Friday, October 10, 2014

The Long Dark Early Access Review

I'll just lie down in the snow and close my eyes.

GameSpot's early access reviews evaluate unfinished games that are nonetheless available for purchase by the public. While the games in question are not considered finished by their creators, you may still devote money, time, and bandwidth for the privilege of playing them before they are complete. The review below critiques a work in progress, and represents a snapshot of the game at the time of the review's publication.
If Gary Paulsen’s The Hatchet were a videogame, and not a coming-of-age novel, I doubt the eponymous axe would have survived the first hour. A couple swings into the process of building a makeshift shelter, and the young hero would’ve found himself stirred by a sudden and terrible acuity: “Hatchet durability at 27% percent. Hatchet is in danger of breaking.” Sorry Brian: I guess your mom should have splurged for the Hatchet +1. Good luck with the wolves.
Planned obsolescence bothers me enough when I’m buying cell phones, so I’m not much pleased when it rears its head right as I’m in the middle of fending off virtual zombies or slaying dragons. You’d think of all the videogame scenarios, a survival adventure would be the worst possible venue for tools that break after a couple minutes of use towards their expressed purpose. And yet here I am, wandering the chilly wilderness of The Long Dark with socks that last a couple days and six backup can openers.
The Long Dark dubs the singular mode currently on the menu its sandbox, which is a pretty playful-sounding name for what turns out to be “wandering a godforsaken forest until you eventually expire of cold or hunger.” There’s a bit of perfunctory exposition describing you as the sole survivor of a plane crash, and then you’re unceremoniously dumped into a random part of the game’s single map and encouraged to find what shelter and sustenance you can. But there’s no search crew coming to find you, and no civilization to reach--you’re to ultimately succumb to the elements, one way or another. A few found tools and some looted granola bars can stave off the cold creep of death, if only for a spell.
"But there’s no search crew coming to find you, and no civilization to reach--you’re to ultimately succumb to the elements, one way or another."
Surviving The Long Dark is pretty formulaic, really: find an area of previous human habitation, ransack its cabinets for additional clothing and foodstuffs, make a fire, sleep a time, and then set off in search of the next building. A found rifle can allow for some rudimentary hunting if you happen to stumble upon it, and a hatchet will let you allot time and energy to the chopping of firewood. But any activity, from building a fire to sleeping consumes precious calories and resources, and keeping those counts above the red is an ever-present concern.
Paulsen’s protagonist survived for some fifty days in remote Canadian wilds before being rescued. By way of contrast, The Long Dark reports that I first clocked out of the mortal coil after four days. But the passage of days loses its evocative power when you speed up its rate, as The Long Dark does, or when the player can set a timer for sleep and be walking again in seconds. So it’s the items that end up becoming the more tangible measure of time’s passing--the appetite-curbing power of the food, or the durability of the familiar tools. And it’s there where The Long Dark takes some curious liberties, because intuitively, we know that you shouldn’t have to eat a dozen energy bars and a pound of venison to sustain yourself day-to-day. We know a crowbar doesn’t lose half its integrity after being used to pry open a couple lockers. When I play The Long Dark I don’t feel like a survivalist, stretching my resources; I feel like an insatiable force that roves through the environment, picking it clean. Everything’s too fleeting, when the demands of the situation should encourage just the opposite: an intimate connection to belongings that have taken on heightened significance. Tom Hanks cried when he lost his volleyball in Castaway, after all.