The Long Dark: Doing It Right
It was a day like any other in The Long Dark.
I awoke to the sound of the wind howling outside, feeling warm and refreshed albeit a little on the hungry side. I got out of bed and removed a can of refried beans from the shelf of my cabin, tearing it open with my knife and sloppily stuffing it down my gullet. I started a fire with surprising efficiency (most of my attempts usually end in me swearing at fairly innocent firewood) and I prepared some water to drink for later. After tiptoeing carefully around a corpse strewn in the corner, I went outside to expose myself to the elements. Today I was crossing the lake.
Initially, the trip was pleasant. My goal was a blurry cabin in the distance which overlooked me plodding carefully over the frigid ice. A wolf watched me from a ways off but soon lost interest, I managed to move hastily from ice fishing hut to ice fishing hut, scrounging supplies here and there as I went. I was relieved at having gotten some rest since the previous day had nearly done me in.
Then the storm hit.
It came out of nowhere and show no signs of letting up. As the cabin disappeared from view I halted my meandering in exchange for a dash in its direction. The wind whipped violently against my face and the weight of my overstuffed bag started getting to me. Exhaustion set in and I started to lose my breath. A predator howled in the distance as the sun began to set. They would soon be on the hunt.
Then I saw the house nestled on the hill ahead, beckoning me. A large steel pole bore a blowing rectangle of fabric with a vibrant, red maple leaf standing proud among the chaotic snow.
“Holy f***”, I actually said aloud before I hit the pause key.
Allow me to sidetrack slightly and give you some context.
I grew up in the Niagara region in Southern Ontario, Canada. Niagara is known for being the wine capital of Canada and home to Niagara Falls, of course. Across within view of the shore of Lake Ontario looms “The Escarpment”, a huge hill/small mountain which dominates the landscape. Most of the people who live up on the escarpment are farmers and other rural folk, and being so close to the lake gives our weather a nice little ‘lake effect’, which essentially means the weather is ten times worse than surrounding areas. I have many family members who live on the the Escarpment, where bad weather and snow are abound thanks to its high altitude.
Some of my earliest memories were sitting outside during recess in the middle of a whirling snowstorm in first grade, bundled tightly and sitting squished up next to my friends as the wind hurled around us, just waiting for the bell to ring to give you the honour of going back inside to the relative warmth. When it finally did my friends and I lifted ourselves to our feet and trudged our way across the open field to the school doors. You haven’t truly lived until you’ve stumbled clumsily through the snow in a desperate attempt to stop the teacher from closing the back door into the school and leaving you out in the frigid white. Some days, school felt more like a lesson in survival than it did mathematics.
As time went on I got more used to the cold and snow. I realized that relative to some places, I had it pretty good. I’d choose to walk 45 minutes home from school during snowstorms because I started to find something comforting in the snow. There’s few things in life comparable to seeing a pearly wall of frigid snow coming at you from across a field and enveloping you.
It’s not to say that walking through a snowstorm is by any stretch of the imagination easy - far from it. By the time you reach your destination your hands are frozen, your face is numb and your legs are stiff from climbing over snow bank after snow bank. But once you make it indoors there’s no warmer sensation in the world.
That’s part of the reason why The Long Dark resonates with me: as someone who grew up in similar conditions, I know what it feels like to trudge through the wind and cold. When my character slows down as the wind picked up against her, I related to it. It took me back to my long walks home when the chilly bursts of wind wouldn’t stop leaving me feeling like the wilderness had some kind of grudge to settle. When my character twisted her ankle walking down a steep slope I was initially confused, but then remembered back to walking over a hidden root in the snow one winter and having my leg lock up as it got trapped beneath it, forcing me to sit down and remove my boot to free it from its confines.
I may not have been attacked by wolves, but I remember the fear I felt when I saw a group of coyotes feeding on a rabbit in a field as I walked with my father when I was much younger. I instinctively grabbed the largest stick I could find, calling it my ‘coyote stick’. “They won’t hurt you, they’re more scared of you than you are of them,” he told me, but I carried that stick all the way back to the truck with me.
For me, The Long Dark captures so much of what it feels like to be Canadian. The weather, the fauna, the terminology. I was floored, actually floored to see the word ‘toque’ being used to describe a wool cap I found. I never ever expected the word to come up; I was playing a videogame, after all, and in a medium which feature a display of might by soldiers waving an American flag in-scene or where a quiet street in Tokyo is often the setting for a battle to save the world, seeing something so purely Canadian in nature captured my awe.
There are plenty of games set in Canada, but none that feel like they are to the level The Long Dark does. Sure, SOMA mentions the main character coming from Toronto, one mission in Deus Ex: Human Revolution takes place in an office building in Montreal, and Canada is occasionally a map in Formula One games, but none of these ever feel like they even try to capture what Canada is like. Canada is used as any other locale in these instances, but even just by adopting the word ‘toque’, The Long Dark embraces Canadian culture.
And that was entirely the reason seeing my country’s flag flapping passionately in the wind above the cabin startled me. Somehow (and I know this sounds insane), it didn’t occur to me that games could take place here. In fact I had completely forgotten The Long Dark took place in the Canadian wilderness! Unconsciously I had convinced myself it was just Alaska, Russia, or some other place that was cold.
All the gaming culture I consumed had convinced me that Canada wasn’t a place that games could be set in, that Canadians couldn’t be main characters without just being a joke, that Canada doesn’t exist in whatever pocket-universe video games took place in.
But seeing that flag on the hill reminded me of where I was in the game and (more importantly) that games and the locales, cultures and people in them don’t always have to be restricted to ‘some other cold place’ or ‘generic military man who points a gun’.
I approached the dark log cabin with the flag flying beautifully overhead. My goal, and by extension my character’s goal, is to survive in this snowy, frigid, Canadian wilderness just like I used to pretend to do during recess when I was a child.
And so help me, that’s what I’m going to do.