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The Long Starve

I was reading through The Long Dark’s (TLD) wiki the other day, when I came across the missing piece of the game’s puzzle: it’s okay to starve. Mind. Blown.

Fundamentally, you die in TLD when your Condition meter reaches zero. There are four separate meters (Needs) that affect the Condition meter: Warmth, Fatigue, Thirst, and Hunger. If any of those meters reach zero, you start losing Condition. However, you can still do things while a Need is zero, e.g. chop wood while hungry or thirty or cold. When at zero, the Condition loss per hour is:

  • Warmth -20%
  • Fatigue -1%
  • Thirst -2%
  • Hunger -1%

While you technically regain Condition as long as all four Needs are above zero, the gain is like 1% per hour. Meanwhile, if you sleep in a bed for 10 hours, you can regain up to 65% of your Condition bar in one go. The requirements? Drink some water before bed and consume ~600 calories. That’s it.

LongDark_Sleep

The exact calorie cost depends on a lot of variables.

To understand the implications, here is a paragraph from the wiki:

2800 calories would be consumed during 14 hours harvesting carcasses. But if no calories are available (Hunger is empty), about 15% of condition would be drained instead. Only 600 calories are required during 10 hours of fully replenishing sleep. So eating only 600 calories prior to sleeping can maintain a character with only briefly lowered condition taken as a trade-off. This is a great reduction from the 3,400 calories that would have been required to keep hunger satisfied the whole day.

In other words, instead of consuming X calories a day, you really only need ~600.

I always thought it was a bit too gamified how I had to maintain such a large calorie intake for normal things, but I chalked it up as one of those weird genre requirements. Turns out that was not the case. So, if you were like me thinking The Long Dark was a bit too brutal of a survival simulation with the constant juggling of resources… just stay hungry, my friends.

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Impressions: The Long Dark

I first played The Long Dark ages ago back when it was in Early Access. It was back then, and still is today, a survival game of another kind: a true Player versus Environment. Your primary foe is hunger, thirst, and a cold Canadian wilderness hostile to your continued existence.

LongDark_Area

Welcome to the middle of nowhere. Population: You.

Having played it for a dozen or more hours now, I can safely say that I am pining for some zombies.

When I said your primary opponent is the environment, I meant it. Outside of the story mode (broken down into Episodes), there are no NPCs. Fauna consists of rabbits, deer, wolves, and bears. I have heard there might be moose involved, and I guess you can technically fish up, er, fish. But that’s really it. While you can eventually craft a bow or loot a rifle, this is not an action survival game by any means.

Given the above, the fundamental gameplay tension is food and warmth. The Canadian tundra is cold, the windchill is colder, and blizzards are colder still. Keeping warm is a challenge, and just finding shelter is not necessarily good enough. That’s when The Long Dark’s thumbscrews come out.

LongDark_Branch

Don’t do this by hand. Or in a Blizzard. Or, really, ever.

See, picking up sticks is easy. Come across a branch that can be broken down into sticks? That’s going to take 10 minutes by hand. Which the game fast-forwards through, but your warmth meter is depleting rapidly all the while (depending on weather and your gear), and now you’re at risk for hypothermia. And those three sticks you got from breaking said branch? That’s maybe 22 minutes of heat in the campfire, which might not be long enough to regain the Warmth you lost breaking the branch outside, nevermind the other firestarting materials. Oh, and it took 42 calories.

The Long Dark takes counting calories to a whole new level. Sleeping takes 75 calories per hour. Breaking down a crate for wood for a fire takes ~62 calories. Walking around for an hour takes 270 calories. Harvesting meat from an animal, so you can cook it to regain calories, takes X calories. Hopefully less than the amount it took you to kill said animal, but not always.

What ends up happening is that you never really feel safe, anywhere. Sure, finding a sufficiently warm shelter is nice. But necessity will drive you from that place eventually. Water is abundant, but needs fire to be produced. Which needs fuel to be collected. Which needs calories to burned. Which needs food to be scavenged or hunted. Which needs you to be outside, in the cold, taking risks.

Being naturally driven from your comfort zone in a quest for survival is brilliant game design. But it is also dissatisfying. Instead of feeling like I have agency, I instead feel despondent. In 7 Days to Die, I forage for supplies so that I can construct defenses capable of outlasting next week’s Blood Moon. In The Long Dark, I forage supplies so I can… stave off the inevitable for another 24 hours. Technically they might be the same in principle, but one feels a hell of a lot better than the other.

Having said all that, I am currently working through Episode 2 of the Story mode and having a plot to follow makes things a bit better. Plus, the locations where the story NPCs live have a fire going 24/7, which makes things considerably easier. Not having the ability to unlock schematics and such as one does in the regular Sandbox version can be a bit stifling (e.g. not being able to craft a bow), but the overall experience is quite good, if a bit linear and directed.

Survival Equilibrium

I may have mentioned it before, but I really enjoy Survival games. For the most part.

I am currently playing The Flame in the Flood, which is a Survival roguelike, and not at all a catchy Vance Joy song. The experience was immensely frustrating for my first run, as I felt like I never had enough of any supplies, and was about to uninstall and set the category as Finished in Steam. The second run, which I have been playing for the last five hours or so, has reached that point beyond which eventual victory is all but assured. Nevertheless, I hit up every single location I can, hoarding ever-greater numbers of probably unnecessary supplies for some kind of nightmare scenario. Which kinda makes sense in the vague, post-apocalypse setting.

Hitting that equilibrium moment in Survival games though is bittersweet. It’s like the middle of every Civilization game I have ever played – the game part is over, and now you must go through the motions towards inevitable victory. Ideally, you would want the challenge of the game to match up with the game’s end, and not midway. Some games like 7 Days to Die will try extending the challenge with escalating enemies, but there comes a moment when the escalation outstrips the whole Survival aspect and the underlying game becomes something different entirely, e.g. a shooter.

Then there is the opposite problem, in which the game’s challenge doesn’t ever really end, and part of the reason I added the “for the most part” caveat. I have not played it since its release from Early Access, but I never felt good in The Long Dark. There never seemed to be enough food, or fuel, or supplies. You were always on the precipice. And that’s the goal, right? The precipice is where all the fun is had. But while the surviving part is fun, I feel like there’s an invisible Anxiety Meter that fills up for me, and once it tops off the fun drops to zero.

Plus, sometimes Survival games are bullshit. I frequently found dead bodies in The Long Dark, searched them for candy bars, but could not, you know, take their clothing. I get it, things are simplified and balanced accordingly. Still, it gets a bit annoying when you come across dozens of boarded-up buildings in The Flame in the Flood, but “Old Lumber” is a relatively scarce resource you have to specifically loot from places. Or that Flint is a consumable resource for making a Campfire. Or that nothing could be salvaged from a sprung trap you just made.

Makes me wonder though. Would a more “realistic” Survival game be any fun? Seems like the more realistic it is, the less the game could actually be about Survival. At least, unless you set it out in the straight wilderness. Which kinda brings you back to The Long Dark.

Cold Open

There have been two games I played recently that have started with a cold open, e.g. one with no tutorial that just sort of throws you into the game. The first was The Long Dark, and the second is a space-sim called Hellion; both are in Early Access and both are survival-based games. So, in a sense, it’s difficult to determine whether either one intentionally set out to have cold opens, or if this simply reflects their current, unfinished states.

Hellion-Oops

Pictured: falling out of the airlock into open space.

 

There is a lot to be said regarding the power of cold opens. In an age of 24/7 information coming from every angle, it is refreshing to be thrust into an unknown environment without any sort of hand-holding. It absolutely appeals to Explorer-types, and also those looking for more difficulty in their games. Plus, many times it makes thematic sense, say, if you just woke from cryo-sleep in an otherwise abandoned life pod.

Personally, I find cold opens to be exceptionally difficult to pull off well.

The fundamental issue I have is the dissonance between what the player expects and what the designers intend. What ends up happening is that players must essentially “metagame” how the designers actually intended the game to be played.

For example, in Hellion you awake from cryo-sleep inside a life pod without functioning Life Support. While there are a few tablets on the ground which give you a general idea of steps to take, that is basically all the guidance you are given. I searched the area and did not find enough items onboard to repair the Life Support. I found a jetpack without fuel, and supposedly a charging station for said jetpack, but could not determine a way to refuel.

So… what now? Did I miss an item in the search of the ship? Am I supposed to try and space walk without a jetpack? Is it a bug that there weren’t enough items to repair the Life Support? I have mentioned before that I am fine with tough puzzles, as long as I understand where the pieces are. What I absolutely despise is not knowing whether my failures are due to not performing correctly, or because I didn’t trip some programming flag from 10 minutes ago, or some other nonsense.

LongDark_GL

Somewhat more literal cold open.

I had a similar issue in The Long Dark, of which I played about an hour before turning off. It takes 30 game minutes to break a stick into pieces by hand? Okay, fine. But having found a shelter and tools, I saw no particular way to locate food, or reconcile my exhaustion meter with my temperature meter with the time of day, e.g. how was I to sleep and keep warm in the middle of the day and still survive the night? I understand that perhaps the intention is for the player to be constantly on edge in the quest for survival, but again, I’m not even sure how food really even works in this game yet. I have not seen any flora or fauna beyond sticks and snow.

Flailing around in the darkness is not my idea of quality game time.

I’m not saying game designers should go full Ocarina of Time and have Navi pester you for hours. Minecraft has (had?) a cold open that was relatively straightforward once you got over the intellectual hump of punching trees. Don’t Starve is a much better example of how to do a cold open – there isn’t much of an explanation of anything, but I still felt a sense of agency in being able to interact with things.

And maybe that’s just it: I might not be doing the right things, but being able to do something is important.

I dunno. I think the best compromise would be to have cold opens with a fairly robust PDA/AI Assistant/Crafting Menu. Those that want to wander around blindly can, but those who want to know what they can do… well, can.