I wouldn’t consider myself a particularly patriotic person, but I always feel a little twinge of national pride when I see New Zealand in a game. Whether it’s something as divorced from reality as Taito’s strange arcade game The NewZealand Story, or the relatively accurate New Zealand stages in King of Fighters 2003 and Street Fighter V, I always get those “proud mum feels” when I see our backyard in an internationally-marketed game.
It’s fair to say, then, that I was very excited when I heard about The Falconers: Moonlight, a supernatural mystery visual novel set on New Zealand’s West Coast during the gold rush days. Although it’s the product of a Thailand-based studio, The Falconers is one of the most New Zealand-centered games I’ve ever played, no doubt thanks to the fact that Kiwi narrative designer Edwin McRae is the game’s writer. Laced through a fantastical story of a Witcher-like monster hunter is a glimpse into New Zealand history and culture. That’s something I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a game, even from a Kiwi developer – though I’d love to be corrected on that if I’m wrong.
The Falconers follows Cassie Winter, a young member of a global organisation known as the Order of the Falcon. Falconers, as the Order’s hunters are known, are at war with giant insectoid creatures called Cullers, and in a place like New Zealand with so much untamed natural land, these monsters run rampant. Cassie’s only just become a fully-fledged Falconer, and her first solo mission sees her deployed to the town of Moonlight following a string of strange deaths and disappearances.
What follows is an investigation full of twists, turns, and cover-ups, as Cassie tries to get to the heart of the matter and uncover the Culler’s ringleader, who’s posing as one of the townspeople. Is it Mary “Sunlight” Suncliffe, the cheery innkeeper? Wiremu “Weka” Jones, a crooked yet charming gambler? Biddy Goodwin, a foul-mouthed drunk who’s also deceptively intelligent? Or maybe it’s Captain Moonlight himself, the owner of the mine responsible for Moonlight’s prosperity and the town’s de facto mayor?
At first glance, each of these characters is very stereotypical, from the miserly tycoon to the charming thief (who is Māori, to boot). That’s a deliberate move, though – the Falconers sets up those stereotyped expectations specifically so that it can break them, and build plot twists and character development around members of the cast muddying those stereotypes. Every one of these characters is more than meets the eye, and getting to know them is what drives the game.
The best example of this is Wiremu. He’s a gambler on the run, which may seem like the most racist character archetype for the game’s only Māori character – but he’s also a survivor of the Taranaki Land Wars, an escaped convict who was imprisoned for the “crime” of defending his land from being stolen by invaders. There’s a tragic story hidden beneath his roguish charms, which also offers a sharp insight into race relations in New Zealand, both historical and contemporary.
In fact, colonialism is a theme throughout the whole game. Consider this passage, from the official description:
The Falconers are an international organisation of 'monster hunters' devoted to protecting European colonists from the entities that would thwart the spread of 'civilisation' into the wild frontiers. These creatures are 'The Cullers'.
Note the focus on protecting European colonists, rather than people in general, and the quotation marks around “civilisation”. The Order of the Falcon is a not-so-subtle metaphor for colonists and white saviours; the Cullers are the primitive, violent natives who dare to resist European superiority. Cassie’s investigation forces her to confront the possibility that the Cullers aren’t just mindless monsters, and the role of humans in invading Culler lands and sparking that hostility.
That said, for all this insightfulness, The Falconers ultimately fails to follow through in the end. The questions raised about colonialism are left aside, for the sake of an “exciting” ending, and the game seems to forget the noteworthy points it was making just an hour prior.
The Falconers doesn’t just rest on a fantastical metaphor for colonialism; it also traverses the real history of New Zealand and the impact of European settlement on Māori communities. Wiremu is the centre of this, as a direct victim of colonialist attacks, but it also comes through in everything from Moonlight’s architecture to the juxtaposition of Wiremu’s European clothing and tā moko. Through a few major plot points, the game draws a contrast between Pākehā and Māori perspectives on land, community, and nature, and it raises the idea that colonial “civilisation” isn’t all that civilised.
If there’s one thing that The Falconers: Moonlight needs, it’s an in-game glossary – something that’s fairly common in historical visual novels (and historical fiction in general). The game briefly explains some things through its narrative, like the Land Wars and the meaning of a hongi, but it wouldn’t hurt to have more information easily on hand. Furthermore, it uses a fair few te reo Māori words that are commonly understood here, but would probably just cause confusion overseas. Arborists may know what a rimu is, but would the general public in any country other than New Zealand? What about a karakia, whenua, tapu? Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s wonderful to see te reo used in a game; it’s a great way to introduce the language and culture to a global audience. But for that to work as well as it could, it needs a glossary so that people have some easy point of reference while they’re playing.
A way of marking off which choices you’ve made wouldn’t go amiss, either. In typical visual novel fashion, The Falconers regularly gives you chances to make choices, which determine which of a few different paths the game takes you on. It’s well worth seeing the different routes and outcomes to get a fuller picture of the story and characters, but with choices as plentiful as they are, it’s easy to forget which routes you’ve played through and which you haven’t, even for a relatively short game. Many visual novels easily avoid this issue by marking choices that haven’t been made, and that sort of feature would go a long way in helping players to experience of the full breadth of what this game has to offer.
The Falconers: Moonlight is an exciting, well-written visual novel with some beautiful art, and that alone should be enough to entice the genre’s usual audience. But it’s something more than that, too – it’s a game that doesn’t just use Aotearoa as some sort of exotic set dressing, but builds a whole game around it. We have so many stories to tell, and I hope that this game inspires a lot more developers to explore them.
Matt received a digital copy of The Falconers: Moonlight from the developer for review.