Fated to End Sometime

Category: The Long Dark

The gallon water jug in The Long Dark

A little less than ten years ago, my wife, two daughters and I were sheltering in my employer's home in New Orleans, slowly starving and suffering from the effects of dehydration. In that two-story building were five adults, two children, two dogs and a two cats. The first floor of the building had flooded, and the water was mixed with oil and contaminated by broken sewer pipes and floating dead bodies. Although they were not in our immediate vicinity, some of those bodies were human, people who had been alive just a few days before. There were also downed power lines trailing into the water, and no way to know whether any of them were energized. We were effectively trapped.

We had only managed to rescue a limited amount of food, and there were only two five-gallon containers of water to be shared among all of us. Of course the children were permitted water before the adults, but my wife was also two months pregnant with our third child, and she was suffering from the daily temperatures that were now reaching as high as 120 degrees Fahrenheit. There was no power, therefore no air conditioning or fans, and also no running water. We also had no way to treat the contaminated water that surrounded the building, nor did we want to wade into it to fetch things because we would have no way to properly clean ourselves afterward. The situation was rapidly becoming dire, and one of the women sheltering in the house decided to scale the roof in an unsuccessful attempt to flag down passing helicopters. She began consuming the precious potable water more rapidly than anyone else as a direct result.

She was the first one to notice the two men passing by out front of the building in their canoe, sometimes with a passenger when they returned, going in the opposite direction. She ended up shouting to the two men to let them know we had little children in the house, and they offered to take our daughters to the nearest safe shelter, which was something that initially sounded appealing. We did not want our daughters to die from dehydration. Reality sank in as I realized what would happen to a two and four year old girl outside of the supervision of their parents, and I grimly declared, "Either we all go, or none of us goes."

Thankfully, the men responded by saying, "Mom and Dad can come too."

My wife and I waded through the oily water and carefully got into the canoe, then each of us held our daughters in our lap. The men wasted no time setting off, but mentioned almost casually that they would be taking a roundabout route so that our girls would be spared from the sight of the floating dead. We quietly thanked the men, and stared around us in awe as we could finally comprehend the amount of water all around us, all of it the direct result from a levee system broken by a runaway barge.

The men decided to take us to their home briefly, although they had us wait in the canoe. A woman stepped out, and one of the men said something to her. She went back inside, and when she returned she was carrying a white, plastic gallon jug. They must have frozen it before the hurricane, because it was still at least half frozen when they gave it to us. This, along with the canoe ride, was a gift like no other. We each took a drink of cold, clean water for the first time in several days, and I began feeling more optimistic that we were all going to make it.

They took us to dry land where they introduced us to a friend who had been giving rides to people in his SUV while preparing to leave the city with his own family. He was kind enough to take us to the nearest hospital, but due to the looting they would not let us in, and a guard armed with a rifle indicated we needed to leave immediately. We walked down the road, the jug carried in my one hand, and my daughter's hand held in the other, until we found a police officer who unwillingly drove us to a staging area and dropped us off in a sea of humanity. We walked into the crowd and settled down to wait for the buses that were promised to come and take us to another staging area.

While we waited, a pickup truck arrived with a bed full of bags of ice. People scrambled, pushed and shoved to get to the truck, frantically grabbing ice bags even though there were clearly enough to go around. I waited patiently until everyone else grabbed their bag and took one from the driver, who was looking rather annoyed by everyone's behavior. I thanked him profusely and his attitude improved slightly. When I returned to my family I opened the bag and poured the ice into our gallon jug, which had almost reached empty by this point. The bag filled it back up again, and in the summer heat it rapidly began to melt.

As dusk approached it became obvious that no buses were coming, so several of us began migrating down the small highway in the direction of the final staging area, designated as the point where I-10 and the Causeway intersected. As we walked we were harassed by police who told us to get off the road, but offered us no assistance with reaching our destination. At that point we were on an overpass and there was no way off the road except to keep going, so we did. Finally, more pickup trucks arrived and we climbed into the back of one along with several others before it lurched forward and took us to the final staging area.

I held on to our plastic gallon water jug through all of this, and we each took sips of water as needed. People around us, noticing we had children, offered them bits of food, and we gratefully accepted knowing full well the food had been looted. At this point, however, it was a matter of survival, and our children needed the food more than we did. I did find it ironic at this point, however, that it was those people who were in a similar situation to our own that were offering the most help to my family, whereas the police and other people we would ordinarily depend upon had offered very little assistance thus far.

We managed to secure a ride on a coach leaving New Orleans, and we were transported to a sports dome in Jefferson, Louisiana. Exhausted, but already knowing some of what had occurred in the New Orleans Superdome due to the reports we had heard over the radio, we opted to avoid the sports dome and try to make our way to a hotel. We walked down the highway trying to get to a gas station where I could make a phone call to a taxi service and get transported to a hotel, but the first gas station we reached refused to sell me a phone card until 7am. It was 4am at this point. So we shuffled out of the gas station, the other patrons intentionally ignoring us as we left, and kept walking until a stranger decided to pull over in his pickup truck and ask us if we needed any help. After explaining the situation, and why we couldn't take shelter in the dome, he agreed to take us to where he worked so that I could use their phone and attempt to secure a place to stay.

As his coworkers began arriving and he let them know what was going on, they began to head out and fetch us food, clean clothes, and a mattress to nap on until we could get a hotel room. Upon finding out there were no available rooms in any hotel in town, one of the employees brought his camper to the business so we could have a place to stay until we could get a flight at the airport. It was at that point that I knew we were safe, and I finally set down that plastic gallon water jug, never to pick it up again. A part of me wishes that I still had it, but every time I see one, I remember.

In the video game The Long Dark, the protagonist can melt snow and boil the water to make it potable. It is stored in a plastic gallon jug when carried. I'm sure you can imagine my surprise and also my appreciation the first time I saw this in this game which is all about survival.

The Long Dark

For those unfamiliar with the game, Voyageur is one of three available difficulty levels in The Long Dark, and the original playing experience for this game when it was first released via the Steam Early Access program. In terms of sheer difficulty, it could be considered in the middle range of the three, in that it is harder to find gear and supplies as compared to Pilgrim, bears and wolves can be aggressive if you get too close, but there is still more available gear than in Stalker and these animals are not quite as aggressive as they could be. So to keep it simple in gaming terms, you could consider "Voyageur" to be "normal difficulty", although to be blunt, all three playing styles are challenging. There are players who have survived hundreds of days in this mode, and in some cases over a thousand, but in my case I consider seventy days to be a significant achievement.

Aside from some luck, the biggest reason I've managed to survive for so long is because I have been playing in a relatively cautious and conservative manner. My previous session in Voyageur was ended by two subsequent wolf attacks after only surviving for five days in the Mystery Lake map, and I opted for random map selection when I started a new game, this time ending up in the western area of Pleasant Valley. I made my way to the Pleasant Valley Homestead (also referred to as the farmhouse), and made that my initial base of operations until I felt I had gathered as many materials from Pleasant Valley as was reasonable, and, facing a shortage of much needed sewing kits, I opted to migrate to the Coastal Highway Map after having survived for around thirty days. I could have crafted fishing lures to as a secondary option to repair and craft gear, but I was also getting a little stir crazy and wanted to explore the other regions in the game.

I first transitioned to the Coastal Highway and spent roughly thirty days in that region, fending off wolves, gathering additional supplies, sewing kits and toolboxes aplenty. After reaching day 60 I decided it was time to move on.

Currently, I'm living out of a a cabin known as the Trapper's Homestead, in the first region made available in the game, known as Mystery Lake. I've managed to gather the needed materials to craft a bow and arrows, along with wolf skin coat, deer skin boots and pants, rabbit fur mittens and a bear skin bedroll, and also successfully stockpiled a small supply of food at this location. I have a bit more exploration planned in the immediate vicinity of this region, but at the moment I could quite comfortably continue to survive in this region for several more days, even with the constant threat of wolves and bears wherever I may go.

Similar to the rules described by the main character in Zombie Nation, I have a series of rules I try to follow as I play. These rules could be easily summed up by the scout motto "Be Prepared". By following these rules I have so far (at least on this run) done a pretty decent job of staying alive:

  1. When possible, use a building with two doors as your home base - this is particularly important because most shelters with two doors also have a quick access door and a door that is somewhat protected with a barrier of some kind, such as a porch railing. Always exit the building through the door that leads to a protected space, so that you will have an opportunity to react if there is a wolf or bear immediately outside (and cover from which you could retreat back into the house, or use a ranged weapon to dispatch said predator).
  2. When possible, choose a building with a warm bed (it should have a better warmth bonus than the bedroll you start with), and a way to start a fire indoors - either a fireplace or a wood burning stove will do just fine.
  3. Always make sure your thirst is near or at zero before you go to sleep for the night. Don't sleep for longer than ten hours at a time (at zero thirst) without drinking to avoid dehydration negatively impacting your condition. Make sure you have eaten enough calories to survive the night as well.
  4. If you expect to wear your gear for a while, repair it - you will need to locate either a sewing kit or alternately a fishing lure and tackle (or craft one), and either scrap fabric or sacrifice found clothing items to repair the ones that you intend to keep. The better the condition your gear is in, the longer it will take you to get cold while outside. Don't waste precious repair materials on useless gear such as sneakers, and cotton socks.
  5. Always carry the materials you will need to start a fire before you go anywhere - you should have at least a few tinder, at least one piece of soft wood or a book, and either matches or a striker. I always carry one can of accelerant for emergencies, because you can start a fire with it almost immediately. If your fire-making skill is low, try to keep a book with you, because they are much easier to use to start a fire. I usually carry a log of soft firewood, use it to start a fire, then harvest hard wood once the fire is going.
  6. Always carry about a half-gallon of water with you before you leave - dehydration will kill you faster than almost anything else in this game. Carrying more is not a good idea because water is realistically heavy.
  7. Always carry some aspirin, antibiotics, bandages and antiseptic. Alternately, brew and carry rosehip tea, reishi mushroom tea and at least three crafted old man's beard wound dressing. You will get attacked, you will sprain your ankle, and you may get sick from eating bad food. If you have these first aid items on hand you can treat your condition immediately (although you may also have to sleep it off to recover fully).
  8. Avoid going outside during a blizzard because it will ruin the condition of your gear. If you get caught in a blizzard while outside, find a boulder or some place to crouch down out of the wind and start a fire to keep yourself from freezing. If you stay stationary with some cover it will prevent your gear from getting too badly damaged, but be prepared for the wind to change - keep a spare piece of soft wood handy if you need to find another spot to start a new fire. If you are inside and can't tell how many hours are left before night/day, and you can hear the wind blowing, there is almost definitely a blizzard raging outside (Caveat: sometimes you will have spent an hour indoors during a blizzard and it seems like there is still a blizzard going, but if you leave the building the storm will have just ended - it's worth periodically checking outside to see for yourself whether there really is a blizzard).
  9. While outside, periodically check you status, especially if you begin getting verbal cues from the character that he/she is tired, cold, hungry, etc. If hungry or thirsty, address those conditions as soon as you are able. If fatigued, bear in mind that sleep will be necessary soon, and you will not be able to carry as much without becoming encumbered (which will slow you down).
  10. Keep a significant distance between you and any wolves or bears you spy while outside. Use higher ground whenever available to be able to see a wolf or bear long before they see you. Pay attention to the direction the wind is blowing, because if a wolf is downwind from you, they will notice you from an even further distance than they would otherwise. Crouch to make it harder for you to be detected until you are safely out of range. Unless you are high enough to prevent a bear from reaching you, or can duck into a nearby building or vehicle before they reach you, do not provoke or engage a bear. You cannot fight them off, and they can potentially kill you even if your condition is 100%.
  11. Carry some form of meat on you at all times to use as a lure. Even if you don't have a weapon, if you have meat you may buy yourself enough time to run into the nearest shelter while the wolf checks it out. As soon as you hear a wolf growling, even if you can't see it, drop your lure and step away from the lure. The wolf will usually (but not always) go for the lure, giving you time to take aim and shoot it. The cost of a bit of meat vs around 7-10 lbs of fresh meat, wolf pelt and guts is an advantageous exchange for you. This is also much safer than engaging a wolf in hand-to-hand combat and will spare your gear from damage. It may be smarter to shoot the wolf before it starts eating, because if it changes its mind it will come for you instead. Aim for the head, between the eyes if possible.
  12. Cook your meat before trekking through the wilderness, because raw meat draws wolves. If you are concerned about being attacked while harvesting meat, start a fire beside the carcass. This has the added benefit of thawing a frozen carcass, which can then be harvested even if you do not have a hatchet or hunting knife. Keep an eye on your status while harvesting and cooking, and keep an eye on the fire duration. If a blizzard starts, forget the fire and get to your closest shelter immediately.
  13. When traveling outdoors, keep an eye out for deer and rabbits. They are an indicator that there are no wolves in the immediate vicinity (although they could be nearby). You can drive a deer before you as you trek, which may help draw out wolves that you might not have noticed otherwise. If the wolf takes down the deer and begins eating, this gives you an opportunity to shoot the wolf, potentially resulting in two carcasses for the price of one shot.
  14. As soon as you are able to do so, craft gear (deer skin boots and pants, rabbit fur mittens, wolf skin coat, and bear skin bedroll). These items are superior to any gear you can find while exploring, although they also weigh more than their found equivalents. Keep the gear in good condition, especially after a wolf (or bear) attack, because higher condition gear will help keep you alive longer while you are being attacked. Higher condition gear will also provide better warmth and protection from wind chill.
  15. Fishing and using snares to catch rabbits should be considered a secondary method of obtaining food (unless you have neither a rifle nor a bow). Neither produce as many calories per pound as wolf meat, venison, or bear meat, and there is a significant chance of failure to catch anything. Rabbit snares are beneficial in that they can yield gut and rabbit fur for crafting/repairing mittens, therefore if you choose to do either, start with snares.
  16. Be aware that nearly everything has a condition that changes over time. Tools generally do not degrade until they are used, but clothing, matches and food can degrade even when in storage. If possible, locate a secondary fire making source to support you when the matches are no longer available. If you are planning on a long run, conserve materials as long as you can, but be sure to use them before they are no longer viable (food that reaches 0% condition vanishes).
  17. Be aware that meat under 50% condition is considered spoiled and can cause you severe food poisoning, requiring antibiotics and sleep to recover. Avoid eating meat when it reaches this condition. It may be possible to use this meat as a lure for wolves, so keep it on you, just remember not to eat it. Also bear in mind that uncooked meat has a greater chance of causing severe food poisoning, so you should only eat it uncooked if you do not have enough calories/condition to make a fire.

There are more that I will add to this list as I think of them. In the meantime, be prepared.

Out for a stroll after the end of civilization as we know it.

"I would totally kill for a pair of boots right now," I muttered.

"What?" My wife was confused.

"Oh, in this game I'm trying to survive after crashing a plane in the Canadian wilderness as a result of a massive CME. I've got a bunch of tools, rifle, hatchet, hunting knife, but I'm wearing a pair of sneakers...in the snow," I offered in explanation.

"Ah," she said.

"So it's hard to avoid freezing to death, as a result," I concluded. I turned my attention back to the game, where I was busy starting a fire to prevent just that very thing from occurring.

My latest focus is on an indie game still in development, The Long Dark. Initially funded through Kickstarter, at this time the game is only available via Steam Early Access, although a Steam key can be purchased through the Humble on-line store as well. The protagonist of the game is a bush pilot who was forced into a crash landing as a result of a coronal mass ejection from the sun that caused severe atmospheric ionization, effectively putting society back into the pre-industrialized era. Winter has set in, and in order to survive the pilot must locate and utilize any available tools, gear and food he or she can use to survive another day.

At this point in development, the only portion of the game that is accessible is the Sandbox mode, which permits free-form play through one of three available maps and their interconnecting zones. When the game first released in the fall of 2014, only one map was available, but the developers have been making steady progress at adding additional content to the game, in addition to support for crafting your own gear, tools and weapons to aid in survival. They also release frequent bug patches and interact directly with their player base via Steam's community discussions and their own forums. Consequently, even though I am typically reluctant to pay for an Early Access game (which may or may not be a developer attempting to cash in on a project they never intend to complete) the development team at Hinterland Studio has shown a clear intention to complete this game, with the Story Mode expected to be released sometime in 2015. In my mind, the most impressive move by the developers so far was the replacement of the game's Unity 4 engine with Unity 5, to enable better performance on computers with high-end GPUs and/or multi-core processors. This transition appears to have only taken a few weeks to accomplish.

If I'm starting to sound somewhat fanboy-ish, that's because (against my better judgement) I am. Previously I had ranked The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim as my favorite video game of all time. Even though the graphics in this game are not quite as realistic, I actually enjoy this game much more. That's probably because the challenge is real, and the scenario behind the game is one that could become all too real, should the Earth be caught directly in the path of a massive coronal ejection from the sun.

When I began the game, I immediately tried Voyageur mode, which is the middle difficulty level (and originally the only difficulty level available). Even though I was new to the game, I managed to survive for more than 5 days before I was finished off by a wolf in the dark. It was a harrowing experience, however, and even with the knowledge I already possess I found the only way I could stay alive was to keep moving and scrounging for food and clothing wherever I could. I expected to die any moment. Subsequent attempts to play the game at this difficulty mode met with disaster in less than 24 hours of game time, so I ended up switching to Pilgrim mode (easy difficulty) to get a feel for the game and attempt to learn the ropes. It didn't take too long to get hooked.

A significant portion of the game is exploration. Newcomers would probably find it best to use Pilgrim mode to get used to the game mechanics, because there is a lot to juggle. Thirst, hunger, fatigue, and cold are all statuses you have to keep your eye on as you play, because they impact your ability to survive. The type of winter gear you are wearing and the gear's overall condition directly impacts how quickly you get cold while you are outside. Tools are necessary for survival in order to do basic things like start a fire, harvest materials and food, and repair your clothing and equipment. All of this is hard enough without having to learn how to avoid and fend off attacks from starving, predatory animals.

I recently reached a point where I was no longer satisfied with the Pilgrim experience, because once you have successfully explored the majority of the three maps and their interconnecting areas, it turns into a slow, day to day experience which may feel like a bit of a grind to some players. At this point, confident that I had learned what I needed in order to survive a harsher apocalyptic world, I returned to Voyageur mode and subsequently died again within 5 days of game time. I returned to Pilgrim mode with the advent of an update bringing new craftable weapons and hunting mechanics, along with a new area to explore, but once I had achieved everything there was to achieve I returned again to Voyageur, where I have now survived over 11 days of game time, with successful hunting and as of this morning, surviving a wolf attack and living to tell the tale.

I have more to tell, but hopefully this should suffice until I have a chance to return and share my story.

Crows are your friend in the Long Dark