Moon: A Remix RPG Adventure has very few contemporaries. You’ll hear people describe some of its mechanics as being similar to The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask or Chibi-Robo! Plug Into Adventure, but it predates them both. After some brief exposition that mostly serves as a parody of the genre, it’s an RPG where there’s no combat to be found. Its opening hours managed to successfully transport me back to the late ‘90s—and all the feelings that came with.
I'll share just some of those feelings now: When I was about eleven years old, in 1998, I played Yoshi’s Story for the Nintendo 64. It’s one of the most innocuous narratives Nintendo’s ever penned: some newborn Yoshis set out to rescue the Super Happy Tree from Baby Bowser by... eating lots of fruit and having fun. The page turns, the Yoshis grow happier. Happiness was... 'the point.'
I was enamored. I totally put together a picture book that told the story of the game after I beat it—like I said, enamored. As I played it over and over again, I eventually wanted to learn its secrets. And that’s how I came across the two “hidden Yoshis” you have to save—a black one and a white one.
Saving the white Yoshi egg from its bubbly prison and carrying it to safety proved difficult for Little Me. And that’s how an eleven year-old boy wound up crying to his father in frustration. “Because I’m not good enough, that cute Yoshi’s gonna be trapped and sad forever.” Fortunately, my dad was empathetic and just encouraged me to keep trying, instead of scolding me for crying.
But... that’s how it’s always been, with me. Video games played a part in teaching me empathy from a young age. Whenever I play Super Mario World, I always take Yoshi with me—he deserves to help rescue his friends. If I reach a point in the level where Mario has to go it alone, I still quietly say, “Bye Yoshi,” to whatever screen I’m staring at. It’s the same with Kirby whenever he greets me, interacting with my innumerable Pokémon, or any video game friend I come across: I primarily engage with video games because it’s a way to make these fictional characters and worlds happier than they were before.
In case it wasn’t obvious by now, I’m a pacifist. Violence is only ever a last resort for me, and seeing even cartoonish “blood & guts” tends to weird me out, let alone how... um, over the top Mortal Kombat’s gotten as of late. I’m always thinking critically about the kinds of games I engage with. Characters like Mario make me happy, because the enemies you best aren’t really killed. Turn the same corner, and they’re back where they were, like you were never there. The robots Sonic destroys have cute animals inside—he’s just out to free his friends. Monsters in Dragon Quest V offer to join your party specifically after you defeat them... so you’re probably not murdering everything that crosses your path, so much as “making them faint” like Pokémon.
This is the part where I mention Undertale, an RPG where you don’t have to kill anyone. It was the first RPG I’ve ever played where I felt comfortable enough to be myself—basically running from everyone with my tail between my legs. It’s pretty much my go-to example these days when I’m referencing games that can be empathetic. In the context of that world, the monsters you fight—or don’t fight—have hearts. You’re absolutely encouraged not to kill them, and you’re pretty severely challenged (and punished) if you do.
So when the creator of Undertale brought up Moon as a game that inspired it, the quirky PS1 “anti-RPG” from the late nineties certainly had my attention. It was ported to Nintendo Switch and localized in regions outside Japan this year for the first time ever, two decades after its initial release. In Moon, you play as a little boy who gets sucked into the world of the RPG he was playing by way of his TV. The boy quickly learns the hero he played as is actually a freaking jerk—just a nuisance in general, plus he runs around killing monsters that were just minding their own business and doing no harm.
It definitely has all the trappings of a pacifist game. Instead of killing enemies to gain experience points like the hero, the little boy saves the souls of dearly departed monsters by just catching them, gaining Love instead. He never hurts anyone. The player is acting against the typical RPG hero; the goal is just to hang around various locales in the world, getting to know and helping everyone you see. You gain Love that’s quantified in the game, and hopefully the kind of love that goes beyond it. “Bye, Yoshi.”
In order to get to the heart of why I’ve sat down to write all this out, I have to spoil the endings of both Moon and Undertale. Stop reading if you’d rather not know what happens, then come back when you do.
Here’s a scene from the former's ending. The little boy has helped build a rocket, and he actually blasts off to the moon. He needs to eventually be the one to open “The Door to the Light”, and thwart that murdering jerk of a hero once and for all with the power of his Love. When you arrive, the fifty souls of monster friends you’ve saved are waiting for you. It’s a scene that’s extremely similar to what Undertale’s title screen becomes if you don’t hurt anything—there are lots of happy friends.
Moon absolutely sets you up like you’re about to see a happy ending. The quantifiable Love you earned should work hand in hand with your love for all your new fictional friends & the world. The quirky characters kept me going, despite rather dated frustrations. But then... once the little boy learns he can’t open the door at all, and the hero has snuck on board his rocket... my gosh, do things take a turn.
Scenes of the “hero” slicing through the souls of every single monster I saved were genuinely tough to watch. The camera forces you to see the hero’s point of view for almost the first time in the entire story, going out of its way to show him erasing all those friendly monsters from existence. All the while, three guiding characters that have been around for my entire adventure were constantly saying, “Because you failed to open the door, because your Love wasn’t strong enough, we meet a tragic end.” They said, “goodbye, jon,” before the “hero” sliced them to literal bits in front of me—bits of data.
Oh, that’s the chilliest part of all. See: in Undertale, if you do kill a monster, you see its pixelated heart break in two. It’s meant to have a soul—to feel real. Moon, by contrast, depicts dead monsters as what they are to folks who don’t feel like I do—just data. Cold, empty, meaningless husks of data. If you think of the hundreds of data chips piled on the ground between “JON” the hero and “jon” the boy as corpses, this ending screen of Moon is downright terrifying.
“Please, jon. Maybe there’s another reality out there where you do open the door.” Your wizard friend’s parting words still ring in your ears as...the little boy’s mother manages to pull him out of the TV’s trance and tells him to go to bed. Faced with this screen & fresh memories of friendly characters getting unceremoniously murdered specifically because you failed everyone... you’re given a choice.
If you select YES when prompted to continue, the boy gets sucked back into the world inside the TV and “END” appears on the bottom right of your screen. All you’re left with is an empty bedroom. Wanting to go back and correct your failures as a player—wanting to save your monster friends this time is... the wrong choice to make, in Moon.
As you move the cursor to select NO, the camera pans to highlight the boy’s door. If you do select it, the boy puts down his controller and opens the door to his room, leaving the game behind. The ending shows all kinds of doors opening up after he does this… including the “Door to the Light” you failed to open in the game moments before. You watch the surviving human NPCs go through it, as if that’s supposed to make everything better. Does the ending expect me to forget that I’ve left these other characters for dead?
I feel like Moon doesn’t believe that Love can or should be quantified in video games. I’m not really sure it believes video games should be empathetic at all. It would rather you learn to love the real world instead—because the monsters and people you met as you played through everything are just bits of data, after all. There’s no way to save them from meeting their tragic end... except to stop playing, and choose “NO” even when you know you’ve failed.
Most of the deep connections that people feel to fiction are beneficial. Make-believe characters are so much more powerful than just actors on TV, or bits of data callously murdered on screen.
I watched Moon’s ending on YouTube after I rolled credits on my Switch, because I was convinced I really had done something wrong and failed. People in the comments sung its praises as an example of games as art. But I feel like the whole thing’s very cynical—like the developers see video games as a product & their characters as just... marketing tools. It seems like they’re criticizing the medium by saying that Love will never work as a variable that can be measured, like “experience points” or a high score.
But Undertale begs to differ. God, my experiences as a player beg to differ. I’m very much aware that Pokémon aren’t real. But my connections to them are. I’ve got a Pikachu hanging out in Pokémon Shield that’s been my friend for fifteen years, “traveling across time and space” to be with me since we met in Pokémon LeafGreen. How I feel about that li’l Pikachu is absolutely quantified, game after game.
I’ve genuinely never felt more disappointed with a video game than I have when I finished Moon. In how the story chooses to end, it undoes every bit of empathy I gained from learning about its world. I just wanted to sit down and communicate why a game whose playable character literally gains Love... instead may make you hurt by the end.
Edited by Jonathan Higgins