Making ‘Moirai,’ a Game About Suicide and Other People

January 16, 2014 | Michael Rougeau

ANIMAL’s feature Game Plan asks video game developers to share a bit about their process and some working images from the creation of a recent game. This week, we spoke with Christopher Johnson about Moirai, a game that lets players unknowingly judge one another for making a difficult decision.

Christopher Johnson saw a play that was far from normal. In A Game of You, by the Belgian experimental theater company Ontroerend Goed, participants (not viewers) are separated from their friends and family, interrogated, mimicked, and cajoled. The Australian game developer and his girlfriend were asked to invent names, descriptions and backstories for strangers they watched through one-sided mirrors. At the end, those strangers were given recordings of those descriptions, and Johnson and his girlfriend received the same — descriptions other strangers had designed for them.

The idea was that you would judge someone based only on what you could see, and someone else would do the same for you. Theoretically this could go on ad infinitum; and so the idea for Moirai was born. Johnson says:

‘It got me thinking about how people perceive you and about getting a different view of yourself. I think it’s really powerful when you see the other actor pretending to be you. You’ve got all these self-conscious thoughts, like, ‘Am I really like this?’ or, ‘Is this how people perceive me?’

Moirai is a game about a woman who attempts to kill herself after the death of her husband and son. You spend a few minutes speaking to her neighbors—among them a priest—to learn about her story. Then, exploring a cave with a lantern and a knife, you discover her fate.

Inside the cave you meet a farmer, also carrying a knife and a lantern. You can ask him why he’s covered in blood, what he’s doing with the knife, and what those loud moans were. You can let him pass, or you can kill him on the spot. The next room contains the bloodied woman who, having deliberately injured herself, begs for you to end her pain. You can put her out of her misery, or run for help. Either way you’ll face another farmer as you leave, again carrying a knife and a lantern. He asks you the same three questions you asked the other farmer, and you type in your answers.

Here’s the twist: the farmer you questioned earlier gave you the previous player’s answers. Likewise, your answers are recorded and conveyed to the next player who enters the cave. There’s nothing to warn you, so some players answer candidly—”bitch deserved it,” “yolo,” etc.—and some simply smash random letters and press enter.

Later, you get an email relaying how the new player treated “you”—whether he or she bothered to ask you any questions, let you pass unmolested, or simply killed you outright. “Moirai” is another name for the classic Greek figures known as the Fates, who controlled human destiny. Like A Game of You, Moirai is circular, Johnson says:

[The play] seems a bit confusing, but it’s essentially this system that feeds off where the person going in judges the previous person, and it’s kind of like Moirai. The people going into the cave in Moirai, you see the past player. The core kind of idea is the same: that everyone going in is influencing the next person.

Moirai is an ugly game. And it’s short—ten minutes, tops. But that’s because it gets right to the point, Johnson says.

The game was intended to be short because I viewed this like an experiment. I haven’t seen this idea out there before, so I thought it would be interesting to see what people think and to see how it works. I guess it’s sort of this conceptual art. Another influence is John Baldessari. He has these pieces which are kind of like paintings on canvas, but instead of having a beautiful painting it would be text that would highlight ‘the point’ or have some kind of funny quip. And I really like the idea of stripping everything away and just presenting the concept…

I’ve also been watching a lot of Hitchcock, and I really like how he would put characters in scenes where they look guilty, and they look like they’re going to be framed. And I wanted to put that into the game as well. I put this game onto a few of the free indie game portals, like Game Jolt, and it turned out that it got picked up by a few different YouTubers. It’s really funny watching a lot of people play. I was a little bit surprised at how few people had realized the ‘trick.’

Johnson also discussed other indie games like Spy Party and Hidden in Plain Sight, in which you attempt to blend in with computer-controlled characters to fool other players.

They all get to this idea of being human and computers and that relationship, and I think Moirai touches on that. I was hoping that this idea would be adopted into other games, much bigger games — games that by myself I couldn’t create. Maybe if you had, like, a Fallout-type game, and you go through and you realize that another player had influence there. I suppose the biggest problem is if you rely on people entering text, then people can enter whatever crap they want.

With practical anonymity and no reason to suspect that anyone else would read their answers, many players of Moirai entered truly awful answers—racist, homophobic, you name it. But that may be part of “the point” as well. During the play, A Game of You, participants made up snap judgments about total strangers—not realizing those people would be sent home with recordings of their remarks. Anyone is capable of being casually thoughtless, especially if they think they’re expressing themselves into a vacuum, and Moirai capitalizes on that unfortunate quirk. But perhaps the lesson is simply that not everyone gets to have a happy ending.

You can play or download Moirai for free at Game Jolt.