Friday, May 19, 2023

The joys of the anti-farm sim: "Before the Green Moon" by turnfollow

SPOILER ALERT: This post SPOILS what happens in Before The Green Moon. I strongly recommend playing it first.

Before The Green Moon (on Itch and Steam) is a post-apocalyptic indie Harvest Moon / Stardew Valley / Animal Crossing inspired farm life sim about scraping by, in a decaying rural truckstop town with bored depressed locals you gradually befriend (or ignore).

I was surprised Turnfollow was working in this big systemic genre space, since I mostly know them for their very good linear story games Little Party and Wide Ocean Big Jacket. But you can see the "seeds" of this game (ha ha) in their wartime gardening game A Good Gardener so maybe it's not so unexpected...

From the beginning, you're given an ultimate end goal: earn enough company scrip to buy a ticket to the moon. Instead of a raccoon banker oppressing you with a mortgage, it's a faceless Moon Company exploiting every poor soul left on this post-apocalyptic Earth. Brilliantly, the already astronomical price of the moon ticket actually increases during the game. Imagine if Animal Crossing had the bravery to charge interest on the home loan!

Well, Before The Green Moon is brave, brave enough even to suggest that farming isn't exactly a picturesque Hallmark movie. Instead, you're stuck in this abandoned GameCube game and you need to somehow earn enough to buy a moonshot out of this dump. How are you gonna do it?

A good farming sim will make labor feel tangible. Tilling soil, planting seeds, and watering crops every day should feel like chores, because they are. Even harvesting crops is kind of annoying, and you have to be thoughtful about small efficiencies, like storing your harvest in a portable basket instead of your personal inventory.

Beyond The Green Moon adds an additional quirk to the usual core crop systems, where the second half of the in-game year is a "dry season" that rarely rains. So to water your crops at your parched desert farm, you'll now have to bring a water tank down to the pump at the lake, fill it with water, and then carry the water tank all the way back to your farm to fill your water can again. It's an additional chore to make water feel more like a scarce resource in this dying desert world, but it also helps contextualize your planting choices.

So will you plant a lot of fast cheap crops (which will require a lot of water and frequent tilling / planting cycle) or plant just a few slow trees (which require less water and maintenance)? Obviously the one that's less work!... Which, it turns out, is neither of those options.

My main strategy was chicken farming. 

The game tutorializes the basics: You can randomly find chickens in the forest (or the town sewer?) and bring them back to your farm. Chickens eat 1 apple a day, and you can stockpile up to 20 apples in the automatic feeder next to the chicken coop. As long as you feed them apples, your chickens will stay and produce eggs. Easy money.

At first this apple maintenance isn't a big deal since you can easily forage for 5-10 apples a day, far more than what a chicken eats. If you manage to keep a chicken for long enough it will start making "friendly eggs" that are worth much more money. So with 3 friendly chickens, you can earn thousands a day, the equivalent of a medium sized crop farm with basically zero labor involved, aside from restocking the apple feeder every week.

However in the dry season, apples suddenly become much more rare. You can forage a few apples hidden deep underground (sometimes) or buy some at the weekly market (sometimes) or buy synth-apples at a vending machine (expensive). None of these options are good.

So if you have 3 chickens eating -3 apples a day, you'll panic a little. You then have to perform a terrible calculus in your head: which animals can you keep? Rather than have all your friendly chickens abandon you, maybe it's better to put all your remaining apples into your favorite first chicken (which you've probably named and grown fond of) and release all the other chickens back into the wild.

This evokes a gritty reality of farming that something "cozy" like Stardew Valley never asks of you -- when there's unexpected dilemmas and you have to choose what stays and what goes. But the game doesn't tutorialize this or dispatch an NPC to spell it out. Your problems are your own, and the first step is realizing you have a problem.

The game also hides a bigger unexplained mechanic: a relationship gifting system. Unlike Stardew Valley, there's no visible relationship meter or tutorial here -- only soft hints that a certain NPC might want to see the fish you catch, or that another is interested in unique plants, or a random cutscene where a character gets excited about electronics. The game never says "each NPC has a favorite type of gift item type, and you should equip it and talk to them", you have to guess that this mechanic exists from playing previous farming games or just out of sheer luck.

It's hilarious that gifting feels secret. Imagine in real-life, realizing -- "wait, I can provide goods and services without charging money?" Things have value beyond their monetary worth, and not everything can be quantified with outright numbers?? 

It's like humanity is a secret playstyle you have to guess and discover, and in the game too.

This social aspect elevates Beyond The Green Moon far beyond other farm life sims.

Again, the town feels like a decaying GameCube game. Everything is beautifully bathed in the sickly yellow rust of 2004 Xbox games. It's like living in a Dark Souls poison swamp village, except with less dignity. 

This whole decaying truckstop town exists to serve a moon elevator, so on certain days you'll see huge crowds of tourists, commuters, and shipping trucks flood into your quiet little village, and lowkey ruin your life. All these fucking tourists can't (or won't) talk to you. Your cafe owner friend will be frantically running around all these crowded tables, and you'll have to wait longer for a crucial stamina-restoring meal. Your office friend will be busy dealing with a long line of complainers. And when it rains, these rich randos all have umbrellas and ponchos -- expensive mid-game equipment upgrades that you absolutely can't afford for the first few in-game weeks.

The next day they're suddenly all gone and the town is deserted again, except with a lot more garbage littering the streets. You're just an NPC in their story.

This sense of place and rural life systemic commentary are all interesting, but from a game design perspective, this game's real masterstroke is in its overall sense of pacing. 

A lot of these farming life sim games are really only designed to stay fresh for a single in-game year, and Before The Green Moon is no exception. If you explore a little every day, talk to everyone most days, and give occasional gifts, then you'll likely exhaust all their unique dialogue and possible relationship events by the end of the in-game year. At this point, you'll also likely have a strong farming system in-place with everything fully upgraded, with nothing left to buy or do, really.

So now, might as well buy your ticket to the moon and end the game, right? Brilliantly, the moon elevator only departs like once a month. If you miss your departure, you'll have to wait a long while for the next opportunity. It adds more urgency and immediacy to the endgame. You have to commit.

That's when your in-game girlfriend begs you -- don't go to the moon. Stay here. She can't offer you more than this life, but isn't that enough?

I promised her I'd think about it. Should I freeze my playthrough here, and refuse to win the game? This is theoretically how Harvest Moon and all farm life sims "end", paused in an infinite endgame on your beautiful picturesque farm forever, before the boredom and restlessness set in.

So as I walked around this dead concrete desert and talked to the other NPCs, none of them had anything to say to me. After all, I had pestered them for an entire year, to the point of speechlessness. It was time for me to go.

When you inevitably buy your moon ticket and finally commit to leaving, you have the option of visiting each NPC and saying goodbye to them. Most goodbye cutscenes are a bit bittersweet and one is charmingly bizarre, but I wondered most about what my in-game girlfriend would say. 

In a cutscene several in-game days before, she had told me that if I choose to leave then I shouldn't say goodbye to her, I should just go. But I had to have closure! I had to 100% all the content in this game! So I visited her anyway, against her wishes. And predictably, she got really angry and sad and told me to get out. (See, this is why I have to leave...)

In the end you were basically just another tourist. You didn't really have to live there, after all.

So you board the moon elevator alone. You sit in your little single bed cabin alone. There's not much to do but wait.

If you're hungry, you can buy a synth-apple, which is now much more expensive onboard the moonship. So if you spent all your money on the moon ticket then you won't be able to afford to eat, which is hilarious. It's not really what you imagined your new moon life would be like.

And that's how Before The Green Moon ends. No happy romantic ending, no big infinite moon farm endgame. Going to the moon doesn't really solve your problems, just like moving to your grandpa's old ranch wouldn't really magically fix your life. Maybe next time, instead of renovating a farm, you should just go to therapy.

Before The Green Moon is available on Itch and Steam.