The Longing feels like a troll. It’s a game that takes 400 real-world days to finish, and it moves at a pace that could only generously be described as glacial. The first word that ever appears on screen is “Wait!” Simple tasks, like walking up some stairs or opening a door, drag on forever. And yet, here I am, a month after I first started, and I can’t seem to stop playing.
The game puts you in the role of a “shade,” a small creature who lives in service to an ancient king. At the outset of The Longing, the king tells you he must go into a kind of hibernation and leaves you to, well, wait. The towering king sits in a giant throne, occasionally snoring, and you’re left alone in a dark, twisting, subterranean world. You have 400 days until he wakes up. What are you going to do?
The Longing is, at its core, a game about killing time. There’s no explicit goal other than to wait, as the clock ticks down whether you’re playing or not (you can actually see the countdown at all times, an ever-present part of the game’s interface). The game takes place in the crumbling remnants of a long-forgotten underground kingdom. You have a small room beside the king’s throne — one you can customize by hanging pictures, building a bed, or digging out an extra room — but the rest of the place is one giant maze. You’ll come across stairs leading in every direction, and tunnels that end with multiple doors to walk through.
Your main obstacle in exploring is the pace. The shade moves almost comically slow, shuffling along as if it’s not in any rush at all. There’s definitely no run button. Sometimes you’ll come across areas that are inaccessible for weeks. You might have to wait for a dripping ceiling to fill in a hole so you can swim across, or for a patch of moss to grow to break your fall after jumping off a cliff. To make things even more challenging, there’s no map, so it’s easy to get lost or struggle to find your way back home.
Moving through The Longing becomes almost meditative. For the most part, nothing happens, but every so often you’ll come across something really cool, like an ancient library where you can raid all of the books, or a waterfall splashing on to crystals, or maybe a room filled with a bright light that never seems to end. I’ve made “friends” with a spider and talked to a stone wall. As you explore, the shade will talk to itself in tweet-worthy missives like “this seems like a great place to be lonely” or “I have never understood life.” If you don’t feel like wandering, you can always just sit down and read Moby Dick or spend time drawing sketches to decorate your home.
In some ways, The Longing almost plays like an idle browser game, something you set in the background and return to when something interesting happens. Those games are often about watching numbers increase over time, like in a roleplaying game, but in The Longing you simply get a quiet space for contemplation. Some aspects can be automated: you can ask the shade to go for a walk to a random place or head home without any player input. There have been times when I’ve set the shade to do a task — like digging a new room in its hovel or using a pickaxe to knock down a shiny jewel — before heading off to do something in the real world, like wash the dishes or vacuum.
Much of the time The Longing is boring, though that’s by design. It makes the moments of discovery all the more thrilling. It’s become a habit for me, spending an hour or so each day making my way through its winding halls, in hopes of finding something new or interesting. Sometimes I stumble across a wall covered in ancient symbols. Other times I climb a huge set of stairs that lead to nowhere.
Is it worth all of that time and effort? I’ll tell you in 353 days.
The Longing is available now on PC and the Nintendo Switch.