The Longing opens with a scene of perfect and near-insufferable slowness. A diminutive figure with bright yellow eyes appears in the bottom left of the screen. Just behind him sits a gigantic sleeping king, seemingly carved into rock and snoring gently. There’s only one way out—up a steep set of stairs on the other side of the cave. I click the mouse and the character called Shade begins to move, but at the pace of a glacier. An austere organ dirge plays in the background, and after a few minutes of walking (which feels more like crawling), he arrives at the top. I click on the stone door and it creeps open; I click again and his body slowly turns into it; eventually Shade disappears into the darkness.
Now imagine playing this over 400 days. This is the austere premise of the game, based on a folktale involving the 12th-century German king Barbarossa. Shade is told he can only wake his slumbering royal master after that length of time has passed. It’s the role of players to help the committed servant keep himself occupied throughout these daunting months; there’s a dripping cave to explore and a smattering of literary classics to read, including Nietzche’s epic Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Where most titles offer moment-to-moment dopamine hits, The Longing is unwavering in its unhurriedness—the definition of a slow burn.
A Self-Isolation Simulator
Released in March just as lockdowns were introduced in Europe and North America, the game has been described as a “waiting simulator” and one that “sums up self-isolation perfectly.” It’s true—the resonances between the situation many people find themselves in and that of Shade are ominous. As I’ve played the game, snippets of text appear not just as insights into the character’s mental health but also, it’s felt, my own. “I just want to go home and sleep until it’s all over,” he thinks to himself, and I wearily nod in agreement. A few minutes later, he stumbles across a dead end that is commemorated as a “disappointment”; yes, this year has been full of them.
Anselm Pyta, the Stuttgart-based maker of The Longing, says the unique circumstances fostered reactions he didn’t necessarily envisage during its six-year development. “I realized a strength of the game was the empathy people felt with the character,” he says. “Of course, now they associate with him even more—his loneliness and isolation.” In the following months, he corresponded with players thankful for an experience which helped them through the pandemic, and received fan art ranging from paintings to puppets. Shade’s crushing loneliness turned out to be a catalyst for a much-needed and “moving” connection.
There’s more to The Longing than its protagonist’s relatable existential plight and depressive quips. Its 400-day playtime, a cocktail of intense boredom and occasional triumph, has the effect of conjuring the surreal sense of time many of us have felt throughout 2020. In the real world, a popular attempt at making an insular life more bearable has been DIY, and the same rings true for Shade. For the past six months, I’ve helped decorate his hovel, either fixing brightly shining crystals or sad-looking artwork to the wall. Cozying up the cave makes time pass definitively quicker; the clock at the top of the screen counts down seven seconds at a time as opposed to one—a small but gratefully received mercy.
A Detox for Life (and Video Games)
As Pyta tells me, the game was never intended to mirror the present-day but to act as a detox to it. In a world which prizes convenience and instant gratification, he finds meaning in the “pain of boredom.” He references entertainment which, thanks to technology, is consumed at greater speeds than ever before. During 2020, most of us have become even more familiar with platforms such as Steam, Netflix, Spotify, and YouTube, companies sustained on the promise of near-infinite content and computer-generated recommendations. But, as Pyta stresses, “It isn’t possible or healthy to have constant excitement.”
Real Life. Real News. Real Action
Zillion Things Mobile!Read More-Visit US
Thankfully, I haven’t had to play all 400 days of what would certainly be the world’s most tedious video game; I haven’t even clocked up a full 24 hours according to Steam. This is because it continues to run even when closed, a design trick borrowed from the idle and clicker genres popular in the mid-2010s (Cookie Clicker is perhaps the best known). Playing those games is usually a blur of numbers; single clicks unleashing unstoppable mathematical progressions accompanied by flashy graphics. There’s always another level, and often no ending.
This sprawling form is also true of “games as service” which are designed to capture and maintain our gaze for months, even years, in an attempt to monetize it. In this context, The Longing’s 400 days—which barely even needs to be played—begins to feel modest; a shelter from the attention economy which bloated commercial titles now orient themselves towards. It feels remarkable that Pyta’s game has an ending at all, or rather several, unique endings. However, he encourages players to only play the game once so that they might find peace and meaning in whatever outcome they experience. “I hope it really feels like the story is over,” he says. “The character has made his way and you have decided his fate.”
Ghost in the Machine
In the months since its release, my own relationship with Shade has changed. At the start, I simply directed him around the vast cave, but as time’s worn on, I’ve begun to act more like a carer. That’s why I’ve decorated his hollow and ensured there’s a stack of stimulating reading material; I want to make his seemingly hopeless position as comfortable as possible.
Really, it’s begun to feel like a Tamagotchi game minus the survival elements. Shade can’t starve to death, nor does he produce feces that needs clearing up, but he does appear just as alive—magically so. This, I think, helps cement The Longing’s great tragedy; his suffering is intensified by my own knowledge that he’s still in the game when I hit exit—waiting patiently and, for all he knows, eternally alone on my computer. I imagine Shade is haunted by both the cave’s deep in-game groans and the constant whirring of my fan.
I love that The Longing has imbued my laptop with this sad and eerie atmosphere, which is another of its brilliant subversions. We tend to think that computers and software should make us quicker and more efficient, that our time can always be better optimized. Pyta’s game is a rebuttal of these ideas; it contains all the cold, hard numbers of an Excel spreadsheet but reorients them toward slowness and melancholy. The last time I opened it, I simply spent a few minutes watching Shade sitting in his chair as I sat in mine; each of us perfectly still, as if we were in a trance, wondering when our respective worlds would change—indeed, longing for it.
More Great WIRED Stories
- 📩 Want the latest on tech, science, and more? Sign up for our newsletters!
- A race car crash from hell—and how the driver walked away
- Orientalism, Cyberpunk 2077, and Yellow Peril in sci-fi
- Wish List: Gift ideas for your social bubble and beyond
- Hacker Lexicon: What is the Signal encryption protocol?
- The free-market approach to this pandemic isn’t working
- 🎮 WIRED Games: Get the latest tips, reviews, and more
- ✨ Optimize your home life with our Gear team’s best picks, from robot vacuums to affordable m
Subscribe to the newsletter news
We hate SPAM and promise to keep your email address safe