Something felt downright wrong about playing Orthogonal Games’ Antarctic survival simulator Near Death in a temperature-controlled apartment in an ozone-depleted city in the middle of a blazing summer with a heated saltwater pool right in my backyard.
There’s some latent guilt to guiding your pilot protagonist across the most dangerous landscape on the planet with only a flashlight, a tiny kerosene heater and a blowtorch, but if you can shake that off, you’ll discover a riveting and highly immersive adventure unlike any other.
In Near Death, you play as a pilot whose plane has just crash-landed outside a derelict Antarctic research base. Starting with only a flashlight, you must somehow make contact with another base, restore power to select stations on your base, and otherwise salvage or build yourself an escape. As if that isn’t harsh enough, you’re stuck in the midst of a night that will last for days, during a blizzard that only gets fiercer the longer you play. In this way, Near Death speaks to the determinator in all of us: take away all our hopes for survival and we’ll just build an artificial one.
The setting is the strongest asset in Near Death. As a middle class kid who grew up in cushy suburbs, I can’t exactly verify the accuracy of this depiction of Antarctica, but it feels real. More importantly, it feels alive. Although this technically isn’t a horror game, it hits many of the same emotional beats, wherein this icy landscape takes the form of an ever-oppressive shapeless monster. It’s a Hitchcockian sort of horror derived from tension.
Let’s break this down: You follow a rope trail in the snow, hoping it will lead you to the next plot-important building, but the trail suddenly ends and you’re left in absolute darkness with no signposts to guide your way. Your only point of reference is a compass, so you take a blind guess at your location and pick a heading based on that. Your vision blurs and your breathing grows shallow, but you are approaching something large and solid – however, when you are on top of it you realise it is only a rock structure. So you turn and run in a direction – any direction – until you see a faint light. As you get closer, you see it is the correct building. With a choke of joy, you sprint to the closest door, only to discover that ice buildup has fused the door to the frame. Panicking, you run the circumference of the building, but all the doors are the same. Nearly too late, you see a stack of boxes leading up to the second floor. You jump up them and run into the building, already pulling out your kerosene heater, but as your vision desaturates into monochrome, you see in the distance that a shattered window is letting in cold air that prevents your heater from warming you. You open your crafting menu to build a window cover, but you lack one roll of duct tape. You frantically search the room in your last seconds. These moments of desperation are Near Death’s standout parts.
Bittersweetly, these sequences of quick thinking and frantic action only really came up during the first half of my playthrough. As you tackle the first few buildings, flashlight batteries are scarce, you have to operate your kerosene heater on one tank, and none of the buildings have power (i.e., heat). Later on in Near Death, though, I owned a surplus of batteries and kerosene, I crafted accessories that improved the efficiency of all my items and clothing, and (because I completed the game’s one real “side quest”) all the buildings had power (i.e., heat) routed to them. That’s not to say I felt no tension later on, but most of that was scripted and didn’t emerge from the gameplay itself.
If I had to put my finger on another criticism, it’s probably that Near Death‘s sense of exploration is lacking. As I mentioned, there’s really only one goal that qualifies as a side quest. Aside from that, every task you do is directly related to the plot, which will send you to every named building on the map. There’s no reason to try and visit any of the buildings earlier than asked, because you go to each of them eventually, leaving no stones unturned. For a game that clocks in at three hours for a first playthrough with every Steam achievement, some extra options would have been appreciated. Speaking of extra options, the nonexistent ability to change the graphical quality made this a difficult title to jump between desktop and laptop for play sessions.
I’d hate to linger on what Near Death lacks, however, because what it aims to do, it does well. The characters, revealed only via teletype conversations, endeared themselves to me through their conversations that balanced professionalism and snark, hope and dismay. It may be short, but the condensed timeline only heightens the urgency felt by the player and the character. Everything from the plot to the in-game models to the user interface is uncomplicated and utilitarian. The developers seem to have focused on creating an immersive Antarctic setting that feels brutal and imposing, and to that respect, they succeeded.