I’ve never played survival games before: the ones that sort of took over Steam Early Access and got popular with streamers like Rust, DayZ, 7 Days To Die, Ark: Survival Evolved, or The Forest. I’ve never even played Minecraft for any significant amount of time. Right before the recent Steam Summer sale ran out I saw The Long Dark for $7 and decided to give that a shot since it seems to be the most highly praised one.
After a few hours and a couple lengthy attempts to survive in its sandbox, what I see here is a pretty well-formulated simulation game, even if it isn’t entirely my kind of thing. Though I am now wondering if other survival games might have a flow that is more my kind of thing.
Part of the reason I dipped in is because I was wondering if Long Dark might end up being another of the simulation games I’ve come to enjoy playing on and off in-between everything else I play. I’ve gotten into a pattern of spending bits of time with games like ArmA, Elite: Dangerous, and Space Engine because of the way the systems of each game continually react to each other in new ways. I guess you could call it “emergent gameplay,” but in these cases I find the emergent element to have more longevity than the games for which Ubisoft might use that term as a marketing tool. Long Dark indeed seems to have the potential for this.
Firstly, as expected, Long Dark goes for a nice immersive simulation feel in how it leverages its first person perspective and its adventure elements. It really demands that players look at its world and investigate it the way a person would were it real, and its environments are built up to look as if they functioned at one time. Whenever the story mode developer Hinterland Studio Inc. has planned hits, I imagine it probably being a first person adventure game with heavier survival elements than most others.
But, I’m also glad Hinterland set aside a separate “sandbox” mode where players can just engage in the world and its systems without the burden of a story, whether or not the developer did so due to the necessities of open alpha development. Ever since I saw mods for S.T.A.L.K.E.R. offer this I wondered why other open-world games couldn’t do it. The equivalent for a popular game I guess would be something like how you can play Grand Theft Auto Online alone and do nothing but go crazy in the open world with your own character instead of one of the story characters. I think I did a blog here once wondering why games did’t do this, like Elder Scrolls where a chunk of players don’t care about the main story anyway. In the context of Long Dark though it’s just part of the emerging trend of open-world survival-esque games that ask players to do nothing but exist in their worlds without pre-defined goals. ArmA, Elite: Dangerous, and Space Engine all allow this. It only makes sense for a game to have a mode letting you do this apart from a separate mode guided by a story, instead of forcing the two to coexist like Bethesda has been doing.
The sandbox mode in Long Dark harbors just enough randomness to encourage repeated attempts. Even if it didn’t have multiple environments, players start in different places every time (from what I can tell), and the resources available seem to be randomized. Maybe once you play enough you’ll either get into a good routine or find to be a bit too much like gambling (which was my experience with FTL), but I wouldn’t know. If the story mode can actually be the meaty adventure people may be expecting, Long Dark looks like it could shape up to be a game that is unique, well-considered in its design, and meaty in content.
All that said, I’m not sure Long Dark, or at least its sandbox mode, appeals to me in particular, and the reason has to do with its ultimate goal. From what I understand, Minecraft starts out being all about survival but eventually resource scarcity ceases being a real problem and you just have fun building, and thus building (or in some cases exploring) becomes the main draw of the game. Some of these other games I understand are also more about building than surviving. Ark is about taming more and progressively cooler dinosaurs. Elite may have some survival situations if your ship get’s badly damaged or you run out of fuel and its universe’s systems really turn against you, but it’s really about using your ship to get more and more things. Even No Man’s Sky, from what we know, isn’t just going to be about surviving on planets but also exploring the galaxy once you get a ship. The common theme I see here is that these games may start out being about surviving, but eventually they become about thriving. In Long Dark, you’re not gathering food and materials to eventually get and do cool things, you’re just continually doing all that stuff in order to not die. Maybe if you don’t suck at it there is a point of indefinite survival, but survival still seems to be all there is to the game.
I imagine there are certainly people out there who like that and are thus absolutely this game’s audience. I just personally need a little bit more than “surviving” to draw me into the game. The story mode might just do it for me. Maybe I’ll be a little more likely to take a look at something like Minecraft now.