Desire opens with a scene of perfect and almost unbearable slowness. A small figure with bright yellow eyes appears at the bottom left of the screen. Right behind him is a gigantic sleeping king, seemingly carved out of rock and snoring softly. There is only one way out: climb a steep staircase on the other side of the cave. I click the mouse and the character called Shade starts to move, but at the pace of a glacier. An austere organ song plays in the background, and after a few minutes of walking (which is more like crawling), it reaches the top. I click on the stone door and it creeps open; I click again and his body slowly transforms into him; finally Shade disappears into the darkness.
Now imagine playing for 400 days. This is the austere premise of the game, based on a folk tale involving the 12th century German King Barbarossa. Shade is told that he can only wake his sleeping royal master after this period of time. It is the role of the actors to help the committed servant stay busy throughout these frightening months; there’s a dripping cave to explore and a handful of literary classics to read, including Nietzche’s epic Thus spoke Zarathustra. Where most titles offer instant hits against dopamine, Desire is unwavering in its stillness – the definition of slow combustion.
A self-isolation simulator
Released in March as lockdowns were introduced in Europe and North America, the game has been described as a “waiting simulator“And the one who”perfectly sums up self-isolation. That’s right – the resonances between where many people find themselves and Shade’s are worrying. As I have played the game, snippets of text appear not only as information about the character’s sanity, but also, it’s felt, mine. “I just want to come home and sleep until it’s all over,” he told himself, and I nod wearily. A few minutes later, he came across a dead end commemorated as a “disappointment”; yes, this year has been full of them.
Anselm Pyta, the maker of Desire, says the unique circumstances elicited reactions he didn’t necessarily envision during his six years of development. “I realized that a strength of the game was the empathy people felt with the character,” he says. “Of course, now they associate with him even more – his loneliness and isolation. In the following months, he corresponded with grateful players for an experience that helped them through the pandemic, and received fan art ranging from paintings to puppets. Shade’s overwhelming loneliness proved to be a catalyst for a much needed and “moving” connection.
There is more to Desire than the existential distress and depressive jokes of its protagonist. Its 400-day playtime, a cocktail of intense boredom and the occasional triumph, works to stave off the surreal feeling of time that many of us have. felt throughout 2020. In the real world, a popular attempt to make island life more bearable has been DIY, and the same is true of Shade. For the past six months, I’ve helped decorate her hovel, either by attaching shiny crystals or sad artwork to the wall. The comfort of the cave definitely speeds up time; the clock at the top of the screen is counting down seven seconds at a time as opposed to a – a little mercy, but gratefully received.
A detox for life (and video games)
As Pyta tells me, the game was never designed to reflect the present but to serve as a detox. In a world that values convenience and instant gratification, he finds meaning in the “pain of boredom.” It refers to entertainment which, thanks to technology, is being consumed at higher speeds than ever before. In 2020, most of us have become even more familiar with platforms like Steam, Netflix, Spotify, and YouTube, companies backed on the promise of nearly endless content and computer-generated recommendations. But, as Pyta points out, “It is neither possible nor healthy to have constant arousal.”
Fortunately, I didn’t have to play the 400 days of what would certainly be the most tedious video game in the world; I haven’t even counted a full 24 hours according to Steam. This is because it continues to function even when closed, a design trick borrowed from the inactive and clicker popular genres in the mid-2010s (Cookie clicker is perhaps the best known). Playing these games is usually a blur of numbers; simple clicks releasing unstoppable math progressions accompanied by flashy graphics. There is always another level, and often no end.