In 2012, the game developer Anselm Pyta visited a cave in Germany. This tangle of caverns, lakes and grottos, called The Barbarossa Cave, is tied to a legend of a former emperor who sleeps there until he awakes to become the King of Germany once more. In the legend the king had a servant who takes care of him until he wakes up. In Pyta’s upcoming game The Longing, you play as that servant, tending to a sleeping king.
The Longing can be beaten by doing nothing but waiting for four hundred days. You play as Shade, the servant of a slumbering king, and can solve puzzles in order to wake him. Or you could just wait until the timer runs out.
“There was a legend of a king sleeping inside of the cave for hundreds of years, and a famous poem described a ‘dwarf’ who has the task of checking once every hundred years if it’s time for the king to awaken,” Pyta told me. “The dwarf is only mentioned very briefly, but I thought that this was a truly interesting character. I wondered, what he would have to do not to go insane with all this waiting and loneliness, and if he eventually would find solace in his existence.”
Pyta’s other big inspiration? Idle games like Clicker Heroes.
“I think the strength of idle games lies in the fact that you somehow still think about them, even after closing the game,” Pyta said. “In The Longing there is a part where you have to wait for a spider to craft a web. If you close the game and come back after two days, the web will be finished and you can climb it. So you have overcome the obstacle without any stress, and that can be a weird sense of accomplishment.”
While The Longing will feature traditional puzzle-solving alongside its idle gameplay, the passage of time is designed to be an integral part of playing the game. Like the example with the spider’s web that Pyta mentioned, the terrain of the underground cave system that The Longing takes place in will also change over time, revealing solutions to puzzles if you’re patient enough. Designing a whole game this way created some unusual hurdles for Pyta, most challenging being getting players to care enough to play the game rather than wait the four hundred days until its ending.
“My goal from the start was to make a game where you have empathy with the character who is trapped in it. Although you can just leave him be for 400 days, I tried to find ways to make players care for the little Shade so much, that they would look around the cave and find things to do,” Pyta said. “But since the actual gameplay is intentionally slow, I also needed to find mechanisms that would allow for the player to not feel too bored and that would also do justice to the time concept.”
What Pyta is currently working with is a carrot and stick method. For the most part, the player needs to be sure that if they select a task for the player character to do while they’re away from the game it will actually happen. There also needed to be a punishment for players who change the time on their computers—if you do, Shade will be sent to a dungeon. But most of the work is signalling to players that things are happening, even if they’re not happening right now.
“A lot of extra dialogue is needed for different states of interactions; the character has to comment on things differently if they have progressed. Instead of having just idle animations, the character will have to start talking to himself, start sleeping, start dreaming,” Pyta said. “There also needs to be constant reminders of time passing, but since it takes place in a cave you can’t have day/night cycles. So my technical artist had the idea of making stones fall from the ceiling from time to time, that you could pick up as items.”
Pyta said that there are plenty of good reasons not to simulate time in a game. It’s hard to test a game like this on your own, for one.
“Of course you can build in developer tools to skip time more quickly, but it’s hard to balance things when you’re not really having the true experience,” he said. Even with those challenges, Pyta said that making The Longing was fun for him, and he hopes that studios with more resources will start thinking about the passage of time as just another game development tool.
“It’s super fun to have ‘time’ as a new tool in your box of game design variables,” Pyta said. “Instead of just placing an item, you place a piece of moss which will eventually grow into an item.”