Surely I'm not the only one who missed out on the hype train that was Moirai back in 2013, but the thousands of reviews and praise for this short free to play game stand testament to its popularity. It wasn't until someone posted a link on social media with the caveat "just play it" that I even had an inkling it existed.
Before we delve into the experience, I will echo that caveat for those who haven't played Moirai: go play Moirai right now! It's a small download and only takes about ten minutes to complete, but you really don't want to know anything about it until you play it for yourself.
When you're done, head back and we'll continue.
Okay, so I'm assuming that everyone reading from here on out has played the game and understands why it's important to go in blind. If you still haven't played it, then go and play it! I don't care about spoilers most of the time, but this one is worth experiencing for yourself.
By now we all know about the 'twist' at the end of the game, which is the primary reason for secrecy and spoiler free zones, so let's talk about Moirai with that in mind.
The first thing that really puts a smile on my face about Moirai is how much I hate the graphics and the controls. It looks basic as all hell, the art is boring and generic, and the controls are old keyboard controls that are clunky (at best) to use. When you see your hands for the first time, it's like they cut and paste forearms from some other game because they forgot to include those sprites in the original set.
It looks bad, the environment is plain and boring, and there are no redeeming mechanics. Moirai plays like an old game that hasn't been updated for decades.
So when I say that it put a smile on my face, you know that it must be due to the systems playing out beneath the surface. The 'twist' is one of the few places where those interesting systems bubble to the top and become visible to the player.
First the room with scratch marks all over the walls and a book listing farmers for some reason. Second is the gold object stuck in a wall that hints at the story the townsfolk were trying to tell about the boy who got lost in the mines. There are small bones in the corner, testing you to see if you'll put the pieces together and realise who they belong to. Third are the farmers you meet on your way in and out of the mines, each with their own version of the story that you seem to be sharing with them.
Finally there's the lady dying in the mines, who has a tale of her own to tell, which may be the only part that falls out of step with the rest of the story. Especially once you decide her fate and turn to leave…
There's a point where you see what the developer is doing and how the game's systems are ticking over behind the scenes to mess with your tiny little mind.
I played through Moirai twice and spent about fifteen minutes with the game in total. The first run through took up most of that time, as I was exploring and interacting with everything I could find. I only went back so that I could bee-line straight to the ending and see what had changed, only to learn that Moirai is a great one-liner and nothing else.
Don't get me wrong; a great one-liner is still great and you'll lose yourself the first time you hear it, but the cracks widen every time its repeated. For instance, the cyclical hook of the game is a bit too fourth-wall breaking for me, as it negates the mystery of the story by becoming more about people playing a game.
Simultaneously, breaking the fourth wall is pretty much the point of the whole experience as you are blatantly told that there are other people playing the game and they are making their own decisions without you.
The biggest disappointment for me was the email I received after my second playthrough, informing me of what another player had done when they encountered me in the game. I had thought long and hard about my answers to the three questions and written something I thought was quite insightful and complimented the story. Of course I hoped that the player who read my fantastic responses would have no choice but to let me go, because I had enriched their experience.
Sadly, my responses were no doubt just as terrible as a monkey mashing a keyboard, as I was politely informed that the next player had decided that it was best to kill me.
Now I'm not the biggest fan of playing games with strangers and Moirai reminded me why. It's not that the player who killed me did anything wrong, but the way we were playing the game differed and created a dissonant sense of purpose. Add in the question about what's actually happening to the lady in the cave, cursed to an eternity of suffering, and the mysterious story starts to unravel a bit.
It might sound like I don't like Moirai because it shows you a slick premise before steering you away from the path and into muddy waters, but I can't hold these inconsistencies against it at all. Largely because it's free, but at the same time it doesn't demand too much from you to get the point across. Moirai shakes your hand, gets to the punch line, then politely excuses itself.
I'm hoping that if you've read this far it means you've played Moirai for yourself and have your own thoughts on the 'twist' and how well the punch line lands (feel free to comment below). Ultimately I think that's the beauty of this kind of game and why I like ambiguity when it's done well.
Moirai can mean a great many things to many people, which is pretty impressive for such a short, simple experience.
One of the developers wrote a great post-mortem on the game that I would recommend for further reading here: http://cjohnson.id.au/game-dev/moirai-postmortem