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‘The Long Dark’ creative director on combat vs. exploration


There’s a reason why so many developers use combat as the crux of their games. It’s a known quantity and it gives the player a very direct way to interact with the world. Enemies are presented one after another, and each is vanquished until none remain. Experimenting with non-combat mechanics can be risky, and can often lead to interesting albeit boring experiences.

When I sat down with The Long Dark creative director Raphael Van Lierop late last week, he dug into what Hinterland is trying to accomplish with its survival sim, and what role combat plays in it. When trying to define The Long Dark, Van Lierop mentioned some pretty interesting inspirations for the atmosphere the studio is creating.

We’re really not a shooter, we’re not an action game, we’re really much more of an exploration focused game. And again, it’s first person, so we’re riffing on games. When Dear Esther came out, for example, I thought it was really well done and it was interesting how far you could take a game that didn’t really have any gameplay except walking around. And Fallout 3 is a huge inspiration as well, and I love that game, and I just love moving through the environment and exploring places. And yes, fighting was interesting too, but really for me it was about going to places and finding out what was going on there, meeting people, getting loot and all that kind of stuff. So The Long Dark is fundamentally a more thoughtful, exploration focused game. But obviously you can’t have this kind of post disaster scenario without coming into conflict with wildlife, and certainly other survivors.

Combat, of course, will still exist. The winter wastelands of The Long Dark will still be full of other survivors with their own needs and agendas, but Hinterland plans to stray from normal apocalyptic tropes.

We can make a really dramatic interesting story that feels mature and reaches an audience that’s looking for strong storytelling, without falling on the conventions of the post apocalyptic genre. There’s no Mad Max stuff. There’s no zombies. It’s not 20 years after this event has happened, but it’s as the event is happening. And you’re dealing with the immediate aftermath of it. So early on we discussed, can we make this game interesting if it’s only about exploration and there’s no combat at all? And we thought, well you probably can, but it’s not going to be true to the setting. It doesn’t feel realistic that you’d never be in conflict with people. And really, at its heart as a survival simulation, it is a lot of managing resources, and with these resources you’re going to come into conflict with people. And that’s part of what makes the decision making interesting.

But, much more important than combat prowess will be the information one will collect, and you’re ability to reason with others.

What we’re interested in is what happens before combat. What happens leading up to those moments? And it’s all those tense interactions that you have with other survivors when you meet them on the road. You don’t know, are they going to try and kill me and steal my shit? Do they need help? Do they have information that I need? We made a very deliberate choice early on that we wanted to make knowledge about the world a really critical resource to your success.

And at the heart of The Long Dark seems to be an overwhelming sense of ambiguity. If Hinterland can effectively create this moral morass, and have it directly affect the world around you, the end result could be amazing.

The world is not black and white where the guys with the black suits are the bad guys and the guys with the white suits are the good guys. It’s a world of shades of gray and ambiguity, and that’s part of the tone we’re going for with the game.

The Long Dark’s Kickstarter campaign is still going strong, so be sure to drop by there, and check back later this week for the full interview with Raphael Van Lietrop.

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