Sam's Winter- Reflections, Impressions, and Mini-Review


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My love affair with the survival genre began when I was a wee lad. I was in Grade 5 at the time and all of my classmates were reading and talking non-stop about a book called The Hatchet by Gary Paulsen. For those of you who don't know anything about the book, basically it's about a teenage boy who's flying over the Canadian wilderness in a small aircraft when it runs into a bunch of geese and crashes into a lake. The pilot kicks it, and he has to survive on his own, turning into a quintessential tale of man versus nature. Now at this age I wasn't much of a reader (boy how things change), in fact, I had never finished a real book from cover to cover. But seeing as how reading was really cool all of a sudden I didn't want to be left in the dust, but I had a better idea in my developing brain-- I'd read the sequel to The Hatchet first and get a leg up on most everyone, and somehow be magically cooler. The book was called Brian's Winter, and it was basically a continuation of The Hatchet story into the winter months as if Brian (the protagonist) was not rescued prior to the onset of winter. Being no stranger to camping, and growing up in Winnipeg, Canada where the winters are long and extremely cold I could really feel the tone of this novel and was instantly captivated. I'll never forget the part how Brian learns to make jerky, or how he pisses to mark his territory to keep away the wolves. Not only did I devour this book, but I ended up reading it multiple times along with the rest of the books in the series. In fact, as I think back on this it was this book that probably made me fall in love with literature in the first place.

Fast-forward 20 years later. I'm absent-mindedly flipping through games I haven't heard of on Steam, looking for something new and interesting to play in an effort to procrastinate on all of the very important things I should be doing. I come across The Long Dark, and the reviews are overwhelmingly positive, something like 10000-600 positive to negative. Oh, look, the game is tagged as survival... how very intriguing. Needless to say, having sunk close to 350 hours into DayZ and countless more into all of its spinoffs I'm a big fan of the genre. But the thing that those games always lacked was a sense of true realism; for me it was never about zombies, or torturing other players (though that did have its charm), but about experiencing what it means to survive under dire circumstances. From skimming through a few of the reviews, it seems that this game manages to do the job. Dare I say it, maybe I’ve found Brian’s Winter in the form of a videogame? Even though I had sworn to myself that I’d never buy another Alpha product after DayZ, I decide to gamble with my $20 and see. I set up the game to download and go to dinner. On my way out the door I decide I’m not going to read a single thing about the game’s mechanics, and let this be a journey of discovery. This is an aside, but perhaps the single greatest impediment to enjoying modern gaming is the fact that all surprises are ruined in advance by wikis and reviews. So let me just say, in the event that you haven’t tried this game yet and the concept of it sounds at all appealing to you, stop reading now, and go buy it and play it.

I get home around 9:30, and prep myself to play. I turn off all the lights in my place, put on my surround sound headset, and boot up the game. I look out of my study window and see a light snowfall amidst the twilight, which definitely added to the ambiance. Oh, cool, looks like this is a Canadian made game! Oh, even cooler, the devs are aware of the fact that wolves don’t normally act like they do in The Grey! The menu loads and I’m instantly gripped by ominous serenity of the cabin in the wind. I click my way through to the Sandbox mode, select Mystery Lake, and put it on Stalker setting. I want this to be the real deal, I think to myself, and further resolve to never play it on any difficulty setting less than that.

The game loads up and I’m on a snowy slope in the middle of a sunny, clear, cold, winter day (note: for all you aspiring survivalists out there, a clear winter day generally means much colder temperatures). I hit tab and take a few minutes to explore the menu, making careful note of my status and belongings. There’s a lot of conditions here, and my mind immediately goes to all of the ways that I’m liable to meet my certain end. I begin to walk down the path and break branches and collect sticks. Before I know it I’m at a clearcut area of trees, aptly named The Clearout. Okay, I guess this game isn’t procedurally generated like Minecraft, it seems the maps are set just like Chernarus (as supposed to having selected a Mystery Lake-type biome). I stop before moving further into the area: are those tree stumps or predators? Ah just tree stumps, danger lurking around every corner my ass. I see a billboard directing me to something up a mountain path, and I begin the climb. I’m sprinting the whole way up, thinking that the spring bar is independent of my vitals— I really should have known better. I hear the sounds of heavy breathing as I make the trek; even though the path is clear, this won’t be an effortless stroll. My character begins to tell me how cold he is. I get to the Forestry Lookout tower, and as I’m searching the base of it I come across a frozen corpse. I rummage through the body only to find nothing, wondering why I can’t strip it naked and double up on my clothing (food for thought if you’re reading this devs). I climb up the staircase and enter into the cabin, the temperature drops to a balmy -1, which is a good thing seeing as I’m pretty much frozen to the bone at this point. I’m walking around the cabin and taking note of all of the goodies scattered about (including a hunting knife), the containers, and that very inviting stove that’s just begging to be lit up. The stove coupled with the frozen body outside brings back a middle school memory this time: the Cremation of Sam McGee. For those who have never read this poem, it was never orated better by anyone than the legendary Mr. Cash:

And then I see it, mounted on the wall: a rifle and conveniently located right next to it a box of bullets. “Wow, sure was easy to find a weapon, I wonder if I lucked out?” I’d learn the answer to this question very quickly in my next few playthroughs. But before I ventured outside to fire off a few rounds, I had to do something about how frickin’ cold I am. Learning very quickly that I can’t light a fire indoors, I go back outside to light one instead (again devs, this is one of those things that should be restricted to wooden houses rather than places like The Dam). I get the fire started, throw on a couple of logs, and figure I’ll sit by it for a while and become nice and toasty. I can’t remember what action I did to run the clock forward, but by the time the sequence was done I seemed to have contracted hypothermia (critical mistake #1— fires don’t work the same as in DayZ, apparently).

Figuring that I now I have a death sentence on my head I figure I might as well get out there and fire off a few rounds before I meet my end. I did see some crows before, maybe I can pick one of those off and make some wings? To save some time rather than taking the pathway down I decide I can probably scale down the side of the mountain safely. It doesn’t look too steep, right? This was critical mistake #2. I didn’t plunge into a free fall, but somehow I managed to sprain my ankle and my wrist on the way down. Oh, looks like I can’t use my gun now. Superb.

There I am at the back at the base of the hill in The Clearout, battered, bruised, and lungs filling up with fluid. I begin to walk back to the slope that I first started in when I see in the distance what looks like a tree stump… is it moving? Nope, that’s most definitely a wolf. Speaking of The Grey, I decide to channel my inner Liam Nieson and try my luck. I begin to approach the wolf when it catches wind of me coming up behind it. It turns, stares at me, and begins to growl. It feels terrifyingly real. The scene from 300 comes to mind: “It's been more than thirty years since the wolf and the winter cold.” Before I know it the wolf is charging me, how the hell do I draw my knife?! When BOOM- it’s on me, mauling my face in QTE fashion, which I did not expect. I’m frantically clicking and stabbing at it, fighting for what little remains of my life. After what feels like minutes staring into the snarling jaws of a feral beast I send it whimpering and bleeding into the trees. I’ve definitely got the worst of the exchange: multiple bites, bleeding, and a possible infection. I know I’m not long for this world.

In a post skirmish fog I try to follow that wolf further up the slope as he retreats, hoping that I can take the bastard with me. My heart is beating louder now and my vision is becoming increasingly blurry. The wolf has high tailed it, though; my thirst for revenge never to be sated. As I turned back down the path I desperately hope that maybe by some concentrated force of will I’d be able to make it back up to the lookout to survive. But at this point I my vision was so blurry I could barely see, and I knew my end would be upon me soon. It was at this precise moment that my character remarked something to the effect of, "In the end, was it really worth it?" Before I could fully digest the thought and mull over all of the existential undertones of the game all faded to darkness. My life suddenly ended without fanfare in a way that is probably a bit too real. Looks like I managed to live a whopping 4 hours. Nowhere to go from here but up.

I’ve had about a dozen other playthroughs since then, somehow finding new ways to die each time. Be it by starvation, cold, mauling, shock, or bleeding out in my sleep it has seemed that despite my best efforts to “cheat” death (or more accurately outmaneuver a pack of very pissed off wolves) it always seems to find me. One minute I’d be perfectly fine-- fed, watered, warm, and rested— and the next minute I’d find myself caught with my (proverbial) ass hanging out in a deadly blizzard and end up freezing to death faster than you can say “Farley Mowat”.

I’ve had two particularly memorable moments so far. The first was when it was an extremely hazy dawn, and I was crouched and moving along the perimeter of the lake. I couldn’t see more than 20 feet in front of me but I knew that there were wolves nearby, not to mention that I could hear them on the wind. The slow crawl was extremely tense as I full well expected to have my face ripped off without warning at any minute. Knees weak, I wanted to eat spaghetti, I was nervous. But somehow miraculously I made it to one of the houses on the shore and scrambled inside before another “scientific” encounter with a canine lupus. After many hours spent indoors resting, warming, and breaking down things for fun, I stepped out outside. It was a bright day and I could very easily see 3 wolves patrolling what seemed like every corner of the ice. It was honestly a god damn miracle I made it across in the first place— eat your heart out Solid Snake. The second memory that stands out was how I met my end on my longest life, which was just under 2 days. I saw the dam in the distance and tried to make a beeline for it. Ended up fighting 2 wolves and barely surviving. When I stumbled inside I notice it was +1, probably the warmest conditions I’d be in in the entire game. I’m foraging through the room adjacent to the entry way, finding all manner of useful items. All right, things are looking up. As I’m searching the area I do hear what sounds like movement, but the optimist in me thinks “you’re just being paranoid, don’t worry, it’s probably just the wind or the sound of a creaky old dam”. Of course it wasn’t, which became painfully evident when I turned around only to be face to face with the glowing eyes of a very ornery wolf. This basically scared the shit out of me, so I wasn’t at all surprised when my character died of shock from the ensuing attack. In retrospect, I’d say the 5 key things I’ve learned from my misadventures are:

1) Unless you absolutely must, don’t ever venture out at night.

2) Always check the temperature before stepping outside.

3) Coffee is orgasmically good.

4) You have 1 shot against a wolf. Make it count.

5) And most importantly, don’t sprint, like ever, unless you really have to— not only will it take its toll on you physically, but as soon as your stamina is low, a wolf WILL find you.

Although my experience is limited to Mystery Lake and I plan on playing it many more times before moving onto another map. I still haven’t looked at a map or wiki, and honestly, I don’t think I ever will— figuring out where to go and how to survive has been too much fun. But perhaps one of the best parts of the game for me is that even though I’ve met my abrupt end many times, that I’ve never felt cheated. Every time I’ve died I’ve thought to myself, “I could’ve handled that better” or “I could’ve been smarter”.

One common criticism I've read about TLD is the somewhat aimless nature of sandbox mode. One reviewer said that “surviving another day” is not enough incentive to keep playing, which is a sentiment I wholeheartedly disagree with. The single strongest human urge is the will to survive, and this game does an outstanding job of stressing the fragility of life and testing your will to persevere. Because of the random elements of the game, each time you play it you’re likely to have new experiences. I’m sure eventually that would get old as you begin to learn the patterns, and that’s where adding new features to the game and new maps will add staying power. In the future I see no reason why this game and its mechanics couldn’t be expanded to other environments (desert, jungle, etc.). While I do feel this game would benefit from a cooperative multiplayer mode as well, it should be limited to no more than 2 people to maintain that secluded/desperate feeling. Even though I’m loving the “choose my own adventure” mode that is sandbox, I can’t wait to see what the devs do with the story mode.

All in all, I highly recommend this game. I really hope it sells well because I want to see it supported. It may feel a niche, but it fills it in a way that a lot of other games have simply tried and failed to do. As soon as it goes on sale again, many of my friends will be getting it.

If you’ve stuck with me this long, thanks for listening to me ramble on. If anyone wants to chat about the game, or share a can of baked beans, feel free to add me on Steam (ID: OnionThief) or shoot me a message.

See you in the wilderness,


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Hey Sam, thanks so much for sharing your feedback and experience. Sounds like you're learning a lot of valuable lessons, and I'm sure there will be a few new players that appreciate your advice. The kind words and support are also appreciated - Word of mouth and Steam reviews are highly valued, so we're always glad to hear people are enjoying and discussing the game.

Looking forward to hearing more from you. Let us know if you have any questions, and feel free to share any future thoughts or ideas you might have.

Welcome to the forums =)

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