Electron Dance
30Jul/2121

Moon Logic

Moon logic is a notorious game design choice where the solution to a puzzle emerges from incomprehensible game-world logic. So instead of using a key to open a locked door, maybe you transform it into a pancake and eat it. Or you swipe a motorcycle by fabricating a moustache from cat hair to pretend to be someone who doesn’t have a moustache. Moon logic can sometimes make sense in hindsight, but often leads players into the bowels of despair.

Now in the latest episode of “games I bought and God maybe it’s time I played it, right?”, I lobbed Gorogoa (Jason Roberts, 2017) onto my smartphone and played it last week. I'm here to tell you that Gorogoa is fabulous – because of moon logic.

Back in 2018, I received a free Steam key for point-and-click adventure Lucid Dream (Dali Games, 2018). I installed it right away, tried it for half an hour then abandoned the game to the desktop weeds. I don’t get a rush of hot excitement from point-and-click games because I remember them far more for their moon logic than honest, god-fearing puzzles. It’s difficult to put aside my knee-jerk impression of the point-and-click genre in which you walk back and forth the same rooms again and again until you’ve exhausted enough combinations of items and verbs for lightning to strike.

I believe point-and-click was a fix for the “guess what words the designer wants you to type” problem of text adventures. Parser was swapped for a public set of verbs to reduce frustration but sometimes I wonder if this just obscured the actual problem: bad game design. Moon logic had hounded text adventures just as much as their point-and-click descendants. And clicking invited its own problems such as the micro-hotspots that fucked over players of Grim Fandango (Lucasarts, 1998). Never underestimate developers’ commitment to unearthing every weakness in a game design trend, spraying videogame history with the sweet scent of regret. Unless you happened to be 12 years old, the age of alchemy, which transmutes shit game design into nostalgia gold.

Gemini Rue

But I enjoyed Gemini Rue (Joshua Nuernberger, 2011) and lapped up the mysterious and languorous atmosphere of Gabriel Knight 3 (Sierra Studios, 1999). I have this constant hankering for similar experiences; I have a backlog of unplayed Wadjet Eye games for just this reason. As this year’s challenge of #SpaceForVanquish has put my hard drive under pressure, it compelled me to give the already-installed Lucid Dream a proper play.

Here’s a literal moon logic challenge from Lucid Dream: remove a satellite from the Moon’s eye. The solution is to catch the moon’s tears in a bucket, douse the fire down a chimney, then adjust clouds to zig-zag the chimney’s smoke into the moon’s eyes which… removes the satellite. I figured this out because the game kept the accessible locations and objects to a minimum, so brute force worked quickly. I then bumbled through the next section where you have to talk to the “Oneiromancer” and realised that while Lucid Dream was a pretty game, it was buried neck-deep in moon logic. I uninstalled.

Lucid Dream

Then the next week, I started up Gorogoa. Don’t worry, I won’t spoil anything for those of you who haven’t played it because to spoil Gorogoa’s tricks is an act of cultural vandalism. In a nutshell, Gorogoa presents the player with four images and you manipulate them to move the story forward. The magic is in how you manipulate and the game is short because it only has a handful of tricks, refusing to overuse them. If you have played The Witness, this is how I would choose to describe Gorogoa without spoilers: it's that moment in The Witness, over and over.

I realised solving most of its puzzles involved moon logic, where brute force was the tool of enlightenment. And yet, instead of pissing me off, it was wall-to-wall delight because the moon logic was its own reward. Gorogoa is a secret box game with multiple layers. The developer has a story to tell, sure, but it is a little hard to parse while you’re figuring out each puzzle, and the imagery left only a vague mental impression. But that’s okay because Gorogoa is primarily a vehicle for joy, each uncovered secret is a moment of wonder. We can go back for the story later. It’s short enough.

Botanicula

While it’s tempting to call out moon logic as an anti-pattern of game design there are many examples of where it is used effectively. Botanicula (Amanita Design, 2012) is stuffed full of silly, cartoon logic but working through it unearths so much charm. Which of your party can rescue a feather guarded by a pair of aggressive bullies? It turns out to be twig, who can walk along the underside of the branch undetected because – because it’s funny to watch after the rest of the gang have tried and failed. That’s it.

And so calling a game out for moon logic is not enough. It would just obscure the actual problem. Which is bad game design.

Download my FREE eBook on the collapse of indie game prices an accessible and comprehensive explanation of what has happened to the market.

Sign up for the monthly Electron Dance Newsletter and follow on Twitter!

Electron Dance Highlights

Comments (21) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Monkey Island 2, the far and away best graphic adventure ever made, is absolutely marred by that stupid monkey wrench puzzle, especially since 9 year old me had no idea what a simian spanner was.

    I think why Gorogoa works as moon logic, or rather, why Gorogoa isn’t moon logic imho, is that what you are doing is manipulating illustrations. It felt to me like I was *diegetically* manipulating images, rather than acting in a simulated world. Using a hypnotised monkey to open a valve might not make any sense, but using a picture of a wrench shaped monkey on a congruent picture of a valve kind of does? I think?

  2. Ah, Gorogoa. A gorgeous little game that absolutely does not outstay its welcome. I’m glad you have now played it, Joel.

    MrBehemo makes an interesting point, though it’s been enough years that I’d need to replay Gorogoa to really think it through. It feels right, though.

    I cannot really remember the last point and click adventure I played. I know I played through Gemini Rue at some point – maybe 6 years ago? Or maybe it was Full Throttle, which I ran through… maybe around the same time? To be honest, whilst I loved those I played when I was younger, these days I find most simply do not respect the player’s time.

  3. see, i did not get on with gorogoa very well at all. i was constantly stumped, and making progress only through brute force, trial and error. there were a handful of times when i could see a solution—but they didnt come with any aha, just felt mechanical to move the pictures around until things lined up. my verdict was basically: very pretty game, very tedious gameplay.

    i dunno, maybe i was in the wrong mood or tackling it at the wrong pace, or maybe my engineer brain is just too uncomfortable with moon logic.

  4. I’m not dissuaded from labelling Gorogoa a moon logic game. Aside from the fact Andy had huge problems with it, one puzzle I can quickly pull down from memory is [gheavat gur zna’f snpr vagb n pbva guebhtu n jvaqbj gb trg n genva gvpxrg] and, really, you don’t do through solving smarts – you figure that out through random manipulation.

    While it might be argued that moon logic is only moon logic if it’s frustrating, that’s more of a disagreement over definition. And I don’t know if Lucid Dream was frustrating considering how it narrowed your options; progress was assured, but it was extremely dull. I felt like a monkey grinding through combinations.

    wait did someone just spoil Monkey Island for me, I am one of three people in the world who hasn’t played it yet :)

  5. Oh no. I guess I am eternally branded as The Spoiler round these parts. But naa, this time it’s a 30 year old puzzle that’s as exemplary and codifying as the Gabriel Knight mustache. You got your can puzzles, your mustache puzzles and your monkey wrench puzzles. Not guilty!

  6. I’m only teasing. I haven’t played Monkey Island but heard of the monkey wrench puzzle and, indeed, came up when I was reading up a little background on moon logic. I was actually going to refer to it in the text but realised having not played it meant I couldn’t be sure of the details.

  7. We were gifted Gorogoa for Christmas so we played it on the day in one session and loved it. I think because we’re both very visual people we noticed patterns and ‘connections’ between elements so while the game was obviously pretty abstract we breezed through it for the most part, with the odd snag. You raise a good point about parsing the story because we weren’t entirely sure what it was about by the end. I suspect, like you said, the puzzles distracted us from piecing it all together!

    What originally drew me to point and click adventures was that there were no scores, no platforming, no shooting, no violence, no repetitive environments or collectibles. In fact, the absence of twitchy action made the genre something my mum could enjoy with us. It all felt handcrafted and magical, like I was stepping into an illustrated story book. I remember seeing Monkey Island for the first time and my mind just reeling at the thought of exploring these beautifully rendered places, talking to interesting characters and solving puzzles. I remember my mum reacting the same way with The Dig when she saw it on Movies, Games and Videos. I’m pretty sure my experience of LucasArts adventures as a kid has since made a lot of NPC dialogue pale in comparison over the years! It probably explains why I favour games with a little humour and self-awareness too. Anyway, all this to say that I still enjoy a good point and click adventure.

    These days, I think it all boils down to whether I’m having to guess and brute force my way forward. Even a little of that erodes my goodwill because that’s just… not puzzling, it’s vacant clicking.

    I think it was Paul Kilduff-Taylor who brought up the King’s Quest games being incredibly difficult/opaque back in the day because they were meant to last. Getting stuck was part of the experience and getting unstuck (whether by yourself or with the help of friends) was thrilling because, oh shit: progress! New stuff incoming! We’re back in the saddle! LET’S GOOO!

    Ah, here it is and I do agree with him:

    https://twitter.com/mode7games/status/1365255076416167936

    The Discworld game was a fucking pig of a game. So many duff items and locations (at different times) and things to interact with and some crazy moon logic… but at the time we loved it, and played it for years. We may have had some hints along the way. I definitely wouldn’t have the same patience for it now though! This is a good little review that illustrates my point (and it’s ‘love custard’ that goes down the toilet so, uh, yeah):

    https://youtu.be/lTWBOuDD_Bs

    Over the last 10 years or so I’ve revisited some point and click adventures and played a handful of more recent ones and generally feel that the genre has evolved to be more respectful of your time with hint systems, better telegraphing and fewer locations/items/’interactables’ to faff around with and get lost in. Primordia and Fran Bow have been amongst my favourites!

  8. @Gregg: I agree over how point and clicks have changed over time. The old King’s Quests are dear to my 10-year-old heart but they haven’t aged well at all. I think this is because
    1) as you say, people would often buy one game per YEAR back then, getting stuck was a feature
    2) game design was in its infancy so they didn’t really know what worked, but also:
    3) this was a company founded by 2 people: Ken Williams was very tech focused whereas Roberta really wanted to tell fairy tales with computers; they happened to luck into a fantastic opportunity where they’d get their game on the Apple II early on in their career which gave them a massive boost. None of that guaranteed that they would be at all good at designing games.

    @Joel: This reminds me of another adventure game, “Apocalipsis”, with stunning (disturbing) medieval-style art and ridiculous moon logic puzzles. It’s set during the black death (a time of madness and apocalypse) while the protagonist is (I think?) having a severe mental break. So the moon logic actually complements the setting really well: of *course* none of this makes any sense, *have you seen the state of the world??* Most of the puzzles can be brute-forced (and indeed have to be), so the puzzles tend to just provide a bit of friction while you trudge towards some kind of grim ending across a cursed and irredeemable landscape. Kind of the tonal opposite of Gorogoa, but I think it works for the same reason.

  9. Moon logic works in Gorogoa because the criteria for success is not “Does this combination make sense?” but rather “Is this combination beautiful?”

    A more common form of moon logic tries to make the criteria “Is it funny?” But it only works if the jokes are actually funny. Gorogoa wouldn’t work if the artwork wasn’t very good. Jokes a lot more precarious and fiddly and culturally-bound. The monkey wrench is possibly a funny joke if you get it at just the right time.

    It’s been a while so I’m fuzzy on the details, but when I played it, the Telltale point-and-click Strong Bad game SBCGAP (Strong Bad’s Cool Game for Attractive People) seemed like the greatest adaption of another media to video games I’d ever seen. Strong Bad’s email videos were already built around absurd humor and even featured point-and-click hotspot easter eggs (arguably already a tiny Flash mini-game).

    I don’t remember the individual puzzles very well, but there were jokes and silliness built in to every interaction so clicking on everything felt more like finding all the gags than brute-forcing a puzzle solution. The Chapman Bros were heavily involved so the sense of humor was very similar to what I loved in the sbemail videos. Games like Monkey Island or Sam and Max ahve tried that same formula, but understandably a video game studio is unlikely to be as consistently amusing as the creative team from a successful comedy series.

  10. I agree with MrBehemo–or that there’s a layer of game logic underlying the moon logic. The game logic is that lining up images Does Things. What Things it Does is a matter of moon logic in the outer world. This is especially strong where you peel a layer off a picture to reveal something underneath, or there’s a scene that has a direction you can click; there’s absolutely no way to know what it’ll reveal. And the unexpected revelations are much of the pleasure!

    For moon logic to work at all, a game has to severely restrict the player’s options. It’s the Yes, Prime Minister syllogism at work:

    We must do something.
    This is something.
    Therefore, we must do this.

    You don’t know what you want to happen, you don’t know what will happen when you do something, so it’d better be that what you can do helps. In adventure game this can devolve into try-everything-on-everything or spot-the-next-clicky-thing; Gorogoa keeps it engaging by putting some skill in how you find things to do by figuring out where the pictures can match. (There’s also some internal logic; for instance, in the part where lbh unir gb znxr n pybpx qvfcynl n pregnva gvzr gb znxr n fgne nccrne, you do know what the goal is, and there the subgoals make mechanical sense).

    Of course it’s important that the art is so detailed and beautiful. It wouldn’t be much of a reward to open up a new landscape if the new landscape weren’t worth looking at.

  11. Oh, and the puzzle Joel rot13ed is literally the last puzzle in the 2012 demo so I didn’t have any problem with it in the full game! In the demo there was something I had discovered while clicking around for stuff that I was waiting to use for a long time and I found a picture I could use it on, and then figuring out where the result went wasn’t that hard. So it was a bit of moon logic in the conclusion but it went along with the game’s methods. It might be harder in the main game because IIRC the steps are much more widely separated.

    Which is to say, if you’d played the demo in 2013 like Richard and I told you to, you wouldn’t have had this problem.

    It’s interesting to compare the demo to the full game. The demo goes through what would be 70% of the game content if he hadn’t reworked it substantially so… you can see why he had to rework it substantially, and why it took him five years to finish after the demo was released. I talked about it a little here in relation to Vignettes, where according to Joel it also seemed like the demo squeezed most of the juice out of the original concept and turning it into a new game required putting a little adventure game logic back in.

    Another thing that struck me is there’s an adventure-game-moon-logic thing early on in the demo, when doing something in one place triggers something apparently unrelated in another, just because that’s what it takes to progress (lbh unir gb yvar hc gur gbjref va gjb cnaryf sbe gur pebj gb ynaq va gur gerr va gur guveq). Adventure gamers hate that! And it was reworked in the full game.

  12. Gorogoa is possibly the most universal video game – with enough convincing, non-gamers can enjoy it very well!

  13. @matt w – yes, exactly, gorogoa’s about matching shapes to see things happen, rather than trying to piece together logic—moon or otherwise—to try to make goals happen. with all my adventure/puzzle game training, i attacked it from the latter perspective, which is probably why i found it frustrating.

  14. Horror games like Silent Hill seems to match well from moon logic, the series for example has most puzzles based on the context of the story not on the “real world”, principally Silent Hill 2. Probably the use of moon logic would benefit more in this sense, on the other hand if not designed wisely becomes just an arbitrary frustration to the player

  15. The way I see Moon Logic is in terms of the very helpful distinction made in discussions on this website between ‘puzzles’ and ‘riddles’.

    I’ll attempt a summary. With puzzles, you have a cognitive challenge where the rules are explained and you have to deduce the solution from the information provided. With riddles, you have a cognitive challenge where the only rules the game needs to observe are that the solution requires a combination of gameplay verbs – they can be logical or illogical, obvious or devious, sensible or arbitrary.

    What’s necessary is to think in the way that the person who set the riddle was thinking. A good non-gaming analogue would be cryptic crosswords – if you can make the connection then a solution will make perfect sense. If you can’t, then even if you know the solution, it will seem completely bizarre. Moon logic as a phenomena stems from the idea that the developer’s way of thinking is alien to common sense. The highly the percentage failure rate, the more likely an accusation of moon logic is to stick.

    Like cryptic crosswords, I think it’s possible to train the brain to become more versed in ontology, if you like, of game riddles. It’s like looking for secret areas. If you’ve been playing games for a while, you know to always turn the camera/move the opposite direction your character is facing at the start of a level, check behind every waterfall for a secret cave, and so on.

    Any genre of games, from adventures to first-person shooters, can employ either or both of these types of cognitive challenge, with some genres being more notorious than others. Both can act as a sort of filter – a percentage of players are just not going to be able to reach the solution. This isn’t to exclusive to cognitive challenges; any challenge in a game is going to a filter with a non-zero failure rate, even down to controlling the character or camera. With that in mind, developers have several strategies available:

    – avoidance. Don’t put puzzles or riddles in your game.
    – dilution. Make the challenges really easy. The design problem then becomes trying to re-disguise them in such a way that the player feels a greater sense of achievement than was actually warranted.
    – hint systems. This can be a dedicated system provided by the interface, or it could be key items/locations being highlighted, prompts from NPCs, etc.
    – auto-solution. Actively detect for where progress is not being made by the player, and if necessary, offer to simply move them on past the roadblock.
    – indifference. Leave the under-percenters to their fate of getting stuck, and yourself open to the criticism of being a moon logic abuser.

    I credit the Zelda series for having mastered a sort of ‘flow state’ in its dungeon design, where the player is presented with a string of puzzles/riddles that can be solved almost without thinking, often without realising the puzzle is there until it is solved, that builds into a sense of accomplishment by aggregate with basically no opportunity for getting stuck. You get the satisfaction of some successful system 2 thinking without ever having to actually do it.

    When I started playing the (truly, truly excellent) Ace Attorney series, I get frustrated that the game was ‘illogical’ because there were contradictions *I* was trying to present and *I* thought should be interpreted as valid that were rejected by the game (which will only ever accept one correct solution from the player at any moment). Having played five games in the series, I would still admit this is a valid criticism of the game from a certain point of view. But it doesn’t personally both me at all any more, simply because I got better at understanding what kind of riddles the series consistently presents – you’re not looking for any contradiction in the general abstract of the case, you’re always looking for the contradiction which is specifically revealed in the contents of the given cross examination.

  16. Oh, I forgot one of my favourite strategies, which is to offer multiple solutions. Immersive sims are the golden child of this idea but I feel like games in way more genres could do it if they wanted to (and I’m sure some do).

  17. I’ve really appreciated all the comments that have turned up over the last 10 days, I apologise for a lack of response as life has not granted me any sort of Electron Dance time as explained in the newsletter. Not going to add too much at this point except for some brief notes…

    I took a quick look at the game full of moon logic that James Patton mentioned – Apocalipsis – which does look really lovely, but the Steam reviews are decidely mixed. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; you might be on the side which thinks it’s good. I think this is an interesting one because, like Gorogoa, it doesn’t rely on comedy as a rationale for moon logic.

    There’s something to be said for making moon logic’s necessary brute force solving technique much more of a funnel through the limiting of combinations, which is also covered by one of CA’s “strategies around moon logic” in making the challenges really easy. Bonus points, there, for bringing up Matt W’s distinction between puzzles and riddles.

    One last point, I did play the Gorogoa demo, Matt, but I didn’t remember the ROT13’d puzzle. I am also reminded of another puzzle that probably stumped some players – that first [ehor tbyqoret] puzzle. It needs a lot of fiddling about before you can see the solution.

  18. There are different types of games and different types of players that seek different things. From what I understand from all this is that in the end this “moon logic” will depend more on the player judgment about the the puzzle than from the puzzle itself or the creator intentions, seeming just another case of confuse definition on this crazy ludic world. But I’m not giving much thought to this, I just want to add that it wouldn’t make any sense to make a puzzle too easy to beat, if “being puzzled” it’s part of the experience.

  19. PMM – yes, I was wary of getting into a fight over definitions, but you can see we’ve definitely been skating around it here. I was worried we might end arguing that “it can’t be moon logic if it’s good”.

  20. CA, the cryptic crossword thing is interesting to me because there are definitely gradations of moon logic in cryptic clues. There are some you can figure out in steps, like Friday’s puzzle had “Clearly show way out, ask shortly to come in (7)” where I had a good guess early that it was EX_ _ _ IT (“way out” with “ask shortly” inside) and couldn’t figure out how to make that “clearly show” by putting an abbreviated form of “ask” inside–then I got an S and figured out it had to be EXPOSIT.

    Then there were a bunch of double definitions, like the whole puzzle centered around “Dip in hole (6)” which turned out to be PICKLE, and if you’re not on the same wavelength as the setter as to the meaning of “hole” or “dip” you’re out of luck, there is no way to assemble it by steps without getting it all at once. Those are much less satisfying to me. Some really good clues are built up out of bits and require logical leaps where you can see what word the author needs to be thinking of and then figure out why they’re thinking that, but it’s hard to pull off.

    OK what I’m really here for is to complain about one clue in that puzzle where “porridge” is used to define “bird.” From bitter experience I knew that “porridge” means a prison sentence, and apparently “bird” does too? Because they’re both cockney rhyming slang, “bird lime” for “time” and “porridge knife” for “life”? And WHAT ON EARTH ARE THESE PEOPLE DOING TO THEIR PORRIDGE THAT THEY NEED A KNIFE FOR IT?

  21. Since I already cited Silent Hill, I would point to the first one for hard puzzles, they have very misleading clues, the piano puzzle I think is one of the hardest, you have figure out the order of the keys based on a poem and then interpret the poem allegorically where the keys are black and white birds doing something, another one for example is a puzzle where you have put zodiac signs in a specific order based on the number os limbs of the figures, but there is a variety of puzzles, even a anagram close to the end.


Leave a comment

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail.

No trackbacks yet.