Inspiration in isolation: The Long Dark takes on a different kind of survival fiction

We talk to Raphael van Lierop about Hinterland, a star-studded new independent studio, and how a new degree of creative freedom lets the team take a fascinating approach to survival and storytelling.
After directing Relic's Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine, Raphael van Lierop found himself in the sort of "postpartum depression" he says is common to developers coming off big projects. "That process is so emotional," he says. "I realized there had to be a better way, and I felt like I didn't want to continue going through that cycle," he adds. The turning point, for him, came at a time when his wife was watching him play an early build of Space Marine. He'd talked to her a lot about his personal goals in game development, and his deeply-felt belief in what the medium of games can do. She said, "It's interesting to see the game, because I don't see any of you in it," van Lierop recalls. "She said, 'everything you talk about doing with games, I can't see that in there.'"

"I have to do work I feel is more personal, more representative of my values"

van Lierop's proud of Space Marine and Relic, with whom he worked for years on games like Dawn of War and Company of Heroes. But he also talks about the way the temperature began to change, bringing a political and stressful climate to publisher THQ around the end of 2009, when Homefront failed to change the company's fortunes and the publisher began what would be its last efforts to save itself. After leaving Relic, van Lierop, his wife and their young kids went to Montreal so he could work at Ubisoft, but they found the area isolating, as they didn't speak the language. "I thought, if I'm going to keep dedicating myself to this craft, I have to do work I feel is more personal, more representative of my values," he says. "We decided to leave the city, move to a remote location and have a different style of this life. And in this place with no game development, I still wanted to work on great games with great people."

That's when, living on Vancouver Island, an idea came to him for a game about surviving in the cold Northern wilderness. And with his 13 years industry experience, he was able to gather other veterans who were interested in his pitch: Former Volition technical director Alan Lawrence, art director Hokyo Lim (League of Legends, The Unfinished Swan), multiple award-nominated God of War series writer Marianne Krawczyk, and former BioWare audio director David Chan, among others. The team's new studio, Hinterland (van Lierop is a founder and creative director), was founded in a simple goal: "Let's make a game that's still something we want to make as developers, to our taste -- not too 'artsy fartsy,' something that still feels like a core game, but has a lot more of an independent, creative feel to it, not a mainstream game, per se," van Lierop describes. "Everyone on the team -- I have so much respect for them. They're all super world-class talent, and they have a lot of things they could be doing with their time. I pitched them as though they could choose any other project, because they can."

A survival game without the "horror"

Hinterland's The Long Dark, which is seeking funds via Kickstarter (having had some help from the Canada Media Fund), comes from the goal of creating a survival game without the "horror." The game poses a world where a mysterious event has decimated technology, tasking players with carefully discovering the rules of survival in an ambiguous wilderness that puts knowledge at a premium. "I was inspired by the physical surroundings I live in and the mythos that exists in the Northwest," explains van Lierop. He says the team sees much more to explore in survival fiction than "post-apocalypse" or zombies -- what if the world's simply falling apart? "I'm really interested in how dependent we are on technology, especially for things like community," he says. "We lived in apartments in the city where we didn't know our neighbors, and these are themes that stuck in my head. I wanted to explore them in a game that was a bit more thoughtful, and hopefully more sophisticated than what we've seen in games so far." van Lierop has a background in literature and has a long-held interest in storytelling. The question of whether games can tell stories seems "silly" to him: "Whether it's a story that emerges from gameplay or one that's literally told somehow, I think people connect with stories, and that's just another way of saying 'a pattern of events that are meaningful to people.'" The Hinterland team is another beneficiary of recent trends allowing experienced developers to work on smaller teams, the better to be more hands-on with the game's creative vision. "It's about us being able to look at something we've been a part of and feel pride, and creative ownership over the thing," he says. "In large-scale productions, it's really hard to hold onto that." "As much as you try to imbue it with some sense of personality, it ends up being a product in the worst sense, where the rough edges and the idiosyncrasy you might otherwise inject into it... kinda get sanded away, to the point where it just feels like a shiny thing that doesn't have any feeling anymore."

"Games allow us to learn about ourselves through decision-making"

The Long Dark is a first-person game defined not by its combat or action, but its pensive moments, climbing snow-tufted hills and looking out onto a sky dusted with the trails of magnetic auroras, against a backdrop of harsh weather and few resources, focused on classic themes of wilderness literature, van Lierop says. "Games allow us to learn about ourselves through decision-making... I can play the game and make decisions, and that can tell me something about who I am," he reflects. "People need to be able to say things with their work. If you give that opportunity, there's nothing they won't do to find success."

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