In 2017, I wrote no less than two articles that basically came to the same conclusion: wow, The Long Dark is hard. Maybe even too hard. It is a masterpiece in terms of mechanics, but boy, is it a punishing play.
And yet it’s still among my favorite games of the year. A game doesn’t have to be easy, or even fun, to have merit. And in its purest form, which The Long Dark comes close to, survival as a genre is not fun. It’s stressful, and drains your emotional resources quickly. There’s a reason why people, when they go camping, only go for a few days. “Roughin’ it” is best experienced in short bursts. It’s less enjoyable the more real it becomes.
And The Long Dark is real. Not real in the sense of the physical versus virtual, but in terms of the mechanics of quantifying human progress. The details are so realistic, they become distressing. When resources are low, environment threats are everywhere, and there’s no guarantee you’ll survive the next few minutes, it’s difficult to relax, much less enjoy yourself. And yet, I can’t help but respect The Long Dark. I’m at ease with my discomfort with it. That may seem like a contradiction but I don’t think all art can, or should, exist to placate, even when its primary purpose (as with games but many mediums in general) is to entertain. I like the challenge, even if I can only handle it in short bursts. There’s still something so appealing about its conflict.
It occurs to me that when I originally played The Long Dark, I may have been too high strung to enjoy it fully. Revisiting it today as I write this article, I notice it seems less intense than before. I find it easier than in the past to trust and accept that I’ll eventually find food, medical supplies, or whatever I need to get through each rough moment as it comes. I suspect this has far more to do with me and my own personal progress with my anxiety issues than it does the game itself. In other games, especially ones with a resource management theme, I often let my obsessive overachievement tendencies (one of my favorite defense mechanisms in real life) take over. The Long Dark never lets me hoard every last bit of material I need to get by, and thus, I never feel truly prepared. I don’t doubt there’s a correlation between the increasing amount of peace I feel with the uncertain, and my ability to better enjoy a game where my success and survival are never a given. Perhaps in many ways I’m only just learning now how to get by, how to take advantage of what is offered to me and act proactively, making life happen instead of letting life happen to me. Maybe I’m just now finding confidence in my own ability to thrive, to take each challenge as it comes, and not try to overcompensate. I spend more time now teaching myself how to weather the storm rather than trying to prevent bad weather. In that sense, The Long Dark itself, from what it taught me earlier in the year, to how I feel now, has become a symbol of my journey in 2017. “Life is hard, but you have to get through it” is no longer the lesson I take away from it. Instead, it’s “Life goes on.”
It’s has been delightful to circle back to The Long Dark. It is just as beautiful, if not more so, as it was the day I first played it. All I needed was a fresh set of eyes and an occasion to revisit. It’s only gotten better, even as nothing about it has changed. Just me.
Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.