“Mars sucks…” is really the only quote from the game a player needs to read to understand how the developers fell short of their Lovecraftian aspirations; however, that is not to say the game wasn’t enjoyable or didn’t have strengths in other areas. Moons of Madness creators, Rock Pocket Games, and Dreamloop Games, describe their game as “cosmic horror” where hallucinations will make the character question their own reality. While I am not sure if the game lives up to the psychological horror, the creators pull together a compelling play-through with entertaining puzzles, exciting jump-scares, and an authentic sense of isolation. While these aspects compose a game that drives players through the story, the game, largely, unravels players’ investment through formulaic clichés, cheap scares, and an ending that progressively lessens the weight of the narrative.
Since the designers boasted a “Lovecraftian” narrative, it is fair to critique the success of that particular endeavor. Largely, it failed to develop and advance this genre in any unique way, and, in many ways, created more of a parody of the genre by the end. Lovecraftian, or oftentimes called “cosmic horror”, attempts to elevate a sense of psychological horror within a cosmic space. These narratives should highlight the vast, cold universe and the relative insignificance of our individual existence through deep revelations of an appalling or disgusting truth that erodes our comfort in understanding our metaphysical reality. Normally, this genre has great potential for storytelling; however, the genre must be taken seriously in order to have that effect. Moons of Madness seems to be using the tropes of this genre as a mere context or plot device to move characters through a linear world. Because of this, the “appalling” reveals of truth seem cheap, light, and predictable as is evidenced by the final line of the story, “Mars sucks.”
The final line isn’t the only thing that lessens the weight of the game. As mentioned before, cosmic horror shouldn’t be mere jump scares in the environment of space. The genre should actually avoid devices of mere shock. Cosmic horror should frighten the participant in a deeper, existential sense. Moons of Madness seems to focus more on cheap jumps, which admittedly are exciting, but it fails to create a sense of psychological dread. While streaming my play-through, I had to laugh with my viewers as I unexpectedly jumped and yelled when a ghost of an astronaut temporarily appeared on my screen as I opened a door, or when a “tentacled- monster” chased me through a maze of dead-ends, heightened by the fact that players cannot fight back. Those moments were fun and exciting, but I was constantly waiting for something deeper to happen to my character.
While reading the description of the game before I purchased, I was drawn by the inclusion of audio and visual hallucinations. I immediately thought of the unique strengths of games like Hellblade. Hellblade developers spent time researching the experiences of people who had schizoid personality disorders, and their efforts were demonstrated perfectly. That audio mechanic gave a true sense of anxiety and terror to me. Their hallucinations were always presented as hallucinations tickling the back of the player’s mind. In contrast, Moons of Madness demonstrated a lack of those strengths. Visual hallucinations were quick jump-scares, and their audio hallucinations were nothing more than the narrative voice that provided exposition and plot movement. The player doesn’t question the hallucination, because it is an integrated function of the plot.
In order to defend itself as a horror game, it seems the developers grabbed whatever pop-cultural artifacts they could remember, and this made the game, at times, almost seem like a parody. It was a hodgepodge of clichés. They made sure to include gruesome environmental decorations like dead bodies with tree-limb protrusions. Someone must have remembered that the Necronomicon is popular in horror, and they needed to throw in some reference to pentagrams and demons. How do those things relate to a cosmic horror story that reveals the appalling truth of the universe? Well, they don’t, and they weren’t explained well. It is as if the creators loved horror parodies like Evil Dead, and they thought those types of stories were good formulae for deeper journeys into horror. With the final words, “Mars sucks,” I couldn’t legitimately tell if I was being screwed with or not. Was this parody or was this an authentic attempt at the genre? As a viewer during my stream stated, “Was that it?…What a reveal!”
Strengths of Gameplay
The developers may have failed in their attempts to create a true cosmic horror narrative, but, if we put that description aside, it offers a fun, linear ride. Even though the narrative doesn’t pay off in the end, I was always compelled by the potential of the story and the excitement to consistently play the game. The mystery was always compounded by the sense of isolation. Throughout the game, the player is in communication with members of their Martian settlement team, and while the player hears the voices through their devices, players never have a face-to-face interaction. Any time a player finally encounters a member of the team, it is always too late for that team member. As a player, I truly felt alone. Leaving the walls of a building and walking across the wastelands of Mars, heightened that sense. Their linear level design also excelled. While the player is on a tramline, the lack of a map and the variety of pathways created a more open illusion with the linear design. Since the player cannot fight or defend themselves in any active manner, running away from enemies made the linear levels more exciting. The developers also pushed players through the linear game with fun puzzles. While in the beginning of the game, the puzzles are designed towards more grunt work, like finding a key, a grouping of pictures, or hidden symbols, as the game moves on, there are puzzles that make the player actually think and strategize. While they weren’t overly challenging, they scratched an intellectual itch.
This game does not live up to the aims of the developers in any meaningful way. It promises a cosmic horror narrative, but it delivers a parody of itself. Instead of creating dread, it offers shock. The developers failed to utilize available tools like strong binaural hallucinations or a compelling return on the investment of the narrative. On the other hand, the developers successfully offer a fun five to six hours of jump-scares, fun puzzles, and a haunting environment.
Formats: PS4 (reviewed) PC
Developer: Dreamloop Games and Rock Pocket Games
Release Date: March 24, 2020
Age Rating: M
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