I will try to make this review as concise as possible; however I think this game is quite significant and deserves some treatment from a view of theories of narrative and storytelling and how those interact with/in effective game design.
I just finished Wintermute and I am looking forward to playing the entire story through again (I've read the Lord of the Rings 5 times; I will play this at least twice).
Q: Why is this an incredible game-story?
A: To the extent that it follows through on the -story end of the formula.
The story is a story not only about Will and Astrid's drama. For anyone who has played Survival for many hours (that fortunate core community who have seen the game through development), the evolution of the world in the game is itself a deeper part of the story.
The most amazing thing is the way that the story mode interacts with and selectively violates normal Survival mode's expectations and activities, at a higher level than Survival mode, thus telling a 'story of survival' on many levels. The story systematically violates your expectations of the game rules just as the elements WITHIN survival mode violate your expectations within the game rules. But the way the story does so is to force you to let go of things, to move on, to follow the story forward in a way that did not happen in survival mode, where you can always go back to things you stored, crafted, etc. You take part in the difficult journey of choosing what to hold on to and what to leave behind.
This means that story mode is ABOUT survival mode, meta- to it, above and encompassing. But at the same time, the relation loops around, because, particularly if you have played the game for a long time, but I imagine even if you are a totally new player, seeing the way landscapes you know well are subtly altered and 'completed' for the story is the underlying truth of the story.
The landscapes were already 'familiar' to us when we first began playing the Beta - that look of half-tone posters from the 70s, evoking a bit of the feeling of The Shining, and even experience of the Canadian (or North American) landscape itself (camping, travelling, etc.) So the familiarity is in the case of Wintermute multiplied as the landscape transforms into something alien.
It's good that Will remains silent about the sublime beauty of the landscape and that all we hear are his complaints and plain justified self-assurance. What can one say to do justice to these landscapes? The scene with the lamplit forest path, when you first witness the aurorae, is what? "transcendent"? "ethereal"? Adjectives proliferate without getting to the experience. And this experience, shot through with violence and pain and necessity and strangeness, is of course the story itself.
I teach philosophy and cultural studies and one of the items I do focus on now and again is that the great barrier to game-story creation is that games follow rules that stories do not need to follow, or must even violate. Wintermute respects the sovereignty of the storyline without sacrificing the intricate, yet elegant and simple digitization of survival factors, inventory, combat etc. In-game events that most resemble Survival mode (tracking a deer, only to be attacked by a wolf, for example) are drawn up into the propelling arc of the story. One feels something like the pull one feels at the end of the chapter of a great book, wanting to see the outcome. What lies beyond the dam?
The Robinson-Crusoe/Odyssey/Oryx&Crake/archetypal 'survivor narrative' is mobilized with great effectiveness by The Long Dark, to the point that it even includes the process of gameplay and development. The 'stranded survivor' myth fits so well the general solitude of the experience of gaming, and gives us a way to talk about it. A few people embarked on a risky adventure to do and see something new, and lived to tell the tale, an imaginative tribute to the Canadian post-industrial landscape and the strangeness and troubling quality of its future.
Can't wait for the next episode!!