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There’s been something of a moral panic around feminism in games for the last few years now; slow burning, with occasional flares of white hot rage about feminist themes or ideas being forced down someone or other’s throat. But what is a “feminist theme”?
I’ve tried to find a concrete answer that sheds more light than heat on the issue. Feminist themes can exist as something beyond the terrible man-hating castrating harpy boogey woman that some gamers fear. Certainly, one would prefer something subtle and graceful, rather than a hamfisted story that beat you over the head with its politics. Something like Kitfox Games’ Moon Hunters.
[Spoilers for Moon Hunters follow.]
It’s not especially shocking to say that a game about multifaceted moon goddess would have feminist themes, but the manner in which they’re expressed, and how the game presents its particular vision of gender equity, is through a hopeful allegory for dark times.
In Issaria, a prehistoric, tribal world united by worship of various aspects of the Moon, the celestial body fails to rise one fateful night, and you and your fellow heroes are tasked by your elders with finding some remedy for the crisis. From here, the game can play out any number of ways but you learn that a violent and patriarchal sun cult is claiming responsibility for the destruction of the moon and pledges to purge or convert the moon worshipping tribes. Thus far, it had all played out like a Riane Esler book, and that feeling was reinforced on my very first playthrough when I lost the final boss battle against King Mardokh, the leader of the sun cultists.
The ending cinematic portrayed a world where Mardokh declared the dawn of a “new age,” one with cities and technological advancement, but at the cost of the culture and tribal heritage of those old moon worshippers ground underfoot.
I played through again and won my boss battle with Mardokh, expecting a sunnier (or, well, moonier) ending. But if anything, this cinematic was the saddest of all. The sun cultists were destroyed, but the Moon did not return and the old tribes began to wither and dissolve, forgetting their old ways. Meanwhile all that was magical about the world began to fade into the black of night, never to be seen again. This time, there wasn’t even a tradeoff. It was just darkness all the way down.
Still, if visual novels have taught me anything, it’s that I should always look for the best/true ending, and after a weekend of furtive playing, note taking and puzzle solving I at last figured out how to get the ideal ending. You must go to a certain location on the map, perform a ritual, and then begin the final battle against an especially powerful Mardokh wielding a terrible superweapon. But not moments into the battle, you are interrupted by none other than the Goddess herself; her thundering entrance pauses the fight and she chides Mardokh but also forgives him for destroying the Moon, her physical body. She then turns to you and asks if you are also willing to forgive.
“Yes,” you can say.
If you do, what follows will add tremendous clarity to the game’s themes, revealing the bright moral heart of Moon Hunters. Mardokh and his followers call off their holy war and join with the moon tribes to build the world’s first city; sigils combining the Sun and Moon adorn the rising adobe towers. The Moon itself rematerializes with a new companion, a second moon called The Little Chief who is said to be the Goddess’ son. Brightness returns, from day to night and back again.
This is how one shows without telling, I would think, making a clear point about non-violence and reconciliation. Though Moon Hunters’ message is not overtly political, the gendering of Sun and Moon are clear and doubtlessly inspired by actual mythological conflicts from our own history.
Issaria’s Myth of Creation, which to my knowledge is only available in the game’s art book, makes this clear. The world itself was created by a savage act of jealousy on the part of the Sun god, Ashur, who felt that his Moon Goddess sister, Issar, out-shone him.
In a story that will doubtlessly feel familiar to many women, she did her utmost to flatter him and reassure him that he shone brightly too, that he was just as loved by the humans she had created, striving to nurture his too-easily-bruised ego.
“See, dear brother?” Moon said. “They love You. Let Us tell a story of a world, for Us to rule together.”
But the moment Ashur perceived them to worship Issar more, he hacked her apart, pieces of her celestial body falling among the humans to create the mountains, rivers, forests, and skies of their world. Still, Issar endured through her “heart,” the Moon itself, and her forgiveness was eternal.
The game gives you every reason to hate the Sun and seek to destroy its cult forever, to wipe that manic laugh off Mardokh’s face once and for all. Yet it is clearly not what is best for the world; the Sun is as necessary as the Moon, its worshippers have as much claim to Issaria as the Moon’s. If you take vengeance on Mardokh for his crimes, the world does not heal, and instead it withers into lonely bleakness. If Mardokh triumphs, the world advances, by a certain reckoning, but much will also be lost and cast into darkness.
Only through reconciliation do we reach something like justice.
"Like any fable, Moon Hunters’ story is a tidy thing, tied off in a flawless knot. The message is that retribution only begets more pain, while forgiveness makes us whole. "
It is a potent message, especially during these days of bottomless rage. Like any fable, Moon Hunters’ story is a tidy thing, tied off in a flawless knot. It does not dwell in the political complexities and motivations behind real world violence, sectarian conflict, or sexism. But that was not the game’s purpose. Fables are often literary clamshells concealing some polished pearl of wisdom untroubled by the waters around it: an ideal to aspire to, in other words.
The message in Moon Hunters is that retribution only begets more pain, while forgiveness makes us whole. Through mapping this onto a gendered schema, it makes the added point that even when we as feminists are faced with the worst selfishness and violence, restoration will require finding ways to make the perpetrators human and humane once more--not simply revenging ourselves upon them and calling it justice.
Revenge fantasies are a dime a dozen in fiction. Even feminist-tinged ones, like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, repeat the same veneration of violence that their more patriarchal counterparts indulge in. It was brave of Kitfox Games to suggest something different during our nihilistic, irony-saturated age where guileless compassion is the least cool thing imaginable.
At that crucial moment, when the Goddess interceded in your fight with mecha-Mardokh, she was asking you to follow her example and accede to our better angels. We could all stand to imagine Her over our shoulder during the many moral crossroads that are sure to come over the next few years.
Katherine Cross is a Ph.D student in sociology who researches anti-social behavior online, and a gaming critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications.