The Long Dark

I haven’t had much time for pleasure reading in the last several months, although I did have the chance to purchase and play The Long Dark on the Switch. I have a soft spot for Canadiana, and a video game set in Canada is a novelty. I’m also happy when I have the chance to support a Canadian game studio, especially when the game itself is interesting.

The Long Dark is set in the near-future, a decade after a global economic depression, and shortly after a fictional geomagnetic phenomenon began that tampers with electronics. The player finds themselves stranded on a large, remote island implied to be off the coast of northern British Columbia. There the objective to survive. In Survival Mode, the player is the only living person to be found on Great Bear Island, and the game is self-directed. The story mode, called “Wintermute,” adds a few people and some quests and side-quests.

The main challenge is survival, with the game tracking hunger, thirst, temperature, and fatigue. I had not played any games in this single-person survival genre before, although some games I own and enjoy have survival mechanics and a broadly apocalyptic setting. This War of Mine is an even bleaker depiction of war-torn city, where you have to help a small group of civilians survive. I also like Death Road to Canada, although it is a decidedly comedic zombie-apocalypse romp. However, aside from the emphasis on survival and inventory management aspects of these games, they are not that similar to The Long Dark.

The art style of the game has a painted and impressionistic quality that is nice to look at and has granted the game some much needed longevity despite its lengthy development. Billed as a “quiet apocalypse,” since the end is coming not from some sudden catastrophe but a slow decline, the game is often quiet, slow paced, and sombre. The encounters with wildlife—especially wolves and bears—are often tense since even getting some clothing torn can spell disaster, let alone being wounded. I think the game shines most in its quiet moments, when one is left to reflect on their isolation and the indifferent wilderness. I don’t usually include spoiler tags on my blog, but I do discuss the plot in what follows.

The story of “Wintermute” involves a bush pilot whose ex-wife, a doctor, asks him to fly her to a remote community for unspecified reasons. A geomagnetic storm causes them to crash and become separated. Only three of the five storyline episodes have been released so far, although the fourth is coming soon. I enjoyed the story, which adds some people to speak with and help. The characters encountered on Great Bear Island have a tendency to speak somewhat cryptically, especially in the first two episodes (in which only five other people appear, mind you). This often adds to the mystique and atmosphere of the setting, although it can also make some conversations unnecessarily obtuse and hard to follow.

One subplot I’ll mention where I found the writing a tad weak related to the prisoners of Blackrock Penitentiary. Early on in Episode #1 of Wintermute, you find that a prison bus crashed while en route to a maximum security prison located on the island. The escaped prisoners ransacked a nearby town just before you arrived and (accidently) killed nearly all of its few remaining residents. This, in itself, is mostly fine. Setting the prisoners up as an antagonistic human element makes enough sense, even if “they’re criminals” is a less interesting explanation of why a someone would act viciously than out of desperation.

What I find less compelling is how the prisoners are one-dimensional evildoers and the narrative presents them being murdered as tacitly acceptable. Now, I should mention that the player only encounters two living prisoners in the episodes released so far, while others can be found dead across the island. The first prisoner we encounter is Hobbs, who found seriously wounded after having been stabbed. He tells the player about how the prisoners (accidently) killed the residents of the town and is amused by their deaths.

The player is then given what is presented as a moral decision that does not make much sense. You can either pull the knife out of Hobbs, and thereby “help” him, or shove it in deeper and kill him. It’s been pointed out that removing the knife would probably do more harm than good in reality, especially since the player doesn’t have the option to give him any of their medical supplies afterwards. Setting that aside, there is no serious moral question here. You either kill a helpless, injured man or help him by leaving him injured somewhere where he will likely die anyway.

The only countervailing moral considerations are ones you make up for themselves. For instance, when playing I had the thought: “My character will probably have to sleep in this house tonight. Sleeping near this man might be dangerous, I should do something.” Of course, Hobbs is gravely wounded which already makes him less of a threat, and just restraining him would be enough to allay this worry in reality. Naturally, there is no in-game reason to worry about resting near the dangerous criminal. I bring this up only as it’s the only reason I could think of as to why someone would consider killing Hobbs.

The game instead presents this as a serious decision because Hobbs is a bad man, and as a bad man he doesn’t deserve to live. The only relevant information about Hobbs is that he is a convicted criminal, he (accidently) contributed to the deaths of the town’s residents, and he tried unsuccessfully to attack the player character’s ex-wife. So, he’s not a good man, but why is his being murdered by the player character presented as reasonable? It’s not self-defence, Hobbs is entirely at your mercy. One implication is that because he is a criminal his life is expendable—and this implication is further evidenced by Episode #3.

In Episode #3, we meet a character who allowed her abusive husband be killed by wolves without intervening to save him. The narrative goes to great pains to point out that she didn’t kill her husband, she merely let him die, which is viewed as less morally troubling. Despite the narrative distancing this character from the death of her husband, in part to make her story more sympathetic, she determines after his death that she dislikes men in general and begins killing the escaped convicts on the island. The narrative does not feel the need to further justify or explain away her murder of the convicts in the way that it explained the death of her husband as not her fault. Convicts are bad and deserve death. Though in fairness, this character’s actions are not framed as straightforwardly heroic.

My general point is that the narrative includes some unexamined assumptions about the moral acceptability of killing bad people who are not an immediate threat. The prisoners are somewhat one-dimensionally evil, when even making them three-dimensionally evil would be more interesting. The Long Dark includes themes of desperation and the choice with Hobbs is framed in terms of whether mercy and kindness is compatible with survival when things get tough. The choice would be stronger if survival were at stake, or helping him cost something. “Do I save this evil man whose dying with things I need to survive?” is a more compelling choice than “Do I kill this helpless man because he’s a bad person?”

Anyway, I’ve written at length about this subplot despite it being relatively minor. Part of the reason is because the upcoming Episode #4 will introduce Blackrock Penitentiary and will likely be more focused on the convicts. I’m hopeful that some of the writing related to them will be sharper, but I also want to reiterate that on the whole I love this game and have spent more time on it than I can easily justify. So, I do highly recommended it!

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