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For every genre, there are a few early games that create the model to be refined by future games. The Long Dark is definitely that game. It avoided a number of early survival genre pitfalls like unrealistic building or the basic action game with a reskin. It also didn't go for hyper-realism where you would need to know what direction a stick has to rub against another stick or you die in the first 15 minutes.

It fell somewhere in the middle, requiring a reasonable amount of skill from the player and rewarding (through multiple playthroughs) an increased understanding of weather as your threat. It also tends to give you a push towards exploration as opposed to the kind of game where you spawn in and immediately bunker down. Early game is met with a lot of scavenging typically which gives you the energy cushion needed to create a stable base if you choose to. This allows a survival progression of sorts through the game, where an early player simply needs to avoid immediate death and find the next snickers bar. While the mid-late player can invest time and energy into crafting, hunting or more difficult expeditions.

Additionally, due to the chaotic nature of the weather and difficulty of animal combat, you never really feel safe exploring - even late game. This, I would say, is almost a necessity for any survival game - that perpetual reminder that you are still just as weak as you were when you started. And the unfortunate downfall that can kill off your best playthrough and leave you reviewing an otherwise solid strategy. The survival genre is at its best when it can remind a good player that their ego is still their enemy.

Like most great games, The Long Dark doesn't stop at good gameplay, both the audio and visuals are exceptional in their own ways. The graphics have a timeless, almost cartoony look that should age a bit better than the more realistic graphics tend to - it is functional and doesn't detract at all, and at times can lend itself nicely to some of the landscapes. I'm sure the graphics played a big role in the ability to create blinding blizzards and the like which are so incredibly important to the design that I'm not giving it enough credit. I also think this lends well to exploring abandoned homes dotting the landscape - it keeps them dark but also a step away from the horror genre if that makes sense, moderating the players expectations to almost a sombre emotion as you rifle through other folks drawers.

The audio however, is probably my most favorite piece of this game, there is something to be said with being trapped in a hollowed out tree, guaranteed to die, and still somehow enjoying the ambience of it all. Everything is so well done and accurate and you can tell a lot of effort was put into making sure the player can feel the wind and the cold. When I'm not in my basement playing games, I like to hike and ski. The White Mountains Museum has a simulation booth where they show you what the White Mountains, some of the fastest recorded winds in the world - at 231 MPH - sounds like. If you've played this game and been in the booth, you understand that the devs put a lot of work in simulating this experience into the game.

Finally, I love the fact that this game is still regularly updated, one of the best Early Access experiences I've ever had and if nothing else the devs should be rewarded for this alone. There are mountains of impressive ideas that came out of Early Access and went absolutely nowhere. This one succeeded.

2019 Update: It is still this good (Labor of Love nomination).

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