The Long Gate review
The Long Gate is a curious experience. As much edutainment as game, my time with it was filled almost equal parts with wonder and frustration. There's a stunning and mysteriously abandoned world to explore, tricky puzzles aplenty to solve, and much genuine physics to learn, but it’s all tempered by awkwardness and (for me, at least) too rarely sparks a sense of joy in discovery, making it feel more like being back in school. The end result is a substantial experience that's definitely memorable, but one that requires a certain sort of logical and mathematical curiosity to truly appreciate.
Imagine that Arthur C Clarke, after playing The Witness, was inspired to create an electronic circuits tutorial, possibly set on the Rama. The Long Gate has that same sense of austere beauty, grand scale and underlying alien intelligence, coupled with a feeling that once-magnificent technology is now rusted, worn and broken down. Strange puzzles are scattered everywhere, awaiting the day when a passing stranger might breathe life back into this ancient place, without ever knowing quite why.
Your adventure begins in a watery tunnel, seemingly deep underground. How you came to be here is – like almost everything else in the game – a mystery. Maybe you're an explorer, or a spelunker, or just an unfortunate tourist. Either way, there's nowhere to go except onwards and downwards, swimming with the torrent until you're deposited in a neatly geometric entranceway that contrasts sharply with the aeons-eroded rock behind you. Lights illuminate tiled walls, leading you ahead to enormous doors opening onto a vast subterranean cavern, incongruously lush and green. A path beckons you on toward another epic structure and whatever curiosities may lie within.
You’ll want to take a moment to soak in the world of The Long Gate, made all the more impressive for being the work of a lone developer. Resembling nothing so much as a cathedral to technology, most of the rooms are grand in scale, simple in design but carefully crafted. Intricate Moorish metal patterns gleam on the neatly tiled walls by the light of overhead chandeliers, while interior trees and streams soften the otherwise sharp angles and regular shapes. Some chambers are suffused with light, while others are sunk in a gloom that's only relieved by Tron-like blue wiring. In one chamber, layers of circular platforms rise up as far as the eye can see, while in another, wooden paddles turn water waves into electrical ones, and a third transports you around on a vast golden circular pedway.
The music is likewise designed to inspire a sense of awe and serenity, with gentle ambient electronica mixed with environmental sounds ranging from rushing water to sparking circuits. There's no voice work; instead, everything you need to know is either written on the floors and walls or conveyed through symbols projected into view where they’re needed.
That said, the game often struggles to balance a sense of exploration and mystery with teaching you enough to solve the puzzles. On one hand, there are seemingly alien symbols everywhere, and early on you're just presented with a Portal gun-like device (that doesn’t shoot anything) and left to figure it out. On the other hand, you quickly run into truth tables for AND and OR gates, together with succinct but clear explanations as to how they work. (Turning on "engineer mode" removes all these aids, leaving a world that's more believably alien but also much more confusing for non-physicists. You can also increase the hint level to receive more detailed explanations of the technology, though this does not provide any help with the puzzles themselves.)
Navigating the world is mostly straightforward, though again a little more guidance would definitely have helped. The basic controls are first-person standard – WASD to move, mouse to look, shift to run and space to jump – and beyond that you're mostly pushing buttons, dragging sliders and physically pushing bits of machinery around. So far, so good, even if getting everything positioned just right can be a little fiddly at times. The aforementioned “gun,” however, is another matter, and emblematic of the unnecessary complication that crops up all too often.
Initially you're just plugging the device into sockets to open doors, but it's soon clear that you also need to attach it to certain terminals to program them with the right numbers as part of solving puzzles. The question is, how to set the right numbers on the instrument? After half an hour of fruitless fiddling with it, I finally stumbled upon a hidden door to a room featuring a complicated-looking machine with horizontal rods I could drag around with the left mouse button. Maybe I could set these to the binary digits of the number I wanted, then download it into the tool through a nearby terminal?
Unfortunately, the rods don't actually do anything unless you simultaneously click the right mouse button when you've pulled each bar into the right position. There's a picture of a mouse with its right button blinking nearby, but that penny only dropped with the benefit of hindsight. As a one-off puzzle this would have been a bit of a pain, but as a mechanic (required to deal with a number of other tasks) it just feels like unnecessary cruelty. Towards the end of the area you must run back and forth, dialing in numbers bit by binary bit, multiple times per level. What was probably intended to be an extra layer to the puzzles instead winds up feeling like distracting busywork.
The world is divided into three main areas, devoted to analogue, digital, and quantum circuits, respectively. The first two can be tackled in any order, and you can move back and forth if you get stuck, but the quantum zone only opens up once you've completed them both.
Of these, the digital section is perhaps the most effective. Here you're introduced to logic gates such as AND, OR, and NOT, each represented as big metal blocks on the floor marked with alien symbols. Some puzzles ask you to drag these close to each other in the right order, connecting them with chunky industrial cables, while others involve pushing buttons on pedestals to activate or deactivate particular parts of the circuit. All the while, a giant column in the centre of the room provides the power, sometimes constant and sometimes pulsing regularly. The tasks escalate from simply showing that you understand the gates by using them to produce the right output signal, to making counter circuits, flip-flops, and even a binary adder. If you don't know what those things are when you start, you're given just enough guidance to work it out, but at least a background in high school electronics is definitely going to help. Even then, the later areas are a serious mental workout, best tackled with breaks to let your brain cool off.
Seeing the wires of these giant circuits glowing with life as you assemble them is undeniably satisfying, and the early stages show The Long Gate's potential. Unfortunately, as the difficulty ramps up, so does the awkwardness factor. For example, light reflecting off the shiny metal of wires embedded in the floor can make them seem active even when they aren't, and the larger circuits spread out so far it can be difficult to keep track of what's going on from floor level. While the 3D graphics are definitely immersive, a 2D top-down view would have been more practical here. One of the later stages also requires you to tap out patterns on switches in precise sync with a clock circuit, with a several-second delay before you know whether you’ve succeeded or not.
This is sadly typical of the Long Gate experience: it looks great, and the puzzle design is solid, but too many niggling issues get in the way of actually enjoying the process. The stark and serious surroundings, while coldly lovely, also don't help the fun factor, meaning that early joy can easily turn into a determined slog to the finish line.
The other two regions also lack the coherent narrative of the digital one. For example, the analogue zone begins by having you play with signal generators and filters, encouraging you to combine them to produce the right output wave, again using supersized components that make you feel like you're lugging lab equipment around. With its more visual focus and brighter surroundings, this is pretty entertaining, but it ends up feeling more like a side quest rapidly forgotten about when later parts of the zone abruptly return to the digital world, jumping straight from tinkering with waveforms to programming a computer in assembly language.
The third realm, meanwhile, takes a pretty unusual approach to the topic of quantum computing, introducing qubits and the basics of quantum interactions without really explaining what makes such devices so remarkable. It's all technically correct, as you'd expect, given that it was vetted by D-Wave Systems, builder of the first commercial quantum computer (who receive a giant in-game shout-out for their trouble), but the presentation and controls are both really confusing. It's also frustratingly short, ending just as it feels like it's getting started. Even so, The Long Gate is a substantial game overall, likely taking 10-15 hours to finish depending on your scientific background.
If you've been wondering why I haven't mentioned the plot so far, that's because it's a wispy, elusive thing, made up of a few cryptic messages, together with mysterious symbols and whatever you can infer from the strange technology and seemingly alien architecture. Between areas, there are brief intermissions where you're introduced to snake-like robots in bright white rooms who blink at you, but that's as close as the game gets to exposition. Even the ending feels more like that of 2001: A Space Odyssey than a neat conclusion. Maybe ancient aliens left it all behind in an attempt to educate visitors, or maybe they needed someone to help fix their spacecraft. Or maybe we’re meant to stop worrying about it and just go with the flow. It's definitely more about the journey than the destination.
In the end, The Long Gate shows great promise, but it also has a way to go if that potential is to be fully realized. Fortunately the developer is still hard at work, both fixing issues and adding new content, so I'm hopeful that many of the kinks can still be worked out in the future. Back in the present, though, what it already offers is a striking, intriguing world stuffed with genuinely educational brainteasers and moments of wonder. It's just a pity that the often-clumsy mechanics, somewhat directionless progression, and a lack of bright-eyed joy or whimsy needed to see you through the tricky challenges may undermine all that good work for many. It's likely to be a divisive experience, delivering just the brain food some need while confusing and dispiriting others. If you love a challenge, though, and don't mind some rough edges, a unique experience awaits to tickle your inner science (or electronics) nerd.