoy it, but the real draw of The Long Dark is its sandbox mode.

In The Long Dark, you play as someone trapped in the frozen tundra of the far north. An “event” crippled all communication and stranded you alone with little more than the clothes you were wearing. From that point, you have to survive in the wilderness by any possible means. There is very little hand-holding.

The area you’re stuck in isn’t the most forgiving place. You’re surrounded by wolves and bears, both of which can end your good times and relative state of health in a hurry. While there are guns in the game, they are scarce, as is the ammo to fire them. When you do find a gun, you mostly want to save it to use to hunt for food, but it is nice to have around in case of an emergency.

When wolves attack (I know, wolves aren’t aggressive like that; it’s explained by saying the “event” changed their behavior), you have a moment to decide what to do. If you have a knife, you can plunge it into the wolf and fight with it. If not, you can wrestle with it and hope it doesn’t kill you.  Bears . . . well, bears are bad news. If they leave you alive, you are barely alive and if you move they will come back and maul the holy hell out of you.

Even after an animal attacks you, you should have a bit of time – though limited – to bandage yourself and try to find a way to combat your injuries. Of course, if you can’t stop the bleeding . . . you go to sleep and don’t wake back up. To my point, the bear attack is the only violent way I can think of dying in this game.

Bears are bad news

While the predators may not be pleasant, the real enemy of The Long Dark is hunger and cold. You must eat in order to survive. Many of the structures and containers you find will have edible contents, but those eventually run out. You can then rely on catching rabbits or hunting larger animals to process for food and for crafting materials.

Food is one thing, cold is another thing entirely. The longer you go without warmth, the more likely you are to get frost bite or hypothermia – statuses that can turn into permanent negatives if they aren’t kept in livable ranges. There are cabins and shelters to find your way to, and you can make fires just about anywhere (outside at least, it won’t allow you to start a fire indoors unless it’s in a stove, etc), but the cold eventually can get to you. It’s a somewhat interesting way to die in a videogame – freezing to death.

I’m not talking about “oh no, I’m on a super cold ice planet and it hurts me real bad” kind of freezing to death. I mean slow and quiet. No food anywhere around. You’ve eaten every semi-edible thing you can forage. You slowly get weaker until you can’t get around. That’s the end. Much like the Eliot poem said, your end comes “not with a bang but a whimper.” The sheer mortality of The Long Dark is endlessly fascinating.

I have been killed by Nazis, mystical beasts and the hordes of hell, but this is the first time I’ve ever been afraid of the snow.

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Jason McMaster is a writer and editor with a lifelong passion for games. When he isn’t working on Unwinnable, he’s either on his PC or playing a board game. Follow him on Twitter @mcmaster

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