Similar to Undertale, Moonlighter from Digital Sun might be one the most self-aware game released. It is a game that playfully works within the history of gaming tropes, especially in the modern age. It’s a roguelike that turns its roguelike elements into parts of its story; it transforms one of the longest running jokes of the medium into the core gameplay loop; and it does it damn well.
Archeologists, you see, uncovered a set of mysterious but obviously powerful gates. One of them is near our protagonist Will’s little village Rynoka, and as a consequence, randomized dungeons keep spawning! Everyone knows it’s happening, no one knows why, but people are invested in finding out. You’ll uncover lore bits, in fact, about this very investigation.
Lucky for Will, our plucky shopkeeper, he has deep and dramatic aspirations of becoming a hero. And what better way to do that than to go into these dungeons and fight some monsters to keep his late father’s shop afloat and return the village to prosperity. In other words, half the game is a roguelike dungeon crawler, and the other half is a shopkeeper sim where you set stock and prices and monitor sales.
This is brilliant for a number of reasons. First off, it’s a fun narrative conceit, acknowledging and playing with the fact that very often, video games will construct worlds so far detached from the way we interact with them that it’s laughable. Link smashing all those pots for rupees? No one seems to care or mind having to sculpt entirely new ones. And how are there not OSHA regulations regarding explosive red barrels?
Here, though, the roguelike components of procedural generation, loot, and monsters are all tied to the story rather than just being a thing no one talks about. This, almost counterintuitively, gives them even more material to work with than simply going to town irrespective of logic or reason. You’ll be hard-pressed to not be charmed and intrigued by what this game has to say.
It does one of my favorite things with stories about duality, too. No matter what your dreams or reality, it always feels like the other thing is the moonlighting—your real side hustle. When you’re managing the shop, it feels like you’re only doing it to fuel your goal to become a more traditional hero. But when you’re down in those murky depths, it feels like the opposite.
It’s like Barry in Barry, contrasting his passion with his strengths, always moonlighting as one thing when he’d rather be the other thing. Except in this case, Will is equally good in both things (because you, as the player, are), but it’s still that harsh distinction between obligations and desires and how that spectrum warps and folds in on itself almost constantly.
It skews close to the question of work versus play. Are the activities we do for work exclusive from play? Or, more aptly, can what you do for work be play, and do the tools used for either determine the allocation? Like will a fisherman’s fishing pole ever be anything but a tool for work? For Will, the question is even if he enjoys running the shop, will that ever be anything but work? And as his obligations towards excavating these dungeons increase, do his weapons and gear turn into tools of work?
The game, as far as I know, never gets deep into these topics, but it’s a nearly inescapable consideration as you play. And you’ll probably play a lot of it as it’s a damn fine game (the early bits start to feel like a grind just before it gets really, really good, so stick with it!), so there’s plenty of time for you to mull it over. And as I dive back into the dank dungeons of Moonlighter, I’m still wondering if Will is working.