The Long Dark is a fiercely Canadian video game. Why aren't there more like it?
Canada a leading hub of video game development, but few games feature Canadian themes
You've crashed your plane into the side of a mountain on a remote island in the Canadian north. Your partner is nowhere to be found.
A geomagnetic disaster has rendered phones, radios and all other electronic equipment inoperable.
The cold rushes in. Your body temperature's falling. You feel thirsty, hungry and tired — you're burning calories just staying awake. Frantically, you search the area for branches and splinters of wood to build a fire. You pick up a single box of matches scavenged from a dilapidated supply box nearby.
With luck, you'll have about three hours before the fire burns out. You melt a bunch of snow into a bucket of water to relieve your parched mouth.
For a moment, you take in the majestic landscape. The sun casts the snowy mountains and forest in orange light. A Canadian flag flies next to a lighthouse on the edge of the frozen lake. You hold on tightly to your tuque.
This fight for survival is the core experience of The Long Dark, which was recently released after several years in an "Early Access" preview version. Hinterland Studios, the Vancouver-based team behind the game, calls it a "quiet apocalypse." This isn't The Walking Dead. There are no zombies to fight, only Mother Nature. (OK, and the occasional wolf or bear.)
It's also one of only a handful of games that wears its Canadian identity on its sleeve. Hinterland founder Raphael van Lierop said his objective from the start was to make a game "that didn't shy away from being Canadian."
"We've got great Canadian authors and musicians and artists and filmmakers — where are the Canadian game makers that have a unique Canadian voice and Canadian point of view?" he said.
What is a 'Canadian game'?
According to a 2016 report from the Entertainment Software Association of Canada, there are 470 video game studios in the country, employing more than 20,000 people with an average yearly salary of $71,300. The industry contributes $3 billion to Canada's annual GDP.
Some of the highest-profile games in the world, such as Assassin's Creed, FIFA soccer and Mass Effect, are made in Canada. Highly anticipated upcoming games include Bioware Edmonton's Anthem and an unnamed Star Wars game from Electronic Arts' Motive studio in Montreal.
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Yet for all these impressive statistics, you'll rarely see so much as a Canadian flag in games made here. If Canada is such a force in the world of video games, then why do we so rarely see it in our products?
Part of it comes down to sheer numbers. While it's a major hub of video game development, Canada has far fewer players than countries such as the U.S., Japan and South Korea.
According to a 2016 report from gaming analytics firm Newzoo, Canada generates about $2.2 billion in video game revenue annually. That's ninth in the world, far less than the U.S.($28 billion) and China ($29 billion).
Since Canadian players comprise such a small slice of the gaming pie, there's little incentive to design a game specifically for Canadians.
"If you're making a game about Canada, and you're focusing on selling it in Canada, I'd probably say it's a bad business decision, honestly," said ESA Canada's CEO, Jayson Hilchie. "Because the market here just isn't that big."
ESA Canada's reports tout domestic studios' output and critical acclaim, and pays less attention to whether the games' subject matter features explicitly Canadian themes or settings.
"When you look at things like Assassin's Creed and FIFA, these are the biggest games in the world, and they're all made in Canada, mainly by Canadians, right? So do they have to be about Canada for them to be Canadian? I think that's a question I'm not able to answer," he said.
According to the CRTC, video games do not fall under the Broadcasting Act, which encourages producers to make content on radio, television and film that "reflects Canadian attitudes, opinions, ideas, values, and artistic creativity."
In a recent survey, a majority of Canadians said that online media should not be subject to the same content regulations as traditional media. The survey was mostly concerned with streaming music and television services.
Independent organizations such as the Canada Media Fund (CMF) support new media projects, including video games. The Long Dark is one of them, and Hinterland paid off its CMF loan after its successful Kickstarter campaign and Early Access-period sales. CMF has historically supported smaller, independent game studios, because it doesn't offer loans or grants to foreign-owned studios — like Paris-owned Ubisoft or Bioware, which is owned by U.S. publisher EA.
'Set it in Alaska'
Van Lierop said he would have had trouble pitching The Long Dark to a large publisher like EA or Activision.
"If I had taken The Long Dark's concept to a publisher at some point, in the early phases of the project, they would have said, 'This is a great idea, but let's set it in Alaska, because Alaska's going to be more marketable,'" he said.
"That's very common in the industry, and I think you can understand the business reasons behind it. ... We should have a significant cultural footprint in the industry, and yet in a lot of ways, it felt like we were, in some ways, work-for-hire for publishers owned by people from other countries."
Van Lierop knows this from experience. As part of B.C.-based Relic Entertainment, he previously worked on critically acclaimed games such as Company of Heroes and Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War. His other credits include work with Ubisoft on the popular Far Cry series.
As successful as these were, he didn't see enough of himself or his heritage in that work. So he left and founded a small independent team called Hinterland. He moved to a small home in the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island, closer to the mountains, valleys and forests that influenced the visual palette of what would eventually become The Long Dark.
Hinterland debuted the game in 2013 with a Kickstarter campaign, raising more than $250,000. The game has been in an unfinished, or Early Access, mode since 2014. Players could challenge the elements in multiple locations, with the studio refining the visuals and mechanics and adding features along the way.
This ended in August with the launch of Wintermute, a long-promised story mode that combines the survivalist adventure with a fully scripted plot. Wintermute's cast includes several prominent Canadian voice actors, including Mark Meer and Jennifer Hale (who played the male and female versions of Commander Shepard in the Mass Effect games).
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Alexandre Fiset followed a similar path to van Lierop. After working on several successful Spider-Man games for Activision, he founded his own studio, Parabole. In March, after three years in Early Access, the studio released Kona, a mystery game set in northern Quebec and steeped in Quebecois and Indigenous culture.
According to Fiset, such a game can indeed find an audience, but most players won't gravitate towards it solely because of its Canadian-ness.
"It's all about the standard of the graphics and the gameplay and all the stuff that is in the game and that people will look at on the online stores," he said.
Given the perceived risks of going all-in for a game set in Canada, most homegrown developers content themselves with sly cultural references.
"I think Canadian creators always face that struggle between wanting to include more homegrown content but worrying about alienating their biggest audience, which is usually players in the U.S.," said games developer Benjamin Rivers.
In the sci-fi romance game Alone with You, Rivers includes supporting characters and organizations with names such as Hudson-Cartier and Laurier.
"We chose to turn our Canadian content into non-essential lore that would be fun for Canadians to discover, but wouldn't require any kind of understanding of the culture to appreciate," Rivers said.
Players don't need to understand all the references to Canadian culture in The Long Dark to enjoy it. But that hasn't stopped van Lierop and his team from infusing it with more Canadian flavour than an hour's worth of Heritage Minutes.
While industry wisdom would suggest this is a failing proposition, the game's Canadian themes haven't appeared to limit its audience. Since its Early Access debut in 2014, The Long Dark has sold more than 1.4 million copies, with players embracing its often punishing survival challenges.
"It doesn't seem to be slowing down," said van Lierop, "so whatever mix of elements — the Canadian setting, the wilderness survival aspect, the tone of the game, the art — really seems to be working well."