The Longing: knowing Shade

Two months ago I began playing The Longing after kindly receiving a review key from Emily Morganti. This game by Studio Seufz is based on the Kyffhäuser legend, about a former emperor who sleeps in a hidden chamber beneath the hills.

The thing that had intrigued me about the project was the fact it can be played out in real time if you wish. Players take on the role of the servant of a king who once ruled an underground empire but now needs to sleep for 400 days in order to regain his faded powers. It’s your duty as his Shade to stay by his side in this earthen palace ready to awaken him once the final day has passed, waiting out that time in the darkness alone. But will you do as you’re told?

If you haven’t yet played The Longing but intend to do so, I’d recommend navigating away from this post now and coming back later. There are some major spoilers in the following paragraphs which will damage your experience. Please be aware that mental health issues and suicide are also discussed below.

There are a few reviewers who are claiming this title takes 400 days to complete but I can assure you it doesn’t. I managed to finish The Longing earlier this month in just over 24 hours since starting to play on 18 January 2020. There are four endings in total and, although you can choose to simply let the clock run down without any action other than starting up the game, all of them can be reached in far less time if you put your mind to it and are willing to overcome certain obstacles.

In my preview, I explained that the protagonist is the reason why anyone would want to play a title like this when there’s not much ‘play’ to it. It’s amazing how taking away all the standard gameplay elements you expect and making time the main mechanic forces you to concentrate on the main character and their situation. I came to find myself caring for the little guy and wanting to look after him; so much so that I’d light a fire and leave him reading a book in his armchair before logging out.

I’d originally wanted to see all 400 days because it felt as though that choice would yield the best outcome for the Shade. But after several hours of play I started to question my decision: would he be happier if there were a different outcome? I realised that whatever path I took would most likely be permanent because it would take an awful lot of stamina to attempt a second go. In the end, curiosity won out and I led the protagonist in a journey towards the surface.

Do I regret that choice now? Not at all. But I’ve since watched the other final scenes on YouTube and it’s incredibly difficult to say whether there’s any totally positive outcome for the main character. I guess you could say I got the ‘good’ ending: the little guy was adopted by what seemed like a caring family after my escape plan was successful. But the king died alone and asleep on his thrown while his underground palace crumbled around him, with the Shade revealing he’d never be able to see him again.

The Longing, video game, King, Shade, throne room

All the endings are hard hitting but some more so than others. For example, you can follow the same path I did and attempt to make it to the world above through a well, but then be unsuccessful when you’re spotted by the wrong person. In this case you’ll see the Shade falling backwards and hitting the rocks in the cave below. The sense of despair felt by the player at having come so far before witnessing the protagonist’s death as the end credits roll successfully captures how it must feel to be told you’re going to spend 400 days alone.

The saddest outcome is when the main character takes his own life after finding a bottomless chasm. The Longing will prompt you for several responses to make sure you want to make this decision, before giving you a final choice: “End the game. You can’t play again.” Selecting this option causes the little guy to close his eyes and tip his body over the edge, before the screen fades to black and you see the message: “The longing has been wilfully ended. A soul is lost in the abyss and shall forever be alone.”

It’s been a few weeks now since completing the title and I’m still thinking about those endings. It might seem like a small and unassuming game at first, with cartoonish graphics and quirky-looking protagonist, but they hide a work which is far more serious and has left me feeling different. I’m not entirely sure how to explain it; it’s almost as if I’ve realised for the first time how people can be driven to certain actions through their loneliness, and I’m questioning why we don’t do more about this.

The fact that The Longing locks if you choose to follow through with the suicide ending just makes it even more poignant. It’s a difficult choice to make after putting so many hours into the game and, while it can in no way ever compare to what someone going through this in real life is facing, it does give a very small glimpse into what it’s like. The Face character says a line that has stuck with me: “The way to light is blocked by total darkness. You will only overcome darkness if you learn to become darkness.”

Although it’s slowly happening, the way we all think and act about mental health needs to change. Being open to the subject and talking about it frankly doesn’t have to be awkward or tense, and the associated stigma and exclusion will be a thing of the past once everybody realises this. Simply being there for a family member, friend or colleague can make a massive difference to them; solutions are sometimes unnecessary but knowing someone cares is invaluable.

If the little Shade has taught me anything, it’s that we need to look out for each other. And with everything going on in the world right now, that message is so important.

Mind is a charity which provides advice and support to empower anyone experiencing a mental health problem. Their confidential helplines are available from 09:00 to 18:00 GMT from Monday to Friday, and more details can be found here.

The Longing: growing Shade

The Kyffhäuser legend tells the tale of a former emperor who sleeps in a chamber beneath the hills. When his subjects needs him the most, he shall emerge from under the ground to lead the country back to its former glory – but no other good kings shall reign until that time.

A related poem written in 1817 by Friedrich Rückert mentions a ‘dwarf’ who is sent out every hundred years to see if the time is right for his return. So let’s forget about the king for a moment: what about this servant? Would he be lonely in the cave underground with nobody for company? How would he keep himself occupied during all those hours? What would he have to do to hold onto his sanity throughout the centuries of isolation, and would he find some kind of happiness in his existence?

These questions could be answered in The Longing, an upcoming experimental game by Studio Seufz scheduled for release early next month. Players take on the role of the last servant of a king who once ruled an underground empire, but now needs to sleep for 400 days to regain his faded powers. It’s your duty as the Shade to stay in this earthen palace ready to awaken your ruler at the end of that period; so what are you going to do with so much time on your hands?

What intrigued me after receiving a review key for The Longing from Emily Morganti last month was the fact that each of those 400 days can be played out in real time. You can start the game, turn it off, come back to it three months later and legitimately reach one of the endings. If you’re the more adventurous type however, you can explore the caves and find puzzles to solve or even try to escape – but those thinking of cheating the system by changing the clock on their PC should be warned, for the Shade will find himself sent to a dungeon.

As if that poor little guy wasn’t having a hard enough time already! While the king snores away in his grand hall, our tiny pal gets a small hole carved into the rock by his feet. I felt kind of sorry for him so the first objective I gave myself when starting the game was to try and make his existence a little more comfortable, if not exciting. My initial explorations of the cave system yielded several discoveries and a few items which would hopefully put a smile back on the Shade’s sad face.

These included parts for a trumpet-like instrument which gave him a way to make music; and paper and coloured chalks, so he could create drawings and use them to decorate the walls of his hole. If you’re able to pick up enough pieces of flint and lumps of coal, you can also make a fire that will provide warmth for a few minutes. Time flows more quickly in the Shade’s home than in the caverns outside and you can get him to perform activities like this to speed it up even further.

The Longing, video game, Shade, bookcase, armchair, fire, living room, home, crystals, paintings, table, rugs

Other pastimes include reading books. Five can be found on his bookcase at the start of the game, including the Shade’s journal. In here he expresses his thoughts and it’s a great way of giving objectives to players without making them feel as though it’s a requirement to complete them. You can choose to do something about the little guy’s wish to ‘grow some pretty mushrooms’ or completely ignore it – but if you’re going to fulfil his desires, you’ll need to adventure out into the caves.

The Shade has 400 days to fill so there’s no need for him to move quickly. There’s no run button or fast-travel and, while some may view their absence with frustration, including those features would have taken something away from The Longing’s atmosphere. Here is a game where patience is rewarded. The terrain of the underground cave system changes over time and will reveal puzzle solutions if you wait long enough: moss will slowly grow to cushion your fall, and a drip will form a pond you can swim across.

I’m guessing there are some readers who are asking themselves why anyone would play a title like this, when there’s not exactly much ‘play’ to it. The answer is simple: the Shade. It’s amazing how taking away all of the standard gameplay elements and making time the main mechanic forces you to concentrate on the protagonist and their situation. It’s a risky move by Studio Seufz and won’t be to everybody’s taste, but if you’re willing to give it a chance and plenty of time, there’s something rather special here.

After leaving The Longing running while doing housework one day, I returned to my laptop an hour or so later to find the guy curled up in a ball on the stone floor. How could a video game inspire such a sense of guilt?! I felt so bad that I changed the way I handle it. Before logging out now, I’ll get the Shade to build a fire before sitting him in his armchair and choosing a book so he has something for entertainment, at least for a little while. I can’t really explain it but doing this somehow feels fairer.

The Longing,  video game, King, Shade, throne room

This post isn’t a review because I’ve got a long way to go before I reach an ending. Originally I wanted to see all 400 days because it felt like that would yield the best outcome for the Shade but now I’m starting to question my decision. Would he be happier if he escaped to the outside world? And what would happen if he got impatient and woke the king early? Whatever decision the player makes is likely to be permanent, because it’s going to take an awful lot of stamina to attempt a second go.

The Longing’s strength lies in the way it makes you care for the character. It’s difficult not to think about the Shade occasionally when I’m not at my laptop and wonder what’s going to happen to him. ‘Wait…’ says the loading screen, and that’s exactly what I’m going to do.

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