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Unforgiving, sophisticated and vast: Three deaths in The Long Dark

Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Over the years I've spent, by conservative estimates, around 400 hours in the post apocalyptic world of DayZ. When I first heard about The Long Dark, a survival game set in the Canadian wilderness, I was doubtful that a single player game could be as gripping as one filled with dozens of crazed monsters out for blood, let alone one without zombies.

But after just a little more than one hour with the game last night I'm singing a different tune. And my song is lost amid the howling winds of a massive, empty and utterly deadly world.

These are my first three lives in The Long Dark.


The only thing I can see is the breath in front of my face and a half dozen tall pine trees around me. There must be a full moon, but the diffuse light is having trouble making it through the low clouds. I'm on a hillside and I'm freezing cold.


I walk a few steps and then turn around to get my bearings. The only point of reference is my own footsteps. I wait a moment to see if they'll be swallowed up by the blizzard falling all around me, but it seems as if the tree cover is preventing them from being swept away.

I hear my character's voice in my ears, urging me to find shelter. But the wind is so fierce I have to go into the game settings just so I can hear myself talk.

Moving downhill I'm hoping to find a clearing, a boulder, anything as a point of reference.

In the distance there's a dark shape moving. Green eyes look back at me. The wolf pounces, pins me to the ground and I'm struggling with the foreign controls trying to roll away.


My screen is filled with flashes of its jaws, green eyes bearing down on me.

I die my first death.


It's light. Perhaps near dawn. The shadows are long, but without a compass I can't tell which direction they're pointing. I actually find myself hitting the ‘O' button, the many hours spent in the Arma engine checking the time proving completely useless here. Like my last life I'm on the side of a hill, but the trees are closer together here and a thin, rocky chute leads down and away.


As I walk the chute opens up into an area of the forest that's been logged. A title card pops up: "Clearcut." Apparently the map in The Long Dark is static, or at least certain locations are.

I take a moment to survey the scene. About 300 yards away I can see another wolf prowling and make a note to steer clear of him. To my left is a large buck skimming the treeline. Directly in front of me is a path leading up. I head straight for it, surveying the piles of lumber as I go.

The path winds up a steep hill, switching back on itself. There's a wooden fence along the border telling me that I'm somewhere relatively civilized. But the path has eroded. Sections of it seems to be falling down the hillside, taking bits of the fencing with it.

Before I know it I've sprained my ankle. I had been running and one of the sections of the eroded path tripped me up. My camera begins to bob in a syncopated rhythm with my broken gait.

At the top of the hill is a forestry lookout, another named location. I climb the tower, open the door and find it deserted. There's a potbelly stove, some tinder and a first aid kit. Inside I find a compression bandage and add it to my inventory.

Inside I'm no warmer, and my condition is still falling past 80 percent. I need to start a fire and fast.

Back down the hill, broken ankle and all, to the piles of lumber. But the logs are too large for me to bring back up the hill. After hitting the Tab key and bringing up my survival menu I figure out how to forage for wood, but the only thing I can find is more tinder.

Night is coming on fast. Back up the hill to the lookout I scour the room again. Hidden under a table is a cedar log. After three attempts, and after using up a quarter of my matches, I've got a fire going. My status changes from freezing to cold. A small comfort.


In my survival menu I notice something interesting. As I warm up, I begin to burn fewer calories. When I'm not shivering my body is better able to propel itself forward. Without much else to do, safely, in the middle of the night I click on the bunk bed and sleep for eight hours.

In the morning I awake dehydrated. My condition has fallen from the mid 80s to the high 20s. I leap out of bed, and move as quickly as I'm able back down the hill. Over where I'd seen the buck the previous day I discover there's an access road. Along the shoulder I find a backpack, and inside a can of peaches.

But without a can opener I can't eat. I'm freezing again. I'm dehydrated. And now I'm starving.

I die my second death.


My third life begins on a frozen lake. There's log cabins everywhere. I simply can't believe my luck.

I'm able to quickly scavenge soda, candy bars and a few cans of food from the ice fishing lodges dotting the lake. Along the shoreline I even find an office building, all dressed up on the inside like a camp office. This must be where they rent out properties when the weather is good.

There's wood here. And lighter fluid. Setting up a fire is easy, and before long I'm warm enough to sleep through the night without waking up shivering and starving.

But by this time I'm moving too fast. As a player of the game I'm skipping steps, not reading all the information being presented to me. I'm getting greedy.

I want a gun. There has to be a gun out here somewhere.

I set off, carrying everything from the lodge with me, onto the ice. The dim light of the morning is silhouetting the trees along the ridge line across the lake. But after I've walked a few hundred meters they wink out.


It's not dawn. It's dusk.

I've walked into the middle of a lake, in the middle of the night, without any way to protect myself.

I fumble in my inventory for a light. There's an oil lamp that I scavenged from the camp office and I turn it on. It gives me maybe 10 meters of flickering orange glow around me. It is warm.

I turn around, only to find that my foot prints have blown away. I've completely lost my sense of direction. I start running, desperate to reach the shoreline. If I follow it I'm sure to reach a shelter. There were so many of them before it got dark.

A wolf howls in the distance. Another snarls. It's on me before I even know what direction it came from.

As I die my third death it begins to snow.


The Long Dark is in its sandbox alpha phase, a pre-release state that features placeholder text and also completely lacks its single player story mode.

But from what I've seen, it's promising. The environments are vast. The art style is sophisticated, and the lighting is nothing short of beautiful. I experienced no crashes, and no bugs that I could discern.

As a long time survival game enthusiast, I can tell you that just one hour into The Long Dark I am surprised by it's potential. I'll be following the development more closely from now on.

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