A frail shadow of a creature, trudging slowly from room to empty room. No aim beyond watching the long days pass. The drip of water, the echo of soft music. Time becomes a tangible thing, cold and suffocating. We dream of grass, of sky, of sun…
It’s hard to think how Studio Seufz could have grasped the pestilential zeitgeist more firmly than with The Longing, their point-and-click boredom simulator. What seemed unimaginable only a few months ago – whole populations restricted to their homes – is now daily life and The Longing, a game about loneliness and interminable waiting, feels almost too close for comfort.
As a game, The Longing is almost absurdly simple. Playing as a small, Gollum-like character called the Shade, you must wander the caverns where you live for 400 days. At this point, the king of your underground home will awaken and, assumedly, your caretaking tasks will be complete. How you pass the time is up to you. If you leave the Shade alone it will simply sleep but chose to take control – left mouse button to walk, right mouse to interact with the world – and you can start to explore the otherwise-empty corridors, tunnels and more unusual spaces of the Shade’s environment. The Shade is an unhurried character who walks slowly – the soft slapping of their bare feet on rock becomes strangely soporific very quickly – and it takes some time to actually reach anywhere of interest, “interest” being a rather vague concept in The Longing. Finding a scrap of paper, let alone a lump of coal which you might use to draw on that paper, becomes a major event. The discovery of a book – one of the many real-life books, like Moby Dick or Thus Spoke Zarathustra, that can be found and read in-game – is almost heart-stopping. Time, even as it ticks away from the ever-present counter at the top of the screen, begins to feel impossibly vast.
Eventually, though, you reach the edges of the Shade’s domain and mine shafts become dead-ends or stairways have crumbled away, leaving impassable gaps.
So you do the only thing left to you. Wait. Perhaps start to gather the mushrooms and moss that grow in the darker caverns. Read books. Sit and stare at the wall. Close your eyes.
Until even the environment begins to suffer the ravages of time; the mine workings collapse and an ancient stalactite drops to bridge the stairway. New paths to wander. New dead-ends revealed.
It’s hard to call The Longing a game. There isn’t much to do and, in all honesty, it’s as much fun as walking a sprite slowly from room to room can ever be. Yet it’s also something quite beautiful. Aesthetically, the hand-drawn backgrounds and the Shade itself are delightfully reminiscent of children’s fairy tales; I’m reminded of The Moomins and Eyvind Earle’s background landscapes for the darker Disney films. The soundtrack of ambient drones and minimal Dungeon Synth from the likes of Erang and Spectral Kingdom fits perfectly and, through its use of looping melodies, adds to the curiously somnambulant mindset The Longing creates in its players.
Of most interest to me, however, is how The Longing questions what it even is to be a game. You can, by all accounts, complete The Longing simply by starting it and then closing it down. Time passes for the Shade even if the player chooses not to experience it and, once 400 days are over, the Shade’s work will be done. The Longing, in fact, is as much of a game as the players wants it to be. Beyond playing the game in its most basic state – clicking the “walk to a random place” button and letting the Shade wander wherever it will – a number of communities have sprung up to solve the many subtle puzzles in the game and create background lore from hints found around the game-world. The Longing, if it is a game at all, is an ambient game in the purest sense.
Brian Eno, in his liner notes for the Ambient 1: Music for Airports album, stated that “whereas the extant canned music companies proceed from the basis of regularising environments by blanketing their acoustic and atmospheric idiosyncrasies, Ambient Music is intended to enhance these. Whereas conventional background music is produced by stripping away all sense of doubt and uncertainty (and thus all genuine interest) from the music, Ambient Music retains these qualities. And whereas their intention is to “brighten” the environment by adding stimulus to it (thus supposedly alleviating the tedium of routine tasks and leveling out the natural ups and downs of the body rhythms) Ambient Music is intended to induce calm and a space to think”. Which is precisely what The Longing does; it is the precise opposite of the constant stimulus of games like Call of Duty in that rather than creating sensation, it creates a space for sensation to happen within. I’ve sat for more time than I can think is sensible, simply listening to the drip of water or a particularly haunting piece of the soundtrack as the Shade sleeps on the floor. Is this a game? Does it matter?
Whether this experience will last or The Longing is simply an interesting idea, a way for a developer to experiment with an unusual mechanic, will take me just over another 389 days to find out. Yet even if the game does start to pale with time there is, perhaps most importantly, something quietly joyful in spending time with the Shade. It is never gloomy nor despondent, even when waking from dreams of death, but finds quiet, childlike pleasure in discovering a different-coloured crystal or a new type of mushroom. And it’s hard not to share in some of that pleasure.
The Longing, developed by Studio Seufz, was reviewed on macOS. Available now on GOG & Steam.