The Longing

Apparently people have been finishing The Longing. This came as a surprise to me, because I didn’t think it had been out for long enough: this is famously the game that takes 400 days to play, real time, and it was released last March. So I picked up a copy during the Steam sale, and I’m a bit about a week into it now.

The premise that starts it all: A King Under the Mountain type, an ancient and colossal figure, fused into the rock of his throne, ruling over some long-abandoned ruins in an empty network of caves, creates a Shade, the player character, to do his bidding. His instructions: Don’t leave the caves, and wake me up in 400 days, at which point I will have the strength to “end all fear and longing”. The Shade is left to his own devices for the duration. There’s a room prepared for him, with an armchair, a mostly-empty bookshelf, and a drawing table. He comments on his situation every now and then: conditions in the caves, how lonely he is, wondering what the surface world is like. He has a sort of diary/wishlist accessible from the bookshelf, providing goals: Explore the caves. Find some more books. It would be nice to have a bed. That sort of thing. But the striking thing about these goals, at least on first glance, is that they don’t get you closer to winning. You win by waiting. You pursue other goals for their own sake, for a little variety and to give the wretched little weirdo in your care a slightly better life. Isolated, unable to go out, powerless to change your situation but seeking ways to mitigate it: it’s essentially 2020: The Game.

This isn’t a game to binge. The Shade walks at an excruciatingly slow pace — he has no reason to hurry. Nonetheless, initial explorations don’t take very long, relatively speaking. You’re left waiting on a number of time-locked obstacles: a pool, for example, that you’ll be able to swim across once a slow drip of water fills it up, something the Shade estimates will take a couple of weeks. In this way does the game spread its limited content out over its time. You can save waypoints at places you’ve visited, then tell the Shade to walk to waypoints noninteractively. He’ll even do it while the game isn’t running. As a result, many of my sessions have been very short, consisting of starting the game, observing conditions at the place I sent the Shade to last time, telling him to go somewhere else, and logging off.

It took me a while to grasp the actual gameplay. It started with noticing an anomaly: that the game was reporting more time had passed than I had actually played it for. It turns out that when the Shade is at home, time goes by faster, somewhere between 3 and 4 seconds per second. The 400-day countdown is displayed prominently at the top of the screen all the time, but I hadn’t noticed the speed-up because it updates at a steady rate of once per real second, no matter how many game seconds have passed. And, having noticed this, I’m into a new phase of the game: observing time. I’m pretty sure that it’s sped up as I’ve installed improvements in the home. It definitely goes faster when I’m jamming on the Shade’s musical instrument, a sort of crude clarinet/saxophone thing that sounds like a muted trumpet and can only play four notes, made of pieces found in the caves. It might go faster when I’m reading a book — there are definitely hints in that direction, but if so, it’s a lesser effect than the music — probably because playing music requires active involvement on the player’s part, whereas the Shade can read a book while you’re logged off.

But do I really want to rush things? The King’s words make me a little apprehensive. “Ending all fear and longing” could be a good thing, but also makes me think he intends to die. The way he seemed to create the Shade out of nothing but darkness — is it, in some sense, a part of him? A piece of his soul, perhaps, that he spliced off so it could have some experience of his kingdom before his final rest? We’ll see, and it’ll take substantially less than 400 days to find out.

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