True North, Strong and Free: A Love Letter to The Long Dark

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

I: History and Development

The Long Dark is a game about dying. But in that same vein, it’s a game about living. Living one more hour. One more night. One more day.

Hinterland Games started somewhere between the drive to create an independent studio and an idea for a new kind of game. Veteran creative director Raphael van Lierop left Relic Entertainment after cutting his teeth on Relic’s Warhammer 40,000 and Company of Heroes franchises, and serving as narrative director on Ubisoft’s Far Cry 3. In fact, he left more than his job at Relic. Van Lierop left AAA gaming and his home the city of Vancouver entirely, striking out for the quiet shores of Vancouver Island where his new residence sat on the border of the isle’s rugged wilderness.

It was there, on the literal edge of civilization, that Hinterland was born.

Van Lierop sought creative freedom, and in his rural trappings he imagined a game where players struggled to survive the end of the world. Not an apocalypse of fire or war or zombies. Rather, he envisioned a small event that tipped the once one-sided balance between human kind and nature towards the latter.

Van Lierop assembled an all-star team recruited from other large developers, including Alan Lawrence, former lead of Volition, Marianne Krawczyk, who wrote the God of War series, and David Chan, who served as BioWare’s first audio designer. Later, Hinterland added Ken Ralston, lead designer on Morrowind, to their roster. Together, Hinterland began to set their idea into motion.

But a staff with resume’s as deep as Hinterland’s doesn’t come cheap. Nor do they come from the same geographical location.

Van Lierop would have to figure out how to pay for his vision and keep the team working cohesively. Hinterland garnered buzz when they secured a seed funding from the Canada Media Fund and van Lierop, building off that momentum, launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to round out Hinterland’s funding.

He also established Hinterland as mobile office. Being a veteran of the game industry, van Lierop knew the toll of working in the high-stress, deadline-oriented world of studio development. More importantly, he knew the affects it can have on a developer’s family. “My rule with Hinterland,” van Lierop explained to the Financial Post, “was that I would never ask anyone to move their families.”

With funding secured and the team established, Hinterland brought van Lierop’s vision of desolate, apocalyptic survival to life with a hardcore, permadeath survival sandbox. The team branded it The Long Dark and launched an alpha build on Steam Early Access, bringing it to Xbox One Preview a year later.

Hinterland is currently polishing the game into a finished product, aiming to release episodes of a narrative “story mode” — which features the voices of experienced voice-over actors such as David Hayter and Jennifer Hale — in 2016.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

II: Art and Design

The first thing players notice when they start The Long Dark is how incredible it looks.

Hinterland opted for a stripped down, stylized design. Play begins with a slow fade into the world where players are greeted to gusting wind and a bleak winter landscape that looks as though it was rendered with the gentle fluidity of watercolors.

The lines are clean. Snow covers the mountain landscape and pine trees sway in the breeze. The player gets their bearings. Their breath rises in their field of vision, thin and white before disappearing, and they take their first step toward survival.

It might be easy to discount the clean, even look of The Long Dark. After all, each map is almost entirely blanketed in snow. But the world is — or rather was — very much alive.

Every valley and outcropping lends itself to creating an organic environment. There are rental cabins dotting the shore. A processing facility deteriorating under the snow, waiting for the whaling ships forever frozen at sea. Ice fishing huts. Emergency service cabins. Abandoned cars fanning onto the roadside like fishbones. Wounded animals leaving tiny droplets of blood on the snow. There are even the remains of less fortunate survivors buried in the snow, barely visible if it weren’t for the circling crows.

Hinterland’s world is painted in strong, primary colors. Players will spend most of their time navigating the whitewashed landscape, only to find the world changing with the transitory sun. Dawns and sunsets bloom and fade, and The Long Dark suddenly explodes in color.

As soon as sky changes, the snow follows suit. Players will exit their shelter and find themselves greeted to a land awash in red at dawn. Or they’ll find themselves trudging through a blue world on a clear night. Even the horizon, crowing with impossible mountain peaks, plays its role. Mountain tops are not goals in The Long Dark, but fixed points of reference. They are distant landmarks that becomes a source of gravity from which crafty players will orbit, keeping note of the mountain face to save themselves from getting lost.

It’s evident Hinterland has taken a tremendous amount of care building all five of their sandbox environments. While certain elements of the level design has all the hallmarks of a game — think large, impassible walls that hem a player’s exploration — each landscape feels like the rural Northwest.

Player’s with outdoor experience bring with them the knowledge of how intimidating nature can be. And for players who don’t have that particular life experience, Hinterland does well to reproduce that sensation.

In The Long Dark, you can lose the sun in the trees, making it hard to gauge your direction. Clouds breeze by, always threatening to blow in a blizzard at any second. There are deadfalls, clear cuts, and the all too familiar slog up a logging road. The very fact it only takes a moment of distraction to completely lose your direction is testament to how authentic The Long Dark’s landscape feels.

And this places the player at a pig’s eye view of an unforgiving alpine winter.

From the moment the player first surveys their surroundings, they are immediately faced with a world indifferent — and sometimes outwardly hostile — to their survival. The feeling is similar to that of the Hudson River School, where 19th Century Americans painted natural landscapes of tremendous magnitude. In those paintings, some imagined river valley or a mountain side displays itself across the canvas, all drama and scale, with tiny figures of men in the corner dwarfed by their own cosmic insignificance.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

III: Systems at Play

In The Long Dark, you are constantly dying. You a freezing, you are starving, and you are slowly, but surely, dying of thirst.

Hinterland has a instituted a number of systems that affect a player’s chance of survival, all to create their living, dangerous world. And for a game with a minimalist UI and barely-there HUD elements, players might, at first, miss the dynamics at play.

The player’s condition is measured out by four factors; hunger, thirst, energy, and hydration. These four metrics contribute to the player’s overall condition. One-hundred-percent is perfectly healthy. Zero-percent? Dead.

And being stranded in an extreme environment — and by virtue of being a warmblooded mammal — these factors are constantly degrading, thus decreasing your overall condition.

This is all a complicated, albeit necessary, way to communicate to players that they are now at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Players are forced to seek refuge for the most basic of physiological protection. Players need food. Players need water. Players need shelter. And The Long Dark accounts for every action a player takes.

Every gust of wind, every step taken, every crumb of food consumed affects the factors playing into a player’s condition. If you’re not finding enough food, purifying enough water, or seeking shelter from the cold, you are not long for Hinterland’s world.

Players, too, will find themselves faced with predators scavenging corpses or actively stalking the player.

The events that drive the narrative — a plane crash that strands the player — have also driven the local wildlife mad. Wolves and bears are now outwardly aggressive and, on the normal and hard difficulties, pose an imminent threat to the player.

And keeping in line with Hinterland’s living environment, players will often come across predators when they lease expect it. Players might round a corner only to find a bear scrounging a campsite, or have a wolf sneak up on them while field-dressing a deer carcass. With few options for players to defend themselves, each encounter with these predators is tense, potentially fatal, and always frightening.

Along with actively hostile animals and harsh elements, The Long Dark also employs a series of status ailments that afflict the player. Suffering in the cold can lead to hypothermia. Eating spoiled food can poison a player. Long falls and animal attracts lead to injuries, which in turn can lead to infection.

Each affliction has set parameters that must be met in order to cure it. Hypothermia requires players to stay above freezing for twenty-four hours. Cuts and wounds need bandages and antiseptic. Food poisoning needs medication and time to heal. Each affliction severely limits the player and consumes a large number of important resources, only a few of which can be manufactured in the wild.

These systems reinforce Hinterland’s unforgiving environment from a grand, climatological (think Balance of Nature) setting to a grounded, biological level (think Food Chain). A strong play-through can be ended by a single misstep on a steep hillside or a spoiled can of beans.

The world simply does not care.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

IV: Information and Feedback

It might seem counterintuitive to give players so much information about their condition and their surroundings. After all, there is no bar or meter visible on the HUD. But once you explore the submenus or interact with an object, players will see why — and how — The Long Dark takes such meticulous account of the player’s condition.

In only three sections of the pause menu, Hinterland has parsed out the player’s inventory, a journal to track events, and a rundown of the player’s health, calorie count, and energy. It is a large amount of information that informs the player to every system at play. From the menu screen players can see if they’re suffering from hypothermia, they can track their level of exhaustion, or they can estimate how much longer they can stay out in the cold.

What Hinterland has done by exposing this amount of information to the players is created an information feedback loop.

Players don’t just know their condition, they know the condition of every object they interact with. They can pick up a can of peaches and wager a guess to whether or not it has spoiled, or they can debate whether the weight of carrying another pry-bar is worth it. Everything has some level of information attached to it, be it weight, condition, or calories expended harvesting it.

This might seem immersion breaking, especially considering how stripped the HUD is of traditional UI elements. But Hinterland’s feedback to players deeply impacts how they proceed through The Long Dark.

Every action becomes a calculation. Players have to wage whether venturing out into the cold is worth the expended calories, or they have to debate which direction to head, praying there is a stash or structure over the next hill.

Hinterland has refined their world into a macabre spreadsheet, an ROI calculation that drives players to guess, second-guess, then doubt every decision they make.

Players will find themselves following breadcrumbs of gear, desperate to find shelter so their last venture doesn’t strike them with hypothermia. Or whether that last run for firewood was worth the final; drink of water. It’s a system of interaction between developer and player that is fine-tuned, incredibly unforgiving, and even relies of a little bit of luck.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

V: Impressions

And the result of these systems at play? Of all this art and design? The Long Dark becomes a game where every positive outcome feels like a happy accident, even when luck is in short supply.

Nothing quite compares to slowly starving to death only to find an old trapper’s cabin cresting the hill, scraps of venison curing within. Nothing compares to huddling over a stove, watching a fire flick to life after several failed attempts. Players will find joy in a new pair of boots, a granola bar on the dashboard of an abandoned car, a lantern half-filled with kerosene just as the sun begins to set.

The Long Dark is game where every accomplishment, whether its surviving for days or simply another hour, feels like a God-given boon granted at your most desperate hour of need.

The unforgiving environment Hinterland has created doesn’t rely of player progression. While your character does have stats that increase as you light fires and repair clothing, they do so in very small increments. Literally speaking, starting a fire increases your “fire starting skill” one point out of one hundred each time you succeed.

In The Long Dark, players don’t survive because your character has min-maxed fire starting or repairing salvaged clothes. Players survive by become better survivors. There are few games out there that leverage their players into situations where they simply forced to become better. Forced to make better decisions, think more critically, or be more adaptable.

Success in The Long Dark doesn’t lie in stats. It lies in the player’s decision making. It doesn’t take long for players to make every action they take have purpose. It doesn’t take long after the player freezes to death to realize they can break down their firewood into tinder, or that they should boil their drinking water at every fire they kindle.

Life in Hinterland’s world is nasty, brutish, and short, but it is survivable. Even if it means skipping a meal or risking an attack scaring wolves away from a corpse. There are lengths players can go to in which to survive. And The Long Dark both rewards and punishes the player for doing so.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

VI: Final Judgement

Hinterland is, so far, achieving what few game developers do; they’re catching their lightning in a bottle. The Long Dark is only entering its sophomore or junior year of development, but it is evident the small indie studio van Lierop established has quickly matured.

The Long Dark is one of those few exceptions where concept, design and player experience are aligned.

Hinterland has crafted a wholistic experience without leading the player through their world with a guide rope. Even though death is an inevitability in The Long Dark, players know at the end of each run they could have done better. The player could have kept an extra can of soup or paid more attention to that watch tower so they wouldn’t have gotten lost. Each run imparts something new to the player and is persistently laying new challenges ahead. Survived three days? Great. Now survive four.

The Long Dark also succeeds in allowing players to build their own stories. So much so Charlie Hall at Polygon wrote an article centered soley around three play-throughs. And each of them as dramatic and affecting as the last. It is the ultimate drama; an all too futile attempt to stop the inevitable spiral toward oblivion.

The Long Dark is a game about dying. But in that same vein, it’s a game about living. Living one more hour. One more night. One more day.

The player doesn’t just battle the elements, they battle against the very nature of being alive. It’s a game that forces players recognize that everything is winding toward death. And then asks them to resist that.

Hinterland asks the player to walk one more step, check over the next hill, scour the next fishing cabin because, surely, there is something there that will keep the player alive just a moment longer. It asks the player to resist the urge to simply lie down and die — and players will have that urge. It asks players to gather just a few more bundles of firewood before settling down, maybe for they last time, and pray they will see the sunlight rise out of that long, cold dark.

Update: The headline has been changed to better reflect the intention of this article.