Coming to Terms with My Bestial Gamer Brain in The Long Dark

In a world where ‘Call of Duty’ is still king, ‘The Long Dark’s’ plodding, graceful beauty is infuriating.

Written by C.T. Casberg / Published on September 8, 2017

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The metallic accretions of my wilderness trek, a handful of pans tethered out of sight to the rear of my backpack, rattle and crash together as I trudge through defiant piles of snow. I breathe heavily, and the wind howls all about me. I am exhausted by the sheer effort of traversing this wintry and unforgiving corner of snow-shrouded Canada, and the unearthly cold saps my very health.

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"My bestial gamer addict brain will not suffer pauses. Hourglasses and slowly-filling circles are not welcome here."
I know I am freezing to death because the menu tells me so. My digital body suffers hypothermia, it says. A status bar blinks warningly. Meanwhile, my real body is in Central Oregon, where it’s 100 degrees everyday and our dusty hills of rock and sage are covered in thick smoke from the wildfires that continuously flare up around the region. If nothing else, The Long Dark illustrates well the disembodying nature of videogames. Perhaps I’ll go crank up my AC to increase the immersion.

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The pans haunt me. “Haunt” is the most appropriate term, because I’ve never seen them, only heard them, surmising their existence by the omnipresent tinny clattering that accompanies every snow-crunching footstep I take. I cannot outrun them. Mackenzie, the man whose story I’ve entered, cannot outrun them. They are like Jacob Marley’s chains, rattling reminders of my sin.

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I must build a fire. If I don’t, I will die. So sayeth the blinking red bar! If I die, I will be sent back in time to an earlier checkpoint. Then I will have to slowly trudge back over the same patches of snow over which I’ve already slowly trodden, an agonizingly slow process that is somehow more pleasant in real life than it is in the game. In real life, at least, as you gasp in belabored spurts in the snowy woods your lungs fill with air scented with pine. I think I can smell my own deodorant. But I must build a fire. To the menu!

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The Long Dark’s fire-starting mechanic is, without a doubt, one of the most infuriating gameplay decisions I’ve encountered in a very long time. You press a button, and then you wait. And wait. And wait. For thirty bewilderingly dull seconds, you watch as a circle is slowly drawn around an hourglass and Beardsly Goodflannel Mackenzie (which I’ve decided is the character’s full name) randomly utters some encouragement to the unseen sparks. There is no animation, no minigame. Just a stupid hourglass and a stupid circle for a full half minute of your life. You will have to start many fires, by the way. Too many. If only you could carry a bit of the flame with you in your pan, like Calcifer in Howl’s Moving Castle.

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This is my sin which the pans speak of: I hate the fire-starting sequence with a rage that goes beyond words. When it begins, I pound my head on my desk and curse loudly. I get up and pace the room, casting hateful glances at the hourglass and its cursed circle. I rub my eyes, slap my cheeks, and stare dumbly at the screen. Halfway there. Who decided this was a good idea? Do they hate players? Have they ever even started a fire? I want to go start a real fire as catharsis.

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Let’s take a step out of Canada and go back in time a little. Ten years ago, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare exploded onto the scene and changed the way we play games. With its slick action and radically refined online progression system, which combined the adrenaline rush of twitch shooters and addictive leveling of RPGs, Modern Warfare

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I resent The Long Dark. I genuinely do. The very thought of returning to it when I have PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and Overwatch to feed my compulsive need for dopamine-pumping twitch action weighs on me oppressively. The game defies all good sense of modern game design with its glacial circles. It does not satisfy my cravings. Instead, it makes me do nothing but wait for thirty whole seconds.

Saying that last sentence out loud makes me sound like a junkie. Thirty seconds. I suppose I must be something of a junkie if a thirty second pause sends me into a frenzy.

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A part of me wants to accuse The Long Dark of being a bad game, but I’m not certain that part of me is in a good place to accuse the game of anything. Another part of me has the vague notion that I should be grateful to play a game for once that isn’t designed to manipulate my psychology into playing mindlessly for hours and buying loot crates. The Long Dark wants me to rest and to ponder. It wants me to breathe. It wants me to spend time with myself. It’s for that reason I should be grateful, and it’s for that reason I want to find a physical copy of the game and smash it to bits with a saucepan.

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Yeah, one of those would do nicely.

About the Author:

Chris Casberg is a Christ-follower, husband, writer, and former U.S. Marine Corps intelligence dude. When he was a kid, he had to play games online with a 28.8k modem, in the snow uphill both ways.