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“Schmal” Review | The Long Bark – A Critique of The Long Dark (Survival/Wintermute)

“Schmal” Review | The Long Bark – A Critique of The Long Dark (Survival/Wintermute)


“Dark spruce forest frowned on either side
the frozen waterway. The trees had been stripped by a recent wind
of their white covering of frost, and they seemed to lean towards each other, black and
ominous, in the fading light. A vast silence reigned over the land. The land itself was a desolation, lifeless,
without movement, so lone and cold that the spirit of it was not even that of sadness. There was a hint in it of laughter, but of
a laughter more terrible than any sadness–a laughter that was mirthless as the smile of
the sphinx, a laughter cold as the frost and partaking of the grimness of infallibility. It was the masterful and incommunicable wisdom
of eternity laughing at the futility of life and the effort of life. It was the Wild, the savage, frozen-hearted
Northland Wild.” No other introduction can better describe
The Long Dark, a game that captures the poetic irony in American realism fiction as well
as the terror from nonfictional accounts into the Wild. Survival games are no stranger to set players
against the environment, yet few can capture that primordial drive against a faceless entity
that may appear to want you dead when it truly holds no interest for you. The Long Dark further ties into that fundamental
longing for man to see the wilderness as if it were the last untamed frontier beyond the
façade of modernity. Learning from that struggle, of accepting
things beyond your control and recognizing the drive to keep going, is at the heart of
the Long Dark. To describe this game in another way: If Firewatch
used the wilderness as a stage for the narrative, then The Long Dark uses its hinterlands’
mechanics to tell your story in the wild. Everything from the game’s complexity, the
numerous probabilities, the nuances of its health systems as well as the unpredictability
of its sandbox results in players learning to coexist with these forces of life and death
out of respect for what is beyond their control. Survival isn’t a victory state or the accumulation
of resources; it’s the continuation to see what comes the next day. For the wilderness is the most paternal figure
known to man; it can provide in times of plenty and it can destroy you if you fail to heed
its warnings, a bond that can only be maintained if it is reciprocated. Before we delve into how the Long Dark evokes
such strong emotions, we first must scale the seemingly insurmountable heights of finding
one’s footing in these lands. Like hiking through a mountain, there are
different routes of various skill levels to teach similar lessons, some with harsher winds
and others with new obstacles. However, it is arguable which one is intended
as the beginner’s ropes, so the choice is left for your discretion and your willingness
to learn from your errors. The Long Dark features two distinct modes
to train players from their failures to eventually become another occupant in the quiet apocalypse. These modes include the Wintermute (Story
Mode), featuring two complete episodes out of five planned; the other is the choice between
a free-roaming sandbox with no objective but to survive or with conditional challenges
that can take anywhere from under an hour to five hours meant for the most dedicated
players. Regardless whatever mode you choose, the map
layouts are almost identical except for variables that alter every new run such as habitable
houses, specific item locations, and the overall scarcity decided by the difficulty setting. As a result, traversing this world strikes
a tough, yet fair balance where its permanency and its changes demand players value knowing
their surroundings. Although the Wintermute prologue helps explain
essential concepts as well as refresh returning players with the updated UI, the ideal experience
would be to play the Sandbox mode on the Pilgrim setting. (In addition, the free-form Sandbox is the
only mode of the three with any meta-game progressions and reward systems For added
immersion, you may also wish to download fan made maps that provide only the layouts of
areas with no spoilers—you could use the in-game charcoal system, yet it becomes tedious
over several deaths.) Wintermute’s two episodes greatly suffer
from imposing scripted mistakes such as encountering wolves rather than providing situations where
players create their own demise. The difference may not seem important—and
you may argue tutorials are a necessary evil—yet the latter method creates lasting memories
with more personality. The approach is reminiscent to Jack London’s
short story, “To Build a Fire,” where problems escalated from minor issues to becoming
fatal due to the protagonist’s arrogance and his inability to build a fire. How much importance you value your mistakes
can make all the difference between living for the moment or living until the next mistake. Without enough time invested, the difficulty
options may appear indistinguishable to players who find the game as one big sink-or-swim
common to other challenging games. In addition to these settings, each starting
location offers a quick synopsis detailing not only the area’s difficulty level but
also general information about distinct hazards such as thin ice or sudden changes in weather. Wherever you choose to begin your adventure,
choosing to play on Pilgrim removes many stressful elements that would otherwise make the game
tedious for advanced players such as animals not attacking you or the abundance of items. This mode is meant for players to become familiar
with every major and minor system from the minimalistic UI, the robust vitality system,
and the hundreds of other little details accrued from direct experience. However, these difficulty settings can be
briefly summarized as such, Pilgrim: “The Starry Eyed Christopher McCandless”; Voyeur:
“Joe-Krakeur This Area, Deadbeat;” Stalker: “You’re in a Jack London Novel;” and Interloper:
“Do Bears Shit in the Woods? You’ll find out.” Custom difficulty is also an option to tailor
the game to your liking from various weather options, starting bonuses, animal spawn rates
and behaviors, and dozens of other tweaks. Whether you want to focus solely on surviving
against the weather or to become as much of a predator as prey with the food chain, these
options allow players to create as laxed or as haphazard of a journey. Perhaps to affirm the disclaimer that The
Long Dark is not meant to mirror real-life, it is ironic how the higher you raise the
difficulty the more the game becomes fictional. It is only on the Pilgrim mode do most predators,
especially wolves, behave realistically where invading their territory results in them becoming
violent. In most situations on Pilgrim, wolves will
come close to investigate before turning tail without a pack unless you further escalate
them to lash out. Any misguided idea that The Long Dark is trying
to be “realistic” should be discarded as much as American realism described reality
with the written word. Similar to the game’s impressionist art-style
that turns every shadow into a perceived threat, the gameplay’s intentions are to emulate
what people assume it means to survive. All inconveniences are gamified or they are
laid on the wayside as The Long Dark trims off as many uninteresting details as it can
while retaining all the important ones as it is a simulation first and foremost meant
to imitate what people think of the wilderness. Survival, as the word and the genre suggest,
attempts to strip all the complex, social variables of life into the core biological
drive to continue against the odds. As a medium built on experiencing conflict
and known for failure states, videogames provide greater connections from necessary, yet mundane
tasks compared to reading or watching stories about a close call with death. However, this style of game is also predisposed
with the same binary logic of winning and failing towards all aspects of life, which
removes any spontaneous interplay of smaller, unintended consequences between the player
and the environment. Many games within this genre fall victim to
their homogenized approach towards player interactions, severely limiting any possibility
for the gameplay to create unforeseen situations that tell a far more complicated tale from
the player’s perspective. While The Long Dark is not immune to these
flaws, it improves upon the foundation of commonly accepted survival mechanics by implementing
them with more nuance and from multiple sources. The clearest case is the separation of the
Health meter between the player’s overall Condition and his or her Needs. Condition is the player’s overall vitality
before death; Needs are broken up into four categories—Warmth, Fatigue, Hunger and Thirst—and
each category has five stages of deterioration that will only slowly affect Condition in
their final stages. Each of these Needs comes with their own meters
that influence chance-based afflictions and provide tangible effects on the player’s
controls such as sprinting, holding weapons or resisting animal attacks. The importance of each Need varies with their
decay rate as it takes four in-game days to die from hunger whereas it takes two days
to die from thirst. In short, it takes a reasonable amount of
time to perish, and restoring these Needs also replenishes Condition—but only after
enough time awake or with enough rest (or with a rare item, Emergency Stim packs.) This one system is but a component to the
larger mechanical ecosystem that also includes recipes, perishable goods and tools as well
as natural wildlife and renewable resources. Every facet of this game provides tangible
choices you can and you will have to make if you wish to survive, and it’s that richness
that creates all its stories to reminisce around the campfire. This interplay is also present with the Long
Dark’s other abstract mechanics from its combat (or lack thereof) as well as various
skills players can improve with practice. Combat is hard to explain without first-hand
experience, yet the simplest way to describe it is the Long Dark is a first-person survival
game, not a first-person shooter. Ranged combat exists with rocks, a bow, and
a rifle—and their handling can difficult compared to most first-person-shooters—yet
melee combat is a quick-time event where without any weapons your odds of success of fighting
a bear with your bare hands goes as about as well as you would expect. This decision was probably made to prevent
players from treating this game like Skyrim where you can paddle wolves away with any
twig you find, yet the current system makes it impossible to avoid taking damage when
engaging them. Also, if you lack any tools, then the QTE
becomes an exercise of frustration if you prefer using a mouse over a controller, and
with recording software this sequence can be more taxing than it should be. This is the only area of the gameplay where,
despite understanding why the decision was made, it is remarkably poorly Implemented. Outside of combat mechanics, the other major
component is the Survival Skills broken up between combat and foraging. Combat skills include firearms and archery
along with their maintenance (Cleaning, Repairing and Sharpening) whereas foraging includes
Harvesting, Cooking, Fire Starting, Ice Fishing and Mending Clothing. Cooking is the only skill that has received
a major overhaul where you can now cook items independently from you, which when cooking
food outside and searching for more kindling it adds another risk-reward system as food
can attract predators. Every skill can be increased through practice
or by reading instruction manuals, and none of these skills are more tangible than statistical
influences; however, no skill feels worthless unless you lack its respective item. These skills only serve to provide added tension
when watching progress meters slowly complete in failure or success. Perhaps this lackluster approach explains
why there are no character builds for the survival mode when archetypes with unique
obstacles could encourage replayability. The feature wouldn’t have to be too excessive
as it could be interesting to play as a Vegan with more energy reserves from eating plants
over animals as well as suffering an aim penalty with weapons, or as a clumsy oaf who can open
metal doors with raw strength yet he or she cannot build a fire, or even playing with
illnesses like diabetes or anxiety where you could manage the affliction. Given the current system, these builds wouldn’t
be very engaging without a massive overhaul, yet if Hinterland Studio wants to expand these
systems this area would be fertile enough to be worth paying for the extra effort. (Hold on, am I really asking for diseased/disability
locked content? What a strange world we live in the year of
2018.) All of these aspects we’ve discussed are
mainly within the player’s control whereas the outside forces are what compel players
to make sudden poor or smart decisions. Weather plays a prominent role as snow storms,
heavy winds, or dense fog can provide additional obstacles, often without any warning. (Auroras are another weather phenomenon, yet
I will talk about it when discussing the Wintermute episodes.) In addition to these sudden changes, players
can also opt into world decay rates or ever decreasing temperatures to increase the cold
shoulder from Mother Nature. Aside from the harsh winds, the wildlife features
two predators, wolves and bears, which have their own locations and their own behaviors
to make them distinct threats. Although all these adversaries can be quick
and lethal, there are visual and audio cues subtle enough for expert players to identify. For example, crows flying in a circle indicates
there is a corpse, and when the crows fly directly over the player it indicates there
is an incoming change in weather. Howling, barks, rushing winds, snapping twigs—these
heightened cues create moment-to-moment tension any survival-horror game would kill to have,
and it further cements how experience over time is the greatest mentor in these wild
lands. However you choose to play, unless you are
playing beyond Voyeur, The Long Dark never requires an optimal path to last hundreds
of days; if you play carefully, you will probably find it was your boredom that led to your
demise. Whatever the length of your journey, your
progression will likely be the same as you will eventually use up all civilized goods
to where you will have to subsist off the land. Backpacking across the Great Bear can only
get you so far, yet you will become attuned to the interconnected routes such as the Dam
in Mystery Lake to the Pleasant Valley. You may also become aware of random goods
washing up along the Coastal Shoreline while ice-fishing as well as keeping in mind locations
for natural resources like Cat Tails for easy meals. Biology will inevitably erode any moral apprehensions
to fend for your survival as you will resort to use your gun for hunting, then crafting
a bow and arrows when that rifle is gone or testing your luck throwing stones. At that point, you will find yourself no different
from your ancestors. The transition between those extremes will
vary depending on the player’s dispositions, yet the outcome, if one wishes to survive
that long, will end the same. Unfortunately, as interesting as it could
be to experience that evolutionary regression, it’s difficult to say that the journey is
worth the time. Repetition doesn’t bother me if there is
a goal to work towards, and this is where the survival mode comes up short; it’s only
the conditional challenge mode that offers any finality that isn’t death. After the fiftieth day exploring all the regions
and climbing up to the top of Timberwolf mountain, you have reached the summit of all you can
strive for when there is nowhere else to go. This reason is perhaps, in spite of its numerous
shortcomings, the Wintermute mode is what I would rather complete as it provides enough
structure as well as open-endedness from the sandbox with a clear beginning, middle and
end. In contrast to the stories generated by the
Long Dark’s sandbox, Wintermute attempts to share that same storytelling experience
with open-ended, yet linear series of quests that resemble the challenge mode. Some people may be too quick to call the design
uninspired, perhaps by the arbitrary nature of the trust system, when the narrative’s
strongest point comes not from its plots but from its journey. Even the creators who recently posted an update
about Episode 3’s release, stated back in February that they wanted the first two episodes
to be an introduction for more nonlinear content, which would be logical for a game released
from early access. As a result from community feedback, not only
will the third episode be drastically different but also the first two episodes will be redone
to make content more optional. With so many drastic changes, critiquing these
episodes now holds little, if any, value for the future, especially in terms of its gameplay
shortcomings, yet its campaign structure, its narrative framework and its effectiveness
of telling that story remain open for discussion. Besides the scripted failures as I previously
mentioned, the only offensive gameplay element that I hope is improved is the saving system;
autosaves can be exploited at any time and the game currently offers the ability to save
anywhere with no limitations. You might argue that a campaign mode should
be more than willing to let players exploit systems for their benefit, yet one only need
look at the survival horror genre to see how the Long Dark could take a page from their
books. The simplest solution would be to implement
autosaves whenever players are mauled by animals as well as create in-game items similar to
Resident Evil’s ink ribbons that allow save states in specific locations. (Essentially, this is what the autosave system
already provides, but in a more controlled manner.) This system would not only allow players to
restore progress if they get stuck, but it would also provide incentive to branch off
the main route for additional rewards and opportunities to generate more player-driven
stories. Speaking about the narratives, the overall
storytelling is about what I had expected from a game that was primarily developed to
be about survival, and yet it also manages to go against my expectations. Melodramatic exchanges are meant to explore
personal histories and the backstory about the world and its characters, which provides
some life to what was previously a barren landscape with its own beauty. Characters often talk in their own soliloquies
that while these exchanges can be entertaining it can also be distracting to the game’s
immersion. Although these moments can be more ham-fisted
than rummaging into a pig’s carcass, if the storytelling suffers any objective flaws,
its themes come across too heavy handed and the mysterious nature of the game can border
on the absurd. [PLAY CLIP “You walk in here after… years.” To “Yes.”] Where the
survival mode emulates realism fiction, which usually provides some commentary about the
boundaries between the wilderness and the comforts of modern society such as White Fang
or The Call of the Wild, Wintermute has more in common with Jack London’s sci-fi works
such as “The Red One,” a story about some extraterrestrial phenomenon out in the middle
of nowhere. It’s this aspect that most players seem
divisive towards as the Auroras introduce more fantastical elements to a game built
on its realistic portrayal of the wild. Auroras are the strangest gameplay element
added with Wintermute’s release, although it can be turned on or off for the sandbox. These nights result in electronics becoming
functional as well as casting a green glow around predators with more aggressive behavior,
and the only means to keep them away involve using your rechargeable flashlight, staying
in the light or by killing them. The chances of an aurora are completely unknown
as it may happen one evening in one location and it may happen in the next area a fortnight
afterwards. This feature is only required to finish the
second episode to get through the dam, but otherwise it only makes nightly traversals
more interesting. As jarring as its inclusion, it’s also amusing
to realize that all along these Halloween updates were plans for the future. What makes this mechanic interesting was how
it provided me a twelve day-long rite of passage of living off the land, praying against the
odds that the doorway would open before my last bullet. This was a similar sense of accomplishment
after reaching the top of Timberwolf Mountain for the first time where players can feast
for days—possibly weeks— in the remains of a crashed aircraft. In these brief moments of order, one could
call these places home; it was the closest I ever came to finding paradise as well as
becoming lulled by the purgatory of these small comforts before being reminded of the
ever-encroaching frozen circle of hell of tomorrow. Although the story-mode is not complete, and
it may change for the better or for the worse, it would be impossible not to appreciate what
experience you will find here. Even at its most mundane moments where you
are simply patching clothing in the dark of a cabin to pass the time, listening to the
howling winds and fading cries in the distance, the silence can feel just as paced and just
as tense as any action when you walk out those doors. As someone who doesn’t enjoy most survival
games as they are unfinished Early Access products, simplified and over promising any
true potential, the Long Dark is a soothing balm towards my cynicism and it is proof that
this genre can become something more than another joke of a popular trend. Spending one more night trapped under the
stars of the Great Bear and all its hauntingly lifeless beauty of a wasteland is all the
reason I need to spend another day in its adventure that is called life.

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