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Turning personal art into The Wild at Heart

Road to the IGF 2022: The Wild at Heart follows a pair of runaways into a world of forgotten and lost things.

This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series.

The Wild at Heart follows a pair of runaways into a world of forgotten and lost things. Thankfully, the kids find some allies in the form of a whole crew of friendly forest creatures who are willing to help them out. 

Game Developer sat down with Moonlight Kids, developers of the IGF Excellence in Visual Arts-nominated title, to talk about how its personal art style informed the work, the challenges that come when you have a few dozen woodland creatures helping you to solve puzzles all at once, and what drew them to tell a story about a time in your life when you're just beginning to discover yourself.

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Who are you, and what was your role in developing The Wild at Heart?

Justin Baldwin, developer of The Wild at HeartI'm Justin Baldwin. I generally stick to the creative parts, but I wear a lot of hats. I mostly do art and animation as well as game design, level design, and writing.

What's your background in making games?

Baldwin: I didn’t exactly have a typical trajectory into games. I’m mostly self-taught, so I didn’t go to school for it or anything—I just always loved games. I started making crappy little flash games when I was a teenager back in the heyday of Newgrounds. I started doing art, animation, and code for online games professionally at an agency in my early twenties. 

Eventually, I explored developing my own games on the side, and after a while I made my own studio and mobile game with Alex [Atkins} that wound up getting picked up by Cartoon Network. This is actually how I met Moonlight Kids co-founder, Chris [Sumsky}. I did a few contract games with them after that and worked on a few other independent games as an art director and animator. We formed Moonlight Kids with Chris and Ankit [Trivedi} after Alex and I already started developing The Wild at Heart.

How did you come up with the concept for The Wild at Heart?

Baldwin: Most of it stemmed from the artwork I was doing at the time and Alex and I noodling on an honest story about childhood. We both were working through some personal things relating back to when we were kids at the time, and there is this odd mix of nostalgia and fondness coupled with challenging times and trauma. 

A lot of the world, characters, and environment were also heavily influenced by our upbringing, such as the world being very Pacific Northwest and set in the 90's. As far as the Spritelings and gameplay go, we just always knew for our next game we wanted to do something with “li’l buds” because we are just kind of obsessed with them. Everything else just kind of unraveled naturally from there.

What development tools were used to build your game?

Baldwin: Most of everything was done in Unity, Photoshop, and Spine, give or take some other tools for writing, versioning, project management, and documentation.

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The Wild at Heart is a gorgeous-looking game. Can you tell us a bit about the process of choosing and developing the art style for it? For finding a look that suited the tone of the game?

Baldwin: Thanks! A lot of it was just exploring my personal style more. I’m generally pretty used to developing an art direction around an existing idea, but for this game, the art influenced everything else. It kind of just “happened,” and most of it came from a really personal place as opposed to trying to fit within a certain framework. A lot of what drove the art decisions was mood and what I was personally trying to work through. 

Aligned with that was also what I felt like Wake and Kirby are going through in the story, like how they both feel forgotten. To reflect that, the world has a lot of forgotten items like TVs, arcades, and junk strewn around the woods. I wanted a comfortable, yet haunting feel to the look because that just feels so much like home to me. I also draw from media that really makes me feel full of nostalgia and emotion, so things like Song of the Sea, Where the Wild Things Are, Gravity Falls, and Ghibli films influenced the look of the game as well.

The game's world is a mixture of childhood imagination, striking woodlands, video games, and more. What thoughts went into creating the world of The Wild at Heart?

Baldwin: Atmosphere and tone were super important to us. There was quite of bit of attention spent on injecting themes, metaphor, and visual storytelling into the world. A lot of that was us trying to communicate the world through the lens of the child, but also those little stories that the world tells add to that sense of adventure and mystery. 

One example being that a random television abandoned in the woods may just look like junk, but it came from somewhere and belonged to someone. It makes the player wonder about how it got there. Those little mini stories were pretty important to us to maintain that feeling of discovery.

The game offers an array of cute friends and dangerous creatures to meet. Can you tell us about some of the design process behind creating some of these creatures? Behind the main characters?

Baldwin: For the Green Shield characters, a lot of it was just playing and landing on what we liked, and it often came down to them having unique silhouettes and a certain level of quirky weirdness and mystery. The creatures also had those elements, but a lot of them were sort of intended to embody that hero’s journey-esque vibe, specifically inspired a lot by the creatures in Never Ending Story or Labyrinth

Visually, and more so narratively, Wake is sort of a combination of Alex and I as kids. He feels forgotten and is unsure of himself. He struggles with anger and anxiety because of it, but he still is this lovable, well-meaning kid. Kirby, I view as more of the kid I wish I was to some degree, because she is so fearless, funny, and strong no matter what adversity she is facing.

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What drew you to Pikmin-like herd strategy puzzles for the game?

Baldwin: From the start, we knew we wanted to make a game that had these little forest creature buddies. Originally, we toyed with a more Pokémon-like approach, but as fans of the Pikmin series and the severe lack of herd-like games out there, we thought we could put our own spin on it. It’s just really fun to manage a little army of cute creatures and see all the things they can do. There are more layers to the ways you have to think about puzzles when you have multiple agents that can interact with the world in similar, as well as different, ways. You just don’t get that in games with a single player character.

What thoughts go into creating puzzles and mechanics around having a big group surrounding you? What sorts of challenges does working with a big group create in-game?

Baldwin: Some of it felt more reactive than proactive in terms of design. Repeated testing on every little corner of the puzzles and level design was major since there were just so many variables at play with having two player characters and upwards of sixty additional agents with minds of their own. It was just a lot to have to think about and introduced many challenges for us. 

There were a good number of instances where I would design this puzzle, and I would be happy with it, but then in testing someone would find some exploit or loophole to bypass the entire thing. So, there was a lot of us collaboratively combing over all the level design and puzzles together to account for all those options and potential outcomes. It. Was. A. Lot.

What do you hope to make the player with this experience in childhood wonder and play? What were you hoping to draw out of people who experience your work?

Baldwin: I think, in general, I would say hopefully just to bring folks some escape from the world right now. Ideally, just being able to get absorbed in a fantasy world with cute little critters has that wholesome element to just get cozy and have a chill experience. The game does have some poignant moments as well, but hopefully folks can relate and revisit that inner child within them.

We set out to make something that wasn’t trying to sugar-coat childhood. Obviously, there is a lot of joy and wonder that comes with being young, but it is also a time for challenges and finding who you are, all during a time where you really don’t have full agency over your life. We put a lot of our own personal experiences into the story and themes, and really, if anyone can get some joy, comfort, or even catharsis from it, that seems pretty lovely to me.

This game, an IGF 2022 finalist, is featured as part of the IGF Awards ceremony, taking place at the Game Developers Conference on Wednesday, March 23 (with a simultaneous broadcast on GDC Twitch).

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