As I’ve gotten older, I don’t have the opportunity to game nearly as much as I did as a teenager or college student. I probably ill-spent too much of my youth playing video games, even though some of those games were steeped in lore, exploration, and critical thinking. Now I actually get paid to play video games with kids a week or two every summer!
Otherwise, I don’t game nearly as much as I used to, and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, I do enjoy the opportunity to revisit old favorites and try intriguing new games. My taste in games, like my taste in films, is eclectic, but increasingly inclined towards the experimental and quirky.
Enter The Longing, a 2020 indie game that has you controlling a tiny Shade who, after 400 days of waiting, must awaken the great, slumbering king of the underground. The king must sleep for 400 days in order to regain his strength, at which time he will “end all longing” forever.
In the meantime, the Shade keeps a lonely vigil—for 400, real-time days.
I picked this game up 15 April 2022, and probably didn’t fire it up until the following day, so it’s not even been quite two weeks since I started; needless to say, this review won’t include everything, as there is still much to explore in a game that is intended to take 400 days.
Fortunately, the game can be sped up (and done so without cheating): your little Shade has a small, uncomfortable room where he resides. If you improve his room using elements and resources scavenged from the mostly-empty caverns, time will pass much more quickly in his hovel. The cozier his accommodations—he likes books, a roaring fire, drawings of lice (!), decorations, mushrooms, and the sound of running water—the more quickly time progresses. It’s premised on the idea that time moves more quickly when you’re occupied with doing something, so it’s fun to see that concept played out in the game’s mechanic.
And that is what this game is really about: time, and its close cousin, patience. The Shade moves very slowly—painfully so. This game is not for those who want fast-paced action. Some sections of the map require two weeks just to traverse them, as some obstacles take that long to clear.
To be clear, you’re not sitting there holding “left” or “right” down on the joystick for two real-world weeks. That would stretch the feasibility and patience of even the most patient, avid gamer. Rather, there are cave objects that take two weeks to fall or grow, allowing further progress. And these are “in-game” weeks, so if you speed up time with a cozy home for your Shade, you won’t wait a “real” two weeks.
For example, one section requires a large stalagmite to fall from the ceiling. The Shade matter-of-factly predicts it will take a couple of weeks to fall. One door takes two hours to open; another takes several days. One portion requires moss to grow for two weeks, allowing enough growth to soften the Shade’s fall when he leaps from a high cliff.
As such, this game requires a great deal of patience. Even with time advancing ten times more quickly in his little hole, that’s still six seconds per minute, or 360 seconds (or six minutes) per hour. That’s 144 minutes to get a day to pass, or two hours and twenty-four minutes. Granted, that’s a lot faster than 1440 minutes, the length of a real-time day, but it still requires a lot of downtime if you want the game to move that quickly, and even then, as your fire burns out the accelerated time will slow somewhat.
Regardless, getting real leaps in time requires not playing the game. That’s something that makes The Longing unique: it’s a game that, at least some of the time, encourages you not to play it. Other games have used these mechanics, like Nintendo’s popular Animal Crossing franchise, but there are usually negative consequences for staying away from your village in those games too long—it becomes covered with weeds, and your neglected townsfolk move away or get angry. In The Longing, you can wait out that two weeks in a fraction of the time, so you’re not picking up the game a literal two weeks later to revisit the moss jump or the fallen stalagmite.
That said, exploration is encouraged. It’s just very, very slow. The Shade has plenty of time on his hands, and knows it, so he plods along at a very deliberate pace. There have been times I’ve had the joystick mashed in one direction with one hand while I complete some other task with the other. This approach, however, can cause you to miss vital loot, much of which is just sitting on the floor. The game’s dark color palette, full of greys, browns, and blacks (it is a cave, after all), makes seeing some items difficult, especially wooden planks and the all-important mattocks, which are essentially pickaxes. As such, I found my eyes glued to the screen of my Nintendo Switch Lite (the mobile-only version of the Nintendo Switch), ever mindful of the little “pick up” icon appearing in the lower right-hand side of the screen.
Fortunately, the game includes a rudimentary map recall system: the Shade can remember locations, and will automatically walk back to them on command. Again, this takes place in real time, and to get from his bedroom to the top of the cave (which I finally reach about fifteen game-days, or roughly ten real days, into playing the game) probably takes thirty minutes. That makes it possible to send your Shade plodding to some distant corner of the caves while you do laundry, load the dishwasher, walk the dog, put your kids to bed, read War and Peace, etc.
Oh, and the books in the game are real books. There is an actual, complete copy of Moby-Dick on the Shade’s library shelf at the start of the game; I spent some in-game time reading Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” just for fun (Morrowind is the only other game I can recall that encourages as much in-game reading as this one).
Again, despite the very empty feeling of this underground kingdom, and the straightforward objective of the game—wake the king up in 400 days—this game is packed with content, at least on the initial playthrough. There are still several items I have yet to find, and I am sure there are some corners of the cave I have yet to discover. I’m currently in the processing of gathering enough moss to build a bed for my Shade (and have him hanging out at home to accelerate in-game time so “two weeks” will pass more quickly). There is a mysterious well near the surface that I am convinced provides some means of escape to the overworld—something the king expressly forbade at the outset of the game, but which I now naturally have to do.
That’s something else about The Longing—it does not hold your hand. The puzzles are a bit obvious and easy enough, but it’s the mystery and intrigue that make the game so intriguing. I could see the game losing some of its luster on a second playthrough (which is possible, but the developers apparently don’t intend for you to do a second run, and hide the “new game” option somewhat), but with multiple alleged endings, it seems worthwhile to take a crack at it again.
Regardless, that thrill of exploration is real, especially because the game is so slow. When you finally do crack into a new area, or surpass some major obstacle, it’s even more satisfying, because you had to invest real time to do it.
As I noted before, some players won’t appreciate the extremely deliberate playstyle. There are no enemies to gun down or platforms to leap expertly. It’s thematically a very dark and lonely game—loneliness is a major theme of the game—and perhaps requires a certain Poe-esque melancholy to appreciate. Much of it really is waiting for something to happen. Indeed, when you load the game up from Sleep Mode on the Switch or reboot it, the loading screen doesn’t read “Loading,” but rather, “Wait…”—as if the game is literally telling you WAIT and relax.
Some online reviews and commenters I’ve read have complained about the slowness of the game, and almost all reviews I’ve read have cautioned the game will not appeal to everyone, which is fair enough. But I liken it to playing a mobile game with microtransactions when you’re really trying hard to avoid spending any money on the game: you do the handful of tasks or play the few levels you’re permitted to play for the day, then you put the game down until tomorrow. Then you play a little more the next day, hit your limit, repeat.
As someone who plays mobile games that way (when I bother to play them)—and has used dating apps the same way (talk about a “game”!)—The Longing doesn’t feel that tedious to me. If there wasn’t the map recall system, I’d be singing a different tune, as it really does take a loooooooong time to traverse the underground kingdom. But if you’re judicious in how you approach the game, it really can be a pleasure.
The game is not without suspense and danger, though. There is one section that plunges the player into total darkness—unless the Shade is carrying a glowing mushroom. I started down a long corridor without the mushroom, thinking I’d just get to the next section (and not wanting to take the time to double back). The Shade mentioned a strange sound, and I lost my nerve, turning back to get a mushroom.
It’s a good thing I did: had I kept going, I would have walked off a massive cliff into a bottomless cavern (other cliffs stop the Shade with a “jump” option, but I tested this one by the light of the mushroom, and it looked as if the game was going to let me walk on off). Would that have ended my game? I think so.
Instead, I was able to find the staircase to the next area, which went up and to the left, whereas the tunnel I was in went directly to the right. There’s an equally chilling encounter in that section of the caverns, but I figured out how to conquer it.
As of the time of this writing, I’ve had over thirty in-game days pass. Note that that’s in less than two real-time weeks, which I’ll hit today or tomorrow. I’ve reached the top of the caves, which are caved in, and I’m avoiding searching walkthroughs to see how I can get to the surface (or if it’s even possible). I don’t know what happens if I let the clock speed down to Day 400 and I wake up the king. Will he be mad that I explored? Will he really bring an end to all longing? Will something terrible happens? If my Shade leaves, will he disappear in a poof in the sunlight (the game’s cynical tone makes me fear this outcome)?
One review—which I cannot locate at the moment—recommended using a guide for sections of the game, but avoiding spoilers if possible. That’s the approach I have taken for some difficult parts—and to make sure I hadn’t squandered hours of game-and-real-life-time when I broke a mattock trying to get to the king’s treasure (talk about another way in which this game subverts gaming conventions: we’re conditioned to want the loot, and even after the Shade told me he wouldn’t have any need for it, I still tried to get it—and was devastated as my hard-won mattock shattered!).
Overall, I highly recommend this game. It’s based on the old Kyffhäuser legend from Germany, in which it is said that Frederick Barbarossa is asleep beneath a mountain, waiting to return when Germany needs him most, which alone makes it pretty cool. The little Shade has a distinctly Eeyorish personality, even collecting “disappointments” as an in-game “item” when he hits dead-ends, but who also comes to love his little home as it is improved, and who has a sweet sense of humor about his lonely vigil and his cheeky exploration of the cave. There’s a great deal of soul-searching for our little Shade along the way, and we grow with him.