“In a capitalist society, all human relationships are voluntary. Men are free to cooperate or not, to deal with one another or not, as their own individual judgements, convictions, and interests dictate.” – Ayn Rand
The customers who peruse my shop in Moonlighter do not speak to me. Our protagonist, Will silently rings up their purchases at a consistent pace; that is, if they are satisfied with the price. The only form of communication is a visual cue signifying complacency, a sort of illustrative grade identifying the “correct” price at which the player should be selling their items.
These people have no voice of their own, no characteristics separating one from the other. They are fuel to the fire, a community of like-minded consumers, clueing me in to the accepted market prices for any and all commodities I come across on my nighttime ventures. I constantly mark items up or down, judging shoppers’ level of satisfaction and responding appropriately. As best suited to my own entrepreneurial gains, of course.
What is best for the shop ultimately corresponds to what is best for me. The more of a bargain my customers walk away with, the less financially fulfilled I am. The same can be said when people walk away from a purchase thanks to an over-inflated price.
Finding that careful balance is the key to ultimately succeeding within the world of Moonlighter, the latest project from Digital Sun. Indeed, balance dictates a majority of the game’s overall mechanical blueprint: tending to the shop by day, heroic dungeon crawling by night; satisfying your familial responsibilities while retaining an individual sense of accomplishment; levelling up Will’s abilities to tackle more dangerous foes and objectives.
But what remains at the heart of Moonlighter’s design is that empty state of human connectivity. Beneath its visually stunning veneer, an artistic sentiment hearkening back to NES staples like The Legend of Zelda, the game’s inherent argument claims a natural disregard for the Other, and it constantly alludes to these classic series as to counter their own adventurous naivety.
The obvious lack of side quests and fleshed-out characters illustrates this striking capitalist philosophy, ignoring any sense of desire to aid others. In many ways, Moonlighter is a fervent examination of RPG sensibilities. Donating well-earned funds to the town determinedly aids only the protagonist, granting the player access to new means of levelling up their equipment or buying defensive commodities for themselves.
But no narrative is given to these shopkeeps, no sense of personal progression is awarded. These details are hidden away from Moonlighter’s protagonist, the titular store’s own manager, for the game is clearly invested in nobody but its lone hero.
RPGs historically present a cast of characters built as singular individuals with their own motivations and prescribed goals to obtain, who reach out to the player to help them overcome obstacles and build towards their own destinies. Moonlighter erases these sentiments, giving certain names to certain village neighbors, but distinctly leaves out any individual sense of humanity.
Perhaps what is so fundamentally interesting about Moonlighter is its sense of progression, or rather a purposefully deceptive lack of. The five dungeons are introduced immediately to the player, taunting them with a determined sense of linearity, as would be the case in any other rogue-like title. Moonlighter breaks the formula, however, always promising progression but asking the player to consider a more secure option.
My health is at 20, my inventory is nearly full of junk for me to sell back at the shop. Yet an inherent eagerness to continue — to uncover more mysterious ruins and confront whatever lies beyond the next door, constantly edges me onward. To my dismay, of course, when the health meter ticks down to zero, and I am left with nothing, only to start my descent anew.
Capitalism is enforced by a loose philosophy regarding promise. The American Dream is defined by dedication to the effective machination of a large corporate entity, building off of multiple individuals’ work towards a singular disconnected goal. But the goal is merely incentive, a consistent driving force — a MacGuffin if you will — to maintain work ethic.
Moonlighter determinedly promises player progression, then disrupts it for the sake of gradual development. The game then works much like gambling, rolling the dice on a new encounter, another room to explore within an antagonistic dungeon, teasing the player with more capitalistic growth around every corner, waiting for them to inevitably fuck it up and send them back to the beginning and start again.
Much like Will’s father, the game lectures the player against heroism, knowing full well of our habitual desire to role play as such in games just like this. One can hear the developers snickering in the background as players inevitably give in to the reverse psychology which dupes them into exploring the dungeons on their own, knowing full well they’ll have to rely on the shopkeeping systems in order to progress whatsoever.
They nudge players along the intended path, which is more of a set of design principles than a linear destination. But the incentive to continue is always propelled by a misconstrued sense of development. As Will grows, as he becomes more of a powerful “hero” and builds a larger set of skills and weapons, so too does his family store, Moonlighter. The capitalist machine feeds off of the individual’s own determination, simultaneously incentivizing both personal and social growth.
Ultimately, the game presents a very true to Life examination of social culture; how capitalism is fueled by and indeed built around an individual’s reliance on workmanship to survive. Will’s very lack of dialogue speaks much to the decay of mindful individualism within a capitalist society, silencing our protagonist through social pressure, just as the game naturally fails to ever listen to the player’s own intentions. The game’s sense of development functions wordlessly, impressing upon its audience the correct courses of action to initiate tactical survival in the most adversative of institutions.
But also sickeningly apparent is the significance of consumerist dedication to one’s own prosperity, and how it all feeds into a cycle of commodification. You can’t power a train without the coal mines; and in Moonlighter, Will’s personal heroic desire to venture through dungeons and collect artifacts directly results in the profitability of his father’s shop. And the necessities fueling his dungeon crawling escapades — health potions, armor, weapons, etc. — further incentivize the need for a community of retailers.
Moonlighter claims that the cost of adventurism is the need to rely on others for self-employment. But most intriguingly, the game refuses to accept these necessary producers and merchants as anything but code, pixels sitting and waiting for when they are needed. Besides the player, of course; which all begs the question: where do these NPCs go in the middle of the night? Where do their own products come from? What dreams are they constantly building towards? Will they ever get where they want to be?
The point is it does not matter. Only Will matters. Only Moonlighter matters. In the grand scheme of the game’s universe, the individual prospects pushing you forward are all that are considered essential. There will always be others giving you aid and armor, as long as you make it so there are, through your own toil and funding. They are there because you put them there, because you needed them. The irony is palpable, but a lack of investment further dictates the self-supporting experience as a whole.
And it’s such a pleasure to behold. Dungeon crawling works magnificently, with its finely-tuned HUD and controller layout, dictating every necessary option and action at the press of a button. Inventory management is reminiscent of Minecraft, only without the crafting, initiating bouts of mindless collectathons for items to profit off of during every dungeon session.
The semi-procedurally crafted environments are a rather brilliant method of promoting constant exploration, both encouraging progression and presenting a reason to return. Enemy design works under a traditional philosophy, advocating fast-paced action while necessitating thoughtful combat. As a cyclical game, Moonlighter functions wonderfully, building and building into an experience more challenging and rewarding the more time one invests into it — a fitting metaphor for managing retail operations in and of itself.
But Moonlighter’s most vital component is its sociological commentary. The game presents straightforward, familiar gameplay vocations to underscore the primary lessons involving capitalist tendencies. Whether or not the basis of Moonlighter’s premise distinctly revolves around its intrinsic philosophical musings — the game never definitively declares any thesis statement, one of its greatest overlooked opportunities — the context is there, and it is profoundly situated within the core gameplay conceit.
I’m not sure where all my time and investment in Moonlighter will take me. A definitive conclusion to the story would actually be of great undoing for the cyclical design. There is no determined villain, which is certainly a disappointment given Will’s father’s purported sense of dictating his son’s every decision. Capitalism has villains like these, so Moonlighter’s lack of seems as though a misguided disregard for authenticity.
But as for my progress currently, the deceptive sense of progression and self-development speaks volumes to the current state of consumerist junctures, retroactively propelling one forward while retaining a liminal state of livelihood. Both feeding the system and draining each and every one within it.