The Long Game


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 Hi everyone. I’m going to let this be my “introduce yourself” post, for better or worse. In a discussion about natures, I might as well start by openly revealing mine. :)

 This is likely going to be a divisive (certainly long) post. I’ll see how it writes. There may be those who feel the need to defend the game from the charge I have against it and things could devolve from there, but let’s be civil. The Hinterland forum seemed to me the best place to make my claim as the discussion here is genuinely civil compared to Steam, the only relevant alternative venue and the place where serious discussion goes to party itself blind. This post is not a backhanded compliment either, starting out congratulatory and devolving into accusation. I write out of genuine inquisition and concern for TLD, my new obsession. I take my time quite seriously and don’t bite into many games the way I have TLD and have logged 220 days in-game, admittedly only on Voyageur. I believe that while I remain a novice player at only 150-odd hours logged and have much to learn, I feel that I have spent enough time with the game to write with some credibility. Now, I have reached a point where I am wondering if my in-game efforts are not being unfairly thwarted.

I’m getting ahead of myself.

To begin, thank you to Hinterland. I truly adore this game. TLD has caught an essence and purity of vision and execution rarely found in games these days, at least in my humble opinion and the scope exceeds many AAA titles, certainly leaving other smaller developers far behind. I cannot speak too highly of the game and realize that I have only encountered the sandbox thus far. I do not envy the task of the developers when it comes to the story mode; trying to maintain such excellent standards is daunting. A very sincere thank you for the work done so far Hinterland and please don’t read what follows as being destructive criticism; quite the opposite is true, illustrated if not clearly in word, then plainly in deed.

 I am a native of Canada, growing up north of Edmonton, not exactly hinterland, but not far from it and on the deep winter days, it certainly can be grim. I am too familiar with ambient outdoor temperatures below -40c and all of the potentials; the startling cold, one’s breath hanging like a frozen fog, the irrational thoughts induced by the numbing cold, the split of skin and yes, frostbite. No, not the tree-bark gnarl that is amputated after Everest, but permanent damage, yes. My father and I have put ourselves in situations climbing deep and high in the Rockies where we looked at one another and wondered if the best way forward isn’t backward. We pushed on however, having the conviction that Nature, while harsh, is somewhat predictable and most certainly rational. To anthropomorphize and claim that it is somehow brutish would be heresy to the amazing but reasonably quantifiable systems that underlie our planet.

 This as background. I am no spring chicken and spent the first 30 years of my life dealing with nature in the aforementioned ways. I came to understand that nature isn’t malicious, vindictive, spiteful or full of wrath. Nature is what it is, as the word inherently claims, Nature is and has a nature, one that can be ascertained and calculated to a large degree. Nature is unerringly objective. As any individual who lives in a more extreme climate can attest, Nature cannot be tamed or reigned in, but it can be fitly accommodated, anomalies aside; symbiotic methods and practices can be adopted to understand it and acclimate and to do so is really the only way to endure or even thrive despite it. What nature is not, is cruel. Cruelty is a uniquely human invention and even then only exercised by the weak.

 A frog in a well is already doomed; there is no need to slowly heat the water.

 As I light an in-game fire in what is typically a wind-buffered area – atypically the wind blows directionally opposite – and just as the fire catches, the wind shifts a very specific and wholly irregular 90 degrees and of course, the fire dies immediately. Wolves have haunts and lairs, fertile feeding grounds which they roam quite predictably but today they are suddenly bursting at the seams; more of them and perhaps as a consequence, they are spilling over and now nearly inhabiting the fecund of my doorstep and seem angrier for having arrived. Temperatures are plummeting lower daily, storms and blizzards increasing in frequency, length and violence, the winds of which seem to shift to impede progress in whichever direction I may choose to walk. At the 220-day mark, I feel that TLD has turned on me. The Nature portrayed by this game is cruel, spiteful and vengeful. If this is perception, reality, or a mix of the two is beside the point; this is how it is unfolding for me.

 Now, how couldn’t one be disappointed by this? TLD is no Devil’s Daggers with play times rendered in seconds by a design intention that is deeply but playfully user-hostile, like many of the quarter-eating machines in arcades of days gone by. This is the charm of DD and the game wears this maliciousness on its proverbial sleeve. TLD is quite different however and requests a considerable investment or both time and care, si·ne qua non, and further demands thoughtful, cautious attention; how couldn’t one then be let down by a portrayal of nature that refuses even the most humble reconcile or even comprehension after such great purchase? Well, I for one am on the cusp of a decision to simply admit defeat in the face of accelerating oblivion and this coming despite the game having held my deepest affection thus far. No, scratch that; I won’t give up until life is torn from my cold, dead virtual hands, but my continuance will be somewhat bitter.

 There is no reason for this to be so. Ultimately a parallel for life itself, the eventual certainty in TLD is death and all who venture into it are keenly aware of this. Slowly for the Pilgrim, quicker for the Interloper, but The Long Dark will surround all who play by and by. I might argue that it is the Pilgrim (or yes, Voyageur) who will suffer the worst in the end, when all of the once-vast stores deplete, when the once fattened cow slowly wastes away. The Interloper knows no such joy during their unendingly Spartan, threadbare existence, making the end an almost relief or cathartic release. “Sadder still to watch it die than never to have known it” (too Canadian?). The question however, is do we need prodding off the cliff? Does certain doom need hastening? Who does it serve to do so? What would be the rationale of designing the game this way? This is a game where it seems the authors simply don’t seem to want players to survive overly long (whatever that means in this context), endlessly tightening the noose that is around our necks from the outset. The ‘mechanic’ of having an increasingly hostile environment is absolutely and utterly pointless and as such, it can be viewed simply as a cruelty. Nature does not increase the height of a mountain, nor the gradient as we ascend; Nature does not tailor itself to those under it. The underlying systems of TLD purport to strive for ‘realism’, with the developers even going so far as to consult experts; how then can Natures ever-swelling wrath be seen as in any way compatible with this claimed ethos? The idea of an already unbeatable foe increasing in size, strength and ferocity appears a spiteful design decision. The means for survival and adaptation are made available then calculably revoked as more investment is made. The more one tries to claw life out of this, to cobble together an existence, the faster it is vindictively taken away. Why is one not allowed to scratch out a meagre existence as long as they may? Why does Nature in this game play an ever more active and vigilant role in an already certain demise?

 It simply isn’t a fair decision to make it so. Too much investment is required by this title to have what little autonomy that is painstakingly gained taken away in such a manner; to be undermined by design, to have the grim circle of limited resources forced ever smaller is unnecessary and thus it is quite easy once again to see this as simple cruelty, a dark cynicism that founds the game. Yes, I am disappointed that all of my newly-crafted gear is fundamentally no better at the new normal of -53 degrees than my ragged plaid shirt was at -10. Yes it is curse-out-loud nonsensical that wolves become increasingly vicious and materialize out of progressively more viscous fog and evermore blinding blizzards. These are punishments meted to those who strive to play well, who struggle for small victories over the long game, who rage into the light, who invest more time and energy into their character. Punish the naive or ignorant or the hubris of the cavalier, but not those who play with careful measure and prudence. For me, this is a strong point of contention as it is the foundation upon which everything is built upon; that no matter what you do, the dice are not objective but loaded, the field is not level and at the core, the game simply does not want to be played past a certain point. The endgame for TLD should be total depletion of the land; there is a valuable lesson contained therein and one’s demise would be in a sense at their own hand. Currently, we are eventually forfeiting our characters – our time and investment – to an unjust design choice at once releasing us from fault but simultaneously allowing an accusing finger to be pointed.

The decision to make the environment become increasingly hostile over time is the Achilles heel of TLD. The moderate difficulty levels – if not all of them - should offer a kind of meditative experience only punctuated by moments of peril, not quickly devolve to a constant 3-alarm fire level of engagement. I don’t play the game simply to die, but to live beforehand. All of the carefully wrought systems within the game are betrayed by the underlying decision to have Nature slowly rise up against the player. The game begs not for runs measured in days, but years. I believe that if not the removal of this ‘mechanic’ then the ability to control it would be beneficial for the title’s longevity as well as long-term player retention. The harder modes, fine, make them as punishing as many Dark walkers seem to want, but providing options for those of us who want to establish a long-term symbiosis with the game would be nothing but beneficial for all.

 To close, there are many who will come forward with bravado claiming that this is the enjoyable part of the game; to be hammered with greater force over time is the pleasurable pain and perhaps there is some validity to this claim. However, for myself and probably others, this is the fly in an otherwise soothing balm, the hair discovered in a hearty soup, the ant on a fine picnic lunch. On the lower levels, Nature should be portrayed true to its nature; a consistent, benevolent entity that is uncaring as to the speed in which you perish under its gaze.

 Thanks for your time. I look forward to your thoughts on this.

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Knowing when to close the book is important. Continue any story for long enough and it can mean only death in the end. Sophe Harlow is now enjoying an isolated existence on Jack Rabbit Island. She's out there, one hundred and forty days into her new life, and she lives there still. I could choose to open the book again and commence reading, but instead I prefer to think of her out there, ice fishing, dodging the odd wolf, living still. Best to start a new story.

Same for Bunyan, who resides in a cosy cabin in Mystery Lake and has done for the last ninety days. I like his journal, I don't want to push him further, and so I take my leave of him. There's an odd quality of mercy in putting a good character out to pasture in such a way. And hey, you can always drop in on them for a meditative half hour once in a while.

Nature is cruel. Intriguingly I've heard that Christians of the nineteenth century protested Darwin's findings not over the manner in which his Theory of Evolution contradicts the bible - for quite a while Christian society had accepted that it was a sort of metaphor, as the bible didn't state how long it considered a day was - but rather how it showed that nature was tooth and claw, the strongest survive, which went against mercy and grace and other tenants of Christianity. Your arguement reminded me of that somewhat.

From a mechanics point of view, I believe there is a floor to the dropping temperature which varies according to difficulty, one which still permits survival, so a death before resource exhaustion is still not inevitable - only likely.  

The Long Dark for me is the story of the struggle to maintain hope in the face of death, and to treasure the moments that make life worthwhile. Who hasn't stepped out onto the porch of the Farmhouse in Pleasant Valley on a morning with a cup of coffee in hand, looking up at a sun-rise over Signal-Hill? You stand there and think back to how you almost died the day before in a white-out. Only the sudden chance appearance in the blinding white of that familiar withered orchard and the ghostly outlines of a rusting grain silo saving you. As when the Pixies play quiet-loud-quiet-loud, each amplifying the effect of the other, so does the Long Dark master peace and horror.

In conclusion, I appreciate and enjoy your arguement, but find your findings not of my own considered opinion. A cup of in-game coffee with you, sir.:)

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This was an interesting read, thanks. :)

Having spent several years myself in very cold temps and wilderness areas, there are game mechanics that still feel "off" to me too -- even after many hours of play.  You mention the continually (and unrealistically) shifting wind, that's certainly one of them.  Another is the preposterous ratio of predators to prey.  Both of these feel fake to me, contrived.  But it's a game and I accept that a successful game is not the most realistic one, but the one that best accommodate the needs of gamers.

And many gamers don't have any real life wilderness or survival experience (although folks on this forum are probably the exception).  For those others it's not about fidelity to the experience of nature, it's about abstract challenge and competition.  "Beating" the game, or getting a better result  than the next guy (best time, most loot, most wolves killed while naked wielding a knife, whatever).  If they do give feedback about "survival", it's often about the lack of modern comforts and sterile conditions.

For myself, I'm more peeved by the wind and the wolves than the worsening weather.  I play Interloper, so I never have enough clothing to be cozy outside, and the worse-case weather turns up quite fast.  It's hard in the early game, but my playstyle is "meditative with a plan".  When I'm not out on the porch watching the sunrise like @Nervous Pete I'm out working to get ahead of my needs and patiently building my reserves one extra stick at a time. 

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A very eloquent post. I had always accepted this game as an 'end ot times' story. An apocalypse has wiped out most, with the few desperately struggling to extend humanity, for just a bit longer. I've always felt comfortable knowing that death was an inevitable part of this game. For me surviving for as long as possible is the achievement. When it ends i feel content to wrap up that story, and i look forward to beginning the next one.

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Welcome to the forums, @Carbon, and thanks for your indepth feedback. It's always great to see discussions about the kind of emotional impact the design of the game has, especially when viewed as a whole. We spend a fair bit of time thinking about and discussing granular mechanics, but we want them to contribute towards a broader experience with the game that is thoughtful and reflective.

The Long Dark isn't intended to be a perfect reflection of reality, but we do want to capture certain feelings that a survivor in a winter wilderness might experience. Loneliness, loss, determination. An appreciation for the beauty in nature, as well as a sense of vulnerability to it's power. A person lost in the woods might have an unexpectedly powerful sense of being small and insignificant in the face of the world, and be humbled by it. We love the idea that a video game might be able to evoke some of these types of emotions in players.

It's interesting that you felt nature was portrayed in the game as being malicious -- we more intended nature to be indifferent. The weather is not impacted by player activity. Changes are random, except to become gradually worse to help simulate the onset of deep winter. Survivors also cannot alter nature for their convenience (cutting down trees, etc) and must find a way to live within the world instead of gaining mastery over it.

In it's current state, The Long Dark is in many ways more a "mortality simulator" than a "survival simulator." Death is pretty much inevitable, but we do think this creates opportunity for interesting and powerful experiences. What do you think about this idea?


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Hello again, and thank you I haven't much time but don't want to neglect your replies any longer.


 First, @Nervous Pete, I'm not certain that "my findings" and contentious; they are facts and the only ends that might be debated are the conclusions drawn. As I prefaced in my original post, some find the slow increase of obstacles stimulating and yes, there is a certain and valid argument for that. Nature however, is not at all cruel. This is a dangerous and self-defeating anthropomorphism; Nature is quite consistent and it is not the strongest that survive, but the smartest. The strong may win the fight but the smart wouldn't engage in one. 'Knowledge is power' is much more fitting (I believe that this is what Darwin was alluding to and is often misunderstood as referring to stature, not intellect) and implies that anyone who works to gain this knowledge, regardless of physical stature (within certain parameters), will prevail. Humans certainly did not rise due to power in a physical sense; we are comparatively weak and fragile specimens; it was our ability to reason and create that set us apart. I am not looking for Christian mercy from a game, but reason within what is a truly reasonable entity, Nature, specifically as portrayed. My point was simply that the Nature we are confronted with in TLD is unreasonable. I understand and concur with your idea of "closing the book" on a given character, but frankly another beginning would simply be working to get top the place I am at now. To each their own and to mine it is finding a rhythm that syncopates within that of the game's presentation of Nature. Fully realizing that I am doomed ultimately, but as I stated, I would that be at my own hand, in a sense. I don't want this character to end by freezing, but starving, if you can see the meaning there.


@Ruruwawa, I too am not looking for a virtual coffee on the porch and am also a busybody within the game. I don't play a game to do nothing; RL serves me fine that way, if I choose. ;)


@Thirsty I agree wholeheartedly. I am in no way trying to overcome the Long Dark, but simply wrestle with it for as long as I can. :)


@Mel Guille; thank you for your welcome and reply. I realize the limitation of the medium (or intention) and I hope I didn't imply that I am looking for such a simulation. Your claim that "deep winter" is setting in changes everything! If this was part of the design - that you are confronted with the beginning of something much more far-reaching - then it make sense. My understanding of the Sandbox is that it wouldn't turn to quicksand! I began this scenario believing that I could come to understand the systems which underlie the game, that they were quantifiable and again, could be worked with or reconciled. I believed that the endgame was to be at my own hand, the endless cycle of human destruction which, while leaving a horrific froth in it's wake, paradoxically has the knife to it's own throat through it's efforts to thrive. I believed that this was the long run lesson, that we would, through our own consumption and fragility, deplete the land and end our virtual lives, as a metaphor for the current trend of humanity. Unsustainable tendencies coupled with the ignorant hubris to charge on. This is how I saw the Sandbox mode but if it does have a narrative which will slowly unfold, then I am declawed (and pedantically, this could be argued as not being a true Sandbox). My rail then would be against not a simple mechanic but a grand design and I am not going to be so haughty. The game is truly amazing and now that I am aware of this deeper, darker winter coming on, my mindset simply has to change.

 Thus, I think it's clear how I would prefer to have the sandbox function, but having said that, it's not my call to make and will continue to play and support the game and the team see fit. It is incredible and in a class of it's own even at this stage of development. My attachment to TLD is odd, even surprising to me. As I said, I value my time and while I do play games, I am no deep-ender, but more of a hot tubber. TLD and whatever voodoo magic sauce it contains grabbed me and pulled me in; perhaps it was the familiarity or the isolation that has taken me, perhaps too the considerate, methodical patience and planning it requires that appeals to me (I have been accused of being somewhat pedantic by nature).

To close, my views have been aired and I appreciate the kind replies by all. Back to the game. :)


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Hi Carbon,

Thanks for the thoughtfully worded counterpoint. I don't know if you've ever seen Terrence Malick's 'Tree of life', a really beautiful film (though I feel with a flawed ending) that has at the heart of it the arguement of whether one sees the world and nature as one of moments of grace, or a hard world in which one has to learn best to survive. The arguement is expressed through flashbacks to a boy's childhood as he struggles to comprehend and reconcile his parents opposing world views, especially his fathers. Great film. For what it's worth I want to believe in grace, and that is what we as human's should strive for. Survival alone isn't enough and it's the achievement of compassion, charity, etc which raises us. 

It's also interesting what you say about a message regarding the exhaustion of resources. You could I guess still find this message in the increasingly almost feral state in interloper as you try to survive as you exhaust all the resources, ultimately burning books for warmth, shedding civilised clothing for furs, reduced to fighting wolves for scraps from a corpse. I do agree it's the biggest question facing us as a species.

ANYWAY. *Cough*. Game. Glad you're enjoying it lots all the same. You're right about the deep-winter setting in being a key underpinning. I'm not sure what the eventual game lore will be as such, but I like to think that the solar activity causing the massive storm is connected with a very slight decrease in the heat generated by our sun, one which has happened before and which precludes the relatively quick onset of a second minor ice age. Despite this, I believe long-term survival is still possible in the Long Dark, if arduous, and that nature still has a measure of 'fair warning' as it were. It just means planning for the worst whilst hoping for the best.

Enjoy life out there in those frozen, beautiful wastes, and hope you stick around the forum. 

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