The eternal dark

Games almost always get death wrong. One moment you’re alive, and bam, the next moment you are gone. They treat it like an event, but real death is a process. It takes time to die. In fact, it takes a lifetime.

I recently played a game that gets it kind of right – The Long Dark. Its authors probably wanted to make a game about survival rather than its opposite, but they ended up with a game about the process of dying. No matter how well you play, a slow and difficult death is the only possible outcome.

Alone in the icy cold of the northern Canadian wilderness, The Long Dark is about getting through the day (and the night). Escaped from a crashed plane and dressed in a summer outfit, you find yourself exploring forests, mountains and snowy valleys.

First there’s the cold. You want warmer clothes and some shelter. Then there’s the hunger and the thirst. Perhaps you’ve been lucky enough to find a small cabin with a bed and a stove. You burn the cabin’s firewood to get the temperature up. Perhaps you melt some snow to drink, and cook some meat you took from the frozen deer carcass outside.

Slowly but surely your resources start to run out. You must decide how hungry you must get, or how much the temperature in the cabin must drop before you go back out in the storm. And what will you find once you head out there?

There’s a sense of melancholy in The Long Dark, because it makes the decay of life tangible. The game is a fight to delay the inevitable, to slow the process, but the end is coming. You will freeze to death, or starve, or thirst. Whatever comes first. You see your remaining life eroded by the forces of nature, by time itself.

The game presents you with no happy endings. So what do you do, when you’re out there desperately scavenging for something to eat or some wood to burn so that you’ll live a little bit longer? You take pleasure in the journey. Discovering a frozen lake surrounded by mountains and snow clad pine trees. Watching the aurora borealis dance on a starry night sky.

My first play session ended with me reaching a mountain hut and then freezing to death in my sleep. But it was a beautiful climb to get there.