Inside The Long Dark

Screenshot: Steam

“I never feel like The Long Dark is done,” Hinterland Studio founder Raphael van Lierop told me of the Canadian studio’s long-in-development wilderness survival game. The Long Dark first appeared as a Kickstarter campaign in 2013, with the earliest gameplay video showing just a small clearing, basic survival mechanics, and a wolf. Since then, the game has grown into a sprawling multi-area sandbox and an episodic narrative stuffed with characters. The mechanics have grown more complex. Three episodes of the story mode have been released, with more—as well as more sandbox changes—on the way. “There’s always lots to do,” van Lierop said over Skype. “It’s a fun game to work on, mostly because I just see so much potential still in it every day, even though I’m working on it for this many years.”

The Long Dark, a survival game for PC and consoles, launched in Steam early access as a survival sandbox in September 2014; it later had an official launch in 2017, which added a story mode called “Wintermute.” In both sandbox and story, the player has to survive a frozen Canadian wilderness after their plane crashes during a geomagnetic event that cuts out all power. The sandbox tasks you with surviving for as long as possible while searching for food, clothes, and supplies across regions that range from an abandoned town to a desolate icy swamp. Wintermute’s narrative follows characters Will Mackenzie and Dr. Astrid Greenwood as they try to deliver a mysterious package despite the cold, aggressive wildlife, and the other survivors they meet along the way.

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Not long after the first two story episodes launched in 2017, Hinterland announced it would completely overhaul them. This updated version of the game, which the studio called “Redux,” came out in 2018 and was made in response to player feedback and Hinterland’s own feelings on the less-than-successful original launch. It was an unusual and difficult move to rewrite and rework nearly the entire game, but it made sense for a game that had engaged so deeply with its community since its first release in early access. The game’s journey is not yet over: The Long Dark’s third episode, “Crossroads Elegy,” came out this past October, drawing on the technology and improvements made through Redux. Two more episodes are still forthcoming.

The Long Dark has undergone a lot of growth over the course of its development. The simplicity of the first gameplay has grown into nine regions, connected by transitional caves and mines. The painterly visual aesthetic has become more lush and complex, and the sound design even includes different noises based on what equipment you’re carrying. The Kickstarter promised a survival game, but van Lierop says even that is different from its very first inception.

“I wish I could say that The Long Dark was always envisioned as a survival game. That’s not true,” he said. “The Long Dark was envisioned as an exploration game where the primary obstacle that you encounter is the wilderness and your own bad decision-making.”

“The main thing that The Long Dark does is it makes time and your movement through space your main antagonists,” he later explained. “Every minute that goes by, you’re slowly dying. You need to move through space to succeed, but moving through space is what introduces all the dangers. What you end up with is a survival game.

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The Long Dark has all the trappings of that genre: your character gets hungry, thirsty, and tired over time; injuries and illnesses need to be tended to; and there are craftable weapons and other necessary gear. The game stands out through its slow pace and the way the world refuses to bend to your will. In other survival games, you can overcome nature fairly easily; games like Don’t Starve and Subnautica are flush with lootable materials, while you can arm yourself up in DayZ and ARK and move on to bigger concerns than just getting out of the rain. In The Long Dark, it’s hard to become overpowered, and the changing weather or one bad decision can end your run in an instant.

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The simplest task, like a walk around a lake, can take in-game days if you’re unlucky enough to get caught in a blizzard or stalked by wolves. Running is best reserved for the most dire circumstances. You can’t jump—“The jumping thing comes up all the time,” van Lierop said of one of the most contentious movement decisions in the game. “We’ll get Steam reviews that are negative: ‘The game is awesome, but no jumping!’” The decision not to include jumping, said van Lierop, happened because jumping “opens up all kinds of other bugs and challenges and new systems that need to be made, and things that you’ve built don’t work anymore and the whole world needs to be restructured suddenly now people can jump over fences where they couldn’t before.” Plus, he said, “How many times do you jump in your day-to-day life?... If I have a really heavy backpack with 35 kilograms of gear and I’m really tired and I’m in knee-deep snow or deeper, am I going to jump over that thing? Probably not, because it’s dangerous and I might hurt myself.”

Because of design decisions like this, The Long Dark has a very slow pace, at once meditative and menacing. “Walking slowly through the woods is part of survival, and boredom is part of survival,” van Lierop said. “What makes [the game] work is the moment where you encounter that wolf or that moose or whatever it is, that moment where you hear the wind picking up and a blizzard is on the way. You’re thinking about where you’re going to take shelter, or are you close enough to that cabin? Will you make it in time? That moment where you’re starving and you find that can of peaches or whatever that saves your life. Those moments have so much meaning because what came before it was a lot of quiet walking.

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Because The Long Dark began as an early access game, many of the design decisions have been inspired by suggestions from players, who have been giving feedback on forums and social media since the beginning. The game first entered early access at a time “when survival games were taking off, and early access as a whole was taking off,” said van Lierop. “There [were] a lot of demands being put on developers at that time.” As such, Hinterland was very conscious of how to manage player feedback and keep the community engaged.

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When the game left early access and launched officially with the first two episodes of Wintermute in August 2017, many players weren’t happy with the episodes they’d spent so long anticipating. Cutscenes were text-based, as opposed to voiced, and some found the story quests repetitive or tedious. The Long Dark’s PS4 version in particular was plagued with technical issues. Players who had spent years in the survival sandbox struggled to get used to the narrative limitations and sometimes intentionally unlikable characters of Wintermute. As I wrote at the time, “Given my affinity for the game’s survival mode, Wintermute’s storyline characters felt like intruders interfering with The Long Dark’s beautiful solitude.” After launch, van Lierop wrote a lengthy account of the post-launch patching process, writing, “I’m not at all happy with how our launch has gone.”

Despite story mode having been a planned part of the game from the beginning, van Lierop recognized that sandbox and survival felt like two very different games. “Having split the game into two modes—that’s a decision that I often reflect on,” he told me. “It’s been amazing from the standpoint of how the game has been able to grow and how Hinterland’s been able to grow around the game. But if I were to start over again, I’m not sure I would make that same decision.” He told me he didn’t feel the 1.0 launch achieved “what I personally wanted to achieve,” hadn’t “given the team something that they could feel really, really proud of,” and that the team felt they hadn’t “given our players what they deserved.”

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Following the rocky launch, Hinterland’s team made the unusual decision to rework the two episodes into a “Redux” version that launched in December 2018. Van Lierop described the mood at a company retreat following the initial launch as “licking wounds,” and further elaborated, “I think we all knew that we could do better. It was very hard for us to look at all the acclaim that survival mode has had over all these years and then read reviews after we launched Wintermute and have those two things be put kind of in opposition to each other, like ‘The survival mode is so amazing!’ and then the story mode is kind of this ‘meh, it’s okay.’... We hated the idea that [the episodes] would each get better but that players might not ever find out” because they would stop playing.

Redoing the episodes, van Lierop said, “was definitely something that was driven by me, but the team in a way I think almost felt relieved because it was like I was saying to them, ‘I know this is crazy. This isn’t what most companies would do, but I think we should do it.’ And I think at that point, everybody was like, ‘Yes, we’re gonna go back and do it again and we’re going to hit that level of quality that we know we can hit.’”

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Hinterland spent a year on Redux, both addressing the issues players had with Wintermute and setting up the technology for future episodes. Van Lierop rewrote most of Episode 1 and 2’s dialogue, and the studio purchased a motion capture studio and facial animation software, among other things. In my experience with Redux, the cutscenes felt more interesting, and I spent less time struggling to gather required supplies and more time exploring the world and engaging with its characters and environment.

Episode 3, which came out in October 2019, is a product of the work done on Redux, and I wrote that it “manages time and space just right, making the smallest trip feel epic and putting a premium on every second spent deciding what to do next.” Van Lierop told me he sees Episode 3 as not just a new chapter in Wintermute’s story, but as “kind of paying service to that work that we did to get Redux feeling really solid… I feel like it’s the best work that we’ve done so far.”

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Hinterland has actively engaged with its player community through all this, but not all of those interactions have been easy. Van Lierop said he tries to insulate the rest of the team from the more aggressive backlash and to be strict about community guidelines on the forums, such as Steam, that the studio can control, though he admits that strictness could be “limiting potentially the growth of the game.” Hinterland and fans clashed especially hard over a much-hyped countdown to the release date, which caused van Lierop to back off from the game’s community on Reddit.

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“We have a zero tolerance policy on any kind of abuse, and we also recognize that abuse can come in a lot of different forms,” he said of the parts of the internet Hinterland has more oversight on. “We also recognize that often there’s pre-indicators to abusive behavior that you have to keep an eye out for. I think for far too long in our industry, we’ve had this attitude about abuse and toxicity where, you know, this notion of ‘Don’t feed the trolls, don’t engage with it, just kind of leave them alone.’ And I think in a way all that’s done is kind of embolden certain people to become louder and more obnoxious and more abusive. What I try to do is always think about the quiet person in the room, the person who has great, thoughtful feedback, but is reluctant to share it because they happen to be intimidated by the noise or the loud people. So what we try to do is make sure there’s a space for everybody.”

Van Lierop has had to be patient with some of the harsher feedback he’s received.“I struggle with it personally,” he said, “because I feel like there is a kind of feedback that sometimes comes through to me... that’s really snarky and insulting to me, and I have to fight back the temptation to just tell the person, ‘Please come back when you can communicate in a more adult way.’ It’s always hard to take criticism for something that you really care about. We try to believe that all our players ultimately are coming from a place of loving the game and wanting it to be successful.”

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How to incorporate and respond to feedback from players came up frequently in my conversation with van Lierop, who seems particularly conscious of how to engage with players’ opinions during development while also preserving the vision of Hinterland’s roughly 40-person studio. “We have this grateful feeling towards our community, but also strangely cautious feeling towards our community,” he said. He told me he’s against the feeling of “designing by committee” that can afflict early access games. “We want you [players] to participate. But you’re not in the driver’s seat and you’re never going to be in the driver’s seat.”

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He cited a time when, following an update the changed the weight of clothing in the game, there was a passionate debate in the player community about the weight of socks. Some players wanted a hyper-realistic survival game where socks weigh exactly as much as they would in real life, while others wanted a more meditative experience where the nitty-gritty wasn’t the focus. For Hinterland’s part, the studio wanted to honor the passion of players who “break the game apart, hack it open...and make spreadsheets,” while also preserving the sense of The Long Dark as a crafted experience that said what they wanted it to. The studio, he said, has to be “really careful about how you take that feedback and how you act on it or you’re going to destroy the thing you’ve built.

As open as Hinterland has been with its players, and as much feedback as the team has taken, van Lierop still thinks it’s important to keep some of the development a mystery for the sake of players’ experience. “I feel like in a way I would like to try to take back a little bit of the sense that [game development isn’t] magic, but I think there’s something that we do that’s a craft that is worthy of respect…Once you know how the magic trick works, it’s not interesting. And I think part of our job is to preserve a little bit of that sense of what’s special about it and to kind of be the custodians of that.”

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Of course, some of the creative decisions made by The Long Dark team have had nothing to do with player feedback and were instead just something the team deeply wanted to do—like, for example, the decision to set the game in Canada.

“It would’ve been really easy to say [The Long Dark] takes place in Alaska,” said van Lierop. “If this was a AAA game that was being pitched to a publisher that’s what I would have had to do. I would have gone to them and I would say, ‘Here’s my idea for the game.’ And the first piece of feedback that I would have gotten was ‘We love the idea. Change the setting to Alaska.’... [The Long Dark] felt like something where it was OK to say, ‘No, we’re Canadian, the game’s Canadian, the setting’s Canadian.’ We put Canadian flags in it. We’ve got almost tongue-in-cheek Canadian names—Will Mackenzie is like a super Canadian kind of feeling name... Something that should have been a detractor from the game and made it less successful has actually I think made it more successful...has given it a character that makes it feel unique and special, that is embraced by all the players no matter where they’re from.”

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The idea of caring for The Long Dark came up several times in our conversation, with van Lierop saying at one point that people at Hinterland “talk about the game as though it’s something that we have to take care of, like a garden,” adding later that “we look at it as sort of an organic living thing in the studio.” The Long Dark is “taking care of all of us. It’s giving us employment. It’s helping grow the studio. It’s helping set the foundation for the future things that we’ll do in the studio. But it’s something that we have to be very careful to maintain and nurture and protect.

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As for what’s next for the game, Episodes 4 and 5 of Wintermute will focus on Perseverance Mills, the so-far-unseen location that the characters from the story mode, Astrid and Will, are attempting to reach. The two episodes “will take place in regions that are built specifically for story that haven’t existed in survival before.” While van Lierop said he is “100 percent ready” to work on a project that isn’t related to The Long Dark, there’s also a Long Dark film project in the works and still more the studio wants to do with the game apart from the upcoming story episodes. “There’s still stuff that we promised that we haven’t delivered,” said van Lierop. “We have to live up to the promises that we’ve made… It’s not like we’re going to ship Episode 5 and then, as tired as I’m sure everybody will be, we’re not going to just walk away.”

During our conversation, I was often struck by the way van Lierop spoke of The Long Dark as something so much bigger than just guiding a character through a lot of snow. “To me it’s not a game,” he said. “That’s not to say games aren’t good or whatever, obviously they are, but we think about it as something different. We think about it as an experience. We think about it as a conversation. We think about it as a hopefully piece of thoughtful media and entertainment that engages with people in a way that other things can’t… Without sounding too egocentric or high-minded about it, I think calling it a game is sort of too limiting. It’s too small a box to contain what I think The Long Dark can be.

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“Why do people work so hard?” van Lierop said of developing games. “It’s just entertainment. It’s just throwaway. Entertainment doesn’t really matter. You’re not saving lives, blah, blah, blah… I guess for me, the reason why I have to make it more than that is because it is what I’ve decided to dedicate my life to. So it has to have meaning. It has to be more.”

“We have an audience and we have people who have engaged with a philosophy that underlines what The Long Dark is mechanically as well as narratively. Part of that journey that we’re taking with the player is hopefully asking questions that are important. We’re not providing the answers. We don’t know the answers. We’re just trying to ask the question… We’re hoping that one person will play the game and think maybe the game’s about more than just looking for cans of peaches.”

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