Content Warning: Spoilers for “The Longing” (after the first paragraph), and discussions on suicide.
One of the games that left the biggest impression in me recently is “The Longing”. The Longing is a German indie game, with an interesting premise: The King of the Underworld decided to sleep for 400 days, and created a shade to watch over his kingdom and wake him up after 400 days have passed. You control this shade. The key idea is that the game runs in real time, and time goes on even when the game is closed. So, in theory, you could start the game, leave it, and come back after 400 days to wake up the King and finish the game. Of course, there is much more to the game than this. I highly recommend it! (spoilers after the picture)
Of course, the interesting part of the game is how you choose to spend those 400 days. You can walk around and explore the underground kingdom, which is full of rooms with a magical look, beautifully painted, with very atmospheric music. You can collect interesting things that you find in your explorations, and bring them back to your room. One of the coolest little idea in the game is that you can pick up books through the cave and, after you bring them back to your room, you can read those books. The books are actually real world books, such as Moby Dick, and you can even add extra books to the game to read them in your cave — an interesting twist on the e-book reader.
The game part is that, in the beginning, you can only access part of the underground kingdom. Large parts of it are blocked off. To access the blocked off parts, you have to solve little puzzles. Many of the puzzles are time related. For example, one of the first blocks is a pit with a crumbling stalactite above it. When you look at it, the shade comments something like “that stalactite should break and fall in a few weeks”. And, in fact, if you wait some weeks, the stalactite will fall and you will be able to cross. There are other puzzles that require your active involvement, but most of them still require you to wait large amounts of time.
This, along with the very slow, deliberate walking speed of the shade, make The Longing a very introspective game. At least for me, I was often thinking about what it meant to live in such a limited environment where time goes on so slowly. Even with all exploration and puzzles, 400 days is a lot of time. There is a way to make time go by a little faster: If you improve your home by adding decorations to it, time will go a little bit faster when you are inside, and a bit faster still if you read books in a well furnished home. However, at the fastest, the 400 days should go by in about two or three months of real time. (ending spoilers after the next image)
However, even will all time acceleration options, you should still run out of things to do long before you run out of time. Then what do you do?
One of the core questions of the game is about whether the shade leaves the underworld or not. In the beginning of the game, the shade is told that it can do whatever it pleases, but it cannot leave the underworld. As the shade explores the caves, it starts getting worried that it would displease the King if it keeps going. Of course, many meta-things in the game pointing to “leaving the underworld” as something the player should strive for. But still, the choice to stay is a very valid question inside the game.
The game also allows the shade to take its own life. When I found this option, I was looking for the way out of the caverns, but I took a wrong turn. Then I found myself at the edge of a precipice, where the game zoomed all the way out, tense music played, and a light could be seen at the bottom of the precipice. At that point in the game, I was not spoiled and thought that “getting out of the caves” was a metaphor for the Shade jumping off the precipice. That thought really shook me in a way that no game had touched me before. It was not only that the option of suicide existed, but that it made so much sense: By that time in the game, I had finished exploring most of the rest of the caves, and turned my house into a very comfortable place. I had everything that I wanted but at the same time nothing much else to look forward to other than to spend my time doing nothing until the end of time arrived. It echoed a lot of life questions that I had on my mind. To see those questions reflected in the game, I had to turn it off and put it down for a few days.
When I came back, I decided to spoil myself in that question (was leaving the caves a metaphor for suicide?) and found out that no, I had just missed a turn in another part of the cave that I did not notice. Suicide in The Longing was a only a shortcut to a bad ending. My impressions were nothing more than me putting my own baggage into the game. Still I found it interesting that a game could serve as a vessel for such deep reflections.