After three years in early access on Steam, The Long Dark from Hinterland Studio has released the first two episodes of their story mode, called “Wintermute”. Episodes One and Two, which are titled: Do Not Go Gently and Luminance Fugue respectively, follow Canadian bush pilot Will Mackenzie and Dr. Astrid Greenwood after their plane crashes during a geomagnetic storm. It is up to the player to bring these two together after becoming separated after the crash.
As of writing this, I have not completed either episode of Wintermute, and as such I will not be reviewing the story being told. Instead, I will be sharing my thoughts on how the mechanics of the game are employed by the narrative to deliver its story, as well as a few points for players who might not plan to pick up the game for some time. I’m playing this on PC, though it has been released on Xbox One and Playstation 4 as well (A European release on PlayStation 4 will be coming August 8th).
Wintermute gives long-time players like me the motivation to keep surviving. The game stands strongly on its own as a survival game, and the challenge modes added in a 2016 update certainly gave players more to do, but without a greater story to follow, the game quickly becomes an exercise in self-imposed storytelling. The simple quest “Find Astrid” becomes so much more complicated by the now-familiar mechanics of the game. Scavenging for food, crafting better gear, fighting off dangerous wildlife and struggling to keep warm are all brought together into a perfect storm of obstacles to level against the protagonists as they fight to find one another in the quiet apocalypse.
Once Will wakes up, the game begins its tutorial, keeping the player confined in a small ravine. Over several days, the game teaches you about fire-starting, first-aid, gathering food and resources, all while Will is recovering from the injuries he sustained in the crash. Astrid is nowhere to be seen, and as soon as Will is strong enough he sets out to find her.
In this opening section, the combination of strong mechanics and narrative is illustrated beautifully. The player is trapped with Will and needs to learn how to survive to progress in the story. Each element of survival is explored individually, and when the player knows all they need to get started, Will has the strength to climb out of the ravine and find Astrid. After leaving this tutorial area, the player is left largely to their own devices to track down Astrid.
After spending some time in this tutorial, we see a cutscene introducing us to the protagonists, who appear to have a not-so-happy history together. Astrid needs to fly out to the backwoods of Great Bear Island in the Canadian wilderness, and Will reluctantly agrees to assist her. In the middle of a terrible storm, a geomagnetic event causes the plane to lose power and it crashes. This whole cutscene shows off the absolutely beautiful art style of the game, giving an almost watercolor treatment to a survival title. It lends itself to a serene, yet harsh environment, and when put in motion it looks wonderful.
Eventually, the player will encounter wolves, and here is where my journey got a lot more interesting. After being attacked by one wolf, and left bleeding out, I learned that Will’s pants had been irreparably torn to shreds in the attack. There I was, standing out in the Canadian wilderness, at night, slowly dying, and pantsless. I rushed to find shelter of any kind but was forced to spend most of the night by a small fire under a rocky outcrop, struggling to recover enough to find a more reasonable shelter. Somewhere in the middle of the night, I found an abandoned church and made it inside before another wolf attacked.
At this point, I realized that this was a very different experience from the sandbox mode I had played before. Yes, the mechanics were the same, but the very fact that I had a mission immediately raised the stakes. I wasn’t just struggling to survive, I needed to stay alive to find Astrid. To find out what all of this means, why she needed to fly out here in the first place.
As of now, I’ve made it to the town of Milton, and I’m happily wearing pants again. After some more serious preparation, I’m eager to see where Wintermute takes me in this quiet apocalypse.