The Mooseman has a lot to offer that piques my interest: a mixture of various old Russian/Eastern Europeans tribal mythologies in a narrative-based, atmospheric, adventure title.
The story behind the game’s development and the elements that brought it all together is also quite interesting in itself, plus, beyond anything, playing the game has been very educational for me regarding the Finno-Ugric peoples.
Featured is a beautiful soundtrack, comprised of orchestral string arrangements, ambient electronic pieces and folk music of the Komi people. It’s worth listening to even on its own.
But where the game falls short is, well, in being meaningful as an interactive experience.
Playing the Mooseman
The gameplay of The Mooseman is more akin to a minimally interactive storybook than anything deeply involved on the player’s part. As a fan of that concept, liking a lot of games that take that approach, the execution of it is a bit puzzling here for me.
The main mechanic is a mask that can be taken on or off at will, altering the player character’s vision in each state. This allows you to solve “puzzles”, that aren’t exactly puzzles, but rather “put your mask on, you can see the bridge now, walk on it” scenarios. Later, you’re given a shield item that can also be turned on and off, but that again is just as deep as how you use the mask.
This is a rather short game, but the slow movement and lack of engagement is a determent, making the brief experience feel needlessly lengthy.
Throughout your journey, you will also come across collectibles in the form of artifacts and idols. Some of these are often hidden or out of the way but, considering that the game has an auto-walk feature as a standard, it’s kinda self-defeating. There is little to no incentive to collect things that only reward you with very dry descriptions of mythological beings and concepts, which I would much more happily read in the form of a book than like this.
It also doesn’t help that the descriptions (and brief pieces of dialogue) are written in what is reminiscent of a generic coffee shop typeface, taking me out of the experience. I half-expected a “funny mustache” logo preceding any text.
Turning the Page
The reason why a completely story-based game like Firewatch works is that it presents its story in a way that utilizes the interactive medium of video games; the story is told through means where it actually makes use of the space that it’s in. For an interactive storybook-style game to work, the act of “turning the page” has to be done in a way that’s more meaningful than simply turning a page, or turning the page has to be rewarding in a way that can only be done within the medium.
Of course, that’s not to say that there isn’t room for a “storybook emulator”, but it’s not what we have in The Mooseman. By trying to include “game” elements, The Mooseman gets confused about the kind of experience it wants the player to have. The elements come off as more of an afterthought, added only because the developers were afraid of its slim offerings.
Would The Moosman, as we have it, been better presented if it didn’t try to shoehorn traditional video game elements in it? If it committed itself more to an unraveling of its narrative, not relegated behind menus? Yes. In fact, I would argue that a complete lack of any kind of spelled-out narrative would’ve gone a long way in making the experience a lot more unique and immersive.
It might sound counter-intuitive, but its this emphasis on narrative on telling rather than showing that makes the experience a murky one, which is rather unfortunate, as the game’s visuals (which, while hit or miss for me personally, still invoke a specific mood), music and amazing narrative background thirst for delivery in a better package.