I’m Stuck On Top Of This Mountain In The Long Dark
There are too many choices
10:37 AM EST on January 29, 2024
I’ve been pursuing one of those really long runs in The Long Dark, which is my very favorite video game because it’s a survival game about being cold and worried. “Long” for most players who’ve owned the game for as many years as I have is 500 or 1000 days, but I set my sights on 50 days to start. Now I’m on day 60, and I’m stuck on top of a mountain.
The mountain in question is the summit of Timberwolf Mountain, in an eponymous region which does not have timberwolves, which is good because they’re the worst. It was a total headache to get up here, even following a player-made map. (The Long Dark’s only in-game maps are the ones you make yourself by surveying little areas with charcoal, and which don’t show your position.) I’m now faced with two choices of how to get down, both bad, as well as the broader existential question of whether I need to get down at all.
Let’s back up to how I got here. Actually, let’s back all the way up to the beginning of my run. Actually, let’s back all the way up to when I first backed The Long Dark’s Kickstarter in 2013, when I watched early gameplay footage on repeat until I could play the game myself in early access in 2014. I'm a sucker for granular, one might say tedious survival games, especially ones where you have to deal with temperature, weather, and day/night cycles. The game’s changed a lot over the years, as you’d imagine, but it’s still very much about wandering around in the snow while meditating on how entropy is coming for us all, but more specifically for your character, as their health stats tick down and their food goes bad and their clothes decay while they try to survive in a frozen wilderness where everyone else is dead.
Despite my cheerleading that the game’s slow pace is what makes it great, this metaphysical dread, combined with my habit of making bad choices in video games, tends to make me fractious. I inevitably do something stupid like explore an unfamiliar area in a blizzard, wander around at night, or attack an animal without any real weapons to defend myself. As such, my runs don’t tend to last long, and past runs that have eeked into the double digits have been wiped out by game updates. So settling down to aim for a long run represented some real growth for me.
I made it to day 50 by being very reasonable. I started in the Coastal Highway area, which has a lot of buildings but also a lot of wildlife, where I found some good equipment and only tangled with a bear once before hiding in a car until it went away. I didn’t even go into the mine where you can get stuck and starve to death! When things got stale in Coastal Highway I carted some of my stuff over to Mystery Lake, the first survival area added to the game and the map where I’ve spent the most time. I confidently hung around there for the next 25 days, following my familiar looting routes and setting up base in the area’s camp office.
I took some risks, but they were generally thoughtful. I ran a slightly foolhardy errand to the tangled, vertiginous area of Hushed River Valley, where I stuck to my goal and didn’t explore much. In Mystery Lake, I killed my first bear by getting one shot on it from a safe vantage point and then tracking it from afar until it bled to death.
Day 50 dawned misty and triumphant, and after posting my achievement to Twitter, I wondered: what now? The next goalpost is 100 days, which would be a breeze to do in Mystery Lake, but I can only be careful for so long. So I decided to try to summit Timberwolf Mountain and reach a plane crash at its top. I’d never tried to climb it before–plus, since the game world’s loot decays over time, the clock was ticking on anything up there even being worth getting much longer. So I stupidly put on my heaviest clothes, left the really useful stuff like my rifle and most of my food at the camp office, and set off.
To get to Timberwolf Mountain from Mystery Lake I had to cross Pleasant Valley, a giant map I think I’m familiar with but really only know from the game’s story mode. The trip went… OK. I followed a road to the area of Thomson’s Crossing, which had lots of buildings to hole up in when a blizzard roared in. Another blizzard kicked in later that trapped me in an exposed, burnt-out house. After debating moving ahead anyway, I made the very smart choice to turn back. OK, well actually, I left the burnt-out house and tried to sleep in a car, but I would have frozen to death, so then I tried to find a cave that a player-made map said existed, but I got lost looking for it and ended up back at Thomson’s Crossing by accident. But still!
It took a full day for the weather to improve so I could set out again, making it through Pleasant Valley and to Timberwolf Mountain's Mountaineer’s Hut, a shelter at the mountain’s base. Knowing I’d be coming down with a ton of loot, I left most of my stuff at the hut and set off confidently in the direction of… up.
Except you can’t climb Timberwolf Mountain just by going up! Instead, you have to follow a winding, counter-clockwise route interrupted by various ropes, which need careful management of your stamina and fatigue to climb. I burned through all my flares getting lost in a cave that led to an entirely different area, backtracking several times like an idiot until my character developed a high risk of cabin fever, which would mess up my ability to sleep indoors and thus prevent me from recovering the energy I needed to climb the ropes to the summit. I exited the cave into a blizzard, which I knew I couldn’t navigate, but staying inside the cave would make the whole cabin fever thing worse. I’d only brought enough supplies to build one snow shelter to sleep outside in, and I wanted to save it for further up the mountain.
This situation perfectly encapsulates what makes The Long Dark so great. If you were watching me play, you’d have seen me wander in the dark for way too long and then stand around in a whiteout. You’d probably find it very boring! But the chain of events that led to the possibility of cabin fever, plus the consequences sleeplessness would have on my summit goal, plus the ever-ticking urgency of my character’s basic needs, combined to create a situation that was stressful and thrilling, even if literally nothing was happening but standing around.
Ultimately, the blizzard died down and I set out again, losing my cabin fever risk in the process. Another blizzard hit and I built my snow shelter, glad I’d saved it. I ran into a bear, but luckily enough it was sleeping, and I managed to scoot around it without waking it up.
I drank all my coffees on the longest rope climb and made it to the summit, where I got the Steam achievement and spent a day hacksawing into the plane’s crates for food, clothes, tools, hides, a rifle to replace the one I’d left in Mystery Lake, and more.
Which brings me to my current predicament of how to get it all down. My character is too heavy now that they have all this stuff, which means they weigh too much to climb down the ropes. I could move my stuff in batches, but it will be a time-consuming, tedious process that will see me burning through a lot of those supplies. I don’t fancy my chances with the bear, especially loaded down, and I don’t have much faith in my ability to actually find my way down, even with a map.
The other way down is the tactic all the hardcore players employ, of exploiting the game’s geometry to billygoat down the rocks and slopes, basically just falling off the mountain with all your stuff. Best case you sprain some ankles; worst case you do it wrong and plunge to your death. It’s hard to say which choice is riskier: the billygoat route has only one danger, but it’s a big one. The long route has lots of dangers, but more chances to come out of them alive.
There’s also the option of not choosing either tactic and just setting up camp on the summit, living out of another snow shelter and surviving on the airplane food I found until it runs out. It would be a weird thing to do, but it could be fun in its own quiet way. I could watch the weather change, and the sun rise and set, and add days to my run count in relative safety.
When I interviewed game director Raphael van Lierop in 2019, he said, “The Long Dark was envisioned as an exploration game where the primary obstacle that you encounter is the wilderness and your own bad decision-making… Every minute that goes by, you’re slowly dying. You need to move through space to succeed, but moving through space is what introduces all the dangers.” This push and pull between going and staying is a feeling I find unique to The Long Dark, the finely-tuned tension at the heart of the game. In the mostly narrative-less space of the game’s survival sandbox, both everything and nothing drives you forward.
Eventually, I suppose I’ll have to do something, which means figuring out what I want to do to try to get to day 100 or beyond. What’s my ultimate goal for this run: seeing areas I haven’t seen yet? Getting other achievements or feats? Simply surviving as long as possible? It’s the existential crisis that’s ended all of my runs. Every choice leads to new choices, and sooner or later I’m going to make the wrong one. It’s just a question of how far in the future that final, fatal choice will be, and what adventures I’ll have before I get to it.
On the other hand, it’s pretty up here.
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