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The benefits of narrative limitations in heartfelt adventure Planet of Lana
Planet of Lana incorporates an alien language that might flummox players, but developer Wishfully believes that what might be perceived as a narrative limitation is one of the game's biggest strengths.
August 26, 2022
4 Min Read
Planet of Lana is a story about fellowship. The puzzle adventure wants players to engage and empathize with Lana and her adorable companion Mui as they embark on a journey through an alien world that feels both familiar and strange, beautifully realized through a hand-painted art style that looks equally stunning in motion.
In-game, players will need to solve puzzles as they traverse the world by giving instructions to Miu, telling the adorable monkey-like creature to follow along, hold back, or push ahead to help Lana unravel conundrums and (hopefully) avoid danger.
Although the burgeoning relationship between Lana and Miu is the beating heart of the game, the development team opted to draw players into Planet of Lana by creating a distinct emotional tone -- rather than, say, spelling it out through voice-acted cutscenes or reams of text.
Speaking to Game Developer at Gamescom 2022, Planet of Lana co-director and writer Klas Martin Eriksson explained the game initially wasn't going to have any dialogue, but after an internal back-and-forth the Wishfully team decided to create a language from scratch that could be used to convey interaction without becoming a blunt force narrative instrument.
Less can be more
"In the beginning we weren't going to have any dialogue, really. It was just going to be communication through body language," says Eriksson. "But as we developed the story and started playtesting, we decided that we needed one more layer of emotional expression for it to work.
"That's when we decided to write our language. Players won't actually be able to understand what [the characters] are saying, and there won't be any subtitles [that provide a translation], but if you really lean into it you'll be able to pick it up as you progress through the game. We feel it adds another element where tone of voice is concerned and helps us better communicate the story."
"You want to keep building a world that creates more questions than answers. That's a big part of keeping players engaged."
Eriksson adds that the narrative itself was inspired by a single picture that presented the team with a flurry of questions: Who's the girl? Who's the creature beside her? What's that robot and why aren't they running for their life? Wishfully worked together to expand the story from there, fleshing out the world and learning who exactly their protagonists are -- although it was a nebulous process that took a huge amount of iteration.
"[Getting characters from A to B] is the easy part, but especially in a video game you want to keep building a world that creates more questions than answers. That's a big part of keeping players engaged," continues Eriksson. "I don't know how many drafts we went through to reach the point we're at now, but it has to be more than 100."
By attempting to create a story based on a single image, without using any immediately recognizable written or spoken language, Wishfully was presented with a unique challenge. Eriksson, however, explains he loved the idea of working with those limitations, because those boundaries created a clearly defined space for the team to explore.
"I'm not a fan of too much dialogue in video games, and I do think sometimes we're guilty of taking a 'tell don't show' approach to storytelling. So coming from a film and animation background I wanted to head in the opposite direction and lean into visual storytelling," he continues.
"You can do so much with tone of voice and body language. Like, so so much. Obviously you speak to Miu throughout the game, so already you're learning about the language. Then I tried to use those phrases as much as possible to help the player slowly gain an understanding."
The gameplay trailer embedded above shows how Wishfully's narrative philosophy is manifesting in-game, with Lana addressing Mui using a series of phrases and instructions that, while completely unfamiliar, quickly become recognizable.
Planet of Lana is currently slated to launch in early 2023. If you're interested to learn more about the project's visual journey, check out this in-depth art and animation Q&A with Wishfully creative director Adam Stjarnljus.
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About the Author(s)
News Editor, GameDeveloper.com
Game Developer news editor Chris Kerr is an award-winning journalist and reporter with over a decade of experience in the game industry. His byline has appeared in notable print and digital publications including Edge, Stuff, Wireframe, International Business Times, and PocketGamer.biz. Throughout his career, Chris has covered major industry events including GDC, PAX Australia, Gamescom, Paris Games Week, and Develop Brighton. He has featured on the judging panel at The Develop Star Awards on multiple occasions and appeared on BBC Radio 5 Live to discuss breaking news.
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