The Long Dark

In Video Games on December 18, 2014 at 6:01 pm

long dark

Casually speaking, I use the concept of The Sublime to describe a certain ineffable beauty, a long wooden spoon that reaches into you and stirs your emotions and draws out a certain longing,yearning for beauty, for more beauty.

Thanks to certain elements of my collegiate education, I also know that The Sublime finds its origins in negative emotions: things that “excite the ideas of pain and danger,” that provoke terror.

If there’s a marriage of the two sides of this concept, it’s The Long Dark, a new survival game that distinguishes itself from its many peers by being about …survival.

long dark 2

The Long Dark is one of those quiet, ambitious games — you can imagine it being a wallflower during its awkward developmental years only to return years later, polished, professional, prestigious and the envy of those who had settled for less. Excepting that it’s already stunningly beautiful owing to its brush-stroked aesthetics and excellent use of color.

Rather than being about zombies or mutants or even other players, you are pitted ruthlessly against a cold, lonely world where risk is rewarded with death while careful planning heeds that famous quote about God laughing.

Strictly speaking, the setting of the game is some manner of far-too-northern location that you’re stranded in due to a global “geomagnetic disaster,” where the temperature might just reach up to zero when it isn’t utterly freezing you to death. In its sandbox mode — a story mode is planned but not finished yet — there are no other survivors, no NPCs, no friendly or unfriendly faces.

You must manage things like fatigue, body temperature, hunger and thirst, along with your overall “condition” (health), and calories. You do this by scavenging from the sparse, far-between houses and huts for food, clothing and tools, all of which decay and need repairing due to the harsh winter climate you find yourself stranded in.

If you’re particularly ambitious, you can also hunt for food and supplies. Current estimates put the number of bullets in the game’s maps at around ten to fifteen or so, and I feel quite accomplished in finding one the other day despite not having a gun.

In literature, you learn about what’s called Conflict. Conflict is the central mechanism of a narrative. Even so-called minimalist works, slice-of-life stories and so on must have some manner of conflict in them.

Conflict, we are taught, exists between the subject of the story (“Man”) and various other elements: Man v. Nature pits man against his environment, the world itself; Man v. Self includes everything from self-reflective character growth to overcoming fears. There are others, but these are the two that apply to The Long Dark.

Even in sandbox mode, I find there’s a certain Will to survive that’s necessary to proceed. The danger of starvation, freezing to death, wolves and the general uncertainty of improving your situation at all give me pause when ever I’m about to leave a shelter I’ve picked clean.

In other games I would say the phrase “why bother” as an insult. In this game, it’s poignant example of how the game is making me evaluate my own survival, my will to proceed.

Before I open the door I think about whether there might be wolves out there. I think about the sights I’ve seen on the way to where I am currently, so as to decide where I might go next. I contemplate emptying my pockets of priceless items that encumber and thus endanger me. What do I need? What do I want? What will happen?

While Bioshock Infinite allowed the term “ludonarrative” to make rounds under the guise of discussing the game’s ludonarrative dissonance, The Long Dark reminds me of another concept that isn’t quite spoken of so readily: “ergodic literature.”

The concept of ergodic literature is simply any narrative that requires non-trivial effort to experience. Turning pages is trivial; translated to gaming, pressing a single button to advance text is trivial. That story is often the reward for completing gameplay segments means that most games are ergodic works on some basic level, but in my esteem The Long Dark holds this concept close to its core.

This game stirred a certain fear in me, an uncertainty directed just as much at my character as it was at me. I wasn’t deciding the fate of machines with souls or refugees versus soldiers. No large choices. However, each choice required action on my part, an investment of belief that what I was doing would make me safer, warmer and more well-prepared to deal with the next challenge; hope forestalling fear.

And in that, it was sublime.

long dark 3


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