moon is a fearlessly esoteric, searingly singular game that we are, nonetheless, inevitably going to have to talk about in relation to other games. When it was first released on the Playstation 1 in 1997, it would have drawn comparisons to the JRPGs it parodies and reacts against. (The game opens with a gimlet-eyed burlesque on Dragon Quest, and then constantly contorts other tropes in weirder ways). In 2020, contemplating the Switch release (the game’s first outside of Japan) means comparing it to the innumerable indie games that this proto-indie inspired—perhaps most obviously that other game about being kind and making friends in a strange new world, Undertale.
Toby Fox has been perfectly clear that he drew inspiration from moon without actually having played it. And in a sense, that perfectly summarizes moon’s place in the global indie scene: A haunting. More absence than presence, its general shape looming large but its details fuzzy.
So it’s a joy to get to see it up close at last. In some ways it’s exactly what I expected, and in others it’s still strange and radical today. That’s what you tend to find when you go back to the beginning of things, you know?
In the prologue, you play as the aforementioned Dragon Questesque Hero, taking a whirlwind, Half-Minute Hero sort of a tour through a grand-scale RPG, killing monsters and growing more powerful on a glorious quest to save a generically europine kingdom from some manner of dragon-king. Then in the narrative proper, you dive into the game-world as some player-avatar that is not the Hero, present-absent and mostly invisible, to “rescue” the souls of the (many, many) monsters the Hero has killed. Though of course, thus zoomed-in, the world is stranger and more beautiful, and the “monsters” are merely animals.
Some of the character designs recall the 3D-renders-unto-2D-sprites of Super Mario RPG (with which moon shares a character designer), but with the added wrinkle that some are clearly scans of clay figures (a style that lives on in the Hylics games, and in the works of Jack King-Spooner). The whole game, in fact, has that quintessentially PS1-era multi-media collage vibe, with its pre-rendered backgrounds blending practiced pixel art, primordial polygonal sculpting, and quasi-photographic imagery.
Characters babble in beep speech when they talk—but as with the clay figures, there’s an added element of collage: The chopped-up phonemes contain eerily near-recognizable bits of various languages, from regional Japanese to hard-r American English to, in the case of your dear old Gramby, lilting French.
The game’s approach to music, except in a few especially dramatic moments, is as minimal or as maximal as you want it to be. You can spend most of the game just hearing the ambience of birds and the cartoon plod of your Mickey-shoed footsteps—or you can queue up wall-to-wall BGM by collecting and playing diegetic Moon Discs (MDs for short) with a genre-spanning playfulness that would give K.K. Slider a run for his money.
It’s all meant to disrupt your usual in-game patterns of egocentric quests and violent conquests. It’s meant to make you slow down, to feel a little less like you’re mastering this world, and a little more like you live there.
Unless you’re sleeping, game-time moves forward inexorably, on both a daily and a weekly cycle. It’s more than a bit like Majora’s Mask, since you’ll get to know the repeating activities of the world and its inhabitants—and it’s initially a whole lot like the beginning of Majora’s Mask, with the clock a constant threat and hard Game Overs almost assured. At first you can only stay up for about twelve in-game hours without hard-collapsing and having to reload your save, and your Gramby’s home-baked cookies don’t do much to stave off disaster.
Thus in these early portions, it can also feel like Minit: Choose carefully. Decide what to do with the short span of time you’ve got, and meanwhile, make note of all the things you’ll want to do next time. The difference is that you can’t yeet yourself at a single point on the map like you do in Minit, throwing your (current) life away in pursuit of some permanent unlock. No, you’ve got to take care of yourself. Your body acts stubbornly like a body, with its nettlesome need for food and, eventually, inevitably, rest.
But as you earn Love—both by solving the locals’ prosaic problems and by resurrecting animals—you level up, and become able to stay awake for days at a time, and the flow of play becomes vastly more forgiving. This is the only power you really gain, that most alluring of powers to a kid, the power to stay up impossibly late.
And for how surreal that setup sounds, what you actually do in moon is counter-intuitively straightforward: You find the body of a slain animal. Then you get a hint about where to find its ghost, and then you find and frob said ghost. The animal pops back to life, gets whisked away to safety, and you get some Love and some money.
Otherwise, moon is in some ways a 90s adventure game at heart, with its inventory to collect and distribute to the right NPCs at the right times, its lateral thinking puzzles of sometimes-questionable fairness, and its long, ambient walks from one end of the map to the other. You talk to people. You get to know them. Sometimes there are riddles and mini-games—a few to do with rhythm and timing, even fewer requiring twitch execution challenges, most to do simply with memory and attention—but often, you’re just learning people’s needs and seeing if you can help fulfill them. Slowly the map unfurls for you, hub-and-spoke.
The game makes no attempt to hide that this is progression. You’re still moving forward. You’re gaining levels and ranks, with increasingly impressive games: Love Intern, Love Yokozuna, President of Love, Love Maestro. Thematically, Love is an inversion of experience points, a source of power that comes from helping rather than harming. But it’s still power. Mechanically, Love is simply another kind of experience point, another kind of leveling system. You’re even still a Chosen One, of sorts.
At the heart of moon is a question that later indies would become obsessed with: What can video games even be about? You can make a game that isn’t about killing, or failing that, a game where the player isn’t the killer. But it’s much trickier to make a game that isn’t about power and success. moon is entirely aware that removing violence from gameplay doesn’t remove transactionality. It understands that the idea of solving everything with acts of interpersonal kindness is its own kind of power fantasy.
I once met Tim Rogers—at a release event for Zachtronics’ visual novel Eliza, in the Rare Books Room of the Strand Book Store in New York City. I told him that I enjoyed and admired his superlative translation of Dandy Dungeon, and he replied that he was, at that very moment, working with Onion Games on something else, something bigger, something vastly more exciting and as yet unannounced.
“You mean that you’re working on translating all the additional Dandy Dungeon levels? The sequel stuff?” I asked.
“I am doing that,” he replied, taking a breath, perhaps to take stock of his workload, “but I’m referring to something much cooler than that.”
“Is it some kind of cleaned-up version of Little King’s Story?” I asked.
“No,” he replied. “I’d say it’s about a hundred times cooler than that.”
I guessed four or five excruciating times more, making a fool of myself before man and rare book alike, and received similar responses. The luxuriant first editions and out-of-print novels and half-forgotten histories looked on indifferently as I floundered.
But I, a Johnny-come-lately to the works of Onion Games and Love-de-Lic, was never going to guess that the project in question was the first-ever English translation of moon. Because moon had missed me. It’s not merely that I’d never played it, though I hadn’t. It’s that I was only dimly aware of what it even was.
I tell you this story, dear reader, for three reasons. First, because including a Tim Rogers-style aside about meeting Tim Rogers was irresistible to me.
Second, because despite my intellectual vanity—my reflexive horror at not having known about moon before it was cool—it’s alright not to know things. We live in Hell and we’re all supposed to be brands, and so we all act like we already know everything, but like, how are you supposed to learn something new if not by owning up to not knowing it yet? I think moon missed a lot of people, especially outside of Japan. It’s been treasured, sequestered, hoarded—like those rare books at the Strand. I saw a copy in a place of pride at a used game shop in Tokyo (after the rerelease was announced, but before it came out, and also before the whole plague thing stayed my travel). When any of those obscurities becomes commercially available again, with the publisher being a bunch of the original creators, rather than a company who bought a company who bought a company… That’s cause for celebration!
The third reason I told you the Tim Rogers story is that, even if you did play moon on an emulator (or a Japanese Playstation, or a modded one), you did so without Rogers’ new English-language script, which is something of a triumph. If you’re familiar with his work on Dandy Dungeon, then you know how he spins perfect, indelible phrases: Ear-witness our Musical Fantasy! And you also know that he invents goofy new words, compounded or conjugated sideways: grambmommy, disappearal. And you know too that he uses every arrow in his typographical quiver to get across tone and inflection—peppering his sentences with hearts and tildes and oddly specific quantities of periods, as well as with the sort of mid-word capitalization usually reserved for SpongeBob memes, to make conversations feel simultaneously heightened and vernacular, intimate and alien.
My own language skills are such that I can’t make much sense of moon’s original Japanese script, much less appreciate its eccentricities and nuances. Rogers himself has called it “the Mount Everest of game-prose.” So I can’t speak at all to how faithful this English version is, but I can absolutely vouch for its effectiveness. It can be welcoming or off-putting, illuminating or inexplicable, but it’s always evocative, dense, and warm.
It reminds me of nothing so much as Maria Dahvana Headley’s brand new translation of Beowulf, which takes the most famous poem in Old English and renders it using all the tools of modern English. Whereas previous translators rendered the word “hwæt” as “Lo!” or “Hark!” or (in Seamus Heaney’s pretty damn great translation) “So,” Headley goes for “Bro!” Which makes sense! It’s a word that invites you to listen, while also implying that you, the listener, are probably a man and definitely part of the in-group, the tight circle of bros.
Headley uses this radical fluidity to combine the rhythms and conventions of Old English poetry—if you notice me alliterating more than usual, that’s because I’ve been reading Beowulf and I can’t turn it off—with an approach to rhyme and internal assonance that owes more to modern poetry and hip-hop. Here’s how she describes the monster (or “monster”) Grendel harrying the hall-bros of Heorot:
Dude, this was what they call a blood fued, a war
that tore a hole through the hearts of the Danes.
Grendel was broken, and would not brook peace,
desist in dealing deaths, or die himself.
He had no use for stealth—he came near-nightly,
and never negotiated. The old counselors knew better
than to expect settlement in silver from him.
Ringless, Grendel’s fingers, kingless
his country. Be it wizened vizer or beardless boy,
he hunted them across foggy moors, an owl
mist-diving for mice, grist-grinding their tails
in his teeth. A hellion’s home is anywhere
good men fear to tread; who knows the dread this
Hopefully one parallel between this new rendition of Beowulf and Rogers’ new translation of moon is clear enough: If you’re climbing Mount Everest, you should use the best tools for the job. You’re going to need to bring everything you’ve got, whether traditional or untraditional, slang or archaic.
But there’s something else, too. Headley’s text asks us to reexamine Beowulf with fresh eyes—and when we do that, when we go back to the beginning, we see that the poem is actually quite a bit stranger and more nuanced than we might remember, and indeed than a lot of the later works that drew from it are. Here’s Headley in the introduction to her new translation:
Is this text attempting to be a manual for successful masculinity? No, although at a glance it appears to be a hero story. Beolwulf is a manual for how to live as a man, if you are, in fact, more like the monsters than the men.
This is more common than you might expect, when we go back to the beginning. The origin points of genres, tropes, and conventions often refuse to resemble their descendants, and even seem to preemptively critique them: You can gain a healthy skepticism for received wisdom simply by seeing for yourself where it was received from.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is an even older story than Beowulf, by a good thousand-plus years—and it’s a story about, among many other things, how the most powerful hero-guy in all the world is nonetheless just some guy, as mortal and as prone to failure as anybody else. In the introduction to his translation of Gilgamesh, Stephen Mitchell noted that this prodigiously ancient hero’s journey honestly doesn’t bare much resemblance to the monomythic, supposedly universal, Joseph Campbell-branded Hero’s Journey we might expect.
The more we try to fit Gilgamesh into the pattern of this archetypal journey, the more bizarre, quirky and postmodern it seems. It is the original quest story. But it is also an anti-quest, since it undermines the quest myth from the beginning.
I think about these three sentences a lot, because in an obvious chronological sense, it’s bananas to call one of the oldest works in the global canon “postmodern.” But of course, postmodern doesn’t exclusively mean after modernism. It means everything modernism doesn’t account for. In that light, it’s no surprise at all that an ancient story—that one of the most ancient stories we have—could be meaningfully postmodern. You go back to the beginning and you find texts that break the rules because those rules weren’t rules yet.
On the timeline of indie games, 23 years is a millennium or two, so I guess I want to argue that moon is the Gilgamesh of indie games—that it’s ancient and postmodern, that it’s an “anti-RPG” (as its creators have called it) in about the same way Gilgamesh is an anti-quest. It is in some ways the beginning.
moon is oddly like Gilgamesh in its emotional vulnerability—ten-foot-tall Hero-bros weeping openly, and expressing affection without a scrap of shame—and oddly like Beowulf in its skepticism about whether being a hero is actually all that great a goal.
Heroes in ancient stories were inspirational, sure, but not necessarily aspirational. The idea that everyone can or should try to be a hero is a much more recent notion, and frankly a sinister one—as Umberto Eco pointed out in his much-cited essay on fascism: “In every mythology the hero is an exceptional being, but in Ur-Fascist ideology, heroism is the norm. This cult of heroism is strictly linked with the cult of death.”
Games do tell the player that they and their avatar are exceptional. This dissonance is most obvious in MMOs, which are at pains to assure you that you are the Special even as you can clearly see a bunch of other player-characters wandering around doing more or less what you’re doing. But really, what makes a video game hero a Hero (as opposed to a mere protagonist) is their willingness to show up for work and deal death—a form of heroism that is unnervingly close to Eco’s definiton. A video game Hero is in the strange position of being both an exceptional being and the norm. They’re Heroes in the Joseph Campbell sense of going on quests and saving the world and shit, but they’re also heroes in the ur-fascist sense of pursuing and glorifying violence almost for its own sake.
Now, moon is not a game about fascism. But it’s definitely a game about death, and about heroism, and about how the two conventionally align in games. So let’s take a moment to understand what Eco means about the “cult of death.”
In non-fascist societies, the lay public is told that death is unpleasant but must be faced with dignity; believers are told that it is the painful way to reach a supernatural happiness. By contrast, the Ur-Fascist hero craves heroic death, advertised as the best reward for a heroic life. The Ur-Fascist hero is impatient to die. In his impatience, he more frequently sends other people to death.
In moon, as in most games, death is potentially impermanent and solvable. But unlike in most games, death in moon is not glorious. It’s not celebrated or sought. It can instead be “faced with dignity.” When moon asks what video games can be about, its simplest and most radical answer is that games don’t have to be about heroes—that there are better things to aspire to than heroism, that we can repair and improve the world with gentler, less Homeric braveries.
This was a wild theme for a game in 1997, and one that was ahead of its time. But it’s also one humdinger of a theme to encounter in 2020: That the world can be saved, but only by transcending our assumptions, and loving each other, and listening to each other, and casting off the cursed armor of jaundiced, blinkering, death-cult hero-quests.
…That is love.
…This is love.