the long dark apex predator

Survival game ‘The Long Dark’ and how I became the Apex Predator

It’s eat or be eaten in Hinterland Studio’s snowy indie survival game The Long Dark, and I chose to feast.

The Long Dark was a stressful game. It taught me a lot about my psyche, and even how successful I’d be in the Northern Canadian wilderness, maybe.

Right from the get-go, wolves were a common adversary, as Bush Pilot Mackenzie and ex-wife Astrid crash-landed and were separated on the frozen and wild Bear Island. Without sparing a breath, the game tossed me into the world of starvation and extreme weather conditions, and the gas pedal never let up.

Becoming wild

While playing the first of Long Dark‘s five chapters, I felt like I was really the one walking around in a frigid environment. The game’s audio direction (play in the dark with headphones for the full experience) consistently sent chills all over my body. I could literally watch the hairs on my arm stand up like a porcupine’s quills in response to the wolf howls and barks in the dark.

I’ve always been a rare-item-hoarder, which made playing The Long Dark an exercise in admitting defeat for the sake of survival. As I stumbled away from my first wolf encounter, I was very stressed about the injuries I’d sustained from the plane crash. I had no medicine, no water, no food, nothing. Without resources, I was getting a taste of how exciting and intense my adventure would be.

Long Dark attempted to teach me how to toss rocks at rabbits to kill them, but the task proved too difficult for my lowered motor skills to complete. Other tutorial messages populated, telling me how I should collect wild berries to cook up later, but all I was concerned with was the quick fix of eating cattail heads before my health meter hit zero.

I remember feeling genuinely surprised and grateful to see a chimney spewing smoke from Mother Grey’s home in the otherwise abandoned logging town of Milton. I was running on fumes, and I was hoping the story cut-scene would heal me. At the very least, the NPC would gift me some food, right?


Toilet water and old beds

Mother Grey was at first brusque, but she became amicable once she realized Mackenzie was friendly enough to trust. As she sat wearing a blindfold holding a rifle in her rocking chair by the fireplace, I wondered what was going on, but instead realized I needed to move on if I wanted to find food and water before I perished.

There was just enough daylight to see by as I stumbled to the abandoned Credit Union next door, which wasn’t my first pick for “places to scavenge for food.” Alas, a few granola bars and a bag of chips were just enough to sustain me for the walk back across the street to Mother Grey.

The Long Dark Mother Grey

Exhausted, I treated myself to a nap in her upstairs bedroom, long forgetting the pleasantries typically associated with casually moving into a stranger’s home. Parched, I woke up in the middle of the night, only I couldn’t see anything. It was then I recognized how pitch-black the houses in The Long Dark were at night.

Thankfully, I thought ahead and gathered some water from the toilet’s tank in the Credit Union. I let all notions of sanitation and potability go, chugged the water, and fell back asleep until daybreak.

Having rested up, I spoke with Mother Grey to start the actual game missions. She told me of Astrid’s yells in the night as Mack’s ex ran away from “the bad men.” Grey couldn’t remember more about the event, likely because she was starving and had little firewood left.

Feeling some compassion for the elderly woman, I told her I’d go out and fetch supplies so we could both survive the cold nights to come. It was tough to find enough granola to sustain myself, but somehow, I was going to keep Mother Grey healthy and well-fed.

Starving for Mother Grey

Milton’s streets were littered with rusted-over cars, along with dilapidated half-burned down homes, all tucked away in the town’s high snowdrifts. I started by looking in glove boxes for more energy bars, but usually found dust and sadness. Still very, very hungry, I made the quick decision to raid the closest house for their leftover food.

As with any apocalypse-themed environment in a game like The Long Dark, canned foods proved to be the most consistent form of inserting that sweet, sweet caloric content into my gullet. It seemed as though the previous residents of Milton really loved their canines, as most of the leftover cans consisted of wet dog food. Listen, it was better than the cattails.

I trekked to the outskirts of town where a beaten-up Orca gas station held the most food items I had seen yet. I ate my fill, and brought back all extra supplies to fill Mother Grey’s fridge. She didn’t want much, maybe 10 snack bars and a dozen or so soda bottles.

Feeling successful, I slept, and woke the next morning to stew. Yes, Mother Grey made delicious-looking stew out of peanut butter crumbles and grape-flavored corn syrup. Feeling on the up and up, I decided it was soon time to explore the surrounding area for more supplies. As part of a side mission, Mother Grey asked for even more food, and I figured there would still be a good amount of edible items scattered around town.

Let me be clear: This second round of scavenging in The Long Dark was optional. I would have to skimp on how much food I ate. However, I had become emotionally attached to the grape soda stew-making grandmother friend I was rooming with. Going out that day, I was greeted by a dead deer outside of her house. This gift from the deer gods met half of the food requirements for the second round! Although I didn’t eat any of the deer, I was already feeling fat and happy.

As it turned out, that low-hanging fruit was simply the first hit, destined to lead me down a path of desperation and last-ditch efforts to survive.

The Crowbar; RE: Where it all went very, very wrong

Without a weapon of any sort, I expected too much out of my abilities to survive some longer treks. With the second round of Mother Grey’s food mission well underway, I wanted to explore and complete all of the side missions on the upper mountain range of Milton.

North of Milton sat a church, dutifully guarded by a pack of wolves. I was doing a pretty good job of recognizing their growls from a distance, chilling as the sounds were. It seemed as simple as staying out of their line of sight, sending me on my merry way up the mountainside.

There were still some cars on the path up, but there was one problem: I was missing out on some valuable resources in the trunks. See, you needed a crowbar to open trunks, and I had yet to find one on my journey. I was halfway up the mountain when I realized this, and readied myself to first get the supply boxes at the mountaintop, followed by an exploration to find said crowbar the next day. Mother Grey would get most of the food I picked up on the mountain, of course.

The Long Dark pond

The nature sights made the mountain trek well worth the efforts, even though my hunger meter was running on the low side. Satisfied, I had gathered a lot and seen everything worth seeing, I sprinted down the mountain before nightfall. Jaunting into Mother Grey’s house, I realized something peculiar: You couldn’t get items back out of the fridge. Once you placed food inside, that was it.

I may have been a little reckless with my menuing, which ended up proving nearly fatal. We’re talking a soft lock, people. By some flub, I pressed the wrong button and mass dumped all of the food in my backpack into the fridge. Hungry and a little shocked, I went to bed. I was near starvation, but I had plans to get more food the next day. Those plans weren’t as well thought out as they should have been, with disaster looming over my chilled body.

It was a blustery, bitter night

In the morning, I realized I forgot about Mother Grey’s free grape soda stew, lulling me into a false sense of food security. I slurped it down, and prepared to explore the last area of the map I had yet to see, in hopes of getting the crowbar, thus expanding my pantry possibilities. With an eighth full belly of soda stew, I was about to hike out to a desolate family farmland to find the vital tool.

Before leaving Mother Grey’s house, I made yet another dangerous mistake in fixing up my clothes, thus spending precious hours of daylight with this nonessential task. I left for my final journey around noon, leaving me with far less light than would be needed to arrive back home before things turned bad.

Walking on a new path, I crossed a short footbridge, and entered the last big The Long Dark location. The farmland had lots of wolves and not a lot of hiding places. I was able to keep my distance from the wolves, though I was left remiss about the rare items I was missing at the center of the field in the barn. Upon arriving at the family home, I completed a story mission with an injured convict. I looked around the house, finding far fewer cans of dog food than I had in other locations. Unfortunately, there was no crowbar in sight.

As I was 90% complete with the final Mother Grey refrigerator side mission in The Long Dark, I held off on eating the precious few cans I scavenged. Reveling in my successful supply run, I walked out of the farmhouse, only to realize I hadn’t paid attention to the time. The sun had all but set, and the wolves were howling, crying out into the night in search of their next meal.

I didn’t want to mess with the predators and collectibles in the barn, knowing I had just enough dog food in my backpack to finish Mother Grey’s fridge. There was no time to mess around, as I was determined to finally finish the mission I was working so hard to complete. I was sure the reward was worth it.

As I got back to my home base without incident, I went to the fridge and was immediately met with heartbreak. Right then, night fell, and so did my real-life stomach. I emptied my backpack’s food into Grey’s fridge, but what I brought back from the farm simply wasn’t enough. Her fridge was 99% full. On top of that, my in-game stomach was dangerously low. There was no time left. I was going to die if I didn’t get food into my body.

I was without hope of scavenging more food from any of the already ransacked houses. A storm was brewing outside, but if I wanted to survive the night, I needed to head back out to find the one item to save me. I needed to open trunks with the crowbar, or risk a permanent game over. I needed the tool, so out into the cold I went.

Without a second to spare

I was back on the path to the farm, this time in a white-out blizzard and at night. My character was freezing, so there wasn’t much time to get to some shelter. Running would spend what precious food was in my stomach, so I walked a slow march toward my final hope.

I couldn’t see the wolves, but I could hear them. Their growls were close, closer than they had ever been. My visibility went for about 10 feet in front of me. Against all odds, I knew I was going to survive. Somehow, I was going to survive.

In my white-out stupor, I tripped over the berry bushes I had been ignoring. These rose hips were edible, somehow, but not in their raw form. I needed to prepare them, and the only way to chop them was on a workbench. The only workbench in town was in the middle of the wolf-laden barn field. The growls grew closer. I was being hunted.

Having never been attacked by a wolf, I didn’t want my last bits of energy to be spent fending off their snarling mouths.

I crouched, picked up the rose hips, and crawled forward to lessen the noise my feet made. I still couldn’t see the wolves, but they could see me. Suddenly, a wolf barked. In that moment, my fear straightened my spine. Fight or flight kicked in, and before I knew it, I was sprinting toward where I thought the barn might be. The barn was open, so the wolves would be able to catch me in there, but it was my only hope.

The Long Dark blizzard

My instincts were right, as I soon saw the rough outline of the barn amidst the white wall of heavy snow. I needed to find someplace to hide, fast. I could hear the wolf on my heels, and with seconds to act, I nearly ran into some solid metal object. A tractor! I found a tractor! Where was the door? There was the door! Was it locked—no! My thumb slipped and I missed the cue to open the handle. But then I found the handle, and I opened the door, and I was safely in the tractor. The wolf nearly followed me inside.

For five agonizing minutes, the wolf growled and gnashed at the tractor door. I watched it the whole time, waiting for the moment, if ever, when it would leave me alone. And it did. The wolf whined and trotted away, soon disappearing into the sheer cold of the blizzard.

I took a moment to breathe, and after those couple of breaths, I looked at my stomach meter. I was at around 5%. That 5% equated to nearly nothing.

I needed to think up a plan, and how to pull it off without being chased by another wolf. I was operating blind, but the best course of action I could come up with was to leave the tractor, enter the barn, and use the workbench to chop up the precious rose hips in my pocket.

Steeling myself, I burst open the tractor door, went past the barn’s entrance, and landed right in front of the bench. Navigating as quick as I knew how to, I feverishly chopped up the rose hips. Without giving it a second thought, I estimated where the family home might have been. I didn’t crouch, and I didn’t run, but I walked, occasionally glancing at the hunger meter, now at a mere sliver.

The walk to the house took only two minutes, but it felt like forever. I didn’t hear the wolves, which somehow made things worse. I knew they were still out there, but I didn’t know if or when I would find their den.

Suddenly, I saw a window, and behind that window was the faint ambient light of the family home. Without hesitation, I burst through the door, blew past the groaning convict, and dashed right to the stove. I hadn’t prepared the recipe before, but I thought it made sense to boil up the chopped rose hips. It wasn’t worth looking at my hunger meter anymore, as this was my last shot to get any amount of calories into my system before dying of starvation.

By some miracle, I was able to start the stove fire, boil the rose hips, and down the hot liquid before the sweet embrace of death could take hold. And by the light of the stove, I saw, right in front of the convict, the crowbar.

I had no energy to be excited or angry about the crowbar materializing in front of him. I swore it wasn’t there the first time I entered the farmhouse. I promise you it wasn’t. He groaned in pain, and I thought, “Yeah, buddy, you think you have it bad.” I picked up the crowbar and left the house in a sort of numb disbelief.

The Apex Predator

Back into the blizzard I went. Maybe it was the effects of the stress and the fallout from the spent adrenaline, but I could have sworn the snow was coming down even harder now. I had some sort of bearings, as long as I walked in a straight line toward the footbridge.

Nearly blind, I trudged through the blizzard, putting aside all caution for the starvation I was still staving off. I had the freakin’ crowbar, so it was time to break open some car trunks for more granola bars to finish off Mother Grey’s fridge requirements. That is, if I even made it that far with just some rose hip tea in my stomach.

The wind gusts pushed against me, with the roar of the storm deafening out the sound of my footsteps and breathing. I assumed I was moving forward, even if I had no point of reference to prove I was.

Suddenly, through the howl of the white-out winter storm, came the sharp grrrRAGH of a wolf. It was headed right toward me, and I couldn’t see it. In a moment of lizard-brain reaction time, I whipped out something I didn’t consider a weapon: a flare gun. I thought I saw the shape of the wolf darting toward me, so I fired a shot, was blinded by red-hot light, and heard the high-pitched whimper of a dying wolf.

I hit the wolf. I killed the wolf. I shot it right in the mouth. I became the Apex Predator.

I felt alive. I was no longer the hunted. I had a weapon, and I was a good shot. Having never killed anything, I didn’t realize that with a dead animal came fresh meat. I collected my spoils and trudged on past one of the most successful moments of survival I had yet to experience in The Long Dark.

It took a while, but I pushed against the wind as I made my way back down the path toward the town of Milton. I found a car, used that blasted crowbar to pry open the trunk, and chowed down on a granola bar.

I showed up to Mother Grey’s with the raw wolf meat, plopped the mess right in front of her roaring fire, and watched it cook in a state of dissociation. The meat cooked until medium-rare, wherein I picked it up, shoved some into Mother Grey’s now overstuffed refrigerator, and went back to Grey for a reward.

The house was dark. I was haggard, and I just wanted to finish the whole ordeal. Mother Grey was overwhelmed by my kindness, and gifted me a subpar jacket. See, I already found the best jacket in Milton on the mountaintop. What she gave me had approximately one-third less effectiveness.

Dead inside, I took a nice, greedy bite of the leftover cooked wolf meat and stomped upstairs to the pitch-black bedroom. I slept like a baby, and by the time daylight broke, the white-out blizzard finally subsided.

Related: Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi: It’s a damn good time

Leaving her house one final time, I looked over to Mother Grey, still sitting blindfolded in her rocking chair by the fireplace. Though she sat fairly still, I got the impression she felt safe and secure in her warm little corner of the world. You’re welcome, Mother Dearest.

Talk with me all things The Long Dark on our Twitter, or write to me via our info on our About Us page. Please let me know I’m not alone in the close calls and moments of bittersweet success in this excellent survival-action video game. The fourth The Long Dark episode, “Fury, then Silence” released this past Fall, with episode five set to release sometime before Fall 2023, if we’re to estimate based on past episode releases.