Imagine the scene – mournful piano notes and wailing violins play over a winter forest. Dead trees tower over a crumbling shack. A fragile wisp of smoke escapes the collapsed roof, fed by a stove fire barely visible through iron bars. The only sign of humanity in this scene is decaying and dying, dwarfed by nature, itself battered and abused. Soon nothing will remain but a snowy wasteland where even nature will struggle to survive.

That’s the menu screen of The Long Dark. That’s also the whole game.

The quiet apocalypse

But fine, there’s more to the game than doom. Mostly, managing how soon and how badly you want to be doomed.

In The Long Dark you take control of a rugged bush pilot stranded in the Canadian wilderness – notably less friendly than the people. Not helping is a geomagnetic event that bricked your plane and has driven the toothier wildlife to be extra aggressive.

Survival tip: this is sub-optimal

Dinner is served

Bear Grylls, with actual bears

Across all game modes the challenge is the same – manage the multiple chokeholds of temperature, hunger, thirst, wounds, and weight while you pursue your objective. Everything is a trade-off. You’ll find yourself cursing your past self for chucking the can of dog food in favour of that firewood, or you’ll be bemoaning the need to eat your Pedigree Chum cold.

Want to hunt for food and handle the roving packs of wolves? Just carry a weapon… if you’re fine giving up inventory for the gun/bow, ammo, repair kits, and firewood to cook the meat on. Or fill your backpack with cans… but leave some tools behind. Don’t want to drop anything? Get used to waddling everywhere with your overstuffed backpack, exposing yourself further to supply-burning dangers like frequent storms and hostile wildlife.

Any of these approaches could work, but their success depends not just on your preference and performance, but what you find. Items are randomised so memory alone can’t carry you through. Like real-life survival you’ll need to adapt to the opportunities and challenges presented.

I assume, anyway. I nearly died of starvation trekking to my garden shed…

Pro survival tip: find food in fridges

Remember: strangers are just friends you haven’t ate yet

Misery loves company

The result is mindful, meditative, almost primal gameplay. Your long-term goal is constantly interrupted by your short-term needs – food, heat, shelter, drink, food, heat, shelter, drink. Despite scavenging the remains of civilisation, you’re so far removed from easy comfort it’s like another world. Even the occasional conversations with NPCs feel dreamlike. They paint a picture of hopelessness, with you stuck in the middle, the best far behind, and only a slow decline ahead. Even your character’s dialogue reveals past pain and broken lives.

Falling apart

Sticking to the themes of entropy, most of your gear degrades. Food rots, axes break, clothes tear, and if you don’t pay attention it’s easy to be left carrying dead weight when you needed a lifesaver

Fixing these takes time, the right kit (sewing, cleaning, whatever), and more materials, all of which you’ll have to find space for. And not something you want to do in the middle of a snowstorm.

Wrap up warm, give the wolves something to unwrap

Because of this the smallest shack is a boon, offering a place you can spend your hard-earnt calories on getting your gear in tip-top shape. And, not something to sniff at, a warm(er) place to sleep, furniture and fabric you can break down, and often a nice stash of food and fuel to keep you going.

An ICE place to visit, but not stay

Home on the strange

At this point, you may think the optimal strategy is turtling up. Dump all but the essentials and wander into the night, as unfettered as a teenager in a night-club after too many Bacardi Breezers.

And yeah, sometimes.

Animal skins, guts and greenwood need to be ‘air cured’ for in-game days before they can be used in crafting – that is, left on the floor. Scavenging settlements is much easier with a place to deposit your ill-gotten goods between breaking and entering. The story itself has you prove your survival chops by equipping NPCs for long-term survival.

That same story pushes you onwards, though. However cosy your stolen digs, it’s just one stop on your journey. But even without the narrative impetus, canned food and bottled water soon run out. By all means have a breather, restock, and plan, but then move.

Come for the snow, stay because bears

Natural resources

When cans run out, flora and fauna can be exploited if you have the skills, gear and grit to tackle the weather and the wolves. This is no Eden though – nothing comes easy in The Long Dark. Natural resources respawn slowly enough that it’s easy to strip an area bare. You’re always one unlucky encounter or unexpected storm away from a net loss.

Pictured, one of the faster ways to die

Even the elation of bringing down big game is chilled by the hours spent in the freezing cold butchering your catch – burning calories, risking hypothermia, and daring carnivores to follow the scent of blood back to fresher prey.

The smallest choice is given a dreadful weight. Left or right, take or drop, push on or hunker down. The wrong one could lead to your death.

So could the right one, but it’ll be slower.

Life or death

Feeding this stark clarity is the incredibly stylistic graphics. Muted blues and moody greys make the few vibrant colours pop, allowing a crispness to the environments that would not be possible with more realistic graphics. Vital resources would disappear in the visual noise of a forest like the one in, say, the latest Blair Witch game.

Speaking of noise, the sound design is outstanding. I’ve touched on the soulful instrumentals, but every step of your journey cements the dire situation you’re in.

Deep snow crunches underfoot as the howling of wolves echoes around you, promising a precarious journey ahead. A blustering snowstorm whistles through the dead trees outside your cave, the juxtaposition of calm and fury highlighting exactly how isolated you truly are.

Ultimate survival tip: don’t miss

Every part of The Long Dark works in concert to tell a tale of loss and decay. While hope is possible, each shred is hard-won against the odds – odds you never fully understand, but for which the stake is always your life.

Or perhaps I’m just crap at the game.

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