Field Notes is a series of diaries by Caty McCarthy exploring the personal stories that emit from the games we play over extended periods of time, and beyond. Currently, Caty’s playing the finally released The Long Dark, a harsh survival game about a plane crash survivor in the depths of Canada.
Dear diary, this sounds mega-pretentious, but it's not often that a video game makes me think of actual literature. In Henry David Thoreau's classic novel Walden, Thoreau wrestles with a life spent in nature. As the partial memoir begins, Thoreau insists one single reasoning for why he embarked on his solo cabin experiment living away from society. "I wished to live deliberately," he wrote. "To front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."
And so, Thoreau lived in the wilderness with no support of any kind for two years. By the time his scribbled musings of admiring nature, reflecting on life, and more was published, he had returned to civilization. He was no longer braving the cold, beautiful land of nature. No longer surviving in the most natural sense. Yet living so untethered in nature changed him. It changed him for the better.
As I waded through deep snow in the opening hours of The Long Dark's first chapter of its newly released story mode, my mind drifted back to when I read Walden. It reminded me of the harsh beauty of nature, the likes of which I only saw during family camping trips when I was a kid. While I've never had to fight off a wolf or bear or other predator as you sometimes do in The Long Dark, I did jump into a hornet's nest once. (To this day, I am still afraid of all bees.)
Leaping into a hornet's nest was a nightmare, as you can expect. I'll never forget feeling the stings and bites, cluelessly looking down at my hands, and seeing myself covered in the evil bugs. I cried as I ran back to our camping site, luckily as family members noticed the commotion and came to my aid. It's an experience that sticks out in my mind, even today, because I felt like I narrowly shook off death by the hand of nature.
The Long Dark is a survival game, and it's a game about true survival. Survival that isn't sugar coated nor meaninglessly gamified. It's the antithesis to other games that bear the "survival" moniker. It's a game where supplies are truly scarce, logic plays a strong role (melt snow for water and purify the water so you don't get dysentery, etcetera), and a true feeling of isolation settles. In The Long Dark, it's just you and the cold frightening world in front of you, and if you want to live to see another day, it's up to you and your wits. Nature is at once both your only means for survival and your worst enemy, leading to possible death.
In most survival games, in my experience, everything feels tedious. Tedium for the sole sake of tedium. Scarcity never feels fair. Survival bears no tangible rewards (or alternatively: too many rewards). I had this problem with Don't Starve, the charmingly animated randomly generated survival open world. Progress never felt like true progress. In The Long Dark though, it works against these trends. While permadeath remains, progress at last feels earned. And the methods of survival, no longer tedious, rely on a player's own spontaneity and internal logic.
There's a palpable tension in The Long Dark, even in its story mode where supplies are noticeably more abundant. It's a surprisingly dense story mode too, interspersed with illustrated flashbacks as you, the stranded plane pilot Will Mackenzie, try to survive in the cold land and find his companion, Astrid Greenwood, who is his ex-fiance. The two got separated in the mysterious plane crash, where the plane's electrical system short-circuited randomly. Together, they held hands as they crash landed. And then when Will woke up, Astrid was nowhere to be found. All he could muster was gathering fire wood, matches, bandages, and resting up until the morning.
The Long Dark arrives with its episodic story mode Wintermute after years in Steam Early Access. The game has changed drastically over its time in the unfinished state: with bonus difficulties in its sandbox implemented, polish added here and there, and much more. The Long Dark that we see today is closer to its completed version, gone from Early Access and with its first two episodes for its story mode to boot. The game's also available on PlayStation 4 now for the first time, previously only available on PC, Xbox One, Linux, and Mac.
The episodes, I've found, aren't like what you'd find in most episodic games. A few hours deep, and episode one shows no signs of letting up, a heavy contrary to the usual two-to-three hour runtime of your average Telltale game. The long stretches feel necessary though: acting as a quasi-tutorial to ease players into its intense survival methods. The Long Dark's Wintermute doesn't feel quite as desperate as its Survival mode, but it's okay. The desperation in the story is enough right now to try to retain its edge.
There's hope at the end of any run of The Long Dark, whether that hope's rooted into lucking into more wood for a fire or a clue as to where Astrid is. In Thoreau's Walden, there's hope weaved between every sentence too. A hope for humanity, nature, and everything to come together as one. A hope for self-awareness, and a desire to truly live with no regrets. In The Long Dark's quiet bid for surviving against the odds, there's always something at the end of a long, chilly night waiting for you. It could be a rabbit to throw a stone at and feast upon, or just a stick for kindling. You won't know until you take that first step in trying something new.
I never played The Long Dark during its wildly long Early Access iteration. I heard chatter around its beautiful nature always, but stayed strong. "No, no. I'll wait until it's out-out," I constantly told myself. Today, out-out it truly is, with future episodes in its story well on the horizon. As for me, I hope to survive Wintermute's first two episodes in full, as well as pave my own stories in its sandbox survival mode. Who knows: maybe next Field Notes I'll return with a tale or two.
Next time: The emergent tales of desperation that define The Long Dark.
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