The Kyffhäuser legend tells the tale of a former emperor who sleeps in a hidden chamber beneath the hills. When his subjects needs him the most, he shall awaken and 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.
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.
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.
Video game lover, Later Levels blogger and SpecialEffect volunteer. Big fan of wannabe pirates and fine leather jackets.