When you look closely enough at how a game functions, you’ll often find a deeply amoral work even within its surface-level black-and-white morality. It happens in more games than you think. Take Japanese RPGs as an example. You’re usually tasked with saving the world by defeating a big bad at the end. Along the way, you rack up quite the body count as you gain experience and level up. But the antidote to this isn’t simply to remove the dissonant content. Instead, we need to realize that lives should have stories behind them in media, and learning about them is key to improving upon gaming’s idiosyncrasies. As the newly localized lost PS1 classic moon shows us, what the medium has been missing this entire time is a greater sense of intimacy.
Growing close to someone is an idea that’s been explored in games before, but only as a luxury for the select few characters that developers choose to focus on. Most NPCs and generic monsters aren’t allowed to have stories of their own. These one-dimensional slices of what are supposed to be people are programmed to give a game the appearance of life. They’ll spout off a line if you talk to them, but mostly they wander in preprogrammed areas the entire time, whether they be outside or in houses that you can enter and rummage through without consequence. In this way, NPCs merely serve as signposts or the hosts of containers for items that heroes help themselves to in houses. And monsters can’t have motivations, at least ones in random encounters. They’re there as both an obstacle and a stepping stone with which the hero can tread on toward their goal. Anyone who’s not the focus of the game are merely hollow shells for populating the game with, resulting in an environment that feels lifeless and stilted, instead of alive and lived in.
This approach also highlights the extreme player-centric design philosophy that games employ way too often, casting the player as the center of the universe with everything else revolving around them. The callousness with which games let players treat their worlds and the people in them would be stunning, if not for the fact that video game players have been inoculated from this practice through generations of self-centered perspectives. We’ve become numb to it at this point, and it’s holding games back.
moon is a direct rebuke of these practices. You play as an ordinary boy playing a Japanese RPG in the vein of Dragon Quest, complete with an appropriate user interface for the battles. It’s not long before you’re sucked into the television and plopped into another virtual world very much like the same game you were playing. However, unlike your perspective when playing the video game, you’re not the hero. Instead, the hero is running around the world independently, while you are cast as a mere NPC. The rummaging you were doing in other houses as the hero is now treated as disarming and inappropriate, much as it would be in real life. And the monsters that the hero is defeating now leave behind actual corpses that litter the countryside. It’s not even clear that this hero’s main quest – to kill a dragon that’s eaten the moon – is on the up and up.
To clean up this so-called hero’s mess, you need to find love in the world, a stat that behaves much like traditional experience points which you can earn by completing certain actions, like getting closer to NPCs or by returning the spirits of the dead animals to their bodies. The latter can be accomplished through an in-game guidebook that describes the animals’ behavior, which the spirit will perform. However, getting to know the people of moon’s world requires a little more work than this, as you don’t get a guidebook on everyone who lives here. As you talk to them and watch their behavior, you’ll start to understand their motivations and their routines. A clock dictates what someone is doing at a certain time on a specific day, meaning it’s very easy to discover more about them. Figuring out the dark secret of the resident baker, for example, is as straightforward as waiting until he goes to the bar at night and entering his shop. The love grows when you come to certain realizations about specific characters, like the aforementioned baker. While these behaviors and facts you learn about these people may seem insignificant, with love appearing at unexpected moments marking your epiphanies about the characters, they give the people of moon texture and nuance that’s missing from most other denizens of RPG worlds.
Leveling up with love will let you stay awake longer in the world, allowing you more time to explore and know the people and spirits of moon. And while increasing your love level isn’t the only condition towards beating the game – you also have to assemble the parts to a rocket and travel to the moon to win – getting to know moon’s denizens is absolutely vital and necessary to doing so. Without enough love, you can’t go very far from your bed. The message here is clear: everyone has a story and agency, and you wouldn’t treat people as cavalierly as you do most NPCs. Having players achieve a certain level of intimacy with them can only make your world feel more organic and authentic. And pretending that your game world is alive when so many of its inhabitants aren’t just rings false.
It’s a shame that moon doesn’t follow its own advice at times. moon’s method for examining these tropes is that of an adventure game, which means this intimacy with people and spirits take on the form of puzzles that can require opaque and arcane solutions–something that may not make sense to the player. The game will very often fall into the trap that many adventure games too often find themselves in by employing logic that only the developer can see. Such gaps in logic will result in nonsensical solutions, such as showing certain items to seemingly unrelated characters to move a quest thread forward. And the way you beat the game is similarly arcane and poorly communicated, to the point where stumbling onto win conditions feels like an accident. Intimacy is a process, though, and one that happens as you gradually gain understanding of someone. Sometimes moon forgets this.
But it’s hard to fault moon for a message that feels revolutionary, even though it shouldn’t be. It’s not enough to merely tear down amoral tropes and start anew. Engendering camaraderie in games, and having the player experience getting close with the beings they’re interacting with, is important. Interpersonal relationships are developed through intimacy, and it’s time games reflect this through the way their worlds are created and their population is treated by their heroes.
Examining the self-centered point-of-view that games too often use, and interrogating the player’s impact on the world, can only make game worlds more evocative. They aren’t the only ones who should have agency, and having them forge deeper bonds with the people of these fictional worlds can only further drive home the point that such intimacy can be truly integral to games.