Explore Alaska by Dog Sled in The Red Lantern

The Red Lantern is a beautiful dog sledding adventure forthcoming from Timberline Studios.
The Red Lantern is a beautiful dog sledding adventure forthcoming from Timberline Studios. / Courtesy of Timberline Studios

The Red Lantern began with a vision quest, Lindsey Rostal tells me. After leaving her job writing and producing for the King's Quest remake series, Rostal wasn't sure she wanted to stay in video games. She took off for Iceland, hoping to try her hand at dogsledding. A lifelong dog lover, she read Jack London's "Call of the Wild" as a girl and fell in love with the idea. Now short a job to occupy her and seeking inspiration, it seemed the perfect chance to test reality against the fantasy.

One particularly windy night, with snow blowing horizontal across the roads, she saw a group of cars parked in a cluster, with people walking out from the cars into the darkness and returning. She had no idea what they were doing, but she wanted answers.

"So I just geared up and just started walking," she told me. "And it was so, so snowy, and the winds were so horizontal, you couldn’t really see more than 10 feet in front of you."

Players begin each run driving north in a snow storm.
Players begin each run driving north in a snow storm. / Courtesy of Timberline Studios

Alone in the blistering cold, all but unable to see, Rostal came face to face with the enormity of nature.

"It was just such an incredible moment to feel small in the world, and also to watch how your tracks are just getting wiped out from under you. And knowing that sort of freshness of the world, as the snow comes across and equalizes the world again."

Those winds, reaching a severe 40 miles per hour, ultimately prevented Rostal from going on her dog sledding trip. But the idea, and her experience in the cold, had crystalized in her mind. She returned to the U.S. not just sure she wanted to stay in game development, but with some sense of what she wanted to make next.

Buck hunting in The Red Lantern.
Buck hunting in The Red Lantern. / Courtesy of Timberline Studios

The Red Lantern, the frigid fruit of that adventure, sends players deep into the Alaskan wilderness. The forests' snow drifts and conifers are realized in simple but evocative pastels reminiscent of Hinterland Studios' survival masterpiece The Long Dark, imbuing the world with the sense of lonely scale Rostal experienced in her Iceland adventure.

Players take on the role of an anonymous woman, voiced by the inimitable Ashley Burch, who is trying to reach a cabin in the forest. The player guides her decisionmaking on the trail. When she comes to a fork, will you choose left or right? When the dogs catch wind of a squirrel in the brush, will you let them chase it? Led to a buck drinking at a quiet pond, will you shoot it?

These questions take on urgency as the player balances not just their supplies, health, and hunger, but those of their dogs. Each dog has its own name, personality and character arc. Take Slayer, for example, an all-black dog whose fear of elk can make her unreliable when push comes to shove. Over time, players will help her confront her fears and grow from them, even as the human character remains something of an enigma. In fact, Rostal says the game's story focuses as much or more on each of the dogs as it does on Burch's character.

In The Red Lantern, the dogs are the stars.
In The Red Lantern, the dogs are the stars. / Courtesy of Timberline Studios

That's not all that distinguishes The Red Lantern's narrative. Rather than tell its story in a single linear sprint, the game has players play through procedurally generated loops, each lasting around 20 minutes. Every time they complete the loop, players can choose a different set of dogs, make new decisions in new dilemmas, and uncover more of the story as they play through. They can earn equipment that carries over from one run to the next, such as a map for example, but it will take far more than one run to "complete" the game. In this way, no two players' experiences of The Red Lantern will unspool in exactly the same way, creating a more emergent impression of the narrative.

Rostal and her teammate Nathan Fulton, who she knew from her time working on King's Quest, wanted to focus on that sense of branching narrative. She and Fulton co-founded Timberline Studios in 2018 to work on The Red Lantern. When they decided to focus on dog sledding, Rostal knew she had to finally experience the sport for herself.

“I went to Alaska," she said, "and did some dog sledding there."

She also researched dog sledding extensively.

"A friend and his family are actual dog sledding racers, so I got to talk to them a little bit. And then [I] obsessively read and watched along the way to try to capture all the things that we could to bring the world to life and make it feel interesting, and dynamic, and a little bit like a documentary while you’re also playing.”

Rostal pointedly avoided other fictional media about dog sledding, despite the activity having something of a cultural moment. (Willem DaFoe starred in a dog sledding film called "Togo," released in December 2019, and a Hollywood adaptation of "The Call of the Wild" itself came out in February of this year.) Instead, she hewed as close to the raw material of nonfiction as possible.

That dedication, both to the lived facts of dog sledding and to an untainted creative vision, helps The Red Lantern stand out. Players will be able to try it for themselves (and, yes, pet the dogs) when the game releases later this year on the Switch, Xbox One, and the Epic Games store, where it will remain exclusively for the first year of its release.