The Long Dark, more like The Cold Lark!? Ammirght?
There’s this long-standing argument about reviewing unfinished games. Digital media has changed the way we release products and no longer are games isolated to one state after being shipped and printed on a disk. This has been thanks to the rise of the digital platform and the subsequent democratization of development. No longer are consumers willing to wait X amount of months to receive their shiny new game. People are forking over hefty sums of money to receive an unfinished product that doesn’t have any meaningful criticism to back it up.
Some institutions decide not to cover these games at all until their release, citing them as ”evolving experiences’‘, that can’t be quantified the same way as already finished games. Others do rolling coverage, following the development, but this sort of stuff just feels really soulless and nurtured of criticism that could otherwise improve the game. People seem to get really angsty about this too as those who have invested themselves not just in the product, but the development seem to expect their reviews to be overly aware of the fact that it’s ”unfinished’‘. Writers don’t really know how to fix this problem, how do you placate the both sides and produce content that’s critically relevant but also aware of its ongoing development? Some have tried with Gonzo journalism and others are overly apologetic in their criticisms and falsely codify the idea that every problem present will somehow be fixed. Finality in games has become tenuous and written reviews of these ever developing products become obsolete.
Because that’s the real issue here, a growing assumption that development will continue indefinitely, and that’s reinforced by the bonkers journalism surrounding it. You can start to place the onus of this on Minecraft, a game that’s been around for six years but still receives regular content updates. These articles discussing early access further exacerbate this problem as it leads to the habit-forming idea that issues or bugs, or inherit issues with the game will be fixed in post. Which isn’t the case for most.
Sometime in August last year Sir You Are Being Hunted was released on Steam Greenlight. The game was unfinished but people still paid money for it. Criticism about the game wasn’t that harsh even though the project had some glaring flaws. People and reviewers excused it from its problems because of the lower expectations these games have. No one had really talked about it before its release, even though money was exchanged for some sort of generalizable product. People are going to exploit that lack of criticism because too often, early access just feels like an excuse for failure.
We saw it with The War Z, the shallow and broken DayZ clone and we’ll see it again until we start holding these products under the spotlight and enforce standards on them.
So that’s where I am with The Long Dark. A friend sent me a copy insisting that I play it and I did. Where did it get me? Here, in this quagmire of moral ambiguity. Do I talk about the flaws in the game formally, treating it like the final project? I don’t know. I can’t provide you with a comprehensive list of things The Long Dark will have or improve on. I can only give you my impression, and that’s not to say my impression will become invalid at some point. It shouldn’t. Because I obviously think it’s something I should talk about, even given my narrow experience with it, and surely that means that there is an impactful experience to be had.
There’s a lot of things I like in The Long Dark but I still don’t see why it’s getting the media buzz it is. It’s an open sandbox, survivalist game that’s designed to test your skill in the wilderness. You’ll have to deal with getting cold, hungry and tired, and theses systems quickly pile up as the already scarce resources dwindle. The aesthetics are great, sound design and visuals are cool, but there’s just not very many things to do out there in the world. You can’t really enjoy the stunning vistas because you’re worried about getting cold. You can’t really slip into the atmosphere of long abandoned towns because you have to open up a garish menu to stuff food in your face. You can’t look up at the starry night sky because you’ll be spending that time asleep.
More importantly the world feels a little soulless, like it was never populated to begin with. Most post-apocalyptic games litter their world with little notes and stories from before and after the event, and this goes a long way to sell the setting. However The Long Dark completely neglects this. It doesn’t try to sell any kind of narrative and that really hurt my investment in the game.
They made a big deal out of hiring some Triple A voice talent and I can’t help but feel that’s misplaced. Neither Hale or Meer speak enough. When you come across a neat environment you find yourself longing for them to comment on it, but all you’ll get is, a murmur or pant. I don’t object to empty worlds only populated by the player but it just doesn’t make your survival meaningful. After all what’s the reason it trying to survive if it isn’t for other people you know and love. It just ends up feeling a bit vacuous and I can’t help but pine for other human beings. If that sense of isolation is what The Long Dark is trying to achieve then it succeeded. Yet I can’t help but think that it’s been done better. Bastion was a weird little game that felt pretty isolationist, but what prevented it from being vacuous was the narrator, who could arguably be considered as the main character. He talked, he reacted and it was a great sense of investment. I find myself wanting to see that In The Long Dark, it sure as hell could use it.
Maybe these things will be fixed, maybe they won’t. I don’t know, all I do know is that what The Long Dark is going to be and isn’t going to be is not relevant to me. What it was and how I experienced, That’s what I’ll take away from this.