Meaning is Fleeting in 'The Moon Sliver'

by Nick Dinicola

7 October 2015

The Moon Sliver is a jigsaw puzzle constructed from jigsaw puzzles.
 
cover art

The Moon Sliver

(David Szymanski)
US: 28 Oct 2014

The Moon Sliver is a game obsessed with change, movement, and dynamism within seemingly static things. It’s interested in how time changes meaning, how context changes meaning, and how we change meaning through confusion or sheer force of belief or disbelief. It’s concerned with the malleability of words and their interpretations.

The World

The narrative of The Moon Sliver is a jigsaw puzzle constructed from jigsaw puzzles.

The game takes place on a rather small, very empty island, and as you explore the environment, you’ll find pop-up text that describes a scene or conversation. It’s a typical First Person Walker game (or in the more derogatory parlance, a “Walking Simulator” game). It counts as its peers games like Dear Esther, Ether One, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, etc. In all of these games the story is discovered one disordered scene at a time, forcing the player to reconstruct the narrative like a detective. It’s a clever way of creating interaction with a story without requiring interaction with a world, as the latter is just easier to design and program as a space to explore.

The Moon Sliver goes one step further, however. The scenes that you must piece together to form the narrative are themselves broken into disordered snippets of text.

This text is displayed based on your location within the environment. You’ll enter a hut and some faded words will appear on the screen. Move around and the words will either fade further or become more opaque until they’re readable. Each corner of the hut likely has a piece of text associated with it, as do the rare interactive items present in the world.

This kind of presentation highlights character movement in an empty world. Dialogue and thought texts appear where the speaker or thinker would have been standing. The pop-ups thus work like stage directions overlaid onto a 3D environment, adding another layer of interpretation to the scene: Not only are you piecing together the flow of conversation, but the flow of movement as well. This gives the empty, dead, and lonely world a surprising dynamism and life that makes the story feel more immediate, more in-the-moment.

This presentation also forces us to acknowledge our role as interpreter and archaeologist of the story. In other games of this ilk, like all those previously mentioned, scenes such as these are presented as linear voice-acted moments. The Moon Sliver, with its non-linear jigsaws within non-linear jigsaws, makes us a more active participant in the reconstruction of events. To put it simply, we have more chances to be wrong, and the more wrong that we can be, the more interactive the story becomes.

The Moon Sliver is all about interpretation and misinterpretation and reinterpretation, and the presentation of its story forces us to live in that same state of confusion as its characters. It fosters in us a distrust, or at least a suspicion, of our interpretations since they can always be wrong. So when we do find the titular Moon Sliver, that holy document of prophecy, and we hear of its concrete morality and its precise blessings, the simplicity and straightforwardness of its divination becomes very attractive. Precise prophecy is so much more comforting than the vagaries of life. It’s no wonder these people worshiped The Moon Sliver. It offers understanding.

But now The Moon Sliver is gone, and we too feel the oppressive confusion that consumes the remaining islanders. Is its prophecy true? Are its blessings real? Who are we without it to guide us? Who are we in general?

The Characters

As we explore and reconstruct the final days of this society, we learn of the four final inhabitants: Able, Isa, Daniel, and Ellie (the former pair an older couple, and the latter pair a younger couple). The game tells us in the beginning that only one person is left alive, but it doesn’t tell us who we are. As we piece together each scene and the larger narrative, we’re also trying to piece together our identity, so our sense of self becomes as fluid as everything else.

The text never prioritizes one point of view, preventing us from forming a sympathetic bias towards the protagonist. Or rather, we’re allowed to form a sympathetic bias towards each character since any one of them could be the protagonist, could be “us”. 

This is how the game manages to develop its cast with impressive nuance despite its conciseness and brevity (it’ll take you less than an hour to beat it). We’re naturally inclined to like the protagonist even if he or she is an antihero. It’s why people forgave Walter White in Breaking Bad despite all his terrible actions. He was the main character and that gave him a certain level of carte blanche. The Moon Sliver uses this apologist tendency to its advantage. Each character is sad and broken and cruel in their own ways, but because any one of them could be us, we naturally try to understand their actions.

Able “reads to escape.” He is, by far, the most depressed and broken of the four, constantly retreating into old books to forget his current world, then getting angry at the old books for their illusions: “What sort of twisted villains were the ancient writers, to taunt us with unreachable worlds more beautiful than our own?” Yet he’s also the father figure of the group, and his despondency stems from worry. He cares about this group, and it’s hard not to be depressed when those you care about are forced to live in existential anguish.

Isa “reads to pass the time”. She’s just as depressed as Able, admitting in a diary her longing for a world that no longer exists, but she hides her sadness behind a constant smile. She doubles down on her faith in a way that seems blind and delusional, repeating to herself in times of terror, “I believe in the Word of Hector.” Yet that faith is also what gives her strength, what prevents her from behind consumed by her sadness like Able. She may be the oldest of the group, but she also seems more than capable of outlasting them all out of sheer willpower.

Daniel “reads to feed his lofty, strange thoughts”. As one of the younger generation, he doesn’t know much about happier times, so he spends most of his own time reading and listening to Able reminisce. He seems to be the most casually cruel of the group, more interested in the past than in the present, but he also seems like the best-rounded of the group and the only one not wallowing in misery.

Ellie “hadn’t opened a book in years”. She has the unfortunate luck of being a pretty girl on an island with two men, and she moves between her preordained relationship with Daniel and a quasi-incestuous affair with Able. Her quiet demeanor comes off as cruel, as she seems unfazed by the affair while Able is driven to further depression. It’s tempting to view her as a Biblical Eve figure, but her actions also seem like a desperate attempt to form connections in a dying world or to enact a quiet rebellion against the idea of her assumed relationship with Daniel, the only man her age on the island. She’s simply looking for a reason to keep living.

Our identity crisis comes to a head near the end when the game uses its setting and tricks of presentation to put us into the characters’ shoes. Daniel and Ellie meet their final moments in the underground tunnels. We read their thoughts and actions in seemingly real-time, walking a twisted corridor as Ellie imagines something ahead of her, turning a corner exactly when she does, staying just out of sight. For a moment, we experience the dark as they did, and with no distinction between past and present, we become them. They are our avatar until we find their dropped flashlights, and past and present suddenly break into separate time frames once again.

The same thing happens with Isa. We enter a mountain tunnel and see a pop-up text from her point-of-view, “Yesterday, the Moon Sliver went missing. Today, Ellie, Daniel, and Able were all nowhere to be found.” This effectively casts us as Isa since the timing of her story and our story line up.

As we go deeper into the tunnel, she begins conversing with Able, who is waiting for her at its end. The conversation progresses as we progress, Isa walking the same hall as us, frightened by the same darkness as us, surprised by the same revelations as us. The game combines past and present, purposefully trying to confuse us about identity and time because it knows both of those things add context to a scene that change its meaning, and The Moon Sliver wants us to be aware of this change.

Isa’s story ends when she stabs herself to avoid death by The Woodland Teeth, and we then realize that we are Able. This final casting allows us to put the game into proper context. We as players may have been experiencing this story for the first time, but Able was wandering as a way to reminisce, a brief walk down memory lane before accepting his end. Our search for meaning mirrors his search for meaning as he struggles with his sin and betrayal. We now understand our protagonist and our objective, but revealing these to us so late into the game only reveals how pointless that identity is in the grander narrative. Able’s story is, after all, just one of four. And even knowing what we now know, we still don’t know the answers to those driving questions. Is The Moon Sliver’s prophecy true? Are its blessings real? Who are we without it to guide us? Who are we in general?

The Moon Sliver

The Moon Sliver is a document that protects the island from evil. An islander named Hector found it long ago and defeated the evil Woodland Teeth with its power. The island society was then blessed with prosperity and would be protected for as long as the Moon Sliver remained in the people’s possession.

Or so that’s how the ancient text tells the tale. It’s not wrong, but it’s also not entirely honest. Since the victory over The Woodland Teeth, the island has fallen into decay. The rising ocean has consumed multiple buildings and wood is running low, but when the wood runs out, no one will die. They’ll just be uncomfortable. Food is still plentiful and will continue to be plentiful long after everyone is dead. Prosperity doesn’t mean immortality.

What was once a blessing has become a curse. Able, Isa, Daniel, and Ellie are alive but for what reasons? To see the last gasps of life of their world and to themselves die a long drawn out death? They don’t even have to struggle to survive, their prosperity makes that easy, giving them plenty of time to consider their unfortunate situation. Each of them deals with this existential anguish in their own way. Ellie seeks personal satisfaction in sex, Daniel seeks personal satisfaction in knowledge, Isa suffers without complaint, and Able rejects The Moon Sliver altogether.

The generational split here shows how religions and morals and meanings evolve over time. Daniel and Ellie never knew a world that wasn’t dying, while Able and Isa can remember the genuinely happy days. As such, the current situation leads the latter pair to a crisis of faith, while the former pair knows no such disillusionment. This makes the young ones less reverential of The Moon Sliver in certain ways. They don’t have a love of community, something The Moon Sliver implicitly encourages, and they don’t talk about it as a holy document. However, they’re also more reverential in other ways. They know that the Moon Sliver offers an easy livelihood, so they take advantage of their god-given free time to seek personal satisfaction, making them less likely to rebel against the faith as a whole.

Able is caught between these conflicting forms of belief. He’s driven by disillusionment to seek personal satisfaction through sex with Ellie, but then he’s driven by guilt over his perceived sin to seek forgiveness and justification. He claims he destroyed The Moon Sliver because he read blasphemous texts that speak of The Woodland Teeth as their ultimate savior, but does he really believe The Moon Sliver is false or is he simply rejecting the entire religion as a way to erase his guilt? Sin isn’t sinful if religion is discarded.

Able is change incarnate, acting against his faith, then embracing new interpretations of his faith to justify his actions. All four characters worship the Moon Sliver, but the specifics of their worship differ in fundamental ways that could each form into its own offshoot given enough time.

Even if we assume that the Moon Sliver is honest in everything that it says, this only speaks to the unintentional cruelty of its Moon god. Given that it must exist outside of time as we experience it, the Moon gives us gifts without understanding how we might use those gifts, so it’s unable to see how those gifts may become burdens. Everything changes, and nothing stays forever, even the gifts of god.

The Moon Sliver is a story of four worlds, one belonging to each character. Each of us constructs our own world through our own experiences, and when those experiences aren’t enough, we may or may not turn to others to fill in the blanks. It’s tempting to live in our world only, but The Moon Sliver forces us to live outside of our own head, showing us a drama from every perspective. It’s appropriate that the game offers no solution or answer, forcing us to live with its mysteries, to still not know if the Moon Sliver’s prophecy is true, if its blessings are real, who are we without it to guide us, who are we in general. We’re left to figure these things out on our own.

All we know for sure is that: “Morning dawned on the empty island, cold and bright and windy…”

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