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Function is form: Moon Hunters and art books as game design

The Art of Moon Hunters, a book that presents artwork from the Kitfox Games release, is a great extension of the title that a respects a crucial lesson so often forgotten in gaming: function is form. 

Art books are perhaps one of the most commonplace objects in any Collector’s Edition of a game. They often come off as filler, even in games with staggeringly good art to recommend them, and are rarely withdrawn from the box in my household. You flip through them once, and barring an especially arresting piece of art, it’s just another thing that gathers dust. This is unfortunate for a number of reasons: for one thing, art books often catalogue truly gorgeous work. Both the concept art of a game and the final works can be breathtaking. But how do you arrange it something less than a stale, forgettable presentation? Well, in the case of games, one can take a cue from the medium itself. Make it interactive; make it useful.

This is a crucial lesson so often forgotten in gaming: function is form. 

It’s a lesson that Kitfox Games art director Xin Ran Liu took to heart when he and creative lead Tanya Short put together The Art of Moon Hunters, the art book for that delightful game. I grabbed a copy at PAX West if only because the unusually slender, independently printed volume seemed to offer something a bit different from its fellows. I wasn’t disappointed. It is, far and away, my favorite videogame art book. 

Liu’s watercolor art has a sharpness that belies its medium, producing something halfway between a page from a fairy tale and a comic book. It’s vivid without the dreamlike quality that normally characterizes watercolor, allowing for powerfully defined characters of all shapes and sizes. That art, which appears throughout the actual game, is so essential to the spirit of Moon Hunters and it’s difficult to envision the game without it. It is, indeed, the ideal visualization of Short’s writing. But such art isn’t enough to make an artbook useful; how does this form become functional?

***

I had not actually sat down to play the game at great length since I last tried a preview version at PAX East earlier this year to sample its co-op capabilities. Upon getting back from West, however, art book in hand, I gave it another go, which ultimately led to my recent review. It was during this playthrough that I found myself referring to the book again and again. Its images were thoughtfully arranged into a lore catalogue of the game that was surprisingly useful.

Each tribe and their respective region is explored artistically, framed by Short’s often lyrical writing--which speaks in the voice of a future archeologist looking back on this events of this game’s prehistoric epic. In each tribal section you learn about the various characters you’re likely to meet in each region (be it desert, forest, riverlands, et cetera) and, interestingly, are give quite a few recipes to play with using the game’s cooking system. Each hero’s abilities, meanwhile, are described in-character. For instance, the Witch’s “Beam” ability, a channeled laser-like attack that drains your stamina, is described thusly:

“The Witch summons life itself to drain the power of the wicked, risking her own life as a conduit.”

It is both useful and pretty to read--which raises another point: visual art need not be the only art showcased in an artbook. It’s an opportunity to show off the quality of your game’s writing and worldbuilding, too, which the visual art draws into gorgeous relief.

The chapter on the tribes, entitled “Issaria and Surrounds,” also discusses other regions in the game, giving you the tantalizing clue of what their icons look like on the map so you can more easily plan to reach them on your next playthrough. It’s subtle and unobtrusive, but rewards the careful observer without being unfair to people who cannot afford the book. 

In the third chapter, “The Unseen World,” you learn a great deal more about the goddesses [right] who are so central to the setting, but also the constellations you win at the end of each game. When you finish, win or lose, your legend is immortalized as one of twenty three possible constellations based on which character traits predominated in your hero. Once again, with subtlety, the book clues you in as to which traits in which combination produce which constellation, making achievement hunting a bit easier. The section on Familiars, meanwhile, makes clear what bonuses are given by each creature, and sometimes gives hints as to how to acquire them, all while retaining the in-character tenor of the text.

I flipped through the book frequently, often pulling it out from my coffee table bookstack in the middle of play to look up or confirm something or other. If nothing else, it gave me a nice headstart on my recipe book. My exploration of the book was thus intimately tied to my experience of the game proper, and part of my quest to discover how to attain the “best” ending. For all this, its beauty was only enhanced.

The final chapter, “Dreams That Never Were,” is a cunning way of showcasing early concept art of things that
make it into the game, framing them as unfounded legends or ancient plans that never came to fruition. Though brief, it’s intensely creative and features some of the best writing from Short in the volume. I cited her description of the world map in this chapter as a lyrical mission statement for the whole game:


“Issaria was on the cusp of being forgotten forever; we have dredged it from the bottom of our consciousness but the essence is not a brittle, solid thing. It lives in our minds as a story, ready to be retold, with each piece able to be moved readjusted to suit the purposes of the teller. Any map is but a symbol of what we have chosen to be important and remembered.”

This paragraph foregrounds a map of Issaria that was meant to be static, before procedural generation carried the day in the game’s design (each time you play, the map changes). This poetic musing on the part of Short’s fictional archeologist is a lovely way of explaining that, and, as I’d noted, explains the nature of the game as well: an everchanging, warping, mythmaking simulation. Thus the game is very much in the art book.

The book costs a less-than-friendly $60, and thus is likely not for everyone save committed fans with disposable income (as is so often the case). But it is a shining example to the whole industry of what can be done with printed matter of this sort--or even just PDFs, if printing is too costly an endeavor. In my years writing about games, I’m finding that it’s indie games preserving and extending on some of the best traditions of the industry that so many of us either grew up with or helped to build. The artful instruction manual is one of them--and it should come as no surprise that some of the material in the artbook can be found in the instruction manual for Moon Hunters that shipped with the game’s Indie Box collector’s edition. In a sense, the art book is a dramatically enhanced, gorgeously presented instruction manual-cum-player’s guide. 

That functionality, far from obscuring the artistic assemblage, actually enhances it. The fact that Liu was also the layout designer contributed to this in no small measure, I’m certain, creating a final product whose very utility was part of what shaped and contributed to its overall aesthetic beauty. Liu’s art, which stands well enough on its own, could make anything mythical; this book is no exception.

It sets a standard for a lot of games that have stories to tell; there’s never a bad time to actually put those stories into the player’s hands.

Katherine Cross is a Ph.D student in sociology who researches anti-social behavior online, and a gaming critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications.

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