“Did you learn from your mistakes?”
I bet you’ve heard that a thousand times in your life—that you need to learn from your failures and grow from them as a human being. Building from one’s shortcomings is undoubtedly an essential part of growing overall, but people never really talk too much about learning from one’s successes.
Yeah, successes! I want to talk to you about what we and the community at large can learn from games that have some success. And when I say gaming successes, I don’t mean overwhelming AAA-everything-is-perfect-jamborees; I mean when you get a game that’s a six or maybe a seven on ten—something mostly overlooked or overall unimpressive except for that one little thing.
It’s all it takes to endear something to someone’s heart: one little thing. That’s all it takes to be a cult classic.
Yes, in this article, the games I’m talking about are the ones that weren’t really that great but had something great about them: NieR or Drakengard with their brilliant storytelling but poor gameplay; Deadly Premonition with its devil-may-care attitude and quirky nature but overall clumsiness and shoddiness; Life is Strange with its slice of life dynamic and laudable character development but inconsistent scripting and frequent cheesiness; Spec Ops: The Line with its incredible emotional impact and story but uninspired combat and superfluous multiplayer.
These games are all what we might call “cult classics” for their quirkiness and strengths, which make up for some of their many deficits. They are good games, but they are good in a sense that’s much different from AAA titles or games with high levels of exposure.
And, in this particular article, there is one game that I think a lot of developers and storywriters could look to for inspiration, and that is a game by the name of Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon.
You might not have heard of this game; that’s no surprise. It came out back in 2010 to little fanfare on the Wii—a new Japanese IP that received some middle-of-the-lane scores. Most people overlooked it or didn’t know it existed at all; few saw it as something worth inspiring any sort of talks about what game design is and what it could be. After all, the game featured concepts and gameplay that far exceeded what it was capable of producing both technically and financially. Its reach exceeded its grasp, and overall, the gameplay and systems were basic at best and unintuitive or just kinda bad at worst…but why do I care so much that you know about it, then?
I’m here to tell you that you can learn a lot about what video games can be compared to similar media—books, TV shows, or movies in particular—through what Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon both tried to accomplish and succeeded in accomplishing.
That is theming.
Beware that some general spoilers for Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon will follow, but I’ll be speaking in relatively general terms to try and keep some of the experience vague.
All right, so the central theme of Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon is loneliness and the nature of human relationships. Our story opens with young fifteen-year-old protagonist Seto mourning the death of his only companion and father-figure: the old man who raised him in an Observatory. In this first introduction, narrated by an older Seto, he explains that “At that moment, I was truly alone in the world.”
Loneliness. Seto experiences it first at the death of his father-figure and continues to experience it throughout the game. As he ventures out into the world towards the great Red Tower in the distance as suggested to him by the old man, he finds the world is empty. There are no people. The buildings are decaying. He is amazed to see the world around him for the first time, but at the same time, he is sad to be unable to experience them with another person.
Then, he meets the only other living human being he will encounter in the entire game: Ren, a young albino girl singing of her own loneliness. In one moment, he gets the chance to touch her cheek—to feel the warmth of her life—before she runs in fear from him.
Thus, our hero is set off on a journey to find this girl—to find someone he can be with so that he is not alone—even if it means facing dangers and death along the way. Loneliness spurs the entire journey. Loneliness spurs the meek and mild Seto to face threats he would generally shy away from.
Loneliness is what spurred the end of the world.
The theming of loneliness is nearly all-pervasive in this quirky cult classic. Overall, there are only about eleven characters actively in the game, and just about five of those are significant characters seen regularly. Seto runs through companions faster than the Doctor, ranging from an A.I. backpack to a sexually-confused robot to a man with a chicken hat to some ghosts, but in the end, he always ends up alone.
Always alone, left to mourn those who have left him.
Even the beautiful score of the game emphasizes the loneliness of the story and the characters. A particular track emphasizes and even spoils the entire journey of the game with its melody—a track called “A dedication to…everyone,” which you can listen to below.
The song begins with a quiet, hesitant choir of violins before evolving into a single, lonely piano, singing to itself across the moonlit vista of the game. As the song progresses, more and more instruments join in until a practical symphony is formed from their companionship—their togetherness. The crescendo of this unity and companionship between the instruments reaches a peak near the halfway point of the song, only to evolve even further until the melody ends once again with that lonely piano, now devoid of the companions with which it made such a beautiful melody.
The song is nothing if not synonymous with the games themes and Seto’s journey through the decayed remains of what might have once been Tokyo—experiencing the joys of friendship and companionship only to, in the end, be alone.
The world, too, is empty, full only of hostile robots and the confused, angry remnants of those passed in the form of ghosts. The world is full of confused ghosts, who merely went to sleep one day and never woke up. The only thing that remains throughout the game of humanity and society are mementos—memory items which allow you to experience stories of those now passed from a small bell to a mother’s shoe to a deflated balloon.
The moments in these tiny memory items are heartfelt, poignant, and beautiful. Some people know of their inevitable, oncoming end, while others are ignorant or simply trying to do what they can to survive—some from the perspective of humans and some from the perspective of animals. All don’t understand why what is happening is happening.
To live free of regrets.
That was my greatest goal in life.
And I’ve followed through with it so far.
I have lived my life without regrets.
I did well in school and I joined a prosperous company.
I never had financial problems.
I could afford whatever I wanted.
Sickness never visited my door.
I never even had a reason to go to the hospital.
Truth be told, it was an all-around good life.
At least it was supposed to be
Yet here I am in sorrow.
As I inch
ever nearer to death
I realize I have no one
to share it with.
These final words are imprinted on a class photo.
Oh, why won’t he come home?
I’m tired of watching the door.
He’d usually make me some food and we’d eat together by now.
I didn’t even make a mess today.
I didn’t chew on the carpet or anything.
Come home soon.
Pet me and call my name.
And then please hold me.
I’ve been waiting like such a good boy…
These final memories come from a dog’s worn-out collar, waiting for a master that will never return. Each memory item you collect tells a short story of those just before the end, wishing for more. Filled with regret. Filled with loneliness at the end of their lives.
Every facet of Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon supports its core theme of loneliness and of the journey for companionship and understanding. Every character, every collectible, every pluck of a string in the soundtrack—they are all meant to further the themes of the game and emphasize what Seto’s journey means both to himself and to humanity as a whole. The core conflict—the journey that started the events of the game to bring humanity together, only to plunge it into eternal loneliness—is also supportive of the game’s message.
So, what am I trying to say by telling you all about this cult classic? What do I want you to do about it?
I just want you and game developers to sit back and look at games that did things right, even at the cost of other aspects of their development. Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon was incredibly ambitious and unfortunately fell short of its goal gameplay-wise, but it still managed to make a fantastic experience that left me with an emptiness in my chest at the very end. It’s a feeling that I want more games to strive for— a sense of being fulfilled and yet sad at the same time. Plenty of games set out to strive for an artistic or heartfelt experience and succeed, but that doesn’t mean that more games can’t strive for that goal regardless of their pedigree or popularity.
Sure, Fragile Dreams did some things wrong, but it also did a lot of things right—things a lot of games nowadays should strive to do: to tell a story and convey an emotion (hopefully alongside a better gameplay experience). Every aspect of Fragile Dreams is an exercise in exploring loneliness, the nature of humankind, and what it means to connect to another human being.
Enjoy games for what they are. Enjoy what they can provide. Appreciate what they do well and learn from their mistakes. With that in mind, I leave you with one of my favorite quotes from the game and hope that you have taken something away from Fragile Dreams and from games as a whole.
The day will come when your journey will end as well. Your greatest adventure will be over, and you will make your way home. That’s the moment when you realize the truth…the sunbeams, the wind rolling over the tall grass, the idle chit-chat with friends…these were the gems of your life.