One of my all-time favorite games is a very crappy, rarely talked about adventure title from the PS One’s earliest years, called Tail of the Sun. It’s a weird foray into a world of Neolithic exploration, where you play as a caveman looking to expand his tribe and build a tower of mammoth bones toward the sun. It’s bizarre. It’s aged like mayo from 1996. But it has something many games don’t have, and that’s crazy specificity. On that virtue alone, it’s an awesome gaming experience.
Nowadays, finding niche games is as easy as trawling Steam (or checking into n3rdabl3 regularly!) for the latest, weirdest passion projects. Often, I pick games up on the sole virtue of them looking unlike anything else on sale. Most of the time, “crazy specificity” is about as reliably fun as it sounds, which is to say, not very. But every so often, I do strike gold. The Mooseman falls squarely into the ‘totally worth my gamble’ territory.
As with every game found this way, there’s bad with the good. I’m going to start with the bad because there isn’t a lot of it. I also know these aspects are only present in this specific port, for the Nintendo Switch.
I won’t tell you that The Mooseman is the most fun you’ll have all summer. It isn’t, nor is it supposed to be. Even if its intentions aren’t set on exciting gameplay, the controls on the Switch port are a little irritating – sloppily ported, if I’m being honest. Going from menu to menu has the same feel as clunking around a PS One era game. Natural motions like having a return button are nonexistent. Everything must be cycled through, highlighted, clicked on. It’s a rush job for a ported game meant to be played on PC. It’s contents are a far cry from the rest of the Switch’s growing pit of shovelware, but based on the simplest functions, The Mooseman’s gameplay is passable. In short: it gets the job done, but not to the best of its abilities.
In all fairness, if this game didn’t bleed passion for its (highly specific) subject matter, it wouldn’t be a disaster. It wouldn’t be annoying enough for me to put it down for good, but I like to think I’m pretty patient. Keep in mind, these annoying menu functions are only present in the Switch version. These nitpicks, I imagine, aren’t quite as apparent with the easier flow of mouse and keyboard controls, so if this game interests you and you have the option, I would spring for a non-Switch for now. Then again, it is also only $7 USD, which – regardless of its controls – is fair, considering the experience you’re getting. You probably aren’t going to play it for much longer than two hours, and it really is a “sit down and absorb me” sort of title. Updates are a thing though, even on the Switch, so it’s your call if you’d like to experience this game via handheld.
But… that’s it for the bad. Ultimately, however you play The Mooseman, you’re going to get an experience that you will not get anywhere else. It has its flaws on the Switch, but I can’t address this game in the same way that you look at most titles, because it doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is. The Mooseman is something that many people insist games can be, but often don’t know how to demonstrate. This game is a prime example of video games going beyond entertainment, and into a more culturally impactful domain. Simply put, it’s educational but finesses itself out of “educational game” territory by virtue of its thoughtful presentation.
The Mooseman accomplishes everything a game in its vein should do. I would have never known about its subject matter – the part of the world it’s about, or any of their myths – if not for my crash course from its Russian developers, Morteshka. It’s incredible to think that there’s an entire part of human history that is completely overshadowed, simply because nobody has come around to remind us about it – at least, not through this medium.
Throughout The Mooseman, the player interacts with rainbow glyphs and starry-eyed totems found throughout their environment, each of which unlocks a journal entry detailing bits and pieces of The Mooseman’s real-world inspired lore. Specifically, this is shown through mythological figure drawings, recreated in the Perm animal-style artwork. “Perm”, being the area from which The Mooseman’s mythological roots took shape (and where the developers are located), and “animal-style art” being the Iron Age drawings utilized by the Chud people during Northern Europe’s migratory period.
From my very American perspective, when it comes to what you learn in public school here, there’s a dearth of information on world culture. I don’t know how it is elsewhere, but the typical history curriculum in the United State’s doesn’t touch upon any kind of early Slavic culture, let alone one as zoned-in as the Chud people. I won’t lie; I don’t even remember learning about anything from the Iron Age, even during university level art courses. So when something like The Mooseman comes my way, I try to appreciate it, to the point where the flaws in its presentation are forgivable.
Morteshka is doing something many in the game industry talk about doing, but few actually put into practice; they’ve developed a piece of new media that actually teaches you about something, without having the mediocre impression of something like an educational video.
Its art is simple, but only in the sense that its source material is simple. It’s through the game’s limited cinematography where we get to see expansive displays of cave drawings, where myths take shape and come to life. Like the perennial classic by rapper Dr. Octagon, a lot of the visuals in The Mooseman gave me moosebumps. The good kind.
Every drawing is inspired by this Permian animal style art, which gives off a vaguely primordial, kinda-sorta-Neolithic vibe. Considering the game’s subject matter, using reproductions of this art style is what sets The Mooseman apart from a lot of ‘artsy’ games. It feels like an authentic history lesson, and in that authenticity is a game world that is strangely inviting in its weirdly primal way. It doesn’t just shove examples of this art style at you like some kind of digital textbook; the entire world of The Mooseman is steeped in a modernized, visual facsimile of its inspirations.
While the feel of this misty underworld-overworld-otherworld stays consistent and flows nicely between explored areas, that cohesion is pleasantly punctuated by puzzles, blending ethereal imagery over a gloomy, Siberian backdrop. Pressing the A button allows the player to invoke spiritual visions, where The Mooseman dons his headgear and gains control over mythical forces from beyond the pale. As simplistic as these mechanics are – usually via push-button puzzles, and alternating in and out of your vision state to cross gaps in the landscape – they’re never so difficult as to impede on your journey in a way that breaks The Mooseman’s dream-like flow.
All of this is under the umbrella of this Perm animal-style art, in a way that breathes new life into ancient art. It’s probably hard to imagine what this looks like without seeing what I mean firsthand, but the developers expertly incorporate Iron Age artwork into an interactive world so fluidly, that it becomes naturally engrossing. The environments are among the most aesthetically consistent in any indie title I’ve played. Only in similar titles, like Detention, have I seen worlds so well put together that you never feel divorced from the game’s immersion.
A handful of puzzles, along with a few sections of action where your spirit vision is replaced with bow and arrow mechanics, is about as far as The Mooseman takes its gameplay You walk forward and backward. You walk up hills and fall down holes. You open doors, move stones with your spirit buddies help, and generally make your way from left to right. Yes, it is a ‘walking simulator’ – but one with so much atmosphere that dumping that moniker onto it feels dirty.
The pace is purposefully plodding, so much so that it takes some getting used to. By the time you start finding artwork entries and visiting totem checkpoints, it’s easy to slow yourself down for the sake of enjoying the world. The Mooseman is relatively short, after all. There’s no need to move fast. There are a few environmental dangers blocking your progression, but The Mooseman seems pretty self-aware about what it’s trying to achieve. You’re not Super Mario, saving the princess. You’re on a spirit journey, through Siberia: all of it’s punishing winds and driving snows are included.
This is a game that is seriously devoted to promoting a completely unrepresented piece of cultural history, at least by way of it’s medium. It is, for all intents and purposes, an educational game about the myths and legends of the Chud people. How much of that is passed through the developer’s sieve of interpretation, or the filter of game narrative, I can’t say – I don’t think anyone who isn’t a historian could. I had to dig deep to find even a trace of the books referenced throughout The Mooseman’s various entries on Permian animal style art. But of course, I found some, because I ball hard. And it’s interesting stuff. For a game to make me want to look for more about something so obscure is an accomplishment in and of itself.
If Perm has a cultural museum – which oh hey, it does! – this game needs to be a permanent installment somewhere in their collection. It’s packed with so much information relevant to the area’s cultural identity, that I would be remiss to hold it up to the recognition it deserves. Someone should donate a Switch to the museum, hook it into a projector, and put The Mooseman on loop. It’s modern art based on ancient art… and it’s a lot better than some installments I’ve seen in bigger cities (looking at you, New York – put some mooseymen in the MoMA).
But then again, you’re probably asking, “why should I care?”. And that’s fair, this is a weirdly specific thing to make a whole game out of. I’m not the arbiter of how you expand your cultural or historical perspective – and I won’t judge you if this sort of game bores you to tears – but if you choose to play The Mooseman, you’re choosing to learn about something that’s presented lovingly, in a way that’s meant to engage you instead of inundating you with information.
Playing a game like The Mooseman means promoting the idea that games can be more than mindless entertainment, and if you’re about that sort of thing, good for you. The game does contain a lot of text, and it does reference actual art history books. Chances are, if you’re the sort of person who gives a shit about the brain in your head, you won’t feel like you’ve wasted your time on this one. That said, it’s totally not for everyone. It’s audience is people who haven’t had that spark of curiosity snuffed out of them – so give it a shot, if you think that’s you.
Even if you play The Mooseman on the Switch, don’t take for granted what the developers have accomplished here. In all of it’s shortness and simplicity, there’s something satisfying about knowing someone out there is so passionate about this subject matter. And why not? There is a reason why the Steam version has pretty glowing reviews, people appreciate passion projects.
It’s a little slice of something strange from somewhere far away; something that someone out there knows the world needs to remember. It’s a tribute to our past and the sort of living legacy that makes our modern age so fun to be a part of. Still, I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t at least mention what makes this particular port a little shaky; if you can get over the Switch’s clunkier controls, The Mooseman is an absolute treat. Go into it knowing that you’ve got yourself a brief, but ultimately worthwhile experience unlike any you’ll play this summer.
The Mooseman is available now on Steam (Windows, Mac, and Linux) and Nintendo Switch