The first two story episodes for The Long Dark, a survival game set in a wintry wilderness, came out in August of 2017. In December 2018, studio Hinterland released a “redux” version of the episodes, adding voice acting to the cutscenes and overhauling the narrative flow. Today, The Long Dark finally releases its third story episode, “Crossroads Elegy.” It’s the first story episode released with the lessons the team learned from the overhaul, and it feels like Hinterland has found the right mix of survival and narrative.
The Long Dark has both a story and survival mode. In survival mode, a solo player has crashed in the middle of the Canadian wilderness during a mysterious geomagnetic storm. They have to survive as long as they can, battling hunger, cold, and aggressive wildlife. The story mode, a planned five episodes called “Wintermute,” adds quests and NPCs to the mix.
Crossroads Elegy can be played without having finished the first two episodes. It takes place in the game’s Pleasant Valley area, which its residents admit is misnamed. It’s a huge map, its few buildings centralised and ringed by mountains and dangerous open spaces. Unlike the first two episodes, in which players control bush pilot Will Mackenzie, this third episode puts you in the role of Dr Astrid Greenwood, Will’s companion who went missing while the pair were en route to deliver a mysterious package to a place called Perseverance Mills. The third episode takes place not long after Will and Astrid became separated. Astrid, on the verge of death, is rescued by a gruff farmer named Molly who is eventually revealed to be keeping a lot of secrets. Soon, Astrid finds herself entangled in the lives of Pleasant Valley’s residents and the survivors of a nearby passenger plane crash who have hunkered down in a community centre. Astrid puts aside her quest to reunite with Will in order to help the survivors recover from their injuries and wait out a coming blizzard.
In The Long Dark’s first two episodes, especially before the “redux” that tightened up the pace of the quests, helping the people you met while wandering the wilderness could feel tedious. Episode One’s Grey Mother required you to bring her copious amounts of supplies, which would be better spent on yourself, making the quest to stock her pantries feel counter-intuititve. Astrid is a doctor, so helping people fits more with her character, so the survival-based fetch quests make sense for her. She has to stockpile food, wood, and other supplies for the survivors, but there are also quests that are more personal: finding items that mean something to the crash survivors, or looking for stragglers. Most of the people you help are somewhat thin in terms of character development, apart from Molly and the priest who oversees the community centre, but the volume of survivors and the humanity of their needs feels motivating. At one point, Astrid must go from survivor to survivor delivering a piece of news that became increasingly moving due to the repetition. Astrid’s voice actor, Mass Effect’s Jennifer Hale, delivers variations on the same line with a combination of gravitas and ritual practice that felt appropriate for a doctor.
The main activity in The Long Dark, both in previous episodes and in the most recent one, is walking slowly from place to place. In Crossroads Elegy, Astrid’s small but dangerous journeys feel effortful without becoming a slog, the way the first two episodes could sometimes be. For example, after finding most of the other supplies for the survivors fairly easily around town or nearby, all I had left to fulfil was a request for an immense amount of food. I’d seen a lot of food in a far part of the map, but at the time I had left it behind, weighed down with other pressing concerns. Now, I had to make the perilous journey back, worrying about how I’d carry everything and carefully planning my moves between caves, bunkers, and the smattering of abandoned buildings. The distance felt just the right length to feel harrowing, while the game offered up enough food and other supplies along the way to feel rewarding without being overly generous. On normal difficulty, injuries, bad weather, and attacks from packs of timberwolves lent danger to the journey without becoming hazardous enough to get frustrating.
Timberwolves are a new enemy for Episode Three. They travel in packs, and let out a chilling howl when they find you, accompanied by some energetic music. If they catch you, they’ll hassle you, tearing your clothes and ripping at your skin; if you don’t manage to fight them off, they can kill you. They can be scared away with certain equipment, and although I died to them a few times, they’re more a stressful nuisance than a game-ending threat. In my playthrough, they appeared just often enough to be scary without being overwhelming, but the fear of them finding me – especially if I was loaded with attractive raw meat – was enough to keep me on my toes.
During one quest, in which I was escorting a survivor who slowed me down and limited my ability to equip weapons or flares, I scared off one pack of timberwolves, only to be beset by another. I was slow to react the second time and got badly hurt. I staggered to a nearby farmhouse, my vision blurring, not sure if we’d make it. We barely survived, and I had to wait out the night in a creepy basement, sleeping in bursts as I nursed myself and the survivor. It was a small drama, unique to me and the circumstances. That it was in service of helping others, which bugged me in the first two episodes, felt right for Astrid’s character and the story of Episode Three.
Crossroads Elegy took me about 13 hours to complete, with plenty of time spent waiting out storms, sleeping through the darkness, or getting lost. There are only a few main quests, though they’re time-consuming, and there are also some optional side quests. Some side quest areas I ended up in during the course of the main story; others I sought out, even though they’d cost me precious calories and supplies. I found several books scattered through Pleasant Valley that hinted at local legends, and I was unable to resist finding out more about them, even if I wasn’t sure they’d help me in my quests.
One of my favourite things about The Long Dark is its pace. It resists rushing, and everything takes as long as it takes in both real-life and in-game time. In a conversation I had last week with the game’s writer and director Raphael van Lierop, which we’ll have on our site soon, we talked about the unique weight of space and time in the game. The team wanted to ensure that neither one is taken for granted by the player; they’re ever-present obstacles and commodities in their own right. Crossroads Elegy manages time and space just right, making the smallest trip feel epic and putting a premium on every second spent deciding what to do next. Crossroads Elegy pulled me right back in to The Long Dark’s story, ending with a cliffhanger that makes me eager to see what happens in future episodes.