The Longing: An End

The Shade is free. Some images shown over the closing credits show him being taken in by a family of trolls and, in a word, humanized. No longer a solitary weirdo, he’s one weirdo among many. The King, meanwhile, has crumbled into rubble with the last of his kingdom. I’ve gone and looked up videos on Youtube of the other endings, and this one is clearly the best, the one that the developers consider to be the real ending. Actually waking the King is not in any way rewarded.

And, having looked up said videos, I have to ask: Was it worth it? Worth playing, rather than just reading about to appreciate the concept and/or watching videos of the exciting bits?

You can ask that of any game, I guess, but it’s a more pressing question when asked of a game where you spend so much time not doing anything. Much of what this game has to teach us could be communicated more efficiently. I do think that the final hours in particular were best appreciated interactively. When the old man finally walked onto the screen, confirming my suspicions of how this was going to play out, that moment felt monumental, a culmination of increasingly intense anticipation. They made a solid choice when they decided to make the player spend the ending actively waiting, watching for a time-limited opportunity to seize, rather than just checking in to see if enough time had passed yet.

But also, it strikes me that an awful lot of the game is simply irrelevant to getting the best ending. So much of the content is devoted to improving your home so time will pass faster there, but how do you escape? Not by waiting for weeks to pass. If you know what you’re doing, you can speedrun the game in just a few hours. I can think of no greater violation of the spirit of the thing, but it’s doable. I personally deliberately put off escaping when I was pretty sure I knew how (correctly, it turns out) just because I wanted to see more of what the caves had to offer. But is that what the Shade would want?

The Longing: Stakeout

At this point, I’m actually going through with what I identified as the proper approach in my last post: camping in one spot for 24 hours, waiting to see if anything happens. Specifically, I’m at the blocked entrance to the caves, which I’ve seen people walk past in dreams. If I see an old man go by, he’s headed for the nearby well, which I’m thinking I can use to escape once he lowers a bucket in.

Obviously this isn’t an activity that occupies my full attention, but it does require steady vigilance. Or perhaps not: I probably don’t need to keep a close watch during the nighttime, because it’s always sunny in the dreams, and besides, who fetches water in the dead of night? Also, every daily event I’ve seen so far happens at the top of the hour, so I very likely only need to check in then. Nonetheless, I’m keeping a window open, just in case. But for all I know, fetching water might not even be a daily event. Maybe it only happens weekly. Maybe it only happens once. Maybe I have to wait out the full 400 days for it to happen.

And really, this uncertain waiting is something I’m subjecting myself to. I could give up and go for either of two other endings. First, I could just wait out the 400 days and wake up the King. This wouldn’t take long — I’m at less than 40 game-days to the deadline, and the time ratio at home is at about 20:1. But I’m reluctant to give the King what he wants, for reasons I’ve already gone into. Secondly, there’s the secret, the one you unlock by following those cryptic clues I’ve been obsessing over. I’ve gotten that to the point of opening up a portal with light streaming from it, which apparently leads to a secret ending. But I took so many hints to get it that far, essentially playing the game out of a wiki by the end, that it would feel cheaty to accept it as my ending. I want an ending that I earned.

And in this game, you earn things by waiting for them.

The Longing: Wait is a Verb

Having seen the “birthday present”, I did wind up taking mild hints on the mysterious door. I don’t feel too bad about this because it’s clear that this whole endeavor is optional, unrelated to the project of escape. There were two parts I was stuck on — obtaining the key, and finding the door again — and both of them turned out to be linked to transient events that occur once in every 24-hour cycle. That’s 24 hours game time, which means that if you know when the events are scheduled to occur, you can spend most of the wait at home, where time goes faster. But without hints, the only way to know when the events occur is to observe them. So the honest way to solve these puzzles would be to think “This seems like an important place. Let’s just sit here for an entire day and see if anything happens.” Which might be unreasonable for a critical path puzzle, even in a game themed around waiting, but, again, this is all in pursuit of an optional secret.

The mysterious door leads to a small room, essentially just a forgotten storage closet, containing a couple more books, a large portrait of the King which presumably goes in the Shade’s home with all the other decorations, and a tall crystal that by now I recognize as the important thing for the secret. More importantly, however, it pulls another prank on the player, like the business with breaking your first mattock. The mysterious door only appears for a little while. It might be possible for the prepared player to go through, grab all the loot, and leave before the door vanishes again, but it’s really set up to take you by surprise and leave you stranded in a doorless closet for 24 real-world hours until the door reappears again. The Shade himself, reacting with his customary sense of resignation, recognizes this as basically just a miniature version of the rest of his life.

And this whole adventure made me realize: If there’s one thing that I’ve come to admire about this game, it’s the devotion to exploring its theme. It doesn’t just make you wait for 400 days, it comes up with various different kinds of waiting, with different feels. Waiting in different contexts, for different purposes; waits of minutes, hours, weeks; one-time waits and repeated waits; waits that you can shorten and waits that you can’t; waits where you can go and do other stuff while you’re waiting, and waits where you have to stay in once place; waits you initiate deliberately and waits that are forced on you. It’s a style of game design we’ve all seen before — Nintendo in particular has been praised for their ability to create entire game franchises out of the appeal of a single verb, starting by filling in the blank in the sentence “It’s fun to _____”. Mario is based on the verb “jump”, Zelda on “explore”, Pokémon on “collect”. But The Longing chooses the verb “wait”, which isn’t ordinarily regarded as fun at all.

The Longing: Anticipation

The Shade’s birthday is fast approaching. That is, it’s six in-game days away as I write this, but time is advancing at a a solid 16 seconds per second, or 17 while the Shade is asleep, so it should hit around dinner time. I have the game running in a second monitor so I can watch him sleep while I work. Sometimes the view shifts to show his dreams, the same scenes repeating, suggesting how to escape.

It’s a peculiar thing. All through the game, I’ve been waiting for things to happen, for obstacles to remove themselves or for the effects of my actions to take hold. This is the first event that’s been a possible time limit: something is going to happen on the 365-day mark, and if I’m not around to take advantage of it, for all I know, maybe it’ll go away. I understand there’s a way to make time run backwards, so missing it isn’t necessarily final. For that matter, if you think you’re going to miss an event, due to being unable to play the game when it occurs, you can always park the shade in the Halls of Eternity, where time is suspended. Nonetheless, I somehow feel like this is a critical moment that I don’t dare to miss. I suppose it’s a dry run for the 400 day mark.

In the meantime, I’ve solved at least part of the stone face’s secret: I’ve found the “hidden domain”, and indeed there were books there to abscond with. It turns out to be a tower — the Shade has now been above ground, although he doesn’t know it, as the tower has no doors or windows or passages out other than through the cellar. The journal informs me that I’ve now explored every part of the cave, even though I haven’t figured out how to make the mysterious door reappear, or seen what’s on the other side. I may wind up taking a hint for that, but it isn’t all that urgent while I still don’t have the key.

The game goes to some lengths to make the cave system appear large, but it’s really not, compared to other games. It’s small enough to fit comfortably in one’s head, once you’ve wandered enough to make it familiar. But it’s sparse. It contrives to give a sense of scale just by having large distances between things of interest, making you plan your excursions.

The Longing: Birthday Riddle

I’m about a month into The Longing, and also well over 300 days into it. I haven’t given any progress reports for the last few weeks because I’ve mainly just been letting the Shade sleep in the bed I crafted for him, which seems to be the best way to make time pass faster while logged off. I’m doing this because there have been hints that the next big content-revealing event is the Shade’s birthday. Recall that the King creates the Shade at the beginning of the game. His birthday should thus happen after 365 days have passed, which is to say, when the 400-day countdown reaches 35 days left.

Basically, I’m trying to interpret the stone face’s secret. I know it’s a secret because the Shade specifically asked the face “Can you tell me a secret?”, and once I managed to pay for the answer, I was told:

You may find a hidden domain, if you try to breathe freely… You may find a mysterious door, if you look for it where you can see the most… You may find a birthday present, in a most beautiful place… If you put it all together, a wondrous secret is revealed.

This made sense of two things I had experienced previously. To address the second point first, I had at one point found a door in a place where I’m sure there had been no door before, Silent Hill-style. It was locked, though, and I had no key. The “try to breathe freely” part I think is linked to the smelly fire. This is something you have the option to create in the fireplace in your home. It requires sulfur, which I took a long time to find, but once I had some, I knew I had to give the smelly fire a try, just because it was something I hadn’t been able to do before. As I posted to Twitter at the time, “THIS WAS A MISTAKE”. I honestly don’t know what I was expecting to happen, but the result is that you’re driven out of your dwelling and can’t go back for several hours. You can’t even shorten that wait, because the only place you can make time advance faster is in the home you were just driven out of.

It was some time after this that the stone face told me the secret. I hadn’t made any connection between the mysterious door and the smelly fire before, but I’m pretty sure that I saw the door shortly after building the fire for the first time, so I came to the conclusion that the fire produced the door somehow. But now I’m thinking that I was wrong about this. For one thing, subsequent attempts at door summoning by means of smelly fires have failed. For another, now that I look at the riddle again, it seems more like the “breathe freely”, the door, and the birthday present are three independent pieces. And finally, there’s the matter of the books.

See, I’ve explored everything obvious to explore. There are no visible doors or passages I haven’t been through. And yet my bookshelf is only about half full. The obvious explanation is that there are more books in the “hidden domain”. But would the designers really lock away half the book content until after the game is more than 7/8 over? I could believe that if the place I hadn’t accessed were the library, but I’ve already been there. No, more likely I can already access the “hidden domain” somehow, and there’s books there, and maybe there’s also a key there that opens the locked door and lets me get more books. So now I’m going to stop sleeping and start experimenting, because apparently I have some stuff to figure out before that birthday present appears.

The Longing: The Power of Waiting

I’ve gotten a lot done since my last post, but the main thing is: by means of a long, slow journey through darkness in which the Shade faced his own shadow-self, I managed to get within a few feet of escape, to the original entrance to the caves. I can see green grass on the screen, although the Shade cannot. The way is irrevocably blocked now, probably by people who had the good sense to see that the king underground was bad news, and that if they couldn’t kill him, sealing him in was the best option.

Ah, how my feelings towards the king have changed! To think I actually intended to go through with his orders, considered the “wait for 400 days” part to be the game’s central challenge rather than an imposition, a pointless limitation on the Shade’s personal growth. His reverence for his king and creator now seems to me more like Stockholm syndrome. The king gave him life, but the life he gave him was a miserable one; it has become pleasant for him only through the Shade’s own efforts (or mine), frequently against what he believes to be the king’s wishes. At the very least, this makes the king extraordinarily inconsiderate, treating a conscious being as nothing more than an alarm clock and not taking his personhood into account at all.

That darkness, now. The caves are generally dim, but get some light from the Shade’s huge luminous eyes and the occasional glowing mushroom. But in the long dark passage, the symbolic abyss, these are the only things that are visible at all. It’s not just dark, it’s Dark; not unlit, but un-light. To pass through, you must become darkness yourself — I had heard as much from the face in the stone. And this requires something that I had been strangely reluctant to try, given how well it fits the game’s themes: standing and doing nothing, without moving and without logging off, for about ten minutes. (I remember a similar puzzle in Bob Bates’ Timequest, but that had the alternate solution that you could explicitly type “meditate”.) Even though the face had told me to “delve deep, deep into your own mind in conscious loneliness”, the game had successfully distracted me from the possibility of inaction by giving me so many things to do, and by making it take so long to do them. There’s a lesson in that, I suppose.

I’ve come to regard the 400 day wait as an enemy to be defeated, whether by rebellion or by simply making the time pass faster. But the dark passage tells us that waiting itself is not the enemy. Waiting is power. The question is who wields that power. When you wait for the king to awaken, that’s someone with power over you exercising that power by making you wait. When you deliberately stand and wait for your own purposes, the power is yours.

The Longing: A Little Home Improvement

Although gaining access to the library was something I had been looking forward to, it was also a disappointment — and not the collectible kind. 1Recursively, the fact that it isn’t a collectible disappointment is itself a disappointment. The passage to it is one that I had been waiting on in the hope that it would lead to a second mattock. It did not. And so I resorted to hints. I have another mattock now, and have at last expanded the Shade’s home to include two more floors, a mushroom growing area, a shower, and a lot more wall space for displaying his artwork. This is the “decorate your dollhouse” aspect of the game. I haven’t quite maximized the place’s potential, though, because he still doesn’t have a bed. Until I can find more wood, he’s just going to have to keep on falling asleep huddled on the cold cave floor.

For once, I’m glad I got hints when I did. The second mattock is really the first you have the opportunity to access, but it’s locked behind a puzzle, and that puzzle is in part a UI puzzle: in this game, you generally perform actions by pressing a button in response to a prompt, and it’s easy to get used to the idea that that is the only means you have to make stuff happen, but in this particular case there is no prompt, and you make stuff happen just by standing in the right place for several minutes. It seems clear to me that the idea behind the design was “We’ll give them this puzzle, and if they either don’t solve it or break the mattock, we’ve got a backup mattock that they just have to wait a week for”. But I had gotten the backup mattock first, and then broken it, and didn’t have a “just wait a week” alternative to wait for from that point. It’s easy to imagine what would happen if I didn’t look for hints at this point: I’d eventually get a third mattock when it becomes available in the endgame, and finally get the ability to play the game for real after missing out for the bulk of its running time. And it would make me cross, and I would complain.

Really, this is a game best enjoyed with a modicum of hintage, not a game to be played in complete isolation — which is a little ironic, given its content.

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1. Recursively, the fact that it isn’t a collectible disappointment is itself a disappointment.

The Longing: Books

Another day, another week. The pool I mentioned before finally filled up enough to grant me passage to what turned out to be the palace library, something I had been anticipating ever since finding the blocked and impassible front entrance during my initial explorations. It’s mostly ransacked, of course: entire bookshelves have maybe one or two volumes remaining. The contents of the entire place, once the Shade gathers them up, fill up just a couple of shelves of his own personal book hoard back home.

A word about how books work in this game: They’re real works of literature in the public domain. You sit the Shade down in his armchair, and select a book from his collection, and the game displays it a page at a time, with the Shade automatically flipping to the next page every so often. If you like, you can read along with him. I’ve heard of people doing this, treating the game as an excuse to read classic books in simulated companionship, the Shade taking the role of lo-fi-hip-hop-beats girl. But the Shade will also happily plow through the pages without you, even offline. It’s presumably with this in mind that the designers chose to include some very long books — the Iliad is in there, as well as The Count of Monte Cristo, Thus Spake Zarathustra, and Moby Dick.

This last reminded me of one of the first CD-ROMs I bought, back in the 90s. It was a copy of the Simtel archive, a large FTP site full of public-domain MS-DOS applications, but the archive didn’t take up the full disc, so they threw on some selections from the Gutenberg Project as well, including Moby Dick. I remember finding this impressive at the time, that we had a storage medium so capacious that you could just throw a 900-page novel into the space left over.

The books in The Longing are stored as plain text files in the Unity StreamingAssets folder. Because the longer works are split up into multiple volumes, Moby Dick is in fact the largest single file in the library, at 1.21 MB. That’s a significant chunk of the entire collection, which less than nine Moby Dicks in size. The entire game is more than 4000 Moby Dicks, which isn’t even notably large for a game these days.

It’s easy to see some of the chosen works as commenting on the Shade’s situation: things with themes about kings, or darkness, or waiting, or escape. In fact, sometimes the Shade himself comments on this, in little annotations at the ends. After reading to the end of Zarathustra, I see a note from the shade about how it’s inspired him to try to get out of the cave. Was that note there originally? All I can say for sure is that it’s present in the text file in StreamingAssets, but I’m pretty sure that can be written to. At any rate, I guess I know now what ending the game is pushing me towards. And after all I’ve done to make the cave comfortable for him, too.

The Longing: Face

I mentioned in my last post my attempt at breaking into the royal treasury, where you can see vast heaps of gold piled up like Scrooge McDuck’s money bin. You might wonder what use I’d have for the gold if I could get it, considering that there’s nothing to buy and no one to buy it from — aside from the sleeping king, the only living soul I’ve encountered in the caves is a spider, which the Shade immediately started calling “friend” because it’s the only available candidate for that position. But the colors available at my drawing table is still missing yellow, and gold seemed like a possible source of that.

Plus, even though there’s no other living creatures, I’ve found a crude face in the rock, just a few crevices roughly in the shape of eyes and a mouth, that accepts payment to answer questions. Mainly the payment takes the form of items easily collected in the caves, such as lumps of coal or clumps of moss or disappointments (a collectable you obtain from dead ends and other empty places), but there’s one question that he wants five gold coins for — a quantity that makes me think I won’t actually be getting into the money bin, but just making a hole big enough to stick my hand through.

The questions that the Shade asks the Face are ones important to his existence, like “What lies beyond this cave?” and “What will happen after the 400 days?” and “Is there a way to manipulate time?”. And the answers are more oracular than practical. I still want to get as many questions answered as I can, simply because they are Game Content. Some of what he says gives me pause, though, and makes me wonder about my goals.

This is a game with multiple endings. Apparently you can escape the caves instead of doing your duty to the king. I wasn’t really planning on doing that, despite my distaste for kings in general — I suppose I don’t really see him as a real king, considering the state of his kingdom. He’s more like an ex-king, and possibly a repentant one? There’s a lot I don’t know about the past, and he’s the only one likely to have answers. Moreover, the Shade seems to genuinely love his king. It’s a love that has a lot to do with his benighted state, sure, just like his “friendship” with the spider. But as things stand, there’s only one thing in the world he desires, and that’s to follow the king’s instructions. And I’m inclined not to interfere with that. (Anything else is fair game, as far as I’m concerned. The king never explicitly told me not to break into the treasury.)

But when you ask the face what happens after the 400 days, it says:

As long as there is time, there will always be longing. And once all longing has ended, the world will no longer need time… and those without longing will no longer need the world.

Now, recall that the king said he would “end all fear and longing” when he wakes up. Does this mean he’s going to end time? Destroy the world? Maybe waking him up isn’t such a good idea after all.

Taking a step back, it’s pretty clearly talking about the end of the game. When the 400 days are over, and the player is done playing, your longing for the ending is over, and the countdown at the top of the screen will end. Your longing for the ending satisfied, you no longer need the world represented in the game.

And anyway, if I’m honest, what ending I ultimately go for is likely to be a matter of what ending promises the most content. I want to wake up the king because I want to see what happens when I do. Maybe there will be something else that I want to see more.

The Longing: Mattock

I’ve gotten the flow of time in the Shade’s living quarters up to a steady five seconds per second. At this rate, even if I do nothing else, I’ll be done in a mere 80 days, like a stay-at-home Phileas Fogg. At this point, I’m pretty sure that improving the decor is helping: the increased flow followed on installing some decorative crystals on the walls, something that became possible when I obtained a mattock.

The importance of finding a mattock is stressed from very early on. Not only is it mentioned in the Shade’s journal, it’s reinforced by the environment: places with crystals to be mined, additional tunnels to be dug, and even the great window separating you from the royal treasury all have a use point labeled with the words “Use Mattock”, even before you can act on it. And, having so impressed the need for a mattock on you, the game then teases you with their unavailability. There are mattocks visible just beyond obstacles that you have to wait on for the first couple of weeks (however long that takes).

The Longing has been compared to Tamagotchi, for its “let’s check in on the little fella and see how he’s doing” gameplay, but it differs from it quite a bit. The Shade doesn’t need to be fed or groomed, doesn’t die from player inattentiveness, and isn’t even really treated as a separate entity from the player. And unlike Tamagotchi, The Longing can be won. Your goal isn’t to keep things going indefinitely, but just to last a specific finite amount of time. (Or, apparently, to escape. There are multiple endings.) But it strikes me that one of the big similarities is the way that the very beginning of the game is a flurry of activity, as you learn the systems and explore the possibilities, followed by settling into a routine for the long haul. Except that the mattock provides something Tamagotchi never had: the promise of a second flurry of activity, as you follow up on all those deferred leads. A slowish flurry of activity, to be sure — everything the Shade does takes time, and digging can be expected to not be the quickest of activities. But a sudden expansion of potential.

Alas, for me, most of that potential is back out of reach. I managed to break the mattock on that treasury window soon after obtaining it, after mining some crystals but without having dug any new tunnels into new territory. The game gives you several confirmation prompts when you attempt this, so to some extent it’s my fault, but it really feels more like the designer’s cruel joke at the hapless Shade’s expense, or, more charitably, an emergent narrative device to make the player feel sorry for him. I’ll just have to wait until another time-lock resolves itself and hope I can get another mattock out of it. The treasury window still bears a visible mark, so I think the player is expected to expend multiple mattocks to break through it — although I won’t be trying again until I’ve dug some tunnels.

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