This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. You can find the rest by clicking here.
Luna is a soothing VR fairytale, one where players will play in gardens, solve puzzles among the stars, and help a bird make its way home. Through exploration, curiosity, and creativity, players will follow this bird on its journey, bringing whole worlds to life through their actions.
Gamasutra spoke with Robin Hunicke and Glenn Hernandez of Funomena, developers to Luna, to talk about the striking, almost touchable visuals that draw the player in, how music gives them an even greater power to affect, and how it all ties to a theme of growing as a person even through horrible times and events.
How did you come up with the concept?
Hunicke: Luna is a fairytale about recovering from a mistake... which was inspired in part by my own experiences as a young woman. As a survivor of sexual violence and sexual harassment, I wanted to confront the feeling that there was "something I could have done" to make a difference in the way events played out in my life. I also wanted to focus on the idea of transformation - that some things, even while upsetting or unexpected, help you grow.
As I began to work on the concept, I read a lot of fairy tales and folklore which focused on recovering from mistakes. I also started folding paper - to explore a look/feel for the world that relied on this notion of folded paper. Then, one night while I was overseas at the BAFTAs (Journey had been nominated for several awards), I woke up in the middle of the night and the story was kind of in my head... almost a dream. I wrote down as much as I could in my notebook and fell asleep. From that point on, it was almost as if the game told us itself where it wanted to go.
What development tools were used to build your game?
Hunicke: We built the game using Unity and Maya, primarily. The artists (Glenn Hernandez, Allyse Miller and Allena Hail) worked very hard to create a world that feels tactile & real... but also unreal. A blend between paper and painted, physical and ethereal. I'm biased - but I think it's quite a beautiful game. :D
How much time have you spent working on the game?
We worked on Luna for about 3 years.
The art style of Luna evokes a powerful calming mood. How do you achieve this with visuals? What thoughts went into creating that specific, soothing look of the game?
Hernandez: We wanted to game to feel like Playmobil toys, only set in a magical sandbox. We also explored the idea of Sand Play; a type of play therapy that gives patients a blank canvas on which to express their inner selves. This kind of free play is naturally soothing, but once set within a miniaturized magical environment, it only adds to the evocative nature of Luna.
At first, we even went so far as to physically build environment prototypes out of kinetic sand in a large bowl. We moved all of those ideas into VR and began to conceptualize the environments by building several versions out of primitive shapes and then seeing how the toy scale felt in the VR headset. These were essentially our “Blue Pencil” tests on which we based our final paintover concepts of the environments. From those concepts, the textures and lighting were derived, and many iterations of modeling, texturing, animation, and lighting completed it.
We stayed away from frenetic motion and attempted to soften the lighting by using atmospheric textured fog which gave it an ethereal feel. Overall, we wanted the game to feel like a little visual poem encased in a glass ornament; something that you could take with you and look at when times get tough.
There is a sense that Luna's world can be touched - that even as digital art, there is a texture to it that we just need to reach out and make contact with. How do you create that tactile sense in its art?
Hernandez: Even though we were building these worlds digitally, we wanted them to feel handmade. A lot of care went in to keeping things looking shabby, imperfect and as analog as possible. If a model was too perfect and sharp on its edges, we roughed it up a little. If a color gradient in a skybox was too even, we dirtied it up with a texture brush. Even the fog is textured to look like chalk dust. Everything in Luna has that rough, hand-drawn feeling one gets when making a mark on pastel paper or making a print from a woodblock carving. In fact, all of the brushes used in texturing Luna were derived from scanned textures of ink on paper.
Playing with scale also helped achieve this feel. In the case of character size as compared to objects like the Golden Gate Bridge, we had to own the fact that we could only rely on forced perspective. That limitation inherently gave the world a toy-like, tactile feel. Everything about Luna was inspired from physical objects/toys, and we stuck to the idea that if we really wanted to, we could make these worlds out of paper mache or clay.
What thoughts went into designing an interactive storybook world? How do you build a sense of wonder in the player through look and interactions?
Hunicke: Over the course of developing Luna, we looked at a lot of artwork - from the concept art of Mary Blair and block prints of Umetaro Azechi to the sculptural work of Anish Kapoor and Lee Bontecou. We wanted to build an experience that was both tactile and interactive - so referencing these works gave us a chance to have a conversation as a team about what makes something feel *like you have to touch it*.
We also worked a lot on sound design. Brad Fotsch made many, many prototypes of sound interactions and also constantly sent videos of kinetic sound sculptures and interactive installations to our team list. By engaging in an open, evolving dialogue about how sound and touch could collaborate to create novel interactions, we were able to focus in on the core elements of the experience: reaching into the stars to arrange the puzzles, reaching down into the terrarium to plant and play with the landscapes, and then reaching out to the characters to heal them at the end of each scene. In that way, we used art & sound to engage the player’s entire body over the arc of each level.
What do you feel that VR added to the experience?
Hunicke: We really feel that this element of programming the body and the motion of a body through visual, audio, and game design is really unique to emerging VR and AR technologies. Especially as we begin to see platforms without cords - which engage the player completely in space, without introducing the anxiety of being “too far” from sensors. This gives us the ability as creatives to think about your whole body as a platform - and to think about how your movement and physical postures integrate with other aspects of the game. It’s very, very exciting.
Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you've particularly enjoyed?
Hunicke: We have! To be honest we have many friends and colleagues with games in the competition so it’s pretty hard to single out just one. I personally have a soft spot for West of Loathing and Where The Water Tastes Like Wine, since these were made by fellow SF devs that we <3. But I’m honestly blown away by the selection and thrilled to be part of it.
What do you think are the biggest hurdles (and opportunities) for indie devs today?
Hunicke: Same as they always have been: making the games you love, sustainably, and still managing to pay the bills! Still, it is, in many ways, easier than it used to be! I remember when you couldn’t really publish games without being on a disc or cartridge, which meant you needed to know someone who knew someone who could introduce you to someone to publish your game. Now - we can *all* release games, which means we need to work harder to find the audiences that are right for our games - and to broaden audiences for new technologies like VR.
Luna is a direct attempt to attract new people to the VR market, and we’re so thrilled to be celebrated for the hard work we put into making something beautiful, tactile, and chill. Thanks to everyone who nominated us, and best of luck to all the nominees!!!