By the looks of it, The Long Dark could very well be the most Canadian video game ever put into production. First, there’s the concept itself – it’s a first-person survival simulation set in the northern wilderness. The title draws on that setting, with the long dark in question an apt description of our sometimes unending winters.
Then there’s the protagonist himself, bush pilot William Mackenzie. Throw a “Lyon” in there and we have the first mayor of Toronto. Or he could be related to a certain hoser duo from SCTV – take off, eh? Either way, it’s hard to imagine a more Canadian-sounding name.
And then there’s the company behind the game: Hinterland Studios, based on Vancouver Island. For scores of Canadians, the word “hinterland” automatically conjures images of the Who’s Who nature vignettes – and their trademark flute intro – that aired between shows on CBC.
Studio founder Raphael Van Lierop doesn’t disagree – his operation is unabashedly patriotic.
“I’m Canadian, most of the team is Canadian, we’re in Canada and the setting is definitely inspired by the Pacific Northwest, the island where we live,” he says. “There’s definitely a Canadian angle to it.”
Despite that heavy Canadian flavour – and yes, “flavour” not “flavor” – there’s also a wealth of international experience going into the game, which Mr. Van Lierop is aiming to release on PC, Mac and Linux in the fall of 2014. The team is a veritable all-star cast of veterans with dozens of major blockbuster games between them.
Illinois-based technical director Alan Lawrence has worked on Saints Row and Red Faction games while art director Hokyo Lim, in Los Angeles, has contributed to League of Legends and The Unfinished Swan. BAFTA award-winning writer Marianne Krawczyk, also in L.A., has helmed the God of War series as well as L.A. Noire, while audio director David Chan spent time at Edmonton’s BioWare, where he worked on Mass Effect and Neverwinter Nights.
Mr. Van Lierop himself has been part of games such as Space Marine at Vancouver’s Relic Entertainment and Ubisoft Montreal’s Far Cry 3.
As an extra bonus, Edmonton-based actor Mark Meer – best known to gamers as the voice of Mass Effect’s Commander Shepherd – will be lending his talents to making William Mackenzie come alive. Vegas bookmakers are now taking bets on how many times he’ll say “aboot.”
Funding, meanwhile, is coming from a blend of Canadian and international supporters. The Canadian Media Fund, a government program designed to help foster new independent entertainment ventures, is providing the bulk of the budget, which Mr. Van Lierop estimates will be about $1.2-million. He hopes to raise additional funds through a Kickstarter campaign that is currently running.
Independence is the operative word for both the new studio and its game. One of the big attractions for using the CMG, Mr. Van Lierop says, is that the funding organization doesn’t require an ownership stake in the intellectual property that is ultimately created. That’s different from how big publishers generally work – they often give indie studios money to make their games, but then take big ownership slices of the ultimate product.
Remaining independent won’t just mean a bigger chunk of the potential revenue, it will also allow The Long Dark to feel more Canadian.
“We have great representation in film and novels and music and all these other pieces of art from Canada where you have a really distinctive Canadian flavour, but we don’t often see that in games, especially in the triple-A space where the budgets are so huge,” Mr. Van Lierop says.
“We can represent ideas and thoughts and works that have a Canadian feel, but still have widespread appeal without dumbing down of softening the edges.”
The game’s creative process promises to be a different process as well, with Hinterland using a distributed workflow system. The various team members will remain in their home towns and instead use online collaboration tools such as Basecamp, Google Docs and Skype to make the game. They’ll meet up every few months to go over ideas, hash out problems and “eat pancakes,” as Mr. Van Lierop puts it. Otherwise, though, the game will created completely through teleconferencing.
The distributed system is actually the core motivation behind the studio, he adds. In the games industry, workers tend to have to relocate often on a project-to-project basis, which is often difficult on their families. The Long Dark therefore isn’t just an experiment in making a different kind of game, but also an effort in changing how they’re made.
“There’s a thirst out there to be able to make quality games in a different way,” he says. “There has to be a better way.”