Despite the prominence of events like the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, most Alaskans will likely never experience running a sled-dog team through the wilderness. But the video game “The Red Lantern” provides an alternative, letting players do just that.
While the Last Frontier is no stranger to being featured in movies and TV shows, appearances in video games are rare. Alaska provided a setting for 2008′s critically acclaimed post-apocalyptic simulator “Fallout 3,” and served as the backdrop of 2014′s Inupiat-inspired “Never Alone.”
Developed by San Francisco-based Timberline Studios, “The Red Lantern” lets you play as a former doctor who decides to move to Alaska to fulfill her dream of mushing.
“The game is about identity and perseverance,” said Lindsey Rostal. Reached via Zoom in her San Francisco home office, Rostal is the game director and writer of “The Red Lantern” and co-founder and CEO of Timberline Studios.
“It’s about being defined by categories other people want to put you in, and when that’s not working out, where does that leave you in the world? If you’re not happy with that label, how do you change your label?”
The title is taken from an award handed out in the Iditarod (the red lantern is given to the last musher who crosses the finish line in Nome), but the game itself isn’t about running the iconic race. The player will build a dog team and attempt to make it to the cabin bequeathed by an old friend, Margot. It begins with visits to various kennels to select dogs before embarking on a journey through the Alaska wilderness.
“I wanted to capture this element of being in the world and feeling small. You don’t know what’s going to happen in the wild. You’re relying on yourself and these other creatures,” said Rostal. “And I just loved the metaphor of the red lantern award. You’re not trying to get to the end for the prizes. You’re doing it because you want to prove to yourself what you’re capable of.”
“The Red Lantern” is part of the “roguelike” genre of video games. Levels between the start and destination are randomly generated, with obstacles never in the same place twice. Failure is certain, and multiple attempts are necessary.
Because events in roguelikes are randomly generated each time a player starts the game, every playthrough feels fresh. But Rostal and her team wanted to use those mechanics to complement the narrative. Will you approach the bear that killed you in the last attempt the same way? What will you do for food when the caribou you hunted last time is gone? Was it the best idea to choose the cute young dog over the older, experienced one?
“For us, it was about using roguelike to understand the world around you and build little bits of knowledge for decisions you weren’t prepared for,” said Rostal. “It’s about perseverance and that failure isn’t what defines you, it’s the success. You’re going to have failures. We all have them. It’s how you continue to push past that and not let that define you.”
Rostal said the theme of the game was inspired by a trip she had been planning to go on to Iceland. Dog sledding was a tourist activity she was researching, but then the trip was canceled. Still, she couldn’t stop thinking about the potential for dog sledding as a storytelling device and game mechanic.
In 2018, in preparation for development on the game, she visited Alaska and finally got to try dog sledding. During her stay, she also camped, kayaked and researched the history of the Iditarod, informing much of the game’s direction.
Despite her research and efforts to be accurate, Rostal wants to apologize to any Alaska players for the inclusion of an animal not actually found in the state.
“I did a lot of research on different regions in America where people were dog sledding, and I didn’t think to double check that skunks also lived in Alaska,” she said. “So I apologize for the skunks, but hopefully you forgive me for the story elements that they helped with.”