All poets have one of three vibes, a fellow poet-friend once told me. If someone writes poetry on purpose, they’re either a Moon Poet, a Horse Poet or an Ocean Poet.
At the time, I thought we were talking about poetic subject-matter; about the kind of images that recur in the body of work. The sea’s momentousness, a dusty flank, the moon’s tender light.
It could equally be a statement of philosophy. Maybe Ocean Poets are…….deep, and Horse Poets have things like ‘Fresh! Urgent! Vital!’ written in the copy of their book jackets, and the Moon Poets are all yearning, awestruck wankers.
By either metric, I’m a Moon Poet.
Moonlighter is a 2018 action RPG developed by Spanish indie studio, Digital Sun, and the premise is a gentle twist on a tale as old as top-down rogue-lites.
You play as Will, a simple, white-haired boy from Rynoka, a small village in the middle of fantasy nowhere. Some time ago, peace in the land was disrupted by the appearance of strange dungeons full of monsters and treasure. Although dangerous to normal people, these procedurally-generated caverns are frequented by dungeon-crawling heroes in search of reward—like you!
Except, not quite like you.
Because Will is not a hero. Will is a merchant. After the death of his parents, Will is left as the sole proprietor of the family business, so he can’t just set off on his quest any time he likes. The people of Rynoka need a general store, and it isn’t going to run itself.
It feels like a situation that should lead to a choice; one or the other, dream or reality. But when faced with this adversity, Will does not yearn. He adopts a real productivity mindset, and decides to do both.
When I am graciously paid $75 for a poem every few months or so, I usually buy a book, or order pizza. Then, sometimes, I wish for real financial stability over my Pizza Hut stuffed crust classic cheese.
I spend most business days doing small research requests at my local archive for money. This involves emails and answering questions like ‘When did this tree get here?’ or ‘Where did my great grandad go?’. My favourite part is when I have to take files back to the stacks, because I like the cool, light-controlled environment and I like the quiet. I hate when I have to answer the phone, but I don’t do it very often. I usually like my job. But, in late December 2021, an old friend from high school offers me a chance to write on their TV show, and I do wonder how it would feel to quit.
My partner was brought on as a co-creator early in the process, so I’m vaguely familiar with the concept already. The show itself is not necessarily my thing, but my friend wants me to fill a particular, technical gap in the writing team. When I say yes, I have never written a script before. I read the pitch, and fail to understand what WitchTok has to do with combatting the climate crisis. I worry I might hate all the characters, and not least of my concerns, my friend is convinced that I believe in astrology.
It doesn’t cross my mind not to do it. It feels like a step in the direction of everything else we are trying to build. It feels less like waiting.
I say yes, and then I stand in the stacks at my day job. The air is still and quiet and cool. I let my mind spill over its edge.
“Among the stars of the night, there is a land as old as imagination”, declares the opening screen of Moonlighter. It’s not entirely clear what this means. Then, the partially-animated opening cinematic moves briefly through text over soft pixel art of Rynoka, of the store, of Will putting on his headband and giant backpack, and soon, we’re in a dungeon, armed with nothing but a broom and a dodge roll.
There are few scenes like this in Moonlighter. Lore is generally shared through little snippets and notes you can find in your travels through the dungeon, while the real story is told in the gameplay. Moonlighter is a story of two worlds, with two distinct time periods and playstyles.
The first world you will explore is the world of the dungeon. The goals are clear, the tutorial is brief, pictorial and to the point: there is an enemy blocking your way. How can you get past him? Press X to roll.
Will is fragile, but the combat controls are satisfying and familiar. It’s easy to make mistakes and get blasted into a hole in the ground, but equally easy to feel scrappy and capable as you roll through attacks, backstabbing laser turrets and evil shrubbery.
During your first dungeon crawl, you will soon reach a room full of rapidly spawning enemies designed to end your adventure, but old, robed, mentor-figure Zenon will be waiting to rescue you from your pile of failure.
The writers’ room for the show (I’m going to refer to it as ‘The Project’) takes place in early January 2022. It is a bit like being in a formal workshop, and a lot like being an over-imaginative child in a pack of over-imaginative children. To work with other people is a gift. Other than a shy sense of overwhelm, it is the closest thing to an easy creative job I’ve ever had.
My creative optimism is high. Between Project weeks, my partner and I nail a pitch for a series of children’s stories about ugly animals with depression. We are assured that the company would like to fund it, and they are generous with the deadline. I write most of the pitch document alone, because we are stretched a little thin, and we decide to review in a few weeks or months’ time (just as soon as she has a moment to look over suggested edits with me). It won’t be later than June when The Project should be done filming.
My partner and I are tentative about stretching into this new room of our relationship. I ask that meetings are not held in the flat. She asks that we not speak about The Project except by appointment. We write in our lounge, on the floor and sometimes in our bed.
The series outline, which will be derived from the work in the writers’ room, should be delivered within a month or two.
When Will regains consciousness it is clear that the place he has been sleeping off his injuries is his store, illustrating the lack of physical divide between his home and the place where he works. Then Zenon gives Will a sword, a lecture, and a warning: next time you’re in the dungeon, pick up whatever treasure you can and get out. The subtext—don’t push yourself too far. You’re not a hero. Then, he gets to the work of introducing you to the second world that you will be occupying: your day job.
The store is a less active space for play than the dungeons. Instead of figuring things out for yourself, Zenon monologues at you, and you follow his instructions. Your job is to make educated guesses about what your wares might be worth and then sell them for that price.
The tension between Will’s two realities is encapsulated by the game’s implementation of time and the way it passes. There are two time-phases, night and day, with no gradation between. The store can only open during the day. Once the sun goes down, the customers go home, and night begins. Then you have a choice. Will can go to bed, recover his health, and wake up ready to open the store all over again. Or, he can forgo sleep and use these precious hours for the work he really wants to do.
This is the heart of Moonlighter. Time does not pass unless you make the choice. If you wander around the village chatting to NPCs, morning will never come. It is the act of work that shakes reality into being.
After the writers’ room in January, The Project grinds to a stop. The creative team seems to be plagued by delays and disagreements. I crouch on the periphery, working my usual 40 hours at the archives. Meanwhile, my partner works fourteen hours a day, six days a week, running meetings in the mornings, her day job in the afternoons, and writing in the cracks of time left at either end. She is paid under half of what I am paid to sometimes answer the phone. She is hollowed out by March.
By July The Project is still stuck, but I do learn that my first book has been accepted for publication. This is the realisation of a lifelong dream, but the murky swamp of work soon swallows the news. I feel sullen for a bit, before I remember that when my partner first told me The Project was funded, I misjudged her investment level and said “Really?”, like a real dick. Tensions are rising on the creative team, and one experienced filmmaker is so frustrated, she quits.
The mechanics of currency in Moonlighter are such that both phases of work are essential to one another. If you do not go into the dungeons, you will quickly run out of artifacts and treasures to sell in the store. Conversely, if you refuse to do your day job, you aren’t going to have enough gold to afford the upgrades for your weapons and armour that you so desperately need to survive in the dungeons.
In October 2022, the series outline is finally completed, and the scripting begins.
Joan Didion once said “I love scriptwriting, it’s not like writing at all”, and for me it’s true. Dialogue feels like nothing but a loose sketch of the action on which you might hang the tone of the characters, while the actual work is analogous to rotating a 3D model of a grizzly bear in my mind. The technical challenge is exhilarating, at least at first. A kind of mania comes into our home.
A secondary benefit of the scripting process is that, since we are co-writing the episode together, my partner is technically being paid to talk to me. It makes it easy to justify time together.
But soon after we submit our first elated draft, our momentum starts to disintegrate. My partner has at least four other jobs on The Project, and I am full-time at the archives so that we can afford our flat. We cross paths rarely, except for the hour or so each evening when she has a panic attack and I try to convince her to eat some toast before she falls asleep. It is not the most generative writing arrangement.
I wake up at five am most days to have my own private panic, before waking up for a second time at seven for work. When I get home at six, I write until midnight or until I start crying. I start writing alone on my lunch breaks. It becomes clear to me that “six weeks for three drafts” is probably a totally acceptable expectation for a new scriptwriter, and also that I probably can’t do it. Not with a full-time job and no co-writer. I worry that to everyone else, I am a deranged nepo hire, instead of a professional in need of support. It is quickly made impossible to ask for help.
I compensate for my struggles by becoming a worse person. I complain to my partner about cancelled plans, and late meetings, and the endless evenings spent alone, and I complain about how she has still not found time to look at the edits for the pitch we submitted together eight months ago in January. I complain that we have stopped writing for fun, and I complain that I am worried about her all the time, that she has abandoned me to manage every other insane request on her time and sanity that The Project makes.
“I don’t want to let anyone down.” she says, half-smothered under the weight of work pressure, and my flailing expectations. I tell her that I wish she would quit this job if it makes her so miserable.
I hand in the final draft on a Saturday, the morning after it’s due. She does not quit, and neither do I.
Everything I have ever read about Moonlighter is interested in the ways that the game pressures you to negotiate your relationship between your two places of work. It supposes a narrative of struggle.
Deep in the throes of filming The Project (January 2023, by the way), I return to Moonlighter. And I am struck, not by the ways in which the game represents this tension, but the ways in which it does not.
When designing Moonlighter, founder and CEO Javier Giménez reports that the goal was a kind of synergy between the two worlds:
… When you are in the shop we wanted the players to be thinking: ‘How do I make gold so I can get equipment to be better at the dungeons?’. So that way the game felt like a whole with two sides where each side had the other one in mind.
Moonlighter is a fantasy in which the two worlds that Will occupies enhance one another. Where real compromise is not necessary.
Will slays monsters with unerring, mechanical precision, even though in life, impossible deadlines and debilitating stress generally conspire to make the quality of your work…….worse. Moonlighter’s deadlines come in the form of customer orders, but failing to deliver never results in passive-aggressive seven am WhatsApp messages, and if Will chooses to work every day, dungeon every night, and never sleep, he doesn’t have to suffer the consequences of looking like shit while baffled coworkers ask him why he’s left his cell phone in the fridge.
Working in a creative field, it often feels like you are pitted against your day job. When there is neither time nor money available to account for delays, health, or setbacks of any kind, crunch time on creative projects becomes inevitable, and particularly in a cooperative setting, artists are set up to blame each other as we fall behind.
So how do we continue? How many artists are simply ground down and cast out as the bar grows ever more inaccessible, and how do we change a system that seems determined to extract work from us at any cost?
I do not have an answer. And I still haven’t quit.
Once The Project is solidly in post-production, my partner and I begin quietly working on a story. On our own terms.
We move all of the junk out of the spare room. We furnish it with a single pot plant, a chair, and a corkboard. We sit on the floor, and think out loud, and laugh a lot.
And sometimes, when we are tired, we leave. We close the door. We talk, and play video games and see friends recreationally.
And sometimes, I yearn to go back inside.
Featured image lifted from Digital Sun’s 2018 game, Moonlighter.