I grew up in Texas. During the sweltering summer months, learning to tolerate 100+ degree heat for weeks was something one simply casually dealt with—go to a neighbor’s pool, head to the waterpark, drive (with AC on full-blast, naturally) to get a snow-cone from a vendor only open during the summer months.
When I moved to NYC a few years ago, I never quite understood how to deal with a northern winter. Even in the style-obsessed Big Apple, your first requirement is to dress for warmth over fashion once chilly temperatures arrive. I’m still not too sure I have a good handle on life above the Mason-Dixon line; please remind me in three months that I “ought to get a real coat this winter.”
At least with my brief time with The Long Dark’s sandbox Alpha mode, I’ve got a better handle on the consequences of not wearing an extra pair of long johns come the first snowfall this year.
Following an electromagnetic disaster that has rendered all electronics inert, The Long Dark drops you somewhere in Canada, at the chilly outskirts of Mystery Lake with nothing but the clothes on your back. How you bide your remaining hours is up to you.
You’re not alone out there. Rabid wolves and cautious deer dot the landscape, along with a few randomly placed frozen corpses to warn of your fate should you continue to debate whether or not to grab that heavy wool sweater, or if you need that extra pair of gloves.
Rather than similar recent sandbox games such as Rust or Day Z that readily arm players, you’ll feel lucky to come across cans of soda or a few broken pieces of plywood in order start a fire. So far, my biggest moments of excitement have come from finally finding a can opener (in order to more easily feast on … some dog food) or the moment I discovered a nearly busted knife in a dank corner of a run-down power station.
Games have long been able to create awe-inspiring moments: taking on towering Colossi, bounding through 15th-century Venice, whizzing through futuristic cities in flying cars. Size, scale and speed are relatively simple things to convey to a player: make really big shit and really fast shit. End result: the player sees big, fast shit.
But what about quickly, effectively communicating how hungry the player should be? Or whether they’ve gotten enough rest to be able to trudge up that hill? Is it worth carrying an extra jerry can to fuel a lantern, or should you reserve space in your backpack for a few pounds of calorie-rich venison?
Even for being an alpha, the voice acting here already does a terrific job of conveying just how exhausted, hungry, cold, and generally miserable your character is feeling. On-screen blurbs of “freezing” or “tired” were easy to ignore, but hearing my character agonize through chattering teeth that she can barely keep moving made finding shelter my top priority.
The Long Dark feels centered around these continual reminders of just how precarious your survival is in such extreme weather. It’s a game of small details, like wind howling outside of meager shelters and softly crunching snow underfoot. The quiet, crisp sight of the sun rising over hilltops will take your breath away—and you’ll watch it float off in a puff of condensation.
It’s that minutiae that transports me back to times I’ve gone camping, huddling in front of a fire to keep warm, or trudging home as a few feet of snow dumps down on NYC, where it took nearly 30 minutes to walk a few blocks and my beard transformed into a frozen block.
But for now, I’m still sitting in my nice, toasty apartment with headphones on. The Long Dark had me taking mental stock of my own well-being: Am I hungry? Am I warm enough? It was those intangible, internal checklists that impressed me more than any inventory management or exploration of derelict power stations ever did.