“When I was in college I had a job seismic crew in northern BC,” Raphael van Lierop tells me. “Basically, doing seismic surveying for oil companies. You’re flown in to the middle of nowhere by a helicopter and there’s no roads, nothing except for a few logging camps. It’s extremely isolating. I think that a lot of classic wilderness literature has played on those themes; what happens to the veneer of civilization that we all carry around with us when we’re put into a real survival scenario.”
That’s the scenario where van Lierop and his team at Hinterland want to put players in their recently-announced survival game, The Long Dark. It’s a survival game set in the Canadian backcountry in the midst of civilization’s collapse.
That might seem like coals to Newcastle. After all, PC gamers watch civilization falling apart just about every day, and that’s just from reading comment threads. Then they play games involving zombie invasion, plague, aliens, and sometimes even environmental catastrophe. What makes The Long Dark different is that it’s more Jack London than George Romero, inspired less by American urban survivalist fantasies and more by a Canadian frontier that remains untamed, where man is not the real monster, but another of nature’s potential victims. It is a place near to van Lierop’s heart. In fact, it’s practically out his back door.
When it comes to peeling back the veneer of civilization, van Lierop may already have created the definitive work with 2011’s Space Marine. That veneer is hard to maintain when you are controlling a burly man in bright blue armor who is curb-stomping Orks, sending curtains of blood slashing everywhere.
“You know, with Space Marine I didn’t set out to make the most violent action game ever made,” van Lierop says. “It just turned out to be that way because that’s the IP of Warhammer 40,000.”
While I will defend Space Marine to my dying breath (though I am bias), van Lierop seems ambivalent about the project. Or perhaps more accurately, he found himself becoming ambivalent about his entire career in its wake.
“After every game I’ve shipped, I’ve gone through that process of reflection and asking myself, ‘Is this the right thing?’ And after Space Marine it was particularly strong... I got to that point where I reflected back on why I first got into games. What my ambitions were when I started out in the industry. And... it felt kind of like a now or never scenario. It was like, I could sign up for another big triple A project that’s going to be another two or three years of my life, or I can take a shot now, at this moment, and try and see if I can make it happen.”
Time is something van Lierop has become acutely aware of. His time in mainstream game development showed him how slowly years transform into new games, how truly short a career in development can be.
He explains: “If you look back at projects that got canceled, or that you can’t finish for whatever reason, and the games that you do ship but don’t really resonate, you’re kind of like ‘Shit, if this keeps up maybe I’ll get ten games out by the time I’m done, and a couple of them will be pretty good, and the rest will be ok.’ Does that feel like it’s going to be enough?”
Into the wild
For van Lierop, it wasn’t. He departed Relic and started laying the groundwork for Hinterland Games and The Long Dark while working as a consultant on a variety of projects, including Far Cry 3. But it was all to pay the bills while the small team at Hinterland started working on the game they really wanted to make, a game with its origins in the Canadian backcountry and van Lierop’s own connection with it.
“My wife and I moved here out to Vancouver Iisland from Vancouver shortly after I finished Space Marine, largely because we wanted to get out of the city. My office is like 30 meters from 50 km of really rugged mountain biking trails that go through all these log cut areas and forests with cougars and bears and all this kind of stuff. So this is my backyard,” van Lierop explains. “I really wanted to explore that space.”