There’s a section of the acclaimed Windows adventure game The Neverhood entitled “The Hall of Records”. It’s essentially a (very) long gag – screen after screen of rooms, full to the brim with quite bizarre text. It takes what feels like hours to make it through with main character Klaymen’s agonisingly slow walk speed, but you have to do it. Waiting at the end of this absolute meandering torture – which takes forever even if you completely ignore the lore hung on the walls – is a single collectable token, essential to completion. It’s a sick joke, and one with a double punchline; you’ve now got to walk back. No shortcuts.
You want to really laugh? The Longing is that same principle, applied to a full game. Everything takes forever to do. And it’s all by design, which makes it something of a tricky prospect to review. Do you reward the game for evoking an atmosphere that it very much intended to evoke? Do you criticise the game for said atmosphere being phenomenally dull even though it’s absolutely meant to make you feel that way? There’s really no way to win. Thankfully, as we all know, winning isn’t everything. So let’s get very cross with The Longing and call it names.
Playing as a “Shade”, you’re tasked with waking up the nebulous, mysterious King after he’s finished sleeping, left to while away 400 days of real time, kept track of by a countdown clock perpetually visible at the top of the screen. This counts down whether or not you’re playing, which presents you with the compelling option of playing something else considering it doesn’t actually matter what you do in-game, but no – apparently one of the main criteria of reviewing a game is actually having to play it. Pfft!
So “play it” we did, for some value of “play”. We walked around the near-empty, enormous and confusing network of caves at the slowest speed imaginable, occasionally picking up bits of coal from the floor or enacting boring activities (such as drawing a picture) in (again) real time, with a sloth-like pace. There are books to read, too – full books, free from the rigours of copyright law – so you can have your little Shade sit and read them from cover to cover, if you please. Or, alternatively, you could read them on your phone or something. For free. Because they’re free.
That’s a little reductive, we know, but The Longing pushed us into frustration very quickly. Getting around takes so long and there’s so little of note worth seeing. It’s pitched as an exercise in patience, almost a test, and while that does theoretically raise interesting questions about our relationship with games (are they all, ultimately, a waste of time!?), in practice it just doesn’t bear out as a compelling experience.
It’d be remiss of us to claim that there hasn’t been passion and thought put into this. Clever ideas abound – you’re ordered not to leave by The King at the start, but will you listen to him? There are multiple endings to find and plenty of locations to explore, should the desire take you. The visuals and sound are quite atmospheric throughout and, quite frankly, you’ve got to applaud the audacity of it and the commitment to the 'bit'.
Unfortunately, The Longing is supposed to be a game, and it is vying for your cash. That’s not some lazy dismissal of the experience as “not a game” because it doesn’t fit a narrow criteria of what this medium 'should' be, incidentally – we just feel that at its core a game has to be compelling, whether arcade action, walking simulator or anything in between. And The Longing pushes its 'waiting' gimmick so hard that while it unambiguously succeeds at what it’s trying to do, we found it almost impossible to care.
Similarly bleak indie title A Dark Room offers perhaps the closest comparison – another idle game with a borderline nihilistic feel – but even without graphics to speak of, A Dark Room was a thoroughly enjoyable plunge into the abyss. The Longing feels like a punchline in search of a joke, like hearing the tail end of a comedy routine that requires a context that it never provides. This is the central problem; there is content here. There is more to it than it appears. Events that only occur at certain intervals, or take a full in-game week to occur. There are conditions that will change the nature of the way time flows, there are ideas here that are worth thinking about. It's definitely an interesting game, but only in an abstract sense.
The Longing is incredibly difficult to review. Taken in the terms it presents itself within, for what it's clearly meant to be, the experience it wants to offer? It's a ten-out-of-ten unqualified success. This mediation on loneliness, repetition and boredom is, indeed, an effective mediation on loneliness, repetition and boredom: but that means that it really is lonely, repetitive and boring. There's something to be said for deliberately frustrating the player, as arthouse films can deliberately frustrate the viewer - for example, in the case of Derek Jarman's Blue. And it's remarkable in itself to compare a video game to that film.
Do we recommend The Longing? No. We wouldn't recommend Blue, either. That doesn't mean neither have merit; it just means that neither of them are very fun. No, games don't necessarily need to be fun. We're sure that even writing that sentence has irritated some people, but it's true; the art form has come a long way.
We can't lie — we hated The Longing. We hated every second of playing it for review. Is it a resounding success at presenting all of its themes? Is it thought-provoking in a way that few games manage? Is it an exhausting slog we wouldn't wish on our worst enemies? The answer to all these questions is yes. But, with all that said, you cannot help but respect the developer's audacity and unwavering commitment to their principles. What the game sets out to do it accomplishes with flying colours, and it's filled with clever ideas and meditations.
Ultimately, The Longing is one of those video games that defies traditional scoring metrics. What kind of score would you give a game that succeeds so triumphantly at being utterly, utterly tedious? A one? A ten? It feels inadequate and somewhat trite to split the difference, but here we are.