An open world survival sandbox in the frozen north, with no zombies and a strong narrative drive; The Long Dark is ticking a lot of very trendy boxes and standing out from the crowd. We speak with Hinterland about its genre-defying adventure.
The indie and crowdfunding revolutions have certainly brought us some quality material, but in many cases what it's delivered is alternative versions of games the mainstream companies are already producing. Car games. Sport games. Shooter games. Deliberately gorgeous platformer games. Third person cinematic action games. You've already played all of these games.
There are exceptions to this rule, though, Hinterland's The Long Dark certainly seems to be one of them. Described as a "a thoughtful, exploration focused survival simulation set in the Northern wilderness in the aftermath of a global disaster", it has players struggling to stay alive while trudging through a beautiful recreation of the Pacific Northwest.
Hinterland cites STALKER and Fallout 3 in its crowdfunding pitch, both fairly familiar to core gamers, but there's also a vibe of less mainstream titles like DayZ and Miasmata, and the emphasis on exploration brings to mind Proteus and the upcoming Frontiers. Hinterland founder and creative director Raphael van Lierop says exploration has always been a fundamental part of gaming.
"I think what we’re seeing now is an interest in reviving some non-combat focused game experiences within beautiful worlds," he told VG247.
"And some unconventional experiences that are now possible due to the availability of affordable technology and access to marketplaces (mostly digital) that weren’t really around a few years ago."
A focus on environment and atmosphere is growing within other genres in the indie space, too - notably horror, which is taking off again in smaller companies after mainstream publishers threw up their hands and embraced action-focused gore instead. Survival and horror go hand-in-hand, of course, but van Lierop doesn't like the word applied to The Long Dark.
"Horror suggests monsters jumping out of closets. What we’re delivering is the taut tension of an experience like finding yourself alone in a dark wilderness without power armour to protect you," he said.
"We’re delivering a sense of vulnerability that’s primal. Anyone who has wandered the woods and heard an unexpected branch breaking knows this feeling intimately. In the end, the fear comes from the feeling of vulnerability, not the threat itself."
Of course, when you're alone and without tools in a hostile it's not the snapping branches that get you but your own ignorance. Van Lierop said Hinterland acknowledges that the need to make a good game has to take priority over realism, but said the team's "general philosophy is to not talk down to our player, to not coddle them".
"We expect them to put the effort in to learn the game systems, and when they have a victory it will be their victory, not just them following on-screen instructions as you find in a lot of mainstream games," he said.
"In The Long Dark, you’re always balancing the need and desire to explore, with the resources you need to do so safely. Our goal is to find the sweet spot between the confidence to embark on the journey, and the fear that you might not make it."
A consultant has been brought onto the project to ensure wilderness survival aspects are authentic, but Hinterland doesn't expect players to be survival experts - nor to teach them real world skills. Instead, it hopes that those with appropriate real-world experience will appreciate some of the finer detail which may go over the regular punters head as they dash about jamming buttons and wondering why they've developed hypothermia.
"There is no manual," van Lierop added.
"Come to the game with an open mind and a willingness to explore and take risks. You’ll fail at times, but that’s part of the experience. In the end your accomplishments in the game will feel like your own. And that will be a rewarding thing."
Disclosure: Brenna backed The Long Dark on Kickstarter. It had successfully passed its funding goal prior to the arrangement and publication of this article. At time of writing, the campaign had just over one day remaining.