The reader of this essay may at first be excused for the feeling of bewilderment that is sure to set upon her on her reading of the title. Cormac McCarthy and H.P Lovecraft are hardly literary bedfellows, and to draw the central themes of their writing together by interpreting an independently developed video game may appear to many to be a futile, as well inappropriate, exercise in interpretation.
In The Long Dark, the player takes on the role of one of two protagonists – either a male or a female pilot who has crashed in the northern Canadian wilderness following a catastrophic event that has caused blackouts over the entire area. The goal of the game is simple: don’t die. There are no zombies, no gunfights, no interaction with other humans (AI or human controlled). There are next to no spoken words; what few words are spoken come in short exclamations of excitement when a new tool is found or a sigh of desperation as hypothermia sets in. The only opponent is the wilderness, and the wilderness can be a cruel opponent. Water not boiled may give the player dysentery, meat not cooked may give the player food poisoning, running too fast down a hill may cause a sprained ankle, wolves may track the player. The only opponent is the wilderness, and the wilderness proves to be a far more formidable opponent than most would guess.
The wilderness in The Long Dark becomes the antagonist, and the longer one plays, the more explicit this becomes. While there is nothing overtly “scary” or “evil” in the game, there is a far more brooding atmosphere created here than in many other so-called horror games or even horror films. Genuine feelings of unease settle on the player when the fog rolls in and the howling of wolves is heard, made all the more perilous by the very real danger of becoming lost even on familiar paths in dense fog, wandering and eventually waiting for death. Perhaps a second antagonist slowly emerges from the northern Canadian wilderness: death. Death may come at any moment in the game and may take on many different personas, whether the long slow death of thirst or hypothermia or the sudden (and at times jump inducing) breaking of ice believed to be solid enough to cross. Wolves will follow the scent of the player for eerily long lengths of time, often disappearing as one puts distance between them-self and the wolf, only to reappear out from behind the trees, slowly closing the distance. The grim reality of total isolation, partially forgotten during the warmer, sunnier parts of the day, returns during the fierce blizzards and long, dark nights when the fire begins to burn low.
There are a number of wide-ranging themes to be found here, but perhaps the most direct parallel to the first author in the title can be found in the use of the landscape as a character. In, for example, Outer Dark, the landscape of the narrative becomes a character in and of itself. It takes on a feel of someone standing in the background, which is different than most narratives. Here, the landscape is almost (almost) a participant. This use of landscape reaches its peak in ‘The Crossing,’ (book two of ‘The Border Trilogy’). The deep Appalachian mountains and the hard Texas-Mexican borderlands aren’t simply stages upon which characters act but become characters themselves. This phenomenon is captured in The Long Dark to an astonishing degree when the game is played for an extended period of time. The wilderness confounds the plans of the player. Blizzards often rage for three or four days while the player is trapped in a small cabin or lookout tower, with only an ever-dwindling supply of food and water for company. Fog disorients even on the most familiar of paths. Forests begin to look familiar as the player travels in circles. The wilderness may even become the main character: the antagonist towards whom all the resources of the player are directed against.