Here we see the Invisible Boy, sitting on his ass. This is how moon is meant to be played.
*WARNING: SPOILERS THROUGHOUT*
Originally released in 1997 for the PlayStation console, moon has enjoyed an unusually prolonged notoriety. Despite its solely Japanese distribution at the time, that debutante work of Love-de-Lic — a development collective formed of individuals prominently broken away from mighty Square, which blasted a RPG-shaped crater in the world with Final Fantasy VII that same year — would prove a rhetorical touchstone among cataclysmic nerds for decades to come. Did you know moon inspired Undertale?! Hell, I was hearing about it in blog comments while Toby Fox was still in junior high. It was rare to encounter anyone who’d actually played it, granted, but the *idea* of moon was irresistible: an RPG that acted as a sweeping critique of RPG devices, from the obvious wouldn’t-it-be-awful-if-somebody-walked-into-your-house-and-broke-all-your-urns stuff, to the bedrock gameplay idea of killing things to improve the player character.
Now, in 2020, moon is suddenly available to any English monoglot with twenty bucks and a Nintendo Switch, and it’s doing fine for itself — for a while, it was even on the Download-Only bestseller charts in the North American eShop, where upwards of 1/3 of the names are typically whatever has been recently discounted to less than two dollars. Obviously, people are curious, though I wonder how many of them were thrown by the fact that moon isn’t actually an RPG… not even in the way Undertale is, arguably, an RPG.
In fact, moon brings to this western mind nothing so much as the puzzle-laden PC graphic adventure era of Sierra and LucasArts and all the damnable, frustrating rest — and I couldn’t be happier.
The plot of moon is very simple. A young boy is playing his brand-new copy of MOON, a traditional 2D console RPG in the Dragon Quest/Final Fantasy mold about an armored Hero on a quest to slay a dragon that has eaten the light of the moon. The boy plows through it for over 20 hours — of note, the game’s extremely pompous and long-winded opening text passes by at far too swift a rate to read, as if the boy is hitting buttons to skip much of the plot — until his mom tells him to turn the fucking thing off and go to bed. But then, suddenly, the screen flickers back to life, and the boy is sucked right into the dang TV!
He lands in Moon World, the world of the game, as a translucent spirit. Before long, he is sensed by an old blind woman who mistakes him for a grandchild that was believed dead — a grandchild with the same player-entered name as the Invisible Boy, but in ALL CAPS instead of all lowercase. Is he the ghost of this grandson? In a dream, a mysterious woman tells the boy that his mission is to find the Love in the world, and then journey across the cosmos to the moon in space to open a door that will release the moon’s captured light. Upon awakening, the Invisible Boy is dressed in the dead child’s clothes, through which he can interact with the world and all its beings — living and dead.
And there’s plenty of dead beings, because the Hero is also loose in this world, absolutely wrecking shit on his own trajectory toward the moon, where he still hopes to kill a dragon.
The way moon plays is this: you walk around by using the joystick, interacting with characters and collecting items with one action button. Occasionally you’ll press some other buttons to use an item to solve a puzzle, but often you just need to find the right thing to interact with at the right time. Most often, you need to find souls. The Hero has been doing some heavy level-grinding, thus leaving behind the carcasses of various animals (“monsters” as another game might put it) that he has slain; because the Invisible Boy can see the souls of the dead animals along with their bodies, many of the game’s puzzles involve figuring out how to reunite bodies and souls, after which the revived animals are whisked away into space and you collect Love. Your progress is gated at first, in that you can’t spend too much time walking around before you fully drain your ‘action limit’ and collapse, but by finding Love you can level-up, and thereby extend your maximum stamina.
Beyond that limitation, and a few mandatory chronological encounters with the frightening Hero in his inhuman clattering armor, you are pretty much left to your own devices on what to do with the Invisible Boy. Eventually you’ll have to solve clusters of sub-puzzles to gather a series of climactic items, just like in Sam & Max Hit the Road, and you do have to get your action limit up to a certain level to access the endgame, but it’s mostly a nonlinear process of collecting the Love of the animals… and knowing some other affections on top of that: virtually every character in the game has Love to give.
So, the Invisible Boy is sitting on his ass. I have learned that this is the secret to finding Love.
As a work of game design, moon has the potential to infuriate. The action limit is very strict at first; you can accomplish a lot in the way of early progress, only to find yourself too far from a comfy bed to avoid collapse. Beds not only restore your action limit, but are also the sole means of saving your game: “[p]lease gather your thoughts and restart from your last save point,” the game manual chirps, re: such disasters. You cannot help but burn your stamina — fast travel options on the game map are extremely limited, and there isn’t even a ‘run’ button. You have to walk across the land for much of the game, revisiting the same areas over and over and over, watching the same entering-the-area animations ten, twenty, fifty times.
But charging moon with disrespect for the player’s time is to elide the true nature of the game. The idea of ‘wasting’ time, of loitering, is baked directly into its means of progress. For example:
- I’m in Technopolis, a futuristic tower city on the fringe of Moon World. I’ve had the Invisible Boy hanging around in the apartment of a robot woman for several in-game days. Though people can see in the Invisible Boy, due to his clothes, and though he can communicate with them, they generally treat him as a sort of inoffensive wraith; he can hang around their homes as long as he wants. The carcass of an animal is plopped down in the room. The Invisible Boy’s handy Animal File — which tells of the habits of living animals, and thereby provide clues to summoning their souls— tells that this animal likes to dance to loud music. I have tried using every loud item in my inventory, including dozens of the collectable music discs that you can listen to during the game. You can also play a song on the robot woman’s stereo, which doesn’t do anything. At one point, I leave the song playing, without turning the stereo off or leaving the room after the song has finished — and suddenly, as happened a lot in the ’90s, a ‘hidden’ track plays after a period of silence, following the song. The animal’s spirit leaps out to dance to the hidden track. Do kids today even know what a hidden track is? Nonetheless: the solution to the puzzle is literally to turn on the music and sit there, listening.
- At times, moon seems to punish you for playing it normally. Early on, you are handed a letter by the king to deliver to a scientist. In order to get into this character’s room, you need a badge, which you are told you can obtain by donating a certain sum of money toward the scientist’s research. Cognizant of my royal mission, I grind up the necessary sum (money is not easy to come by in this game), only to later find out that if I had ignored the quest for a while, I’d have encountered another character who had bought a badge and would have just given it to me — because they regretted having donated so much of their money. Or: in order to obtain one of the climactic items, which are used to power a rocket that will get you to the moon, I need to get a circuit board out of a robot that has been plugged in to recharge for the day. This involves solving a color/sound memorization game; a VERY FAST one. After dozens of failures, I begin trusting in my subconscious to record the movement of the lights, like afterimages fading atop my eyes — it works. Did moon want me to abandon concentration and open my third eye? Absolutely not — if I had just taken time to study the situation, as somebody online later told me, I would have noticed that the speed of the puzzle is linked to the robot’s power level; attempting the puzzle with low power is much slower and easier. But I didn’t observe anything. You show me a quest, I solve it. I am a very responsible gamer, but this game says: no, forget responsibility. Don’t be a Hero.
- At one point, the game takes a terrifying dive into Hell, apparently powering one of its puzzles via random number generation (or something like that). There’s a fishing contest you need to win to get the love of the fisherman running it. If you eat a certain dish at a restaurant elsewhere in the game, you can improve your chances — and, I sort of got the impression that the longer you spend on the game, or the more you fish, the better your odds might get — but fundamentally you won’t win the contest until the game wants you to. This may be where moon crosses the line for some, but I have always found RNG to have a very specific narrative applicability. I love the Yo-Kai Watch series of monster collection RPGs very much; those games use RNG to determine if the yōkai you battle will become your friend. You can’t ‘collect’ them like Pokémon — the game is premised on the yōkai being autonomous entities with their own desires, so, while you can feed them treats that improve the odds of hitting a good number under the game’s hood, they have to ‘want’ to be your friend, and they can reject you on wholly capricious grounds. Similarly, to fish in moon is to place yourself in the palm of fate’s hand. Did you lose? Wait for the appointed time, and try again. Wait.
- I’m in the palace. It’s night. moon operates on both a day/night cycle, with seven-day weeks — characters do different things on different days, like holding a fishing contest on Solarday, or hitting the bar at night on Tearsday. The robust in-game hint system (a man named Adder who thinks he’s God and receives hazy visions of where to find Love, which he has no desire to collect himself) has advised me that one of the palace guards is up to something after dark. The two guards are roommates, but one of them likes to drink, so I wait for him to leave the room, and I burst in on the other guy singing. He gets nervous, and goes to bed. Second try: on another night, I wait outside the room for the first guard to leave. After a while, the second guard creeps out, but he sees me and runs back in his room. Third try: on yet another night, I loiter on the balcony above the room, waiting for the first guard to leave. The second guard leaves, and I follow him. In the throne room, he dances around in his underpants wearing the king’s crown, playing at being a rock star. Only when he sees that I am seeing him perform, do I find his Love. You don’t need to solve all of these puzzles to complete the game — like an old Sierra game, you can win without getting maximum ‘points’, and because my mind and body were forged on Roberta Williams’ wheel of pain I was able to do a basic clear without looking up any puzzle solutions — but I felt a great desire to come back and go 100%, to reach the highest level. To find all the Love: and to do that, you must learn all the routines of all the characters, and study their desires. In a way, you are to believe, like yōkai, that they are real.
- There is another benefit to waiting around, exploring the same forests and corridors, day after in-game day. moon does not entirely spell out its lore for you, but the more you inquire into everything, the more you’ll learn. It’s very possible — even likely — that you’ll never actually learn the origin of the Hero. It’s never explicitly narrated to you, but what became pretty clear to me is that when the moon’s light vanished from Moon World, a ceremonial arrow was fired to select a champion. The old woman’s grandson was struck by the arrow, and his wounded-or-dead body was stuffed into the clattering armor, which is actually the age-old RPG device of the Cursed Armor. The armor powers his corporeal form, but seals him off from all Love, replacing it with an insatiable desire for combat: he will fight until he dies. An awful curse indeed, but it’s a curse that powers the gameplay of the traditional console RPG: you kill things, again and again, until you are strong enough to kill tougher things more easily. A Christian might call this Original Sin — born as the protagonist of an RPG, the Hero’s soul is immediately condemned. Maybe you’ll learn this, but maybe not… unless you act as a barfly, showing items to shitfaced government employees and listening. Is this Love?
The nature of Love in moon is varied. Of course, there is the miscellaneous Love of the animals you restore to life. But the Love of living people is more diverse. The Love of the fisherman seems to be that of a teacher, blossoming when you surpass his skill. The Love of the sneaky guard is that of a performer, an exhibitionist, who enjoys being watched. Some Love is grand, like that of an artist receiving inspiration and finishing a new work; the Love of flowers blossoming into life. Some Love is tragic, like that of the town baker, who confesses that he is secretly a strange being made of bread, who puts parts of his own body on the shelves of his bakery, growing new parts with every new dawn, and thereby losing his memories of the prior day. Because of this, he cannot commit to anything he desires, save for being a baker. Talking about this to somebody is Love.
At one point, the Invisible Boy may be hanging around outside the entrance to the home of a fireworks maker and his wife. The man becomes frustrated with his work, and hits the woman. She forgives and supports him, and the Invisible Boy understands that this too is Love. Most players will be upset by this scene. I was, but moon is not, because its attitude toward Love is anthropological. The Invisible Boy takes an active role in reuniting the animals’ souls with their bodies, but with people he’s like a folklorist making field recordings. A good folklorist needs to do something to win the trust of the subjects, as the Invisible Boy must do — often by just waiting around for a while — but after that, you step back and just capture the sound.
Not every character in moon is depicted with sympathy. There is an old man, for example, who is obsessed with the purity of Japanese culture; when hearing a traditional Japanese song, Love leaps from his reverie, but he will never be friendly to you, or anyone else. Or, there is a trio of activists: ecologists, with a feminist among them. These are ridiculous characters, dressed as lunatic superheroes, depicted lazing around all day until they must leap into action to scold people. And yet, when they scold you — their Love registers to you as real. At times, moon gives off a revanchist scent; it does not countenance the idea that Love, when demanded of an inequitable situation, can be used as a tool of maintaining that inequity. But at the same time, it realizes that Love is something it need not agree with: the Invisible Boy does not judge. Annoying and ridiculous people can Love. Obnoxious isolationists can Love. Even the people who arranged the death of the boy who became the Hero can Love.
Only the Hero cannot Love. Prosaically, it’s because of the power of the Cursed Armor. Poetically, it’s because he is the counterpart of the Invisible Boy, with the SAME NAME but in ALL CAPS, and he who collects love is counterbalanced by a form without love. Metaphorically, it’s because the Hero is the boy playing MOON, the video game at the beginning, skipping the story. He is the type of gamer who sees a video game as nothing more than a series of systems that can produce a maximum efficiency. An inefficient means of play is stupid and wasteful; and RPG is just numbers. When the Hero kills animals, he can see the damage points floating above their split heads. When a game’s systems are maximized, it is a Solved Game. It is a slain monster, a dead thing.
moon isn’t a game that’s against RPGs, it’s a game that’s against efficiency; against treating games as optimization puzzles with an ‘ideal’ means of numerical play. Instead, it argues for the imaginative value of loitering, of foolishly and childishly believing the characters and places are real — of ‘wasting’ time playing video games.
One last thing: if there is a Hero in moon, is there a Villain?
One obvious candidate is the royal Minister, who concocted the plan to fire the arrow and seal the boy in the Cursed Armor. He is a technocrat, obsessed with studying expert solutions to social problems; his Love appears when he loses a book and you return it to him, prompting a speech about the need for punitive measures against wrongdoers. I think I saw him speak at the Democratic National Convention the other week.
But I am more fascinated by Dr. Stein Hager, the scientist who is forever raising money. He is also the one who kicks off the climactic fetch quest, urging you to find the parts to power a rocket ship to the moon. He is also, you may or may not discover, the designer of Technopolis, and the creator of all its inhabitants. He is the creator of Lady Techno, the robot woman in whose apartment I idled for so long, though she does not know immediately that she is a robot. She does not need to plug herself in to recharge; instead, she recharges by dancing. A huge area of Technopolis is a dance club, where you can sit through several lengthy live acts; it turns out, this club was built not for entertainment, but merely by following the design parameters of Lady Techno, to assure her continued function.
Dr. Hager is like a game designer. He creates artificial life, adjusting the contours of the world by the demands of his resources. He is very close in spirit to the Hero, in that he does not care what happens to his creations; solving the problem is his sole desire. Completing the rocket ship is his Love. Will Technopolis continue to function after Dr. Hager tires of its upkeep? Is this the fate of games?
When the Invisible Boy finally arrives on the moon, he is greeted by all the animals he has saved. He discovers that the mysterious woman from his dreams and the nefarious light-eating Dragon are a Janus entity, a goddess/demon, positioned atop a pillar of ROM memory chips. He is urged to open the door on the moon to release its light, but he can’t do it. Even if you’ve solved every puzzle and have reached the maximum level, he can’t do it. I tried.
Then, the Hero arrives. The Hero re-kills all the animals that were saved, transforming them into lifeless ROMs. Then he kills all of the supporting characters present on the moon. Then he kills the Goddess/Dragon. Then, he kills the Invisible Boy. Keep your eyes peeled during this scene, because when the Hero kills the Invisible Boy, he also falls dead; having annihilated every important being in the game world, the Cursed Armor no longer has power. But, symbolically, he is also killing the empathetic aspect of himself. In destroying this part of himself, the conclusion of the game gives him no more reason to exist, and he dies with the dead, Solved Game.
At this point, the boy wakes up in front of the television. Mom is yelling again! Was it all a dream? You, the player of moon, are then presented with the final puzzle: will you continue the game? Yes or No.
Upon picking No, the thing no gamer is every encouraged to do when given the chance to continue, the boy opens the door out to leave the room.
There is montage then of dozens of doors across the world flying open. The door on the moon, in Moon World, flies open, as various characters, living and dead, approach the light of the moon.
The credits roll, over photographs that have been edited to superimpose art of the game characters over live scenes, as if they have entered the ‘real’ world, and you wonder: is this really the point? “Turn off the game and go outside?” Is there no hope for the RPG, but for gamers to refuse to play?
I have an idiosyncratic read on the ending of moon. I feel, if anything, it is about how games are Good.
We don’t see the boy after the door is opened, but we might imagine that we are seeing the world through his eyes — the Invisible Boy will one day grow to be a Visible Adult, and in his life, he applies the personalities, the predilections and biases and annoyances of MOON to this perspective on the everyday. By engaging with the character and situations as ideas of the world, they continue to live, superimposed on the world. This is the soul of the game, floating free of its Solved carcass. To treat games as living things, is to realize that their value can exceed the territories of the game map and game systems. Maximizing efficiency, to moon, is the equivalent to violence, in that it ‘kills’ the game — loitering, is to absorb the feeling of the virtual world, and to ultimately transpose it atop one’s process of existing. Probably, most gamers do something like this without thinking about it; moon merely prods the gamer into considering these issues through its slow progress, and the qualities native to the adventure game.
Maybe I am freighting this small thing with a pedagogical agenda. Certainly, I am evoking the dread specter of contemporary art; those art works which are just as resonant from reading the Artist’s Statement on the wall as viewing the thing itself. I think moon is better than that.
But what to make of the final image in the game? A notice is posted in a game store, stating that the release of “moon” has been cancelled by the publisher. Apparently, by venturing through the game and releasing its characters, the Invisible Boy has annulled the very existence of the game itself!
Love-de-Lic seems to be okay with this result. And history, perhaps, has proven them right.
Recall Undertale. When Toby Fox heard about moon, he’d never actually played it. He only heard about what it represented.
He closed his eyes, and imagined what it was.