Written by T. Blake Braddy, @blakebraddy
Though it doesn’t ship for another year, The Long Dark’s developers have a very specific vision for their End Times, and it doesn’t include zombies, mutants, or washed-out urban environments.
Instead, in this survival sim, players will endure a picturesque but daunting landscape in order to survive an unforgiving winter. It is the world and not things lurking in the shadows that gives The Long Dark its edge. Creative Director Raphael von Lierop said, “It’s not about the monster that’s going to jump out at you. It’s more about having to manage the elements and that feeling of loneliness, of being in an abandoned world.”
The game recently wrapped up a successful Kickstarter campaign — helped in part by Jennifer Hale and David Hayter being attached to the project — and yet it is not a Kickstarter game. The $200,000 goal set on the crowd-funding site is eclipsed by a recoupable advance from the Canadian government, and yet, the message is clear: people want what a non-traditional post-disaster experience.
You play as bush pilot William Mackenzie, who, after an unexplained visual phenomenon, crashes his plane in a mountainous wilderness and must pick up the basics of survival in a hurry. There are wolves and other survivors, and also the cold. With a temperature gauge visible in the UI, players will never be able to forget the cold.
Von Lierop – an industry veteran who started Hinterland Games with a splinter group of experienced AAA developers – imagines a world where the unease comes from more realistic threats, like fending off hunger, avoiding hypothermia, or dealing with the ambiguous motivations of other characters within the game. In surviving day to day, players will need to manage caloric intake and expenditures, or keep track of how cold Will becomes throughout the day or night.
Though they originally aspired to make a game entirely without combat, one focused instead on exploration as a means for advancement, eventually they settled on developing combat that would be thoughtful and philosophically meaningful. Rather than traipse around and shoot enemies, players will have to weigh consequences before engaging a potential enemy.
He said, “In our case, we want you to think about what you’re doing when you encounter another NPC and ask yourself, ‘what are they trying to do to me’ and ‘what am I trying to get out of this?’”
He went on to say that the purpose is to add some sort of ambiguity to the interactions within the game, so that engaging in combat isn’t a simple decision for the player. Lierop said, “[It’s like] Two people being on a road, and you don’t know what their motivations are. Is that other person going to try to kill me? Are they scared like I am? Do they have information I might need to survive, and if I kill them before I get it, then maybe I’m killing myself, and I just don’t know it yet?’”
And don’t expect the world to be populated with the walking undead. The game is decidedly post-disaster but not post-apocalyptic. Lierop made a distinction, stating that the former dredges up images of zombies and other fantasy elements. The Long Dark is not that game. Rather, it is more specifically about the human experience in a world without most modern accommodations, what Lierop calls humanity’s “equalizers.”
In eschewing some of the trappings of games in a similar milieu, there was a chance that the community would rebel, but von Lierop said that he’s only encountered positive feedback. “The de-emphasis on combat and the fact that we don’t have zombies in the game are the two biggest messages that have resonated most strongly,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Thank God. Not another zombie game. Thank God. Not another action game. We don’t need any more of those. We need games that offer different experiences.’”
What The Long Dark hopes to offer is a singular, compelling mood, and though the game is set in a world that is somewhat menacing and dangerous, the game’s developer doesn’t necessarily see it as a tried-and-true horror experience. “I see it as being atmospheric and moody, and certainly there’s some threat that’s hanging over you, but I don’t think of it as a survival horror game, like a zombie game or something like that, in any way.” Rather, he envisions the threat coming from the vulnerability he hopes players experience while in the world, in addition to the game’s various survival mechanics.
Though it will be less expansive, the narrative structure in The Long Dark compares favorably to games like Fallout and Red Dead Redemption. There will be a single, primary story running through the center of the game, but players can also do side missions and supplementary exploration, as well.
Additionally, the intent is for the game’s major and minor missions to be strung around a single narrative arc so that subsequent episodes can be tied together using the previous content. They’re also looking into producing post-winter content, which would entail not just environmental shifts but thematic ones, as well. Lierop said, “Hopefully, this game will be successful, and we can continue to build on it in the future, and so the next season would be spring, and then spring would bring modifications to the survival simulation and new story, and we’d introduce new characters.”
In addition to a single-player story mode, the team is also working on a dedicated sandbox mode – perhaps with wildly varying degrees of difficulty – in which players would forgo story in favor of a pure survival experience. Without being tied to narrative, the team hopes to create several different scenarios to challenge players using the survival sim mechanic as the backdrop. Lierop said, “We can play with the sliders and set up a new scenario and say, ‘How long can you survive in that place?’”
Moving forward, Team Hinterland has far-reaching ambitions not just for the game, but the idea surrounding the IP, too: “From the very beginning, we’ve always approached the creation of the IP as not just a game. The game is the heart and soul of it, and that’s what’s driving everything right now, but we want people to love The Long Dark so much that they want to experience it in a lot of different ways.” The focus, ideally, is to reach into areas like web series and graphic novels or really anything that would support and expand the universe they are creating.
Though the Kickstarter campaign has ended, people interested in The Long Dark can visit the dedicated microsite – intothelongdark.com – to continue to back the game, which is slated for an October 2014 release.