Foreword: This piece was originally written for ReadySet (formerly known as ZAM), but with the site’s impending closure in October, I thought I’ll upload the piece here. This is the only article I did for ReadySet, and I’m incredibly sad to see it go. It was home to plenty of critical writing on videogames, and now I can only wish I had more opportunities to write for the site. RIP.
Routines are part and parcel of most gameplay experiences, whether you’re an omnipotent being overseeing the lives of mere mortals in The Sims, or a veteran monster-slayer-for-hire and radical dad in The Witcher 3. It offers some semblance of structure as we experience the game’s universe, while letting us make measured incursions into the world. Perhaps you could start with a quick look over your inventory, and then head out to the wilderness or town center in search for resources. Or maybe you would rather run errands at the behest of your Sim, because buying that cushy green sofa would really scratch that capitalist-fueled itch.
In Moonlighter, I found myself consumed by such routines. As the plucky protagonist Will, who’s both a shopkeeper and an aspiring adventurer, I would make mental notes between balancing the humdrum of tending to the family business with making perilous journeys into nearby dungeons. This is crucial, because both are inexplicably tied to one another; you need gold to improve your combat skills, yet you can only be a successful merchant if you can lug home enough resources to sell from your expeditions.
This dichotomy is the crux of Moonlighter, and alternating between shopkeeping and dungeon-trawling soon becomes a zen-like rhythm. I quickly found a sense of comfort and familiarity in this pleasing routine: jump out of bed, set up shop, sell my wares, trawl through dungeons, faint a few times, crawl back home. In a way, this rhythmic pace has much in common with that of pastoral games like Harvest Moon and Stardew Valley. Instead of collecting bountiful crops, you’re now slashing and harvesting appendages from monsters. Your tools of the trade aren’t sickles or other agricultural tools; they’re swords, spears and bows.
In fact, emphasizing this agrarian-like aspect of Moonlighter is the game’s almost single-minded focus on perfecting this grind. Barring a few variations and new objectives you can unlock, these are mostly all the tasks you’ll be busying yourself with. Unlike the Persona series — where the need to juggle school work, socializing, sleeping, studying, and fighting monsters at the same time may feel arduous — you don’t really have to do all that extraneous stuff here. There’s no friendship meter to fill, and no need to waste precious hours on getting enough sleep. You don’t even get to “die” in the game; even if you lose all your health, you’ll just get spat out of the dungeon — and then you can just redo the adventuring all over again.
All these may make Moonlighter sound like a rather monotonous experience, but this simply underscores its idyllic setting. There’s still much to do within the confines of this town, but the game mostly maintains this leisurely pace. In time, anyone can become attuned to Will’s responsibilities as a merchant and adventurer, since its uncomplicated setup allows anyone to roll along to their own rhythm. Want to upgrade your humble mom-and-pop store to a thriving emporium? Invest in a few knick-knacks to give your store a luxurious shine? Become such a successful entrepreneur that you’ll have to keep fending off thieves? These can be accomplished gradually over a few days, or even within a couple of hours by the sweat of your brow. Penalties are also few if you wish to take a break from shopkeeping for a while to meander about in the dungeons, or scour the caves for rare resources to outfit yourself with new armor and weaponry.
There’s perhaps some irony in the soothing predictability of these routines, since your character would have found the tedium unbearable. It was Will’s hunger for bigger, grander exploits outside of the mundane stability of his livelihood that drove him plunging into his first dungeon, after all, armed with nothing but a sturdy broom. His initial jaunt is clearly a foolhardy one; most of the player’s hard-earned loot will be lost when the health bar empties. Nonetheless, the consequences aren’t colossal, although you’ll sacrifice quite a bit of in-game hours — which can have a slight impact if you had agreed to fulfill any unique requests for wandering warriors or the local townsfolk. In the grand scheme of things, however, nothing more is forfeited than the promise of a lavish reward. While Moonlighter wants you to learn from your mistakes, it doesn’t hound you over your failures.
Within the annals of roguelike experiences, Moonlighter’s dungeon crawls are surprisingly forgiving. While it injects a dimension of tension and excitement during your playthrough, it’s seldom overwhelming. Repetition and past experiences will guide your hand, and though the dungeons demands dexterity and quick reflexes, they’re still largely manageable, since they feature more of the same garden-variety beasts across levels: you have the bullet-spitting obelisks, the tiny gobs of monstrous jellies you’ll accidentally trip over, the explosive vats of lava and poisonous pollen, and other monster archetypes. Once you figure out their quirks, understanding the cadence of battle won’t take you too long, and you’ll soon be dodging attacks and making through these monster-infested holes swiftly.
This grind is far from meaningless. Progression is more than just chasing after a stat, and it’s always within reach. The more monsters you battle, the more loot they drop, with which you can use to fashion new clothes or build your burgeoning empire. The payouts are always generous too, freeing you to spend Will’s days fussing about the prices of his goods, and rejoicing in the delightful chime of coins and profits.
The world of Moonlighter is a modest one. There isn’t much of the town to discover and unlock, but it’s this smallness that breeds familiarity and warmth. In the end, what Moonlighter wants to be is a place you come back to, whenever you need to beguile some time. Even though attempts to tie all its plot elements together — the ever-evolving dungeons, Will’s family business, and village’s history — through a backstory is a tad lackluster, it makes up for this through raw charm. The pastel, pixel-art aesthetics, the calming soundtrack, and the abundant rewards adds up to a picturesque, romanticized setting of medieval fantasy — one that prioritizes simple responsibilities and contentment. It’s a relief for those who seek a breather from the messiness of life, and wish to slip into the satisfying routine of selling, grinding and progressing. Of course, Will would disapprove, but he’s merely our conduit to this world — liberating us to carve our own paths and make our own routines in this rustic homestead.