It was late in the autumn. Snufkin continued towards the south, sometimes he pitched his tent and let the time pass as best it might, he walked around and contemplated things without actually thinking or remembering anything, and he slept quite a lot. He was attentive but not in the least curious, and didn’t worry much about where he was going – he just wanted to keep moving.
Dear videogame designers,
I’m not a videogame designer like you, but I do like the Moomins a lot. I think there are a lot of obvious ways to turn the series into a videogame, with a lot of less obvious traps along the path. With that in mind I’ve written some thoughts about things you might like to consider should you ever decide to make a Moomin videogame.
The Moomins are the central characters of a series of books and comics created by Finnish author and artist Tove Jansson. They’re white, hippopotamus-like creatures who live in a house together in the middle of Moominvalley. The family consists of Moominpappa, who wears a top hat, writes his memoirs and is prone to bouts of melancholy; Moominmamma, who holds the family together and is unflappable even in the face of potentially world-ending events; and their child Moomintroll, who is spirited and longs for adventure.
Yet the Moomins are no mere source of family entertainment. These children’s fantasy books are each valuable and entertaining for adults. That’s in part because of Jansson’s crisp, evocative prose. She writes taut descriptions of changing seasons while also showing an empathetic eye for the behaviours of all different kinds of people. The Moomins cast stretches beyond the core family to encompass a broad range of oddballs and misfits, including the restless Snufkin, the relentless Little My, the shy Toft who lives under an upturned boat, the Fillyjonk who is freed from a dutiful life when a disaster upends social expectation, the terrifying and unknowable Groke, and more healthy, sad or nervous hemulens than I can count.
It’s also in part because of a dark streak that runs through the stories. The books are never cruel, but they don’t preach either. The characters are all emotional, but there’s a sort of fatalism about them which slices away at any character’s attempts at sentimentality. When a squirrel encounters the Lady Of The Cold in Moominland Midwinter and perishes, the pragmatic Too-ticky’s eulogy begins matter-of-factly, “When one’s dead, one’s dead.”
The forest was heavy with rain and the trees were absolutely motionless. Everything had withered and died, but right down on the ground the late autumn’s secret garden was growing with great vigour straight out of the mouldering earth, a strange vegetation of shiny puffed-up plants that had nothing at all to do with summer. The late blueberry sprigs were yellowish-green and the cranberries as dark as blood. Hidden lichens and mosses began to grow, and they grew like a big soft carpet until they took over the whole forest. There were strong new colours everywhere, and red rowan berries were shining all over the place. But the bracken had turned black.
By now, your brain may be spinning and ideas for videogames may be beginning to form. Hold steady.
There is adventure in Moomin stories. In one story, a comet threatens to destroy all of Moominvalley. In another, Moominpappa tells of his youth in which he ran away from an orphanage, met an old inventor named Hodgkins, and sailed the oceans aboard a boat they built together. Snufkin leaves Moominvalley each spring, to walk wherever his feet carry him out among the trees, and who knows what happens out there.
It would seem simple then to take any one of these tales, or a collection of them all, and make it a quest. Moomintroll would substitute cleanly for almost any young boy protagonist in almost any Nintendo game, for example. Hemulens could be quest givers, hattifatteners could be enemies, and so on.
Please don’t. Moomin adventures resist structure, and rarely contain any kind of objective. Any travels and the events that happen during them are mostly about happenstance, undertaken out of a desire to entertain oneself and one’s friends. A quest, a marker, a reward; all of these are antithetical to the spirit of the Moomin stories, which are fundamentally about nature, and treat everything its characters do with the same level of importance as a tree shedding its leaves. That is, very important and not important at all, all at once.
Snufkin got a feeling that he wanted to write songs. He waited until he was quite sure of the feeling and one evening he got out his mouth-organ from the bottom of his rucksack. In August, somewhere in Moominvalley, he had hit upon five bars which would undoubtedly provided a marvellous beginning for a tune. They had come completely naturally as notes do when they have been left in peace. Now the time had come to take them out again and let them become a song about rain.
If the stories resist interpretation as heroic journeys, you might feel compelled to turn towards some manner of village management sim. This is a little better.
The Moomins are hugely popular in Japan, and there have been three separate anime TV series adapted from the stories. The last of these, in the early ’90s, was responsible for the “Moomin Boom”, through which the stories found a new audience around the world. If you’re ever in Tokyo, you’ll still find Moomin plushies alongside Hello Kitty backpacks.
I wonder, then, how much the series has trickled into other Japanese works. Animal Crossing seems the most obvious: a large cast of broadly drawn characters who are often anxious or sad; a town full of whimsy where events are often tied to the seasons; a sense of adventure-as-accident, with a grand day out sometimes being nothing more than discovering something unusual on the beach.
You could almost just change the name to Moomin Crossing and be done with it. Where it stumbles I think is the obsession on consumerism and presentation. The need to sell goods to make money to decorate your house and so on. As a player, it’s about planning. Characters in the Moomins however work hard to maintain their world, but they don’t dwell on those efforts. They rarely seem to plan for the future. The valuable objects they find – like magic hats, say – are rarely considered for their potential benefit beyond the here and now.
Normally they’ll just idly dip a sandlion in it, turn the creature into a “sad hedgehog”, then forget about the whole thing with little judgement or consequence.
Snufkin listened and waited. The five bars didn’t come. He went on waiting without getting impatient because he knew what tunes were like. But the only things he could hear were the faint sounds of rain and running water. It gradually got quite dark. Snufkin took out his pipe but put it away again. He knew that the five bars must be somewhere in Moominvalley and that he wouldn’t find them until he went back again.
So. If you’re going to make a Moomin videogame, I think I’d stick with a valley’s-eye view of the world. It’s tempting to make it a first-person walking simulator, to dodge the problem of quests or missions, but no one character is the hero or star of the Moomins, and we’d want a way to feature all its many and varied characters without something so awkward as looking at them at eye-level. A top-down, Sims-y style view would give us that.
However, instead of making it about the specific graft of management or survival, I think I’d want to make the mechanics a gentle way of interacting with that world. I think I’d want the players to take control of the seasons themselves.
Spring, summer, autumn and winter are the driving force behind so many of Jansson’s stories. They’re what drag the characters towards action, and it’s the descriptions of snowdrifts, falling leaves and busy wildlife that make that world such a wonderful place to spend some reading time.
If there are objectives to be found in playing the game – and I’d rather there weren’t – they should at least come from creating emotional states in the characters within that world by changing the scene around them.
In the story Finn Family Moomintroll, Moomintroll meets a stamp-collecting Hemulen who is depressed because he’s collected all the world’s stamps and now his life has no meaning. Moomintroll suggests he should take up botany, and he perks right up. Perhaps as the player you would facilitate this moment by throwing a little spring around. Flowers would bloom, a squirrel with a marvellous tail would emerge from a nearby tree, and Snufkin would begin packing his bags, itching to get the ground moving beneath his feet.
There are millions of tunes that are easy to find and there will always be new ones. But Snufkin let them alone, they were summer songs which would do for just anybody. He crept into his tent and into his sleeping-bag and pulled it over his head. The faint whisper of rain and running water was still there and it had the same tender note of solitude and perfection. But what did the rain mean to him as long as he couldn’t write a song about it?
Does that sound like a good idea? It might be quite a boring little videogame, though I can imagine finding a lot to delight in tinkering with such a lovely world. I don’t know. Like I said, I’m not a game designer.
Of course, another option is that you could just not make a videogame out of the Moomins. That’s fine too. Not everything needs to be a game, and sometimes thought experiments like these are simply a fun way to think about the things we love and why we love them. And to justify writing about them on this, a videogame blog.
Please write back with any game ideas of your own. As long as it’s not a platformer.
The quotes in this article encompass the entirety of ‘Chapter 4 – Rain’ from Moominvalley in November. It is perfect. If you’d like to hear Jarvis Cocker read a similar story about Snufkin, that’s a thing you can do. This post was originally part of the RPS supporter program.