The Long Dark

It is with no small amount of irony that to escape from the exceedingly depressing drumbeat of the Trump administration I have turned to a depressing survival game set after a solar storm fries everything with a circuit everywhere in the world. Or at least the part The Long Dark is set in: the fictional Great Bear Island in the great white north of Canada.

I’m not a fan of survival games. Intellectually, I find them interesting. Seeing how developers model the processes of the human body, and the world around that body, is like watching someone solve a complex puzzle. In practice, I find them silly. In the wilderness, none of us would have the spreadsheets and heads-up displays presented in every survival video game. Nothing save our continued failure to die would tell us that our attempts at medical intervention were successful. Our dehydration would be measured by learning the warning signs peculiar to our bodies; not an icon appearing in the lower left corner of our vision, and Mark Meer telling me that he’s getting thirsty.

They’re also pointless. Today, The Long Dark is about two things: exploring and surviving for their own sakes. I explored as much of the game as I cared to when I first played it. It is gorgeous, and when I returned it was even better looking. But it isn’t as big as one might think, and the chinks in the illusion of reality are stark. One can only kill so many endlessly respawning wolves on the Coastal Highway before the essential ridiculousness of the situation becomes plain.

I’m also not a fan of survival for its own sake. This is, probably, the most controversial reason one can dislike survival games. It conjures questions like, are you suicidal? Why wouldn’t you want to survive if you were in this situation? To that I reply, of course I would try and survive, but I’d do so for a reason. To help others survive. To wait until help could arrive. To find someone, or hopefully a lot of someones, out in the new wilderness and try and build a new future. To survive on its own, just to see the next day, would wear me down to the ground before long. Call me weak if you must, but we all seek meaning. If you find meaning in living to the next day, in resistance to the uncaring universe, then by all means, survive. I don’t believe the continuation of me is enough. Camus would be disappointed, but screw that dead French guy.

I kept waiting for The Long Dark’s long delayed story mode, and when it became clear it wasn’t going show up any time soon, I put it away. And so it’s odd, in a time with meaning and causes piled up on every street corner waiting to be picked up and championed, that I return to a game that I left for being essentially meaningless.

When I was in school, I was the outcast, angry, nerd, white guy. I didn’t necessarily fit the visual image, but I was relentlessly uncool, and an easy mark. After being chased down and beat up on the tracks by the class bullies one memorable time, my parents sent me to a private school that someone they knew recommended, after getting a scholarship. An elite private, liberal arts school. My class had 10 people. When I started there, the school had around 70 kids, tucked into the tree-reclaimed, boulder infested colonial farmland of suburban Massachusetts. In normal stories this is the point where I would have blossomed, protected from the horrible public school bullies, and could reach my full potential. The reality, of course, was I was still the same relentlessly uncool, bad at school, social dunce as before. To “pull a Winson” was to fuck up, and that dogged me for every one of the 5 years I spent there.

I hated nearly every goddamned minute of it. I had some friends of course, but all in other grades, and no one that lived close enough to hang out with after school. In my class, the best relationships I had were with people who simply didn’t treat me as an emotional punching bag. Private school was a nightmare that I woke up into, just of a different kind than the one that I woke up into in public school.

I escaped that waking nightmare by walking out into the wooded areas surrounding my school alone, hiking around, and practicing what one of my art teachers called “stick therapy” which, as you might have guessed, consisted of me picking up dead branches off the ground and breaking them on rocks, trees, or what have you. I didn’t do this because of some deep love of the outdoors. While I’ve done my fair share of hiking, camping, or riding my bike around, it’s always been at the behest of someone else. School trips, church outings, parents kicking me out of the house so I stopped playing video games. No, I went into the woods because it was the only place I could escape to. I could just be my own stupid, uncool, awkward self, alone, without being mocked or worrying when I was going to be mocked next. It was a kind of meditation, though I didn’t know it at the time. The hamster wheel in my head would stop spinning out there. After one of my best friends committed suicide, I went out there even more.

Playing The Long Dark brought me back to those woods. Descending the steep slopes of Great Bear Island, I remembered the hard lessons I learned about how to descend a slope without twisting an ankle or taking a spill. When the wind howls outside a remote cabin my avatar has taken shelter in, I remember lying in a freezing bunk, under a cruddy reflective blanket, in a remote cabin somewhere in Middle of Nowhere, New Hampshire. As I pick up sticks to fuel fires, I remember stick therapy. Picking up the branches and smashing them to save me from stress, instead of freezing, hunger, and thirst. Taking too many chances in a snowstorm to collect supplies from far off outposts and getting lost in the whiteout, not a hundred feet from safety recalls hiking through the foothills of Mount Washington. Feeling utterly lost and alone as the black of wilderness night set in, for all that I was with a group, our guide told us that he wasn’t sure where we were, only to find once dawn broke that we could see the road from where we were.

And in the Age of Trump those feelings; being lost, scared, and alone in a crowd; being unable to stop the hamster wheel; waking into a nightmare every morning; a ball of anger in my gut at the injustice of the world; brought me back to The Long Dark. Hiking around the foothills of Timberwolf Mountain, I’m back in the woods, watching the sky, listening to the birds and the world around me. Watching my footing on the slopes. Feeling for the signs of dehydration. Trying not to disturb the wildlife. Looking for interesting or useful remnants of the people that lived here before I started walking across their landscape. Picking up sticks and breaking them.

And I can see the beauty of the world again. The morning orange of a sunrise. The pale golden paint of dusk on the trees. The quiet beauty of a freezing fog obscuring the background. The shadowy masses of twilight. The musical whistle of the wind. The ghastly moans, rattles, and screeches of a storm whipping at the building you shelter in. The suffocation of sound in a thick snowstorm. It’s all there. Or all there enough.

And it brings me back here. I went back to my old school the Monday after the inauguration, after nearly a quarter century, and stood alone in the dank New England cold, looking at the pond, overgrown with cattails, that we tempted fate walking on when it froze. The ground was sopping, and my shoes not made for hiking were sinking into the ground. As I stood there, watching the memories and fragments of memories that floated past me, it began to snow lightly. Movie snow. Video game snow.

And then I was in Mystery Lake. And then 24 years ago, the me standing in that spot, getting ready to go off to a long adventure of failure, self-sabotage, and disappointment. I could see me on the other side of the pond, walking up the hill, breaking sticks. Seeing my breath condense, and then the breath of my avatar. Hearing the caw of crows over the pond, and circling above corpses in the virtual Canadian wilderness. The whisper of the wind. The cold. And realizing that sometimes surviving is enough. To see the snow on the pond, to break sticks, and to feel the cold bite on your skin one more time.