The Long Dark is a game about survival in the face of disaster and isolation. It's also a strangely apt allegory for the trials and tribulations of being an adult.
My girlfriend started playing the game first, and I picked it up on her recommendation. She told me a little about it, but apart from a few tips about the control scheme, I was going in blind. I started a new game, prepared to die within a few hours (she had told me how difficult it was). Currently the only regular mode available to play is the "Sandbox" mode, which spawns you somewhere on the game's considerably large map, in one of several regions, with a random selection of starting gear. From there, it's up to you to survive for as long as you can.
In my first hour of playing, wandering through snow and wind, avoiding wolves and looting empty houses for food, I was struck by two things: one, the refreshingly simple concept of the game; and two, the sudden and pressing need to survive.
Yes, it's a survival game, so that's obviously the driving motivation behind the gameplay, but the developers up at Hinterland Studios (based here in beautiful British Columbia) have managed to imbue an immediacy and desperation into the survival mechanics that is unparalleled. Most survival games revolve around stockpiling resources and defending yourself against some kind of external threat (e.g. zombies, mutants, bandits, etc.), which can be fun, but after a while you hit a point where you have enough food, weapons, and tools stashed away that you can survive for ages without too much effort.
The Long Dark takes that concept and dials it back to a personal level. It's just you, the wolves, and mother nature, and no matter how much food and water you manage to squirrel away in that little cabin you've been staying in for the past week, you're going to run out. And when you start running out, you're going to be faced with a choice. Stay in your comfortable little shack, and eventually starve to death? Or brave the outside world, and maybe--just maybe--find the means to survive another day?
This is where I began seeing the parallels between the game and my struggles as a 23-year-old man, trying to live on his own in one of the most expensive cities in the world. I may not risk getting my bits torn off by a rabid wolf every time I leave the apartment, but juggling my money and food, as well as managing my time, quickly began to feel similar to the way you work with resources in the game.
Everything in The Long Dark atrophies. Your tools wear out, your food goes bad, and you always have a limited amount of ammunition. If you break that hammer before you find something to repair it with, you can't make any more arrows for your bow. If you don't remember to eat that can of beans you found in the old fishing shack before it turns, you've wasted a potential meal that could help you survive that extra hour you need to find shelter. If you miss that shot, you're out of ammo and you can no longer hunt deer for food and crafting.
Similarly, time can get away from you easily when you're not used to juggling responsibilities and obligations. I get swept up so easily in my job, my friends, my relationship, and trying to find time to myself, I forget to keep up with even the most menial tasks. I abstain from cleaning, get too lazy to cook, or I let my depression get the better of me and stay in bed all day.
In The Long Dark, any of these could result in your death; in reality, even if these don't put us in mortal danger, our health and our social lives can become at risk. If I don't clean, the dust gathers and the old food and empty bottles of liquor attract flies. If I don't cook, I have to spend money eating out somewhere, and risk incurring even more debt than I'm already in. If I stay in bed all day, I can oversleep, which can worsen my depression and cripple my immune system.
Somewhere between struggling with these problems in real life and playing The Long Dark, I started to see the keys to survival on both fronts: balance, and persistence.
Balance is essential in almost every facet of life. How best do I use my time? What are the pros and cons of making this decision? Of taking this risk? These are all questions I've asked myself in the game and my own life. The trick to answering these questions is making sure you've kept on top of every other problem you're facing, and thinking about how your choices are going to effect you in the future. It's fine and dandy if you've got lots of water stored up, but you're running out of food. Your apartment is clean, but your dirty dishes are piling up so much you don't have a plate to eat on. You may have plenty of bullets for your rifle, but that moldy granola bar you ate to stay alive gave you food poisoning, and you can't find any antibiotics.
Prioritizing the most pressing needs in your life is key. No matter how much you want to lay down and sleep after a long day, if you need to buy groceries, you better pull yourself together and run to the shop. Otherwise you'll end up spending too much money eating out, and that's going to put more debt on your credit card. Your credit rating is probably bad enough as it is. Making it worse will only cause more difficulties for you as time goes on.
The challenges add up quickly, and it's easy to get overwhelmed. But that's where the second part of the lesson comes up: persistence. Don't give up. Keep pushing forward. Identify the problems, and work on solving them, one by one. Can't find any more bullets? Work towards crafting a bow and arrow. Running out of money for food? Look at what you have in your pantry and find a way to make it work until you get paid.
The hurdles don't stop coming, but once you fall into a rhythm, you get used to dealing with them. Eventually you start preparing for them beforehand, perhaps avoiding them entirely. There will always be curve balls — an unexpected medical bill, a sudden blizzard, a drunken night of irresponsible spending, a wolf that manages to take a chunk out of you — but you can learn to roll with the punches. As long as you keep trying.