“You’ve faded into the Long Dark”…
Thus ends each “survival trial” in the frozen and hostile, yet beautifully alive, adventure space of The Long Dark.
As always it is a frustrating, and disappointing moment – sometimes bitterly so, considering the personal investment involved in each play-through. It can also come as a relief, when you’ve fallen into a spiral of negative outcomes, with no foreseeable way out. But above all, every ending is thoroughly predictable. Just like in real life: you will end. It’s just a matter of time. And with this game, the “last moments of life” clock is really in your face.
Lucky for you, it’s just a game. Game over? Press start to begin a new game…
Sometimes though, after a glorious and protracted multi-day struggle against the elements, the idea of restarting a fresh play-through just seems off. You can’t bring yourself to press that start button so casually. The video game “life” you lost, oddly enough, meant more to you than you expected. It’s as if the “you” of the video game has somehow become of part of you, the player.
In other words: you’re feeling the pangs of loss. It’s like that dear pet of yours that just passed away, and you just don’t have the heart to run out and get a new one. Or at least not so quick. Mourning needs time, because that anonymous video game character you were rootin’ for somehow got under your skin.
So you’re sitting there, feeling empty, looking at the (beautifully-crafted) main game menu. Some action is required to sort out through your contradictory feelings. So you go to the journals menu, and quietly look at your in-game journal and stats.
There you have it. It’s all there in front of you: your days, hours and minutes survived, locations discovered, percentage of word explored, hours awake, hours rested, hours indoors, hours outdoors, total calories expended, average calories per day, distance traveled in kilometers, fires started, wolf close encounters, can openers found…
The list goes on.
And yet, all these numbers don’t even begin to tell your story. Nor do the point-blank journal entries that summarize where you’ve been, what you seen, and what happened to you.
So you decide to write a review of the game on Steam, or in the discussion forum… and the memories start to come alive again, of your heroic attempt at surviving against all odds: that time you pulled a two-day marathon with very little sleep in the craggy areas of Pleasant Valley, just to stumble upon a moldy wolf carcass, and eat your last poisoned supper…; or that time you miraculously found a little to cove next to a waterfall to save you from a blinding blizzard, only to be mauled to death by a bear at night in your makeshift shelter; or the perilous crossings across the ridge train tracks that left you breathless at the other end, happy to be alive; or surviving two back-to-back bouts of hypothermia just to get to that barren island at the far extremity of Desolation Point; or the many private campfires you were able to start in the cold cocoon of a discovered cave, with rabbits hopping outside, in the quiet snow…
The Long Dark is brimming with memorable moments such as these: the good, the bad and the ugly. Indeed, what you experience in-game is so vivid, it seems that only writing it down and sharing it with the community could do justice to what you went through.
Welcome to storytelling in the age of the Quantified Self.
Simulations don’t die, they just reboot
Now with this mourning rigmarole done with, there’s a stranger question that crops up here: just who is that “you” that’s being invoked in The Long Dark’s (nicely quotable) endgame formula? We’ve already evoked the personal investment of players in the game. To be sure – and as we will see – every design decision that has gone into the game has kept to this player-centric approach. But still, isn’t that moment when your digital body passes and your human soul mourns a little strange? True, The Long Dark players are, as a rule, heavily invested into the digital self that is mediated by the game. And again, the endgame is totally predictable.
And yet, most are them compelled to come back, like flies to a burning light.
Why? Given this predictable outcome, what is it about The Long Dark that makes it so replayable? Beyond learning about optimal survival strategies, what’s the real payoff for The Long Dark players? And what does the game’s survival premise have to do with it? Or the digital medium that brings it all to life?
As I am hoping to demonstrate, the realistic solo survival theme and game mechanics of The Long Dark (TLD) are an encapsulation, in dramatic form, of the contemporary techno-culture trend going under the name of the “Quantified Self”. In this article, I propose to show how the game’s structural components – core mechanics, aesthetics, pacing, feedback systems and player self-management model – mirror the activity of self-tracking practitioners, i.e. people using the latest technological tools to “self-improve”. In my view, the sharply honed survival theme of TLD provides us with an opportunity to make sense of self-tracking behavior, by highlighting how users make decisions based on their interpretation of real-time personal metrics. Better yet, I am hoping that this under-the-hood examination of TLD might also help us understand what effects self-tracking practices are having on us, beyond the “benefits” carrot dangled before us by Quantified Self evangelists.
If you are what you eat, what happens when you eat data?
So what is this so-called Quantified Self “movement”, and what does it have to do with a solo winter survival simulator?
Like any self-respecting technology trend, the Quantified Self (QS) has an online HQ. Unfortunately, as the The Quantified Self’s website’s about page is rather circumspect, we’ll have to turn to good old Wikipedia to have the basics spelled out for us:
“The Quantified Self is a movement to incorporate technology into data acquisition on aspects of a person’s daily life in terms of inputs (e.g. food consumed, quality of surrounding air), states (e.g. mood, arousal, blood oxygen levels), and performance (mental and physical). Such self-monitoring and self-sensing, which combines wearable sensors (EEG, ECG, video, etc.) and wearable computing, is also known as lifelogging. Other names for using self-tracking data to improve daily functioning are “self-tracking”, “auto-analytics”, “body hacking”, “self-quantifying”, “self-surveillance”, and “Personal Informatics”. In short, quantified self is self-knowledge through self-tracking with technology.”
If QS evangelists are at pains to point out that the practices of self-tracking are historically-rooted – for example health journaling across the ages – one can’t help but notice the coincidental growth of such a movement with the historical appearance of computers, and its even neater intersection with the technological regime of Big Data – barely half a decade old as we speak. As the name suggests, the Quantified Self (QS) movement combines detailed and pervasive technological monitoring of bodily processes with contemporary neoliberal “practices of the self”. Thus the theories, practices and values promoted by the movement seek to seamlessly blend technology and flesh for the ostensible goals of individual self-improvement, health management, and lifestyle optimization.
Though it has a predominantly individual focus, the Quantified Self movement is also poised for new configurations of “optimized individuals” with the various “social” layers of the Big Data regime. A recently-published book on the QS movement by sociologist Deborah Lupton, identifies five modes of tracking that pertain to these new, Big Data-enabled practices of the self: private, pushed, communal, imposed and exploited tracking. These five modes exist in a continuum where individual agency is, to various degrees, being perceptibly and/or imperceptibly acted upon by analytics operators, for purposes not always known to the user.
Indeed, the key way to differentiate each mode of self-tracking is the nature of the consent involved in each type of use: from complete in the case of “private” use, to fully absent in the case of “exploited” use. If Lupton is at pains to remain neutral and descriptive in her assessments of the QS movement, the more I read her book, the more it seems to me that the hopes and promises pushed by the movement’s evangelists are tantamount to a “phishing operation” on its users. That is, under the guise of enhancing individual quality of life and self-knowledge through an avant-garde and cool “tech movement”, the Quantified Self movement aims to subsume individuals into the regime of Big Data, on a voluntary basis.
The Long Dark: Making Stories Out of Metrics
Let’s look a little closer at this “voluntary” aspect of the QS elevator pitch, and see how it fares in the simulation space. My contention here is that The Long Dark (TLD) is a sort of “negative mirror” of the Quantified Self. That is, in the guise of a first-person “walking simulator” set a fictional survival problem-space, TLD shows the player what every QSer is ultimately reduced to: his/her vital statistics, and what to do about them.
To develop my argument, I want to delve into some of the key features of TLD, to demonstrate how the team at Hinterland Studios have turned the banal activity of vital stats monitoring into an engrossing (virtual) wilderness adventure – full of tension, highs and lows, and the occasional breath-taking moment of gladness and respite.
First, the setting. The Long Dark, it must be said, is a truly beautiful game. To be sure, the game’s integrated visual and sound design aesthetic is a core pillar of the dev team’s original vision for the game. That said, if you were looking for CryEngine style of realism, you packed your gear for the wrong kind of wilderness simulator. TLD is both visually stylized and acoustically fully-rendered to give the player a sense of presence in the great, frozen outdoors, full of lonely dread and wonder. As such, the unique integration of visual and sound elements of the game work together to create a sense of heightened awareness in the player.
Punctuated with atmospheric music, the experience of roaming through this foreboding environment opens up play to a surprisingly wide variety of emotional ranges, despite the stress of moment-to-moment survival. Thus the immersive quality of TLD comes from the players slow, plodding, and often gut-wrenching traversing of a beautifully crafted visual and soundscape. As it stands, it’s a splendid aesthetic achievement.
Of course, TLD is no Proteus. You’re not wandering around for the pure joy of discovery. You are, in effect, desperate. You’ve got four status bars to constantly attend to: body temperature, fatigue, thirst and hunger. Failure to monitor these, and respond appropriately, results in swift death. To beginning players, just trying to grasp what exactly must be done in order to fend off doom seems like an impossible affair. Why? The people at Hinterland have a stated design philosophy never to indulge the player with any hand-holding.
And it shows. There’s no mini-map, you get lost all the time – even as you learn to get your bearings – you have to search everywhere and everything, and you have to cut your losses on a regular basis. You’re also not told which buttons to push, or how to do anything. Its “real” survival, my friend: you’ve got to figure it all out by yourself.
Yet mysteriously, the game somehow “shows” you the way, in its interface design, feedback mechanics, and simply by virtue of pushing you ever onward to find the next granola bar, or safe site to light a fire, eat and rest. You learn the various ways to feed and clothe yourself, and how to craft the various materials you manage to find, and transform. Giving credence to Sid Meier’s design adage that “games are a series of interesting decisions”, the Hinterland design team has made self-management and survival crafting into a constantly fascinating, if not nail-biting, creative puzzle. Every skill you learn is tied to a progression system, that opens up the variety of uses of the little things you find on your path. Find a deer carcass, you’ll learn to harvest meat, or hide, or gut, for their many uses, tied to real-life survival knowledge.
Cure the hide indoors for enough days, and you’ll be able to fashion for yourself some optimally-warm clothing, especially useful for exploring in stormy conditions, or surviving outside during night-time. You can never lose sight of your vital stats, though. Carving out a piece of meat from a deer corpse will take you time – time to freeze your butt off, become more hungry or tired, or worse – be pounced onto by a winter predator. Thus every little decision counts against other potential trade-offs imposed by your immediate environment and your current physical state and prospects… for the next few minutes, and hours.
The main “gameplay loop” of TLD is thus centered on the activities of exploration and self-management. This, I suspect, is the reason why the Hinterland team is constantly busy with game balancing. The player’s main decision-making constraints are the character’s vital statistics and the method of reasoning adopted by players in extremis – that is, how each player reacts to the situation he or she finds him or herself in, based on locale, weather conditions, inventory, perceived prospects and vital stats.
Now “balance” in interactive entertainment is a relative thing: some players just want to explore and enjoy the sights, others want to be put their skills to the mettle, and have surprises – good or bad – around every turn. Therefore, a key way of “architecting” the game for balance has been to create different kinds of maps and game difficulties, in response to different play-styles and player expectations. And though the game still is (circa June 2016) in alpha “sandbox mode” (i.e. “see how long you can survive”), the new challenge modes as well as a revamped skill progression system seem to indicate that the eventual story mode will, indeed, be the outcome of a long design process “from the ground up”.
In a nutshell, here’s how, in my opinion TLD works its magic. First, TLD tells its “story” from the bottom-up. What I mean by this is that the normally tedious and self-centered activity of self-tracking is dramatized in TLD. How does this work? First, the player face is pressed hard, so to speak, against his/her own vital stats. The degrading calculus of health stats forces the player to self-manage optimally, and eggs the player on to explore a difficult environment which also pushes against him or her, thereby creating an internal tension that besets all decision-making in the game.
Yet TLD somehow pulls this off without creating a sense of heaviness in the toil. The game compensates for this internalized tension by providing a sense of agency to the player, in the manipulation of his/her immediate environment. Except for the hopeless moments where all is lost, the player always has something to do. The relatively rare “safe” locales also serve to punctuate the vast danger zones to wander around in. Adding further contrast, the “safe” locales are generally dark, drab and empty feeling – excepting the occasional hearth, source of warmth and life – while the great outdoors, deadly if one is out there exposed for too long, are also quite beautiful, and strangely full of life.
Another layer to TLD’s “emergent narrative design” is the overlapping rhythms of game systems and states. Because of the design of its gameplay loop, TLD intersects the player’s narrow focus on self-management with the perceptual acuity and openness required for the activity of exploration. Further complexity is layered inside these “inward” and “outward” psychological pulls, with, for example, specific rhythms tied to each life metric (hunger, thirst, fatigue and temperature, and their various modifiers) as well as dynamic, interweaving world systems (day/night cycles, unpredictable weather conditions, wildlife patterns) that all impinge on each other. Thus, with the savvy and subtle layering of overlapping life-cycle rhythms, TLD is able to dissolve the tedium of micro-management into a seamless human vs. nature survival simulation experience. In this way, the obsession over vital stats and character metrics takes on a narrative quality. Thanks to this “polyrhythmic” narrative design philosophy, TLD is able to create dramatic tension out of interweaving game systems, for the benefit of player immersion.
This unique combination of core design elements – an integrated aesthetic, an effective gameplay loop, subtle game balancing, interweaving game systems and a compelling player decision-making model – mixed together into one swell package, makes TLD the perfect vehicle for peering into the “soul” of the hyper-rational world of the Quantified Self. In a nutshell, TLD dramatizes vital statistics, at the individual level. Furthermore, these reflexions on The Long Dark experience bring to the fore a less-discussed aspect of self-tracking culture: how Big Data transforms its “end users”, and how the narrow focus of self-optimization ultimately turns every user of self-tracking tools into a survivor.
Ironic, considering most of us in the West live in a world awash with material goods, and “prosperous” outlooks.
The Digital Economy: a Game of Survival for All
Here’s the point I’m driving at: The Long Dark experience can help us unpack the individualist bias of the Quantified Self paradigm, and see the self-measurement junkie as an ideal-type – a collective, abstracted individual, irresistibly drawn into aggregate behavior, by virtue of self-tracking technologies and practices. Otherwise put: at the individual level, the QSer can indeed be seen as merely “optimizing” his or her life, in line with personal goals and preferences. But at the aggregate level, s/he ultimately becomes a “lone survivor” ideal-type, reduced to adjusting his or her behavior in relation to the aggregate functions of the Big Data-scape, in line with current economic realities.
Now, there’s a reason why the devs of TLD have set their game in a post-apocalyptic, end-of-history, great outdoors setting. They wanted to make a first-person solo survival simulator. And solo survival is, by its very nature: ahistorical.
Which tells you already a lot about the historical moment we find ourselves in right now.
Indeed, this whole QS movement only makes sense when seen in its wider context. We in the post-industrialized West are told that we now live in a “knowledge economy”. Forty years of industrial gutting and outsourcing to Asia has come with a heavy price: ecological and economic disaster in the Third World, metastasizing megacities in Asia, massive unemployment and rising social unrest in the West, and the normalization of job insecurity at every level of the social ladder – sold to us, of course, as “world citizenship”, “entrepreneurial opportunity”, “workplace flexibility”, and “life-work balance”.
And my personal favorite: The 4-Hour Workweek.
By and large most of us are now used to these prospects. We’ve internalized the imperatives of self-management, and embraced its promises of self-emancipation and actualization. It should therefore come as no surprise that “spontaneous” movements like the Quantified Self have suddenly made their appearance on the tech scene, in an attempt to further sell us the virtues and habits of self-management as the best path to happiness and prosperity.
Of course, there’s a flip side to all this. If the digital economy is turning us into perpetual optimizers, our new data-enhanced, endlessly reconfigurable “liquid” identities force upon us the habits of survivors. And increasingly lone survivors, at that. And if Tesla CEO Elon Musk is in any way correct in his balderdash assertion that “we all live in a cosmic simulation”, then perhaps survival sims like The Long Dark are beginning to look somewhat prophetic.
Maybe even a little too prophetic.