The Long Dark is the only game to ever make me afraid of going out at night. In its bleak version of the Canadian wilderness, death is everywhere once the sun goes down. The blizzard that enshrouds you in so much swirling snow you can’t see three feet in front of your face—even with light. The cold that makes even the most basic labor exhausting. The howl of hungry wolves waiting for you to stumble, fall, fail.
The first game from independent Canadian studio Hinterland Games—which has spent three years developing and tweaking it in full view of the playing public on Steam Early Access—The Long Dark concerns itself only with the task of survival. A strange, possibly apocalyptic magnetic disturbance has grounded your plane over the Canadian wilderness in the dead of winter. Don’t die.
Lush and mesmerizing, its visual style seems heavily influenced by impressionist painting, exaggerated just enough to capture the drama of the wilderness—the brightest whites imaginable, the dirty gray blobs of mountainsides, the shocking orange of a welcome sunrise. The soundscape is equally dense and exaggerated: every footstep crunches in the thick snow beneath you, the distant baying your constant reminder of what awaits your lack of focus.
The moment-to-moment experience of the game is simple: Stay warm, stay fed. Try not to get eaten. In the narrative mode, which debuted with the full release last week, your striving is for a higher purpose: you’re a stranded pilot looking for someone you love. In the open-ended “survival mode” on which the game earned its initial reputation, living is its own reward. Both modes come with that sense of inevitability, though, that everpresent menace of exposure. There’s no question that, without an escape, nature will take your life. The only question is when. The Long Dark, then, is a game about stalling.
It’s engrossing. The prospect of diving into a videogame to experience the full hostility of the natural world is counterintuitive, maybe, going further inside to think about outside. But The Long Dark, as the pinnacle of an entire genre of so-called survival games, does compelling work by rendering a version of the natural world that’s fully digestible without losing an edge of danger. In a world now shaped irrevocably by climate change, nature can feel entirely opposed to civilization—elementally chaotic and threatening. Mother Nature’s vengeance and all that. Nature is entirely systemized here in ways…