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.
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.
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.
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.