Pick of the Week: The Long Game

March of this year featured an extraordinary coincidence in the video game industry. Almost simultaneously, two games came out that seemed tailor-made for our suddenly isolated lives. One, the latest Nintendo blockbuster in the “Animal Crossing” series, invites the player to retreat to a tropical island and build their personal paradise. It’s a world full of adorable characters and unchallenging tasks, where the most valuable commodity is something many people now had plenty of: time.

“Animal Crossing” is the video game equivalent of gardening, a quiet, endless pursuit that rewards patience and perseverance. Plant some trees in the game, then check in a few days later to pick the fruit; commission construction on a new house, then wait a few days for it to be completed. “Days” here refers to real time – the game checks the system clock to decide when things are ready. Millions of players sheltering at home because of the pandemic have spent hundreds or thousands of hours building out their “Animal Crossing” worlds since the game’s release.

For me, a newcomer to the franchise, the bland utopia of “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” got stale after a few dozen hours. It’s similar to the experience I had playing “Minecraft.” I see the appeal, but endlessly building virtual objects just isn’t fun for me. I want a story, maybe some suspense, and at least the promise of an ending somewhere.

The Longing,” also released in March, is the dark, brooding sibling of “Animal Crossing.” Instead of playing a chibi version of ourselves on a sunny tropical island, we play as a ghostly Shade who inhabits a deep, dark cave. The Shade is the last servant of an ancient king, who has gone to sleep in the cave to restore his waning powers. Before nodding off, he instructs us to wake him in 400 days, at which time he will rise and “end all fear and longing.” As with “Animal Crossing,” the game is tied to the system clock, so that’s 400 actual days. There’s a story, plenty of suspense (what exactly does it mean to “end all fear and longing?”), and an absolute ending, albeit at a distant future date.

One could complete “The Longing” by opening it, quitting, and then restarting it 400 days later. But the cave beckons. What else is down there? Exploration soon reveals that we’ve departed radically from the conventions of video game design. Nothing happens fast. The Shade cannot sprint, or fast-travel, or do anything else quickly. It plods, slowly, toward the points the player clicks on the screen. Some doors take hours to open, and some areas remain inaccessible for weeks. The Shade often comments that there’s no need to hurry.

In this game, time is the least valuable commodity, and the developers revel in this inversion of our normal expectations. The Shade has a room of its own, initially furnished with only a fireplace, chair, bookshelf, and desk. Exploring the cave uncovers additional decorations for the room and tools for expanding it. As the space gets more comfortable, time passes faster inside it. The game’s reward system, in other words, is built around finding ways to waste more time. It’s brilliantly perverse, and it forces us to ask big questions. What is a game? What does it mean to wait? What are we waiting for? If time is finite, and it certainly is on a personal level, why do we so often want it to pass faster?

The cave is full of melancholy beauty. Eerie music, the intermittent, distant sounds of small rocks and water falling, and the muted color palette of most of the chambers give the feeling of a peaceful but somber place. It’s one of the most atmospheric games I’ve ever played. Despite the simple movement and subdued graphics, the game feels like a real place, with a broader world beyond what we can see. There is an overwhelming mood of loneliness, punctuated by a distant hope: a perfect synopsis of the year 2020.

I spent about 15 hours actually playing “The Longing” over the course of a few months, and by the end I had gotten time passing about twelve-fold faster than real time in the Shade’s room. That allowed me to reach the ending much sooner than 400 days. The Shade woke the King who, true to his promise, ended all fear and longing. It wasn’t exactly what I’d expected, but it was close. Asking if the ending was worth the wait, though, is the wrong question. In this game, the wait is worth the ending. I suppose it’s kind of like life.