Your plane has crashed in the wilderness of the Canadian North West. The houses are empty, the cars won’t start, the radios are silent. If you seek shelter or answers in the nearby Hydro dam you are greeted by neither. Instead, a rabid wolf is likely to tear you in half. This is The Long Dark, a Canadian survival game where you play as bush pilot Will Mackenzie. In this otherwise realistic game, wolves—who normally avoid humans—have become Will’s top concern. The mysterious geomagnetic disaster that the game depicts has disturbed the minds of all the wolves. Okay, but that doesn’t explain why one wolf, dubbed “Fluffy” by the game’s community, has decided to live in the Hydro Plant. Yet, Fluffy’s choice of home isn’t a mistake, it’s genius, and it’s worth going through the game’s Canadian cultural influences to explain why.
Although the game is still in development, it’s obvious from your first moments in The Long Dark that it’s inspired by some Canadian cultural giants. The art style is reminiscent of the Group of Seven—famous painters who relied on simple shapes full of movement, impressionistic technique, and (usually) bright pallets. In the game, the skyline is always changing with simple mountain silhouettes appearing at sunset first in blues, then in reds, and then purples before collapsing into black. The whole rainbow is utilized for different times of the day. But if you happen to be near the farmhouse, in Pleasant Valley, when the sunrise has cast a soft yellow, you can’t help but be reminded of the 1933 painting “Winter Charlevoix County” by the Group of Seven member A. Y. Jackson. Similar comparisons can be drawn anywhere in the game’s vast and yet quintessentially Canadian locations, from the ice fishing huts to campgrounds.
There are connections beyond the art style, too. The very idea of a “survival” game will ring familiar for Canadian literary theorists. The original guide to Canadian literature was published by Margaret Atwood in 1972, and she called it “Survival.” Her thesis was that Canadian culture and thus the Canadian literary landscape were characterized by the struggle to live in land that was once unknown and hardly habitable. She identified two kinds of survival, the first is “grim” survival in the face of disasters. The second is “bare” survival on a rugged and hostile land that is largely empty (the Aboriginal people were imagined away, or seen only as Victims/Victors at the time of Atwood’s original analysis). Atwood noted that bare survival was the dominant theme. Literature often depicted a struggle against the horrors of nature, heightened by the intense beauty of the deadly land.
Both types of survival are found in The Long Dark. If you play as Will Mackenzie you will face potential death by cold, starvation, thirst, infections, and even parasites. If you explore for too long you’ll become exhausted and frozen, but if you wait out a blizzard inside you run the risk of cabin fever. All around you are the signs of a terrible disaster. Corpses are everywhere and none of the technology is functioning. Yet, the game is full of sublime beauty. In literary terms, the sublime is achieved when horror and beauty collide. It was characteristic of the poetry of the Romantics, who found this turbulent power in nature and were both awed and humbled by it. In The Long Dark the sublime is found often in simple things. Sometimes it’s in the primal comfort of a few quiet minutes spent cooking deer meat and a pot of coffee on a fire. Sometimes it’s in reaching the top of Timber Wolf Mountain and looking to the trees below. The Long Dark has been praised many times for creating such moments of visual or emotional splendor.
In many ways, The Long Dark calls back to the Romantics’ conception of a nature that was restorative to the human mind but also in conflict with human creation and society. In the minds of many of these 18th century poets, nature would eventually overcome the industrial destruction humans created. It is thus significant that so many facets of industrial human society are depicted as inoperable in The Long Dark. A railway track runs through one area, its crashed train offering little supplies and no shelter to Will Mackenzie. To the north of the track is a logging camp that is clearly practising the clear-cut method that is destructive to the ecosystem. A coal mine connects various locations. If you want to use that coal you can go to the stuck ship “The Riken” off the frozen coast. The signs of human destruction of the wilderness are everywhere, such that you’ll find yourself navigating by their landmarks.
It is clear that The Long Dark is not the empty wilderness that many novelist’s featured in Atwood’s “Survival” depicted. Settlers have long been in the Canada featured in The Long Dark, and though you’ll find their corpses everywhere, they have left their environmental destruction behind. If you go fishing, you’ll find the Smallmouth Bass only in the least populated areas, and the game will alert you that the species is intolerant of polluted waters. Tree saplings are valuable for making bows and arrows, but you can hardly find them anywhere, as is characteristic of unhealthy forests. Then, in front of a processing plant, you’ll come across the huge bones of long dead whales.
Hence, when Will Mackenzie finds Fluffy, rabid and vicious in the Hydro Dam, the encounter serves to cement the connection The Long Dark draws between survival and human society. Without our technology the modern human is highly unprepared for the survival experience. Instead, it is both nature and shoddy modern materialism that Will has to compete with. Our homes are not the safe haven they once were. The wilderness has forced its way inside. What the fleeing residents left behind won’t help Will much either as plenty of the items he finds are trash. There’s low quality food that will make him sick, cheap cardboard matches that aren’t likely to make a fire, jeans that are (as the game quietly informs you) completely useless in the wilderness. Why did no one in this cold British Columbian town own a Mariner’s Coat? It’s the best clothing for wind blocking, it’s head and shoulders above other coats for warmth, and I’ve found it twice in my 100 hours of play. Instead, the items Will can craft from nature are much better for survival. A bearskin bedroll is the warmest sleep you can find, healing poultices can be made from tree lichen, arrows are craftable and retrievable (unlike bullets), and just one deer can bring you days of happy eating while a house might contain little risk-free food.
While bringing the classic Canadian survival theme to videogames The Long Dark also brings a new dimension to the theme itself. The Long Dark is not an empty wilderness in which we struggle to survive, but one full of human intervention, creation, and destruction for both better and worse. The game brings harsh light to the cluttered campgrounds, found everywhere in the game, where Canadians seek to recapture that sense of survival in an environment where there’s little true risk and a facade of preparedness that falls flat. This game questions our ability to survive in a landscape which we are actively destroying and presents the horror scenario where our technology goes dark and we have to face the destruction and unpreparedness we have brought upon ourselves.