The Soothing Tundra
My wife Caroline likes to tell people that she first knew she could love me when, while playing The Long Dark, her character was attacked by a bear. In the ongoing frozen wilderness survival sim, as in life, the bears will mess you up, especially if you’re caught unprepared. This was one of Caroline’s first tangos with a multi-ton killing machine, driven more towards aggression thanks to shifts in the natural order of the planet, and as such was very distraught to be losing all the hard work put into her survival mode playthrough. But the bear relishes its attack with an animated mauling that’s probably only twenty seconds but feels like the runtime of a late-era Marvel movie, which was enough for me to flashback to my days of save-scumming and realize that a quick shutdown or loss of power might allow Caroline to jump back to her last auto-save (with, uh, some risks if I were to do so mid-save, but let’s not dwell on that). After an agonizing restart, I was proven triumphant, a console age hero able to protect my partner from the facsimile of a deadly experience.
In spite of this harrowing early encounter, Caroline has been finding her way back and forth from these ice-locked Canadian wastes for more than a few years. The Long Dark offers an episodic story mode (that hasn’t wrapped up yet) and a survival sandbox mode with various difficulties, and Caroline has explored them all. She finally unlocked an achievement for staying alive over 500 days, which complicated more by the fact that the game would crash more and more often the further along she was, often while auto-saving, occasionally corrupting her entire file. She didn’t have PS+ on her account for cloud backups, so I dug up a USB stick to do it manually, but this was only after at least two 300+ day attempts were plucked from the sky like Icarus slathered in hot wax.
Knowing about Caroline’s many close calls, and those that were decidedly less nail-biting and decisively devastating, I asked why she keeps coming back to The Long Dark. She offers two explanations: the bulk of the game is very calming to her, especially over the past two years of slow-boiling anxiety; and she also feels that through playing the game she learned the depths of her own stubbornness, and is using it as a way to indulge in planting her feet and giving no quarter.
Survival games might not seem like the type to immediately inspire tranquility, but the bulk of The Long Dark is about preparation for brief moments of extremely deadly tension, as described above. Otherwise it’s the crunch of snow, swirling blizzards, crisp mornings, sipping scrounged coffee, eating ketchup chips, a gradient spread of northern light. A lot of players might barrel through these moments, rushing from cabin to car to abandoned dam, but Caroline tends to turtle up with a backpack loaded past near double her carrying capacity and make way at a pace that almost brings the map to a realistic scale. Even when we weren’t sure if we could go outside despite the pandemic, when the beach itself loomed as a vector for disease, Caroline could scale mountains and map her surroundings as a way to regain a simulacrum of life outside the apartment.
Carrying all that weight isn’t just a matter of playing slowly, but a factor in her aforementioned stubbornness—she wants to bear the weight, feel each step, and in doing so wrestle her mind down to a state of peace. The game allows her this, demands it almost, as a space with enormous maps and no fast travel. It’s also partly why she hasn’t rushed through the story episodes. They’re compelling enough and she enjoys them, but on another level she wants to control her own narrative here, to enjoy the freedom of her own decisions without having to second guess the motives of the main character. I see the same tension with speedrunners and min-maxers and all the other players that insist on going against whatever paths game makers set out for them, to claim the space for their own needs. Caroline appreciates all the hard work going into telling the story, but for her The Long Dark sings in the moments when she goes off-trail, scaling the most dangerous peaks in a way that sprains her character’s ankles regularly, digging deep into the caverns and crannies just to see everything she can. While doing so the game will punctuate little moments with musical motifs, quartet swells or piano melodies that drift in and help give meaning to this unscripted moment that she divined.
She’s put her time in with series like Uncharted and Resident Evil, and loved getting caught up in those scary and cinematic moments while rooting around for all manner of collectables, but sometimes she just didn’t appreciate the pressure of moving in a specific direction when she had other ideas. She also really doesn’t like playing against other people a lot of the time, partly because she is a very competitive person by nature—“I think it’s the Boston in me,” she muses. But given the temperature of society lately, she just doesn’t see the appeal. It’s more comforting and illuminating for Caroline to make another run through the wilderness, where even a new save can bring her to familiar maps that still scramble item locations so as to resemble a kind of remixed dream one might dip into every now and again through the years. Sometimes she will come upon a campfire, maybe a backpack nearby, relics of another fellow traveler, both isolated but finding little pieces of each other in that yearn for connection.
The Long Dark insists that it’s not teaching anyone how to make do in a frosty survival scenario, it’s just a game. But there’s use even in imperfect metaphors that help us center ourselves in an adverse world, in reminding us that nature is fickle and fragile, particularly when the systems we’ve built to support ourselves are broken down. While we wait to see if our own can stand the stress, Caroline finds peace in the moments where The Long Dark makes her respect nature while she attempts to bend it to her will.
// Levi Rubeck is a is a critic and poet currently living in the Boston area. Check his links at levirubeck.com