Monday, 28 November 2016

The Long Dark

Imagine you are trapped in Canada. It's freezing cold and you're in danger of being eaten by wolves. You have to eat mushrooms to survive. You are forced to break into people's houses and search through their drawers for cans of lighter fluid. Eventually you go mad and gnaw off your own legs, all because beer is very expensive and everyone is polite all the time.

This nightmare is a daily reality for millions of Canadians, and now the rest of us can experience it thanks to Hinterland Studios' The Long Dark, a new video game set in Canada. I say new; it's been around since late 2014 and is one of those early access alpha titles, a bit like DayZ, but because it's from Canada it's a lot nicer. Your biggest enemy in The Long Dark is your own stupid self. You could have stayed indoors a few hours longer; you didn't have to climb all the way up that rope in one go; you could have avoided that bear instead of shooting him in the arse.

The Long Dark is a survival game that takes place in the great open wilderness. Unlike DayZ it's a lot more focused, a lot more polished, and it doesn't have zombies or any other players because it's a single-player game. There's just you, some rabbits, some wolves, some bears, some deer, some crows, some fish, and that's all the living creatures there are in the game, not counting plants. There are no zombies unless you pretend that the wolves are zombie wolves, or the frozen corpses you find frozen in the frozen wilderness are frozen zombies. You can't wake them up by lighting fires next to them. I've tried. It doesn't work.

The emphasis is on surviving against the elements, mostly the cold. The survival mechanisms are simple and easy to understand - the interface shows you which items you need and what you need to do, and for the most part you just click a button to implement them - but at the same time the game is broad enough that it doesn't get boring too quickly. You can survive for a long time just by searching empty cars and buildings for food. You can also supplement your loot by crafting things yourself, although once again a lot of the materials you need can be found lying around, at least initially.

Alas the loot generally doesn't respawn - matches seem to be the weak link - and so there's an upper limit to how long your man (or woman) can survive, but the same is true of real life. You, dear reader, have a finite lifespan. You are going to die. And then wolves will eat your body, and then they will die, and eventually everything will die. That is Canada in a nutshell. There is no hope for long term survival in Canada. The people who live there are fools for trying.

The Long Dark is an unusually attractive game. It has a distinctive visual language that can best be described as chunky. The interiors have a bold-brush painterly style reminiscent of point-and-click adventures; the snowy exteriors often come across as large blocks of flat colour, as if the textures were turned off. The measured pace and blocky graphics put me in mind of the likes of Driller or Lords of Midnight from the 8-bit era, or Midwinter from the 16-bit era, but much more colourful.

The game models a day-night cycle plus fog and blizzards. It is often breathtakingly beautiful, knocking spots off DayZ in this respect. The visuals are complemented by a Revenant-esque soundtrack that plays in short bursts, although for most of the time the sonic environment consists of ambient sounds and occasional narration from the player character. Unlike for example Half-Life's Gordon Freeman, the player character has an identity distinct from the actual player. He is deliriously happy when he finds food, angry when he fails to light a fire, surprisingly chipper when confronted with dead bodies and the seeming end of humanity, and I felt quite sad when he died.

At first I thought I had missed. He died out on the ice.

Death walks beside us in life as in The Long Dark. The game has several difficulty levels. At first I played on "pilgrim", the easiest, in which the wolves run away when you approach. The developers are at pains to point out that you should not go around shooting wolves, deer, bears, fish in real life, presumably unless you have a permit or they're eating your livestock. Don't shoot fish.

I still died, on day six. My man fell through the ice and despite my best efforts to warm up by the fire the blizzard did him it. Sadly the game does not retain your frozen corpse, which is a shame because he had lots of gear. Can you reload and try again? No, dead is dead in this game. Harder difficulty levels introduce bear and wolf attacks, which adds a whole new level of tension; the snow deadens the sound of animals and the rifle you find is surprisingly inaccurate. The wolf AI is uncanny - they howl in the distance and sneak up on you, and in general I felt a lot more scared of the wolves than I did of the zombies in DayZ. Harder difficulties also seem to give your man kidney disease judging by the amount of water he has to keep drinking to stay alive. This my major dislike. The act of drinking seems to make your character thirsty. It just adds a rigmarole whereby you have to boil water every time you light a fire, and after sleeping for eight hours your character wakes up on the verge of dehydration, so you have to drink, then boil some more water etc. It's not fun. I can understand why the game is like that - originally it was much smaller, with only two maps, and there was less emphasis on exploring. Now that it's larger I think the player character should have more endurance. This paragraph has gone on long enough.

I don't want to continually compare The Long Dark with DayZ; they are very different games. DayZ is a fast-paced military shooting game that takes place on a single enormous map, with a player base made up of obnoxious turds; the world of The Long Dark is split into relatively small chunks, but because your player trudges through the snow slowly and has to explore every nook and cranny the maps feel larger than they are.

At the moment there are only half a dozen maps, and with a week of intensive playing I imagine a dedicated player would see all the game's sights, but then again it is only £7.49 (at the moment; it's on sale). It feels stable and there's a lot more to do than in e.g. The Eidolon. The "story mode" has not been implemented, and the basic survival story is very sketchy - a geomagnetic storm has wiped out Canada's electricity and you must survive, that's it. At the outset of the game you are the sole survivor of an aeroplane crash caused by the geomagnetic storm, so presumably it happened only a few minutes ago, in which case why is the landscape so devastated? Is Canada covered in burned-out houses and frozen corpses ordinarily?

Still, this is nitpicking. Let's imagine that Canada in particular has been covered by a bubble of anti-electricity, and you are a pilot sent to investigate, but your aeroplane is hit by a freak lightning bolt and no-one can rescue you because the same thing would happen to them. Or you're an astronaut whose capsule comes down in the midst of a magnetic storm, leaving you trapped in the middle of nowhere (as happened to the real-life Voskhod 2). Hinterland Studios can have those ideas for free, although I admit that the first one is basically Village of the Damned but with wolves instead of creepy blonde schoolchildren.

Village of the Damned ends with a middle-aged man blowing up a room full of precocious schoolkids, which is presented as a happy ending; John Wyndham's original novel was published in 1957, and I like to think of it as a thematic ancestor of A Clockwork Orange. Both stories deal with the older, wiser generation's profound distrust of the brash mod-rocking Baby Boomers who replaced them. Would the world be better off today if Wyndham's solution to the Baby Boomer problem been implemented? There would have been no MC5 and no pubic hair in Playboy magazine, but at the same time we wouldn't have to put up with old people today.

The game models interior spaces as separate levels, with loads between the outdoors and indoors. It doesn't really break the immersion. Most indoors spaces are safe from animals. NB the shot of the windows is what really warmed me to the game; I staggered into the room half-frozen in total darkness, but as I watched day slowly broke through the glass, and I was saved, at least temporarily. It was the most beautiful thing.

How does The Long Dark fare on a symbolic level? You can choose to play as a female character, but The Long Dark is, as with The Revenant and, fundamentally a masculine space. The theme of surviving against the wilderness whilst wearing a beard and a check shirt is one of the few non-offensive outlets for modern masculinity, albeit that The Long Dark subverts this because of course the player isn't really out there in the wilderness, he's a big fat immobile lump sitting in front of a computer playing a game.

On a racial level the wolves and bears are all black, thus reinforcing the idea that black is bad, but on the other hand the snow is even more threatening than the wildlife, and the snow is white. So I suppose the game is okay in that respect. The fog is green, I have no idea what that means.

It is developed by Canadian people, which automatically gives it a +5 progressive modifier. I hereby declare that, despite some reservations, The Long Dark is acceptable. It would be a cool thing to teach in schools, and on a whim I imagined an education-friendly version of the game with more detailed cooking recipes and a more forgiving difficulty level.

Perhaps in future you can run the heaters. The game doesn't have enough passable road to actually drive anywhere.

Difficulty-wise it depends on how quickly you can find shelter on the first day. You can die very quickly before you die slowly.

There remains the worry that the developers will never finish it. I paid £7.49, which is on a par with a full-price 8-bit title back in the 1980s. The Long Dark has already given me a lot more enjoyment than Into the Eagle's Nest, slightly less than Arkanoid. Unlike DayZ, however - sorry, it's that game again - it is only two years old but feels like a finished budget game rather than a giant buggy mess; the developers have a coherent vision and I have faith that they will deliver something. And with the weather suddenly drawing in - it is forecast to be minus four metric celsius in the UK tonight - The Long Dark also works as an objet d'art.

What would be nice? The game's clock runs at twelve times normal speed; it would be nice to slow it to realtime so that you can, if you wish, leave your man resting by the fire while you actually rest by a real fire. Also, a bigger map, more things to do, don't bother with cars, and perhaps add an end goal. Make it so that you have to spend the first part of the game gearing up for a huge long trek across a frozen wilderness, and perhaps have it so that the endgame involves wandering into the nearest bar, where everybody gasps in amazement as you nonchalantly order a beer. "In a dirty glass."

It sounds like a cliché, but The Long Dark really did make me feel cold, and then warm again.