The Long Dark

Making Games In The Cold Canadian Wilderness
by Kyle Hilliard on Oct 10, 2013 at 05:30 AM
Platform PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Switch, PC
Publisher Hinterland Studio
Developer Hinterland Studio
Rating Teen

The Long Dark is not a survival horror game. Instead, its creator refers to it as a survival simulation game. In a cold, snowy world that recently experienced a mysterious apocalypse that made all modern electronics useless, players must learn to survive, and interact with an unforgiving world. You won’t have super powers, and you won’t be fighting off zombies. Instead, you’ll be doing your best to simply stay alive in the face of wildlife, an unforgiving environment, and other survivors in the same predicament.

Developing The Long Dark

After Raphael van Lierop finished working on Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine at Relic, he felt that he was at a crossroads in his career. “I had the post-partum process that you always seem to go through when you finish a game,” he says. He decided to leave Relic and start something new. He opened his small independent development studio, Hinterland, and began work on The Long Dark.

Frustrated with the necessity of living in a city and having to relocate depending on what project he was working on, van Lierop took himself, his wife, and young children, and made one final move to the remote area of Vancouver Island, Canada where his wife grew up. He was happy to be away from the city, but it didn’t change his professional goals. “I didn’t want to give up on my dream of working on great games with great collaborators,” he says.

After settling in Vancouver, van Lierop began assembling his team and gathering funding. Hinterland got a recoupable advance from the Canada Media Fund, which promotes innovation in film, television, and games in the Canadian industry.

Hinterland and The Long Dark has an impressive pedigree of creators, with artists, programmers, and designers from games like Far Cry 3, God of War, League of Legends, The Unfinished Swan, Mass Effect, and more. Van Lierop has not worked with everyone on his newfound team directly on previous projects, but his history in the industry gave him easy networking access to assemble his team. He wanted to make a personal, atmospheric game with a focus on story and world-building, and it didn’t take much to bring people on board. “[There is] a trend that I’m sure you’ve seen in the industry generally, of established triple-A developers that have decided that they want to do something different,” van Lierop says. “We’ve seen that a lot of creative risk taking is happening in the independent games space, and yet often we’re working on these really great franchises that are wonderful in the sense that they are really well resourced and have great publishers backing them with huge fan bases and you can reach a lot of people that way – but you can’t always take the interesting creative risks.”

Van Lierop’s added sympathy of not requiring talented people to uproot their lives to come work on The Long Dark in Canada also made the game an easy sell. "How could I say, 'I don't want to move my family for work anymore,' and then go to other people and say, 'I need you to relocate here to work on this project,'" van Lierop says. There is a physical Hinterland studio in Vancouver Island, embedded in the cold environment the game seeks to recreate, but much of the team works remotely. They have spent time together exploring the local environment to get a sense of the game and eating pancakes together (as you can see in the game’s Kickstarter pitch video), but the bulk of development work is being done with the team physically separated.

The Long Dark

The Long Dark follows the journey of pilot William Mackenzie. Something happens to the world’s satellites and electronics while Mackenzie is in mid-flight, causing him to crash-land in a cold, unforgiving environment. In a world without modern electronic conveniences, Mackenzie has to learn to survive by interacting with other survivors, dealing with the local wildlife, and surviving the elements in a harsh, open, and interconnected world.

Van Lierop does not consider the game to be a survival-horror title, and was somewhat surprised to see the community describe the game as spooky when its first gameplay sample was shown. Van Lierop describes it as atmospheric, moody, and magical, not scary or horrifying. His focus is to create a survival simulation, as opposed to creating a survival -horror experience. You won’t find jump scares, monsters, or zombies in The Long Dark, but the very nature of survival in the snowy wild lends a certain amount of unavoidable spookiness to the experience.

The Long Dark is post-apocalyptic, and even though Van Lierop cites games like Fallout 3 and STALKER as influences and experiences that he loves, he hopes the world of his game will be much different. Van Lierop talks about books like, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars, Jack London novels, and TV shows like Jericho as providing inspiration. Van Lierop also spoke in length about the movie The Edge saying, “I think I am probably the only person that likes this film.” In it two men (Alec Baldwin and Anthony Hopkins) have to learn to rely on one another to survive after a plane crash leaves them stranded in the Alaskan wilderness. “It’s a very raw man-versus-man, man-versus-nature story,” van Lierop says. “It’s always stuck with me, that movie, for whatever reason.”

Kickstarting The Long Dark

Last month, van Lierop and his team took the game to Kickstarter in order to gain additional funding. The Kickstarter campaign is still active for a few more days. In retrospect, van Lierop thinks they shouldn’t have gone to Kickstarter as early as the team did. They wanted to be part of Kickstarter’s Canadian introduction, which occurred in September, but it wasn’t until this week that the team was able to give a better, more developed example of what the game will look like. “Our campaign hasn’t really resonated as strongly as we expected it to. I think it’s doing really well, but I would have thought we would have hit our goal a little sooner.” That being said, van Lierop is pleased with the feedback, community building, and word-of-mouth that has resulted from the Kickstarter. If the Kickstarter does not make its funding goal, development will move forward, thanks to the Canadian Media Fund and other sources. The Kickstarter serves to give the team the chance to add as much polish as possible to the game as opposed to expanding the scope as most Kickstarter games do, but the game will continue development either way.

For more on the game, head to The Long Dark’s Kickstarter page.

Products In This Article

The Long Darkcover

The Long Dark

PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Switch, PC
Release Date:
August 1, 2017 (PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC), 
September 17, 2020 (Switch)