The Long Dark, Early Access and the Drawbacks of Expectations

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<i>The Long Dark</i>, Early Access and the Drawbacks of Expectations

Until recently, I never thought that playing a game in Early Access could taint my impression of its full release. After all, Early Access games start out as a rough product, shaped by time and player feedback, and so it’s expected that the final release is the best one. With that in mind, most players, like myself, know to go into the experience with a somewhat nebulous impression of what the game is, and will be, trusting that the kinks will all be worked out by the end. So far that has been the case with a lot of Early Access games, even the ones I don’t feel are quite “there” yet, like ARK: Survival Evolved. Whatever state the game is in now, it’ll be better by the time it comes out.

But then there’s The Long Dark, which finally saw an official release at the beginning of August after about three years of development. I bought the game shortly after it debuted in Early Access on Steam and have been periodically checking in with the creator, Raphael Van Lierop, over the years as development has progressed. Initially, to keep the “real” part of the game, the narrative, under wraps, Hinterland only released the sandbox mode, a bare bones version of The Long Dark that was very light on instructions—or any distinctive, stylized art. Without cut scenes or some of the finer details added, the game was not unlike its source material: minimalistic, realistic and essentialist. Use only what you need to get by. The isolationist themes created by the game’s mechanics were enhanced by their presentation.

Now, with the official release, those mechanics are given context, with an enhanced user interface, a story mode and, perhaps most helpfully, a series of tips and instructions leading the player through the major points of in-game survival. Much of the mystery has been stripped as the game takes on typical game conventions. Music, cutscenes, dialogue sequences, voice actors, character art: so much of what we understand as a baseline for a game’s aesthetic identity was only just given to The Long Dark now. I’d played the sandbox mode for so long that I almost forgot the game was “supposed” to have all those other things. Now that it does, I’m not sure how to feel about it.

I’m a survival games junkie, and I’ve played many over the years, from the big titles to the niche shovelware on Steam, and often the reviews and comments I see are frustrating as a fan of The Long Dark. I read them and think, “Pal, the game you’re looking for is The Long Dark.” Players have wanted an increasingly authentic experience out of their survival games, and so far, The Long Dark comes closest to mimicking the real life experience so many of them seem to desire. I’ve sensed for years that survival games would begin to separate themselves from their origins in horror, so for that I’m an enthusiastic supporter of The Long Dark on mechanics, and its nurturing of the emerging genre, alone.

So why is The Long Dark suddenly such a disappointment?

I’ve given this a lot of thought, especially in terms of my increasing obsolescence as an aging games reviewer. I know that some games are ruined for me by the fact that I’ve seen too much. But in this case it may be the fact that I went into the game with expectations. In training materials I wrote years ago as a managing editor, I advised my writers, when writing their reviews, to pause and assess any disappointment they had with a game, and question where that came from. Often it’s rooted assumptions made in anticipation. So the goal is to pinpoint where those expectations came from. Is it based in what the press materials led you to believe? From what you’ve experienced with similar titles in its genre? From the professional pedigree of the studio and its developers? It’s hard to figure out why, as a critic, we do not like one thing or the other, but if you can follow the trail, so to speak, and dismantle it piece by piece, the reasons start to unravel, and often it can come down to what we thought or wanted a game to be, rather than what the creator gave us.

the long dark early access screen.jpg

With that in mind, Early Access games might be at a disadvantage when it comes to critical assessment. First impressions, after all, are everything. And while it’s a writer’s obligation to remain impressionably fluid, accounting for new information as it arises, it can be exhausting to do so with monthly content updates. I’ve returned to some of the Early Access games I’ve purchased (like The Forest), after an absence of a few months, having determined to give them some time to grow, only to come back to a completely different (and in some cases, less enjoyable) game. Instead of judging a finished product, you instead become witness to a game’s path of development, which is far harder to analyze. It may not be fair to judge a game based on what it was instead of what it is—but what if you liked what it was, better? Is it then fair to actually criticize the game for its growth? Have developers shot themselves in the foot by opening themselves up to yet another avenue of criticism?

This thought weighs even heavier on me with the recent release of Tacoma. I went into that game “blind” and was completely won over by its charm and innovative narrative devices. Meanwhile, I already loved The Long Dark and expected to love it more in one full piece. The new musical score is fitting. The character art, seen in the new cut scenes and user interface, is objectively charming. The story is intriguing. I just don’t like the elements tacked onto what was a barebones survivalist experience. It feels like I’m wearing makeup on a Sunday.

The only real solution here, if there is one, is to stop buying games in Early Access and stop paying attention to press releases and game trailers, but that’s easier said than done. Early Access is a means by which otherwise niche titles are able to secure funding and an audience even on limited resources, and the medium, which only grows increasingly expensive, owes it a lot. As a games reporter, it’s almost impossible to avoid press coverage as the marketing cycle for a given title ramps into high gear. And avoiding the press for a game hasn’t always resulted in an honest, clean first impression for me: my review of Fallout 4, almost completely untainted by marketing materials (but saddled with years of anticipation), noted its failure to live up to its potential.

That said, as my career goes on, I’m reaching a point where I’ve seen too much as a critic to be able to view each new game with a fresh set of eyes when I sit down to play it. It makes sense why developers are so hesitant to release many details early in a game’s release—key elements can change quickly, and the more you give your audience in the nascent stages, the more likely they’ll wind up disappointed. The best I can do is pursue what honestly interests me, regardless of hype (or lack thereof), and ignore the social media speculation, flashy trailers and Twitch preview streams as much as possible.

But on the other hand, I won’t be the only person out there who has played the Early Access version of The Long Dark and waited on the official release for story mode. That particular perspective is still valid and exists. If the audience isn’t coming in entirely fresh, should I be obligated to?

It is said that narrative is the enemy of mechanics. I’m not sure that I agree. But I do find myself separating The Long Dark’s gameplay from its story in hopes of retaining the sense of awe that those mechanics, in their rawest form, first evoked in me. From here on out, if I play another Early Access game, it’s wet concrete until final release.

Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.