Moonlighter simultaneously retells two of humanity’s most pervasive myths. First, there’s the myth of the adventurer, the monster-slayer, the doer of derring-do, overcoming impossible challenges purely for their own sake (and maybe to win some boon for their society, but mostly for their own sake).
Second, there’s the myth of the self-made small business owner.
Moonlighter depicts a man of action going where no one else in his fantasy society will dare to go, wielding sword and bow against slimes and golems. But, just as intoxicating, it also depicts a fantasy capitalism that, at bottom, is orderly and fair.
You play as Will, who inherited his father’s JRPGish item shop, Moonlighter, after the poor guy never came back from a supply run in one of the local dungeons. So now Will takes up both mantles, running the shop by day and running dungeons by night. Will wants what his father wanted, namely to kill the four guardians at the bottom of the four dungeons and open a mysterious stone door—but to keep going down, he also has to keep climbing up, capitalistically speaking, expanding his shop and hawking his plunder. The dungeoneering and the shopkeeping become two interconnected ways for Will to become more potent and present and powerful. His weapons and armor get stronger, and so do his shelves and his cash register. He becomes unstoppable in combat, and also in retail.
So the game ends up being a remarkable simulation of having the thing you love become your job, or rather of how that’s supposed to go. Will is skilled at what he does, and the more he risks, the more he gains. He doesn’t really have any competition; there can eventually be another shop in town, but they’re there to sell you things you don’t feel like getting for yourself at ridiculous markups, not for seducing away your customers. Will doesn’t have any peers because he’s peerless, and his aptitude and focus and moxie yield success, just like they should.
Julian Dibbell wrote in Play Money that this sense of fair-play is endemic to the appeal of, in his example, MMO economies. Grinding in Ultima Online or World of Warcraft can be intensely tedious, but besides being tolerable for being a tedium that you’ve chosen for yourself (and therefore recreation), it offers the same reward schedule to everyone. You always get some reward for your effort, and the distance between a beginner in sackcloth and a maxed-out denizen of the endgame is simply lots more effort. Considered in that sense, grinding is something that’s all too rare for most of us, and exactly the thing we’re looking for when we endeavor to get paid for what we love to do: unalienated labor.
This feels more than wonderful when you’re doing well in Moonlighter. If you get killed with a full backpack, of course, then the effort you took to fill it comes to nothing. There’s a whiff of the roguelike-alike here, and losing your stock is death. It stings. But hey, it’s your own fault, right? Fair.
The fairness of the game-world’s economic system extends further, into the very notion of valuation. Every item has an immutable, preordained fair market value, and everyone is always both willing and able to pay it. When you suddenly proffer the only existing copies of historical tomes from a lost civilization alongside, like, onions, there’s no bidding war for the irreplaceable books. (And they really are irreplaceable; they only drop from bosses, and bosses, once dead, are permadead).
You might price the books so high that no one wants them, but it won’t be because they can’t afford what you’re asking; it’ll be because, prima facie, that’s not what they’re worth. (Everyone except you seems to already know what everything is worth). Conversely, an item’s value does not change if you flood the market with it at a low price. In fact it works in sort of the opposite way: Demand will increase if you charge fair value or less, and will decrease when you overcharge.
It works this way because pricing is a hot/cold guessing game, wherein you have no idea what something is worth until you make a blind guess and then adjust based on shoppers’ reactions. A perfect price will yield a smile, an item priced too high a frown, an item priced too low an avaricious coin-eyed grin. This system would be chaos if the guessable values were slip-sliding all around the way that real-world commodity pricing does.
There’s also something of a justification for these oddball economics in the fiction: The dungeons outside of town really do reshape and resupply themselves every time someone enters, diegetically as well as in point of gameplay fact. And there’s nowhere else in Creation to get the goods inside, so you’ve got a situation of infinite supply and infinite demand—post-scarcity, if not for the fact that obtaining the goods requires skilled, specialized, dangerous work. Natural enough to venerate the heroes and merchants who make the system work, then, and Will occupies a unique and uniquely exalted place as a hero-merchant.
Moonlighter weaves you a convincing, bipartite power fantasy where you’re the best at swinging a sword and the best at selling one, mostly by virtue of being the protagonist. That’s key to escapist fantasy, after all: Ignoring the advantages that the hero—that you—had from the beginning, or else imagining those advantages as burdens instead. Will builds the shop up from a scrappy little four-counter affair to a sprawling emporium, sure, but he did after all inherit the only item shop in town. He starts—you start—from a place of considerable privilege that’s easy to forget once you’re focused on leveraging it. You’re so busy pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps that you forget that only magical bootstraps can facilitate that shit.