Nervous Pete

Examining The Storytelling Inspiration Behind Wintermute & The Long Dark

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Soon we will find out what lies within the Long Dark and I have to confess that I'm fascinated as to how our experience and perception of the game might shift as we learn the true nature of the catastrophe that has befallen the world. As it stands pre-release the sandbox is almost entirely free of any information regarding the fall of civilisation, the only clues are the wrecked cars, the bodies, burnt out cabins and the brief snippet at the start of every survival adventure informing the player that they're a bush-pilot and that their plane has gone down owing to a mysterious geomagnetic event. 

Currently it seems that the majority of players share roughly the same notions when playing the game. They imagine they are genuinely in the world Hinterland have created (a testament to the characterful maps and engaging atmosphere) and that the bodies around them merely represent less fortunate survivors. Beyond that there is little scope outside of inventive journal writing for really placing oneself in a true post-apocalyptic setting - the dominant feeling is more towards a simple rugged individualistic struggle for survival. I suspect it might have surprised Hinterland at how popular and compelling such a basic premise is, when their initial intent was merely for a bare-bones sandbox designed to test the mechanics of the game. But now we find ourselves approaching the imminent release of the story mode, and with it the potential for a backstory rich, deep and even more immersive, one that might alter our perception of the experience of our projected self in sandbox play.

I feel there are quite a few clues as to the story-telling approach Raphael and company might be taking in The Long Dark, and a lot of it comes from the references and allusions Raphael, Patrick Carlson and others have made in various interviews and tweets, and some of the descriptions found within the game. In a short series of posts in the run-up to the game I want to relate a few theories of mine as to what may be behind Raphael's initial vision of The Long Dark, and how several literary classics of the apocalypse genre might have influenced his conception of the game. Before no doubt being proven hilariously wrong as it turns out to be a musical, or something.

 

Part 1:  Earth Abides...

Possibly the most telling clue as to the spiritual concept for the Long Dark, for me, is in the description of the sandbox Pilgrim mode. "Wander the quiet apocalypse to chronicle the passing of an age." In the elegiac post-apocalypse novel Earth Abides by George R. Stewart, the main character, Isherwood Williams takes stock with a list of the qualities that might make for his survival in a world where the human race has been virtually eradicated by a virus...

"He prepared some supper, and ate, but without appetite. Afterwards he tried to read, but the words had as little savour as the food. He still thought of Mr Barlow and the others; in one way or another, each in his own manner, everyone whom he had seen that day was going to pieces. He did not think that he himself was. But was he actually still sane? Was he too, perhaps, suffering from shock? In calm self-consciousness he thought about it. After a while he took pencil and paper, deciding to write down what qualifications he had, why he might be going to live, even with some degree of happiness, while the others would were not.

First of all, without hesitation, he scribbled:

1) Have will to live. Want to see what will happen in world without man, and how. Geographer."

Further elements of Earth Abides that can be seen within The Long Dark lay within the concept of 'Secondary Kill'.

"A new idea was shaping in his mind and a new phrase with it - Secondary Kill. Of those that the Great Disaster had spared, many would fall victim to some trouble from which civilization had previously protected them. With unlimited liquor they would drink themselves to death. There had been, he guessed, murder; almost certainly there had been suicide..."

Have we not seen this in some of the grisly vignettes we have stumbled across on that forbidding island? A collection of corpses around some parked trucks, where a disagreement had evidently gone down. A dead man and a bottle of sleeping pills beside him. The only exception to Isherwood's epitaph lays in the inability to fix a decent drink on Great Bear Island! The concept of Secondary Kill is further refined in Isherwood's meeting of Milt and Ann in a deserted New York city. He spends an evening pleasantly with them, playing cards and drinking martinis before moving on, despite their entreaties for him to stay with them.

"But as he drove off and they stood at the entryway of the apartment-house and waved to him, he almost turned back to stay a while longer. He liked them, and he pitied them. He hated to think what would happen when winter struck, and the deep canyons between the buildings were clogged with snow and the north wind whistled down the groove of Broadway. There would be no central heating in New York City that winter, though indeed there would be plenty of ice, and no need to drink warm martinis.

He doubted whether they could survive the winter, even though they piled broken furniture into the fireplace. Some accident would likely overtake them, or pneumonia might strike them down. They were like the highly bred spaniels and pekinese who at the end of their leashes had once walked the city streets. Milt and Ann, too, were city-dwellers, and when the city died, they would hardly survive without it."

As Isherwood wanders American in the wake of the disaster, before settling down in a corner of it, he watches with fascination the erosion of human civilisation both physically as roads are washed out and cattle vanish, and in the disquieting atrophy of human ambition. Eventually he becomes absorbed with the question as to whether civilisation will ever rise again. As The Long Dark is planned to span a number of episodes, I cannot help but wonder how far into the future this game might project and if it might not be a matter of years, not months, that we follow the journey of Will and Astrid. In the novel Isherwood eventually settles down with a small tribe, not much larger than an extended family. Towards the end of the Long Dark, episodes from now, might not the player find him or herself responsible for more than the needs of the one? 

The novel Earth Abides is an odd, bittersweet one, free of the action and heroics of the common post-apocalyptic tale. Yet its description of a man-made world gradually crumbling away in the face of implacable, contemptuous nature, is a powerful one and it is one I believe The Long Dark will be preoccupied with. Lord knows The Long Dark also eschews spectacle, bombast and action. The key words mentioned earlier in the Pilgrim description are 'chronicle' as in to 'witness', and 'the quiet apocalypse'. That is at the heart of Earth Abides. In our shared experiences in playing the sandbox, we spare little thought as to the world beyond the valleys and coastlines we explore. Once we experience story mode, we may find ourselves with a powerful narrative on our hands, and the experience of witnessing civilisation fading away overnight through the snippets from newspapers, the crackle of sporadically working radio, the stories of survivors we meet and our own journey will echo through our subsequent sandbox play.

And there will be a symbol of that apocalypse, writ large in the sky. The beautiful but baleful aurora rippling across the heavens at night will remind us that this catastrophe is global. The Long Dark is cited by many players as being an arresting experience that causes one to pause a while now and again in the middle of a game, and just soak in the quiet beauty and ambience. I'm intrigued to see if, come April 1st, players will begin to pause and take stock for different reasons as they think about inhabiting an Earth where civilisation has passed into the Long Dark. After that experience, perhaps the natural feeling of many of us who experience the Long Dark will instinctively "Wander the quiet apocalypse to chronicle the passing of an age."

 

Thank you for reading. I hope to follow up shortly with another post on 'the cosy apocalypse', regarding Britain's great literary output of apocalyptic tales in the 1950's and 60's by such great writers as John Wyndham, John Christopher and J. G Ballard, and how they might have also reveal a spark of inspiration in The Long Dark. At the very least, I hope these little essays encourage further reading of this genre of fiction, as it might enable the player to savour better the flavour of The Long Dark when it hits our collective hard-drives on August 1st. Then, when the game comes out and I've fully experienced and digested the first part of the tale Hinterland has woven for us, I'll be taking a look at how The Long Dark works a piece of story-telling and where it might lead next. 
 
Stay wrapped up out there. 
 
Pete
 
 
Edited by Nervous Pete
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A pleasure to read and just the kind of thing I need to pass the time until release... +1.

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6 hours ago, Hotzn said:

A pleasure to read and just the kind of thing I need to pass the time until release... +1.

Seconded! Thanks, Pete!

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This is quite spot-on to how i envisioned how much different (and similar) the story mode will be to the sandbox as well. 

Sandbox is very ego-centric and places you in a situation where your only worries are your own worldly needs, yes sometimes we get immersed in the oozing atmosphere and slow down a little to "witness it" but its still centric around the player's situation. 

In story mode, we most definitely will find a shift in this mentality.

Good read and great focus. And as said above, great job helping pass time till august 1st

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A Very British Apocalypse  - Post-apocalyptic Story-Telling and The Long Dark

The average player might not consider it so, but he or she has already had a great deal of luck in simply being stuck on Great Bear Island when the great disaster lights up the sky. An island with a small population, plentiful in natural resources, survive the first few weeks and there’s an excellent chance of making it to middle-age.  Most of all, the natural elements do their best to thin the herd of fellow humans, those who in these extreme, dark times pose the greatest threat. This sudden, violent crash in the local population post-disaster potentially offers Will and Astrid the greatest luxury of all, the luxury of mercy.

Consider how it would have been in the cities. Food stocks last a matter of days. Thinly rationed reserves brought in by the National Guard keep the city dweller alive a little longer. Then the city-folk, driven to desperation by hunger, break the cordon and fall upon the countryside, looting and killing as they go – desperate to prolong life by a few meals. It’s a picture that’s as bleak as hell, but in The Long Dark it’s one that we’ll probably be spared. Deep in the interior of the hinterlands, food is scarce but attainable – if at risk. Fellow survivors may eventually find that banding together is the preferred option, and with that comes mutual support, and with mutual support, community.

It’s been said that The Long Dark’s story mode will include moral dilemmas for the player. Possible instances are; do you rob someone of food, do you shut a man out when the wolves are at the door, and do you kill a man for his boots? Beyond the immediate emotional impact of making a decision and the practical positives and negatives of the outcome, there’s the tantalising possibility of deep, emotional storytelling as the player is forced to face up to what they’re becoming as the veneer of civilisation is stripped away from the inhabitants of Great Bear Island. In this post I’d like to take a little time and examine two classic works of apocalyptic fiction and mull over what ways in which The Long Dark might echo them.

Mention the words ‘post-apocalyptic fiction’ to most people and they’ll probably think of the zombies of World War Z, or the roving Mohican-and-implausible-shoulder-pads gangs of the post-nuclear Mad Max and Fallout wastelands. Few think of British literature however, which is a shame, as in the 1950’s and 1960’s there came a series of novels from British writers that were as questioning as they were thrilling.

These novels were in way born of anger, an anger mainly directed at smug complacency and parochialism. They were by writers who had come through the Second World War and all its modern, science-fictional horrors of Robot Bombs, split uranium-atoms and railway tracks and their cargo of the dead cutting deep into the heart of silent birch forests in Eastern Europe. They had learnt a lesson that civilisation was not a given and that a cultured people, given the right circumstances, could do unspeakable things. Then Britain gained the atom bomb and the hydrogen bomb, and they became more alarmed still as the establishment made believe that the old rules of civil defence still applied. All the while a heavy-set rose-tinted nostalgia descended, a belief that Britain had an innate ‘Dunkirk spirit’ and decency that would see its people putting their collective ‘shoulders to the wheel’ and survive with cheery aplomb any catastrophe that could be thrown it’s way. Paired with a blind faith in technology and inherent British superiority, the nation sleepwalked into the Suez Crisis and awoke to find itself no longer an empire. 


It was partly this frustration that set dozens of novelists working on what was to be the new and popular genre of apocalyptic fiction. In the main these novels were to be quite different from their American counterparts and would push the boundaries of the genre further and in stranger directions than their trans-Atlantic cousins. There's a few reasons behind this. Firstly, thanks to the literally credibility of H. G. Wells and their contemporary George Orwell, novels of this sort were treated with respect by the literary establishment, and consequently the genre attracted novelists of some note and an enthusiastic audience normally not attracted to genre fiction. Secondly the tradition of the Western in America resulted in many fun, but inconsequential, pulp novels replacing 'American Indians' with mutants or robots and cowboys with survivalists. Despite great works by the American writers Philip K. Dick, Kurt Vonnegut, George R. Stewart, Walter Miller and Cormac McCarthy, the genre in America never really escaped that stigma. Since America was awash with guns and wilderness, it seemed an easy solution in the American novels for the hero to simply grab a gun, quit the city and wade into a rip-roaring mildly radio-active adventure. Britain, war-weary with it's closely compacted cities and general lack of weaponry amongst its populace beyond the cricket-bat and broken beer bottle, lacking any kind of Western literary tradition, had no scope for that manner of escapist fiction. As a result British novels tended to be bleaker and more satirical. Whilst American novels and films championed the individual fighting for survival, the British equivalent was more fascinated in the breakdown of the vaunted 'keep calm and carry on' spirit, of the eroding of class divisions, of the smashing of society and how morality and ethics are luxuries.

Now I recount this little history as I can't help but wonder if Hinterland are actually more influenced by the British tradition than the American.  I remember a tweet by Raphael where he mentioned having read John Wyndham's Day of the Triffids, a breakout early novel of the genre that did more to popularise the post-apocalyptic novel in Britain than any other...

Part One - The Day of the Triffids

"When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere."

John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids contains one of the most popular and fascinating post-apocalyptic scenarios in British literary history. The triffids of the title are genetically engineered plants, seven feet tall and that produce a high grade oil when harvested. The only catch is that they can uproot themselves and stump about the place. Oh, and they have a lethal whip-like venomous sting that can kill at a dozen yards if they aren’t regularly docked. Naturally the not-terribly forward thinking human race farms millions of them for their oil, exhibits them in zoos and even has the odd one chained up in the bottom of the garden as a family pet.

All this is hunky-dory until one day ninety-nine percent of the human race are struck blind when watching a passing comet that suddenly flares with unparalleled brightness. Now the triffids are free to ascend to the top of the food chain, and the few survivors who still possess the gift of sight must try to find a safe haven in a world where every death might be lurking in the nearest hedge or shrubbery.

It sounds completely ridiculous, and yet despite the B-movie summary the Day of the Triffids is actually one of most gripping thrillers I’ve ever read, and one that has a brilliantly evocative and chilling rendition of a world struck blind. The triffids are merely there for added flavour, the real horror is in the mass blindness, and in the opening chapters the seeming futility of compassion.

It may be that The Long Dark and Day of the Triffids share only one element, that of a baleful heavenly spectacle representing the fall of man. There may be however another connection, and it may lie more in the story of Doctor Astrid Greenwood than bush-pilot Will MacKenzie.

The protagonist of Day of the Triffids, Bill Masen, is spared blindness due to the ironic coincidence of his being blindfolded at the time as part of his recuperation from an eye operation. His first instinct is to escape London, a city he predicts will soon be prone to mass starvation and disease. However before he can do so he is abducted by a small party of the seeing who have set up a little remnant governmental authority tasked with the noble intention of trying to keep as many of the blind alive as possible. Masen is handcuffed to a strong-armed blind man and is forced to be a sort of guide-dog to a party of sightless survivors as they raid department stores and grocers for supplies. Despite Masen’s best efforts they are one by one killed off by the now roaming triffids and the epidemics that begin to break out in London, and having lost all of his party he finally succeeds in escaping London and making for the countryside.

It’s a story that could be cruelly individualistic, a selfish and Darwinist tale of a rugged survivor. Instead it’s something else. Masen eventually teams up with the very man who originally kidnapped him, a man who also saw his own party die under him, and who now understands the futility of trying to keep the city-bound blind survivors alive. There isn’t anything weak, or indulgent in trying to help the living – it’s just that the new world they find themselves in treats such efforts with brutal and final contempt. From the just-released trailer we also see Will MacKenzie interacting with a blind lady. First impressions are that she isn't as helpless as one might think, indeed she still seems to be clinging on, rifle in hand, whilst many others have died or fled. This is another development we find in The Day of the Trififds, where Bill Masen finds a survivor who was blind from before  the cataclysm, and who has already learnt how to adapt somewhat to the world. A blind wife keeps her newly blind husband alive in a remote cottage, through the experience she's acquired living without sight.

I can’t help but wonder if Astrid will endure a similar tale in the back-story of The Long Dark. We see that she is a Doctor in a city. The disaster hits, the power goes out, the temperature drops. Supplies dwindle. Presumably the cities no longer become safe. At one point is the human impulse to help others overcome by the need to survive? How many survivors can Astrid and Will MacKenize afford to keep alive?  As in Day of the Triffids, cities are death-traps and death is constantly stalking the survivors. In the Day of the Triffids it’s the killer-plants, in The Long Dark, its wolves.

Later on, as in Earth Abides, The Day of the Triffids speculates on arresting the descent into savagery through the musings of Coker, Bill Masen's somewhat philosophical and affable leftist orator turned survivalist - one of the more wryly amusing characters in the book. 

A few minutes later Coker strolled in. "That was you, I suppose?" I said, nodding at the lights.

"Yes," he admitted. "They've got their own plant here. We might as well use up the gas as let it evaporate."

"Do you mean to say we could have had lights all the time we've been here?" asked the girl.

"If you had just taken the trouble to start the engine," Coker said, looking at her. "If you wanted light, why didn't you try to start it?"

"I didn't know it was there; besides, I don't know anything about engines or electricity."

Coker continued to look at her, thoughtfully. "So you just went on sitting in the dark," he remarked. "And how long do you think you are likely to survive if you just go on sitting in the dark when things need doing?"

Later on the frequently exasperated Coker rounds on the latest set of survivors failing to grasp the darker implications of the new world they find themselves in. 

"If we do run short of stocks-well, there's plenty more lying around," said the radioman.

"The Americans will be here before Christmas," said Stephen's girlfriend.

"Listen," Coker told her patiently. "Just put the Americans in the jam-tomorrow-pie-in-the-sky department awhile, will you? Try to imagine a world in which there aren't any Americans-can you do that?"

The girl stared at him. "But there must be," she said.

Coker sighed sadly. He turned his attention to the radioman. "There won't always be those stores. The way I see it, we've been given a flying start in a new kind of world. We're endowed with a capital of enough of everything to begin with, but that isn't going to last forever. We couldn't eat up all the stuff that's there for the taking, not in generations - if it would keep. But it isn't going to keep. A lot of it is going to go bad pretty rapidly. And not only food. Everything is going, more slowly but quite surely, to drop to pieces. If we want fresh stuff to eat next year, we shall have to grow it ourselves; and it may seem a long way off now, but there's going to come a time when we shall have to grow everything ourselves. There'll come a time, too, when all the tractors are worn out or rusted, and there's no more gas to run them, anyway - when we'll come right down to nature and bless us horses - if we've got 'em. This is a pause - just a heaven-sent pause - while we get over the first shock and start to collect ourselves, but it's no more than a pause. Later we'll have to plough; still later we'll have to learn how to make ploughshares; later than that we'll have to learn how to smelt the iron to make the shares. What we are on now is a road that will take us back and back and back until we can - if we can - make good all that we wear out. Not until then shall we be able to stop ourselves on the trail that's leading."

This is another element that might come into play in future seasons, with the winter period over perhaps Will and Astrid will have to begin thinking of terms beyond immediate survival, and look to band together with other survivors to form a community. Masen and his friends see the danger in using all their energies in keeping the triffids at bay with their electrified fences and flame-throwers, having scant little time for repairs and farming, let only teaching their children. In future instalments of the The Long Dark, perhaps the wolves will finally share one honest trait with the zombies of the Romero movies - that roving threat that seems triffling to deal with once you've got to grips with the situation, but that remain a numerous and ever present threat, and one that never allows your little band of survivors to come off the defensive and into its own. Who knows even, if the disaster continues, perhaps Hinterland will take the brave leap and flash forward a matter of years between seasons, to the time where the small community is trying to balance survival with teaching its children and ensuring the remnants of civilisation continue. As in Earth Abides, perhaps we may even get to see an elderly Will and Astrid, remembering how the world used to be whilst their children drift back to a time of superstition and tribalism. 

As it is, The Day of the Triffids  ends not with the upbeat note of the American movie adaptation where the triffid menace is somewhat implausibly melted out of existence with the judicious application of salt-water sprays, but a more thoughtful ending where humanity's fate hangs in the balance. As the survivors begin to found small colonies on the little islands surrounding Britain, finding them more manageable to keep clear of triffids, the fortunate few blind survivors who come along with them manage to more than earn their keep by adapting to their new condition, becoming  weavers, cooks and even teachers. It's a melancholy ending but has a note of small optimism. The Day of the Triffids is told in a terse, dry and low-key style that feels at times a little documentary – in keeping with much British post-apocalyptic fiction. Perhaps The Long Dark will share that slow and steady mood of trying to find hope in a seemingly hopeless landscape.

Next up is the even bleaker John Christopher book, The Death of Grass, featuring one of the rare instances in British literature of the post-apocalyptic road-trip. Please let me know if you're enjoying these. In addition, please be aware that these musings of mine are far from authoritative, and I welcome healthy, cheerful debate pointing out where I'm an blundering dunderhead for thinking something so.  I realise that most of this is frivolous speculation when it comes to The Long Dark, in reality, I'm just immensely excited that what appears to be a new work in post-apocalyptic storytelling is coming along and I'm eager to share what I feel are classics of the genre that are well worth reading.

May your tinder always be dry.

Pete

Edited by Nervous Pete
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2 hours ago, Nervous Pete said:

Please let me know if you're enjoying these.

Very much so.. please continue!

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I'm really enjoying your thoughts @Nervous Pete and also adding the books to my reading list.  I've been digging through (mostly American) 50s - 60s science fiction over the past couple years, but I can see I've missed a whole genre I'll enjoy.  Thanks for introducing the British writers, too -- these are names I'm less familiar with.

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37 minutes ago, Raphael van Lierop said:

Loved reading your thoughts @Nervous Pete! Keep going.

Hey man, twitter isn't working for me so I decided to ask you here.... when the update hits, will other regions (PV,CH,etc) have updated interiors?

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21 minutes ago, Mystery guy said:

when the update hits, will other regions (PV,CH,etc) have updated interiors?

I'm betting the answer is 'no'..  If they were, they'd have been included in the "Mysterious Disturbances Predicted" advisory warning.

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57 minutes ago, Mystery guy said:

Hey man, twitter isn't working for me so I decided to ask you here.... when the update hits, will other regions (PV,CH,etc) have updated interiors?

There have been some updates, yeah. But our focus has mainly been on the new areas. And before you ask "what areas": wait until August 1st! :coffee:

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1 minute ago, Raphael van Lierop said:

There have been some updates, yeah.

I stand corrected.. cool, looking forward to seeing them!

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53 minutes ago, Raphael van Lierop said:

There have been some updates, yeah. But our focus has mainly been on the new areas. And before you ask "what areas": wait until August 1st! :coffee:

Thanks man I appreciate the answer and also dat cute mug

 

 

IMG_0239.PNG

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@Nervous Pete Thanks, loved it. All my life, even as a little girl, I have been fascinated with the idea of post apocalyptic survival. I would go into a library and look up 'Fiction - Post nuclear war' (mostly because I did not have the word 'apocalyptic' in my vocabulary yet) and see what the had. There wasn't always a lot at my library and I read everything they had. Read 'The Postman' long before it ever became a movie, and the book of course was a billion times better. Likewise, I have always been fascinated with stories of the beginning of civilization as well, Which is also about survival in a harsh environment...and I 'ADORED' the 'Clan of the Cavebear' series. I won't even compare that awesome series with the movies they made. I could just never put those books down and I've reread all of them.

Anyway, I've looked up 'Earth Abides' and I can get it for my tablet or pc for ten bucks. I'm going to get it asap.  It sounds like everything that's right up my alley.

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And now, as release falls upon us, the next part of my ongoing catchily titled Long Dark post-apocaylptic story-telling inspiration series...

The Death of Grass & The Long Dark

It's a standard beat in any post-apocalyptic video game. The hero stumbles upon the smouldering ruins of a homestead and is beseached by a dying survivor to avenge themselves upon the raiders who did this. Quite often there's a girl who's been dragged off by the raiders who you have to rescue. All very cut and dried. 

In John Christopher's taut, tense novel, The Death of Grass (also known as No Blade of Grass in the US) takes place in an England ravaged by a virus that destroys all forms of the grass genus. Where there were once rolling green fields there is nothing now but the dark naked soil. No more rice, no more wheat, no more fodder for the cattle. Root vegetables remain unaffected, but for a nation that imports more than half its food requirements, panic and violent anarchy soon smother the land. The chilling atmosphere of the novel, dispassionate and brutally practical, is emphasised early on in the novel at a  dinner party discussion held whilst the diseases is still confined to China.

“Nothing official. It’s supposed to be in flames. And at Hong Kong they’ve had to repel attacks across the frontier.” 

“A genteel way of putting it,” John said grimly. “Did you ever see those old pictures of the rabbit plagues in Australia? Wire-netting fences ten feet high, and rabbits – hundreds, thousands of rabbits – piled up against them, leap-frogging over each other until in the end either they scaled the fences or the fences went down under their weight. That’s Hong Kong right now, except that it’s not rabbits piled against the fence but human beings.”

“Do you think it’s as bad as that?” David asked.

“Worse, if anything. The rabbits only advanced under the blind instinct of hunger. Men are intelligent, and because they’re intelligent you have to take sterner measures to stop them. I suppose they’ve got plenty of ammunition for their guns, but it’s certain they won’t have enough.”

“You think Hong Kong will fall?”

“I’m sure it will. The pressure will build up until it has to. They may machine gun them from the air first, and dive-bomb them and drop napalm on them, but for every one they kill there will be a hundred trekking in from the interior to replace him.”

“Napalm!” Ann said. “Oh, no.”

It seems unimaginable that such horror would be visited upon Britain's shores, but, as with the rest of the British Endzeit writers (love that term) the idea that Britain is somehow impervious to catastrophe is a dangerous and arrogant folly, and Christopher sees to it that the once green and pleasant land is spared none of the horror. John Custance gets a heads up of the oncoming storm when a governmental employee leaks to a journalist friend of his that the anti-virals have failed and the promised shipments of grain from the US are being cancelled, and that there is the possibility of the cities being hydrogen bombed to reduce the population to a manageable level. Living in London, Custance has no desire to go down with the rest, and with signs of barriers being about to be erected on the roads leading out, he teams up with Roger, the journalist, and a gun-shop owner named Pirie, and they gather their families and attempt a break out. But break out to where? Custance feels he has the answer as his brother owns a farm-hold with plenty of root crops, hidden in a defendable valley deep in the Lake District. 


As the plan is Custance's, he quickly becomes de-facto leader of the small band, ably aided by the oddly charming and mildly psychopathic natural born killer, Curie.  Curie, is a world away from the standard, bearded, 'don't tread on me!' gun shop owner cliche. Looking rather like a mild-mannered Alec Guinness, the sixty-odd year old rarely barks and converses in polite, civilised discourse. But his bite is lethal. Ann Custance, John's wife, is a voice of morality tragically lost in the new dog-eat-dog order of things, fearful of what the over-riding need to keep his family safe is doing to her husband. Between them Mr Custance attempts to remain true to his civilised self, whilst allowing for the reasonable application of violent force necessary to keep his small band fed and alive.


And then later we find John Custance murdering a husband and wife for their food. In a strange manifestation of guilty responsibility, the wife begs the orphan daughter to come along with them. She does, and is absorbed into 'the tribe'. Presumably this homestead is where the player would later enter, following clues to destroy the villains who committed the atrocity. But there are no heroes in 'The Death of Grass'. The awful prospect of starvation makes murderers of most. There's a sickening and inescapable logic in Custance's actions, a logic the reader cannot deny. The reader can only hope, like Custance fervently does, that once they reach the valley sanctuary, they can put the killing behind them. But there is something else working at Custance, an insidious satisfaction that he tries to deny... he  possibly likes being leader, even if it is in this awful new world. And before long he finds himself with almost a feudal following of knights to do his bidding and serfs to feed and clothe him. 

In this brave new world there are only the quick and the dead. But whilst empathy and compassion are dead, honesty has become  - interestingly - a valued commodity for all in survival. As once tense exchange has it between two parties passing each other on the moors...

The second group was bigger than their own. There were about a dozen people in it, all adults, and several guns were in evidence. This encounter happened in the afternoon, a few miles east of Aysgarth. Apparently this group was crossing the road on their way south to Bishopdale. They halted on the road, surveying the approach of John and the others.

John motioned his own group to a stop, about twenty yards away from them. There was a pause of observation. Then one of the men who faced them called:
'Where are ye from?'

John said: 'London.'

There was a ripple of hostile interest. Their leader said:  'There's little enough to be got in these parts for those who live here, without Londoners coming up scavenging.'

John made no reply. He hefted his shot-gun up under his arm, and Roger and Pirrie followed suit They stared at the other group in silence.

'Where are ye making for?' the man asked them.

'We're going over the moors,' John said, 'into Westmorland.'

'There'll be nought more there than there is here.' His gaze was on the guns, longingly. 'If you can use those weapons, we might be willing to have you join up with us.'

'We can use them,' John said. 'But we prefer to stay on our own.'

'Safety in numbers these days.' John did not reply. 'Safer for the kiddies, and all.'
'We can look after them,' John said.

The man shrugged. He gestured to his followers, and they began to move off the road in their original direction. He himself prepared to follow them. At the road's edge, he paused, and turned back. 'Hey, mister!' he called. 'Any news?'

It was Roger who replied: 'None, but that the world's grown honest.'

The man's face cracked into a laugh. 'Ay, that's good. Then is doomsday near!'

This exchange of pleasantries instances just one of several encounters Custance's party makes. Not all are as affable as this. Sometimes Custance's tribe journeys past rape and murder, and they do nothing to interfere. The chaos is universal, only futility and death lay in trying to stop it. Still, despite the hardened, grim nature of Custance's band, they are still beset by desperate pleas from others to allow them to join their group.Supplicants they frequently have to scare off with the brandishing of a shotgun or two. One memorable encounter follows, in which I'm happy to say that those pleading their case come out of the affair with what they want,  but in the manner of which I'm not going to divulge. In a way, this exchange summarises the themes of the entire novel...


'All this trouble,' one of the women said. 'It won't last long, will it?'

Roger looked down into the valley. 'Only till hell freezes over.'

'Where was you thinking of heading?' asked the older man. 'Were you thinking of going into Yorkshire as well?'

John said: 'No. We've come from there.'

'We're not bothered about which way we go, for that matter. We only thought it might be quieter across the Pennines.'

'Yes. It might.'

The mother of the two children spoke: 'What my father means is — do you think we could go whichever way you're going? It would mean there was more of us, if we ran into any trouble. I mean — you must be looking for a quiet place, too. You're respectable people, not like those down there. Respectable folk should stick together at a time like this.'

John said: 'There are something like fifty million people in this country. Probably over forty-nine million of them are respectable, and looking for a quiet place. There aren't enough quiet places to go round.'

'Yes, that's why it's better for folks to stick together. Respectable folk.'

'How long have you been on the road?' John asked her.

She looked puzzled. 'We started this morning — we could see fires in Sedburgh, and they were burning the Follins farm, and that's not more than three miles from the village.'

'We've had three days' start on you. We aren't respectable any longer. We've killed people on our way here, and we may have to kill more. I think you'd better carry on by yourselves, as you were doing.'

They stared at him. The older man said at last: 'I suppose you had to. I suppose a man's got to save himself and his family any way he can. They got me on killing in the First War, and the Jerries hadn't burned Sedburgh then, nor the Follins farm. If you've got to do things, then you've got to.'

John did not reply. At the wall, the two children were playing with the others, scrambling up and along the wall and down in a complicated kind of obstacle race. Ann saw his glance, and rose to come towards him.

'Can we go with you?' the man said. 'We'll do as you say — I don't mind killing if it's necessary, and we can do our share of the work. We don't mind which way you're going — it's all the same as far as we're concerned. Apart from being in the army, I've lived all my life in Carbeck. Now I've had to leave it, it doesn't matter where I go.'

'How many guns have you got?' John asked.

He shook his head. 'We haven't got any guns.'

'We've got three, to look after six adults and four children. Even that isn't enough. That's why we're waiting here — to find others who've got guns and who will join up with us. I'm sorry, but we can't take passengers.'

'We wouldn't be passengers! I can turn my hand to most things. I can shoot, if you can come by another gun. I was a sharpshooter in the Fusiliers.'
'If you were by yourself, we might have you. As it is, with four women and two more children… we can't afford to take on extra handicaps.'

The rain had stopped, but the sky remained grey and formless, and it was rather cold. The younger man, who had still not spoken, shivered and pulled his dirty raincoat more tightly round him.

The other man said desperately: 'We've got food. In the pram — half a side of bacon.'

'We have enough. We killed to get it, and we can kill again.' The mother said: 'Don't turn us down. Think of the children. You wouldn't turn us down with the children.'

'I'm thinking of my own children,' John said. 'If I were able to think of any others, there would be millions I could think of. If I were you, I should get moving. If you're going to find your quiet place, you want to find it before the mob does.'

They looked at him, understanding what he said but unwilling to believe that he could be refusing them. Ann said, close beside him: 'We could take them, couldn't we? The children…' He looked at her. 'Yes — I haven't forgotten what I said — about Spooks. I was wrong.'

'No,' John said. 'You were right There's no place for pity now.'

With horror, she said: 'Don't say that.'

He gestured towards the smoke, rising in the valley. 'Pity always was a luxury. It's all right if the tragedy's a comfortable distance away — if you can watch it from a seat in the cinema. It's different when you find it on your doorstep — on every doorstep.'

Olivia had also come over from the wall. Jane, who had made little response to Olivia, following her morning of walking with Pirrie, also left the wall, but went and stood near Pirrie. He glanced at her, but said nothing.

Olivia said: 'I can't see that it would hurt to let them tag along. And they might be some help.'

'They let the boy come on the road in plimsolls,' John said, 'in this weather. You should have understood by now, Olivia, that it's not only the weakest but the least efficient as well who are going to go to the wall. They couldn't help us; they could hinder.'

The boy's mother said: 'I told him to put his boots on. We didn't see that he hadn't until we were a couple of miles from the village. And then we daren't go back.'
John said wearily: 'I know. I'm simply saying that there's no scope for forgetting to notice things any more. If you didn't notice the boy's feet, you might not notice something more important. And every one of us might die as a result. I don't feel like taking the chance. I don't feel like taking any chances.'

Olivia said: 'Roger…'

Roger shook his head. 'Things have changed in the last three days. When Johnny and I tossed that coin for leadership, I didn't take it seriously. But he's the boss now, isn't he? He's willing to take it all on his conscience, and that lets the rest of us out. He's probably right, anyway.'

The newcomers had been following the interchange with fascination. Now the older man, seeing in Roger's acquiescence the failure of their hopes, turned away, shaking his head. The mother of the children was not so easily shaken off.

'We can follow you,' she said. 'We can stay here till you move and then follow you. You can't stop us doing that.'

John said: You'd better go now. It won't do any good talking.'

'No, we'll stay! You can't make us go.'

Pirrie intervened, for the first time: 'We cannot make you go; but we can make you stay here after we've gone.' He touched his rifle. 'I think you would be wiser to go now.'

The woman said, but lacking conviction: 'You wouldn't do it.'

Ann said bitterly: 'He would. We depend on him. You'd better go.'

Phew. Sorry, but it's a great section of the novel, and I couldn't bear to trim it by much. But how does this play into The Long Dark? Well, the novel is a lesson in how we may consider ourselves good people, but that description truthfully perhaps only applies so long as we are not pushed into a situation of desperate extremity. We all, or at least most of us,  like to play an RPG as a 'Paragon', trying to unlock our shining halo in the Mass Effect universe, becoming beloved by all. I have a feeling The Long Dark isn't going to allow this option, and that we may have to make some grim choices in our journey that might not leave us feeling easy about ourselves. Hinterland may even get a little backlash if this occurs, by those who want to play the more traditional hero. But such dilemmas are truthful and vital to the situation Will and Astrid find themselves in, and that we'd find ourselves in come a real Long Dark. John Christopher's novel is an excellent primer for this. And oddly, for all the grim themes, it's not a depressing novel. Filled with plenty of wry humour and tension, evocatively depicted and some gripping characterisation, it provides grim satisfaction. As to the ending... do they live happily ever after you might ask? Well, I'm not telling - other than to say what transpires is both expected and unexpected, and the finale confirms this title as one of the great if sadly forgotten instances of post-apocalyptic fiction.


Indeed, a film was made about it, although sadly so ineptly and betraying of the original message that apparently John Christopher could watch no more than fifteen minutes of it. After this grim, grim tale, John Christopher, like Wyndham, went in to writing children's fiction with the excellent post-apocalypse adventure 'The Tripods Trilogy'. This confirms a trait in English story-telling. Once you've traumatised the adults, one must not spare the children either. 
As far as other British post-apocalyptic fiction I could also speak about Margaret Atwood's post-apocalyptic fiction, but to be honest her novels genuinely gave me a breakdown when I read them, Oryx & Crake particularly, and I have no desire to read or even speak of them again. They are brilliant works of fiction that just rend me and destroy me, much like Tanith Lee's post-apocalyptic short story work. In fact, one thing I've learned is that if you truly wish to be devastated, read a science fiction novel written by a woman. They have a blade in their words that penetrates deeper and cuts quicker than the man's. But that could just be me. J. G. Ballard is also mandatory reading  - with his novel The Crystal World being a special highlight, where the world, starting in Africa, gradually turns into crystal with time-distorting results. 

Finally, for a post-apocalyptic tale that is close to the heart of The Long Dark, made in the UK and encapsulating the lengths at which British television programming will go to terrifying children is, The Changes, which features a strange mind-altering impulse that appears from nowhere and causes all adults everywhere to go on a technology destroying rampage, demolishing cars, trains, television sets, toasters... everything. A young girl wanders a ruined post-technology country, trying to eke out a survival. Because Brit kids TV! Please find a one minute trailer below for the DVD...

 


So next time you complain about the wolves acting irrationally due to things in the sky, just thank your lucky stars you don't have some pipe-smoking bloke trashing your Trappers Cabin while you're out. As bongo drums play.

And now I notice that The Long Dark has finally released. Hurrah! There may be more installments as to inspiration to come before I review story mode in its own right, but I hope this has given people some things to chew over. Especially those at work manically refreshing non-spoiler topics before they can get home to play for themselves. Again, I'm probably hilariously wrong in most of my musings, but I hope you've found them of some enjoyment. 


May the wolf always be looking the other way,


Pete
 

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Thanks  Pete, for all the new books and movies to watch..

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