In the art book for Kitfox Games’ Moon Hunters, which is written in-character, the final chapter is entitled “Dreams that Never Were,” to provide a place for all of the early concept art that didn’t reflect the final product. A two page spread was devoted to the mountain-dwelling One Voice tribe:
“Once dimly remembered, the One Voice were isolated much of the year by harsh weather. Together they sang each life from one world to the next, be it through birth or death, the same as they sang the flowers out from under the snows every year.”
Well, it seems like this particular ‘dream’ has gone from “never was” to “will be.” They will be the centerpiece of the free Eternal Echoes expansion to the game, releasing today on Steam. As players of the game might expect, a new tribe also means a new playable hero. You’ll get to play as The Snowdancer, described as “a melee summoner class, gracefully shaping snow-puppets to hunt and freeze enemies that she can then shatter with her ice pick.”
The expansion of the game’s already rich lore is welcome, and with this expansion Moon Hunters adds to its brilliant cultural potpourri the influence of pre-Christian Slavic cultures as well. In its ever changing tides of telling and retelling, the game could certainly stand to admit more permutations of its core story. What Moon Hunters excels at is making a ludic experience of oral history, the way that myths undulate and change with each recitation. They shift the focus, the point-of-view character, the key players, even the ending.
But all the threads wrap around the core of some event that the myth serves to immortalize. And “we remember something new, with each telling,” as the game’s intro intones.
Assisting with that “recollection” will be a more gamey element of the expansion that enables players to practice the game’s toughest boss fight at will. “A graveyard of remembered constellations allows reviving the memory of your heroes to combat the Sun outside of time.” I remember my frustration at losing the boss fight and being unable to recover a save before the game’s ending played out. It’s not clear whether this change would prohibit that specific situation, but it at least offers players the opportunity to hone their skills before trying again after an all new playthrough.
It’s unclear whether any of this addresses the rather grindy feeling of the game after several playthroughs, but the increased variety is certainly welcome. Some hero classes demand more strategic play than others, which can take some of the sting out of repetitive play as well. Even so, it was always a risk with a combat-heavy game that it might begin to feel grindy after the many playthroughs required to fully appreciate the artistry of the storytelling.
I spoke to lead designer Tanya X. Short about that very issue this weekend. The compulsiveness of the game was actually kind of a problem, she noted. Adding, “there wasn't any time the game said ‘ok you finished me, stop playing,’ so we noticed people tended to play until they got sick of it.”
It’s an interesting design point about “replayability,” one of several holy grails for games like this. Is it possible to be too replayable? How do you signal to the player when a game’s material is exhausted before they become resentful of the experience? Short said she wanted this expansion to “add a satisfying place for players to know ‘ok I can stop playing, I had a good time, beat a final boss, etc’-- the only hitch with this tropey genre ending was that it slightly undermines the anti-violence message, but that was always present in the core gameplay.” Short feels that this new boss fight, which is integrated into the new graveyard system, will better communicate a strong endpoint for the game.
It raises an interesting issue: telling players it’s okay to stop can be just as important as urging them to do more in a game.
In terms of expressiveness, Short also pointed out that the expansion affects the early role playing choices your hero makes, giving them more impact that drives home the urgency of the game’s premise--that the Moon has gone missing, leaving the world in uncertainty and chaos. “Murders, suicides, and arson can all occur because of advice you give... I think it makes it clearer that the moon going missing (perhaps like a certain other global tragedy recently), people will throw blame and take blame in a search for relevance.”
It’s a broad re-knitting of the game’s themes that the studio was under no obligation to make--they’d fulfilled the terms and goals of their Kickstarter, and as a free expansion it’s unlikely to make the studio money. But it represents a real effort for Short and her team to more fully realize their ambitious vision. For my part I remember lamenting that the mountain towns of the One Voice, with their perilous wooden walkways above snow-laden valleys, seemed forever consigned to the drawing board. In times like these, it’s nice for those little fantasies to become reality.
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.