The first steps into The Long Dark‘s Midnight Lake reveals a floor of white mush, black figures in the shape of dead trees and rocks, with their shadows growing as the day dies out. I walk forward, crunching the snow, trying to discover someplace more welcoming, when the howls of predators echo through the forest. In that moment, I was reminded of the wilderness from Jack London’s novels The Call of the Wild and White Fang. Both are geographically the same as the game, where the cold Canadian nights are scary and danger is ever present. Never before had I been able to make these comparisons, between a novel and a video game, but they kept growing as I continued to explore them.
The novels both give a canine’s perspective on life in the icy wastelands during the Klondike gold rush, each finding their inner survivalist to last the toil under man and nature. In The Long Dark, you control a much deadlier animal, known as a human being. As this creature, you struggle to survive after a massive disaster leaves you alone and stranded. Despite this species-divide, they all face the same faceless antagonist.
The Wild. Ceaseless, unending and indiscriminate.
Death is the only certainty that surrounds these protagonists at every moment.
As the wilderness is faceless, it is not properly quantifiable in either the novels or game. Utterly ethereal, yet clearly present. The Long Dark attempts to ground its effects on the player through a few survival bars about warmth and displaying words like ‘FREEZING’ on the screen to keep you aware. But these attempts at gamification don’t evoke the feeling of a hostile environment, as some others in the survival genre seem to believe they are by plastering words and stats on screen. Hinterland Games’ fabulous creation strips it all down to a minimalistic, and more focused, world where playing on your feelings make terror and joy ever present. Hearing the howling of the wind and wolves is well balanced by the comforting crackle of a stove fire. The chilling night that descends, where all you can see is your own steamy breath in puffs, is offset by flames beaming over the walls of the abandoned log cabin creating warmth, not only in game, but in my mind. The studio’s complete awareness of these two extremes creates an ambivalence, where you begin to fear and yet respect the place you’ve been dropped in. This direct approach also shines in London’s writing, characterising its world by stripping back to the basic elements of the world and moving through cycles of elation and misery. This happens constantly for mushers in The Call of the Wild, whose only defence against the cold at night, and what lay hidden in it, is a fire they stoke themselves. Though they gain joy from its safety, the wolves that stalk their camp keeps them firmly grounded in reality. They, like the player, have no way to know whether their decisions were right until they made it.
There are simply some things that you won’t know about until you continue on and attempt them. In any case, it’s probably going to be fatal, more so in a game than the novels since you’re the one making the difficult decisions. Do you attempt food at the risk of frostbite, or trade sleep for thirst? It’s all about Darwin’s process of natural selection, the survival-of-the-fittest. London put forward his own creative take on this wilderness justice, which he called “the law of club and fang”. Buck, the main character of The Call of the Wild and a St Bernard house dog, learns of this law after being flung involuntarily into the wilderness as a sled dog. He lacks the bravery and skill to be better or even survive at the beginning. It is only through his new master’s harsh treatment of being beaten by a club that he grows his metaphorical fangs. As his fellow sled dogs begin to be individually hunted by wolves, it awakens within Buck the sense of the wild, the primordial wolf-inside, which allows him to thrive within this foreign environment. Their ends are the equivalent of the perma-death in The Long Dark. Each death is a lesson, and each reincarnation allows an attempt to apply that experience to (hopefully) be more successful. Similar to survival games of its type, it allows the player to grow and understand the laws set out in that world. But unlike them, which often rely on randomly generated terrain, it holds a purposefully designed environment that encourages the exploration of the hell you’re stuck in. It sets a more real sense of place instead of one built by a computer, adding a human element that has a more subtle eye for design. Like Buck’s companions, their death and yours, are lessons to build from on how far to push yourself.
Speaking of the wolves, they themselves are one of the more apparent threats the player encounters. Packs or loners, whether you catch them by sight or sound, every one of your priorities shifts to a ‘Fight or Flight’ response. Both novels show them to be the nature in a physical form, taking out their prey at every opportunity they present weakness. White Fang presents the protagonist of the same name maturing into his fierceness, exemplifying the tenants of ‘club and fang’ when he hunts the fellow animals. “It is not the way of the Wild to like movement. Life is an offense to it, for life is movement; and the Wild aims always to destroy movement.” Hinterland’s own take on wolves differs little, even down to use of fire as a way to deter them, except that you can often survive an encounter with their wolves. The novels aren’t nearly as kind to humans lost in the cold.
Despite this apparent savagery at humanity’s expense, people are shown to be as close to the wild as the creatures who live there. As a player, I felt this change within me as a result of all the lessons learned in each sitting. I began a dumbfounded amateur, admiring the game’s beautiful art style, watching a deer grazing and the aurora dancing on the skyline. Not long after, when hunger set in, I was gutting up that prancing deer to sate hunger. And that aurora was gone now, obscured by the growing blizzard, a blinding sheet where only blankness in every direction. “A world without warmth, a world in which caresses and affection and the bright sweetness of spirit did not exist”. This quick turn to tragedy was common enough that even as I explored new areas I can only see the world in supply locations and shelters. The beauty was drained away at the cost of living for as long as I could. The predator instinct kicked in too, as deer were like walking steaks waiting to be captured, and wolves were stalking claws to avoid. Like Buck, I, as the player, became “a killer, a thing that preyed, living on the things that lived, [….] surviving triumphantly in a hostile environment where only the strong survive”.
These layers of relentlessness made for a terrifying realisation. I was reminded how fear inducing nature can be. Living in a country where our wildest animal is the squirrel and weather conditions cause more inconveniences than fatalities, it’s sometimes hard to see the breadth of what nature can do. Both novels and the game bring this sense of utter terror of what can become of you, from within and without. As you battle beasts you become one of them. These aren’t places for humans to survive, let alone thrive.
These well-crafted bits of design all show how The Long Dark is on the precipice of being as long-lasting, and comparable, to the likes of London’s works. Whilst the novel is centuries old and highly respected as an art, the video game still has much to prove in the eyes of general public, let alone academia. It’s why first delving into The Long Dark I was shocked by the immediate recall to The Call of the Wild and White Fang. I hadn’t realised that games had come to the point where they and literature were so closely matched in ability to create vivid settings and build their worlds. There’s always been cinematic comparisons between games and films, but rarely compared against writing, or the works of famous author whose books people cuddle up to at night. And this is where the indie scene seems to have been shining recently, with the likes of Papers, Please and Gone Home (I always mention these gems) being a means to involve their audiences with worlds that lean heavily on escapism. London excited his own audiences like this, dramatising locations as if it was one of the novel’s characters, the ever present nemesis of any other living thing. Though The Long Dark is still in Alpha, filled with prickly stubble instead of a smooth shave (that flare animation…), its core remains magical and strong. There’s something innately fun and exciting in the danger put forward in both Hinterland Game’s work and the canine novels, evoking the same world in a different format. By facing terrifying situations from a safe distance we’re allowed a titillation of something far away removed from normal life. No matter where the game goes from here, I will remember the moment it opened up my understanding of the harmony that can be had between an ancient writing form and one still trying to learn how to walk.