Thoughts on Wintermute


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Overall, I’m really happy with the experience. Much like the challenge modes, story mode provides a great reason to keep exploring and going out day after day for adventures. The lore surrounding the world is wonderful and the setting is well realized. I have two criticisms that I want to give some feedback on. Spoiler warning! Don't read unless you've finished the story so far. 

Wintermute’s Story

One of the things that struck me initially about The Long Dark was in the vision articulated in the Development Diary . It is described as filling a gap where there is no game today that is a “survival simulation”. Being concerned about day to day survival is what really clicks in this game. You might have long term goals. But unless it can be completed in a day, you’re thinking about what you are going to achieve today to get closer to it. Nothing more.  Now playing the story written for this world, the urgency in the narrative seems unnatural. Astrid is so desperate to get to Great Bear, she won’t even wait for Will to make up his mind before going on without him. Will is left with a hardcase and a load of questions he’s not supposed to ask. If the hardcase was so important, how could Astrid leave it behind? How could she leave him behind? The long term goal is quite clear, and so off we go. 

The game then puts 5 days narrative distance between its opening sequence and letting the player loose. This is necessary to get across the dizzying amount of moving parts ticking behind this survival simulation. References to days quickly disappear, because the story can’t predict when things will happen. The game doesn’t track how long you’ve survived in this mode. That isn’t the point. 

But this pushes against the urgency in the narrative. The story encourages the player to hurry. The rules of the game force the player to slow down. There’s a term for this. Ludonarrative Dissonance. It’s hard to inhabit Will as a character, because his motivation is at odds with much of what he’s doing.  As the tutorial ends and the player is given full control, you might run straight to Milton. I suspect the intent is that you run straight to Milton. Why else would you leave the player without a bedroll, at midday, with no knowledge of shelter in the area. Why have the path stay linear just long enough to hit a road.  Any player who understood their situation would follow that road.

But the game’s systems teach the player to be careful, search your environment thoroughly, gather resources. It had to break the rules around sleep temporarily to do that. I thought that might have been confusing for a lot of players, who might not have understood just how dire their circumstances were having survived 5 days in a ravine with little trouble. The inclusion of a bedroll now is a sign of Hinterland’s responsiveness to these issues. I think The Long Dark wrote itself a little just then.
It seems like there’s a strong desire to have these conflicting emotions work. A core message is for the player to ask themselves what they’re willing to do to survive. The player’s first major decision comes as they are offered the choice to rob a gas station for food. The easy choice is frowned upon. The urgency of moving on, versus the diligence to maintain your values. 

Milton is a great example of Hinterland’s care to construct a picture that tells a story. You are given indications of who worked where, and who lived where. But the trust system and the game’s sidequests encourage you to take the time to exist in this simulation, rather than press on with the task at hand.I couldn’t hold on to a sense of urgency for finding Astrid. Not one that is appropriate given the opening, or seeing a message written in blood. So Will’s motivation for helping the people he encounters starts to fade. Mine becomes about the reward. Tell me more about Milton, and give me that sweet pair of mountain boots. Astrid can wait.

The Aurora is a much better element. It’s a mystery to be solved. Mysteries require exploration and clue finding. The narrative shines the most as you explore the struggles between the Forest Talkers and the industrialization represented by Carter Hydro Energy. The setup of having the Aurora provide the benefit of technology becoming active, alongside the elevated dangers represented by the wildlife. 

I want to explore both the narrative implications of the Aurora and how it can change the gameplay as more options open up. It’s random and rare occurrence ensures the day to day survival remains in focus. Nobody can rely on their flashlight forever. Plus it makes it much more beautiful when it’s unexpected and your mind buzzes with the opportunities it opens up. 

The Wolf Struggle

The Wolf Struggle has been a challenge throughout the development of The Long Dark. New players were frequently unsure about what they were supposed to do. Several iterations on the struggle mechanic worked to first simplify the interaction, then to make it as intuitive as possible. The ability to select weapons addresses a source of player confusion. But all this is a distraction. The smartest thing to do is avoid wolf struggles altogether. 

This is by design. The wolf struggle costs you condition. A struggle of any length risks a range of afflictions. In return you might kill the wolf. Wolves offer 4-6kg of meat that is barely more nourishing per pound than rabbit meat. It also risks giving you parasites at higher difficulties. Even if you’re hunting wolves, you don’t intend on it ending in hand to hand combat. The game offers you a broad range of options to avoid wolf struggles, and Hinterland stress the use of flares and torches. The mechanics of avoiding wolves are complex. It’s a skill that takes time to learn. But you can avoid wolf struggles almost entirely.  

Bear struggles don’t receive this much attention. Following Jeremiah’s advice on hunting bears will result in multiple maulings. Experienced players will employ better strategies. Still, hunting the Old Bear is considered a high point from both quest design and gameplay. I’ve suggested this before, but I don’t understand why the wolf struggle needs to involve the player at all. It is an interaction that is difficult to teach. It is an event that should be rare. The player’s attention shouldn’t be on what to do when they get into one. 

Looking forward to the continuation of the story. I’m hoping for some more complex narrative threads and loving the direction its going. All the best. 

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This is a pretty spot on analysis, as ludonarrative dissonance is a great definition of what I felt during my playthrough. Following the story (that I felt enjoyable) seems to work against the survival part instead of being complementary and smoothly intertwined. It felt like playing two different games with their own great mechanics, but failing at reconciling them in a greater whole.

In the end, I enjoyed my playthrough despite having the feeling of being a beta tester for a "finished game" and I'm curious to see where the story will go. I'll reserve my final judgement for the end of episode five. Hopefully it'll be worth the wait.

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Here's the thing though, as time goes on Will seems to learn what's going on. A Quiet APOCALYPSE, where society is collapsing around him. I feel that by the end of Episode 2 it's less of a rush to find Astrid but more a long term goal. "I'm no hero. Just looking for someone, trying to survive I'm the meantime." 

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I hope so. I hope there is a clear narrative turning point that resolves the initial motivations. I was cringing as Will expressed frustration and impatience with Jeremiah not helping him unless he killed the Old Bear. There are all these indications that something much larger is going on. I feel like if their reasons for going to Great Bear weren't fuelled with so much importance, it would make more narrative sense for him to start off focused on his own recovery, and then becoming  intrigued by the mystery of Great Bear Island and hardened through his experiences. 

But because  his core motivation has remained reconnecting with Astrid, it just clashes. That is fuelled by his sense of guilt over not seeking her out earlier (established in the intro). That is fuelled by the clear indication that the hardcase is vital for her reasons for wanting to be on Great Bear. It's fuelled by her hurry to get on with things,and the desperation indicated by the events of episode 1. It just feels like the writers loaded up the narrative with an urgency that isn't properly resolved over a dozen hours of play and weeks of in-game time passing.

Imagine if instead the opening was that Will had been flying out to Great Bear because Astrid was already there and needed to get out? Obviously the story is already written and this would likely clash with where it was going. But then the motivation is Will wants to get to Astrid and get off the island. He's not bound by this hardcase and the responsibility of ensuring Astrid can finish what she was doing. So it makes more sense that he'd take all these detours to work out what's going on. At this point it's not even clear if Astrid's original intentions have anything to do with the Aurora mystery or the struggles going on. 

I guess I'll have to wait to see where they take it and how this tension gets resolved. 


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