There is something special about a game that can make passersby stop to admire the images on the television screen. For most of this week my roommate slinked away to the back room when I turned on my PS4, but the moment she caught a glimpse of The Mooseman she stood transfixed in the living room. She stopped her task and slowly shuffled toward the open chair, never taking her eyes off the TV. When she asked what the story is about, I said I was still trying to figure it out, but could vaguely tell it is about a zoomorphic character who has to descend into the underworld for the sake of his tribe. It was at that moment we realized I’d played half the game with the default language accidentally set to Russian. Since the game is about the language and mythos of ancient Finnic culture, I thought I was just hearing an indigenous language I was unfamiliar with. I know this confession doesn’t say a lot about my intelligence, but my blunders in interacting with The Mooseman didn’t end there. After switching the audio to English, I fumbled through the menu screen failing to find the input that would return us to the gameplay.
The Mooseman is a 2D sidescrolling game where you direct a mythical shaman character through an artistically stylized environment using a minimalistic control input. The Mooseman character and his surroundings are inspired by ancient art and artifacts from people of the Chud region, where the city of Perm, Russia now resides. The Mooseman was created by a small indie team called Morteshka, who refers to themselves as enthusiasts for history and mystical lore. Only a few buttons are used to guide your character through each level: by pressing X your character switches a chalk-shaded moose mask on-and-off, which often reveals spirits and secret paths that are invisible to the mortal eye. Later in the game you receive a staff that helps you repel spirits if you press O. Other than those two buttons, the only other inputs to guide your character are the left and right directions. It is an experience that definitely favors aesthetic and ambiance over playability. Originally released on Steam in 2017, The Mooseman was an obvious port for Android and IOS, and is now available on PS4, Xbox, and Switch.
As you may have surmised from the earlier anecdote, The Mooseman showcases an impressive art style that contrasts bold-shaded silhouettes of earthly characters with luminescent beasts from another realm. The atmosphere on screen may often be filled with dense tones—a boggy wood and clouded sky—but with the push of a button the air is filled with lumbering white giants and flying silhouettes of birds. The soundtrack is a rich collection of ambient noises, and is available on SoundCloud for independent listening. If you are the type of gamer who loves to sit back and take in atmospheric experiences, then The Mooseman is a must-play.
However, while I felt The Mooseman was wholly satisfying as a piece of digital art, its composition as a game seems more underdeveloped. I certainly don’t mind games that limit my interactions with the controller, but many of the puzzle and platforming sequences seem like uninspired filler. I expected the puzzles to evolve as the game progressed, but sometimes I would get stuck on a level simply because I was overthinking the problem. I died several times during a boss fight late in the game, because I was certain I was supposed to trick the giant spider into hitting the hidden switches on the ground with his legs. But I was wrong: the key to beating him was simply for me to hit the switches in a certain order, just like every other puzzle with three switches in earlier levels. It made me think about some of the gorgeous indie games I’ve played in recent years that fell short because the developers felt the game had to be built on routine mechanics like collecting relics or accruing points. For example, there are collectables in the game for The Mooseman to find, but they are never hidden thoughtfully (hint: walk left at the beginning of EVERY level). A big part of me wishes the developers would have just ditched the puzzles and prizes if they just saw them as a means to an end. But I suppose the debate will continue whether a game needs to include a skill mechanic in order to be considered the game.
Regardless of the gameplay limitations and confusing menu layout, The Mooseman is a work of art that is sure to evoke strong moods in every player. The length of The Mooseman is only 1 or 2 hours, but fortunately the price is less expensive than a movie ticket would be to a film of the same length.