It’s hard not to fall in love with the 2D-animated art style of LUNA The Shadow Dust – the debut point-and-click adventure game from Lantern Studio.
From the cute Ghibli-inspired character design to its mysterious locales and detailed animations, the project immediately draws the eye with its charming visuals.
The game is the brainchild of the London-based freelance animator Beidi Guo – whose previous work includes projects for BBC Children in Need and Elton John.
Together with a small four-person team located across three continents (Europe, North America, and Asia), she’s been working on LUNA since 2015, back when Lantern Studio first formed.
In LUNA, players switch between two characters – a humanoid boy in a rabbit hat, and a shadowy cat-like creature – as they explore a mysterious tower.
Each room in the tower holds a new puzzle for players to solve, with most focusing on teamwork and interactions with your environment, such as pulling levers, moving boxes, and illuminating light sources.
“We don’t have an inventory system,” says Guo. “The characters, they only interact with their surroundings. And we don’t have any pop-ups. All of the environment is fixed. Because we don’t have any inventory, all the characters need to have even more sets of animation for them to interact with all those objects.
So if we have a chair, we need to make sure the chair or the stone or the box they are about to step on is the same height. So there are a load of design details that we need to document or follow.”
Beginning the adventure
The initial idea for LUNA The Shadow Dust came from a student film Guo made in her final year at university, called The Plenilune.
The animation tells the story of a man who pilots the moon around Earth, and his long-distance relationship with his family back home. Both feature a similar art style to one another and reuse the same imagery, including the ancient tower and the pale moon.
“In that film, the story is very different from LUNA,” says Guo, “but I really like some of the elements. It has a mysteriousness to it. So I picked some of the key elements from that student film and then rewrote a new story – which later became the story for LUNA The Shadow Dust.”
Back in early nineties China, buying video games was considered a luxury and a huge personal investment. Luckily for Guo, though, her mother had a job in the computer department of her company, meaning she had in her possession a brick-ish IBM laptop that she could play games on.
Guo poured hours into playing point-and-click adventure games like The Neverhood on this machine – an experience she credits with kickstarting her love of animation and video games. With such a huge personal attachment to the genre, therefore, it made perfect sense for Guo to set about building LUNA as an adventure game in the same style.
On top of this, there were also some other influences that came from outside the world of gaming. These include the works of the acclaimed Japanese animation house, Studio Ghibli, and American fantasy author, Ursula K. Le Guin.
“I’ve been a big fan of Studio Ghibli films since I was very young,” says Guo. “The way we tell stories in LUNA was influenced by their films. I also like to read fantasy books, so the story for LUNA definitely takes inspiration from The Earthsea Quartet by Ursula K. Le Guin.
“I really like the setting of her fantasy world, which is not simply a tale of good vs evil, but rather drawing attention to the importance of the balance between the two.”
Guo points to one quote in particular from A Wizard of Earthsea as having greatly impacted her work on LUNA. It reads: “To light a candle is to cast a shadow.” According to Guo, the relationship between light and shadow is a recurring theme throughout the entire game, represented in the puzzle design and the relationship between the boy and his animal companion.
A hands-on approach
LUNA also features an entirely ‘wordless’ approach to storytelling. Instead of dialogue, story and emotion are conveyed to the player through hand-animated cutscenes, intricate sound design, and musical motifs.
“During the cutscene, we’ll have proper animated storytelling, like short animated films,” Guo explains. “So, the music and animation work together to tell a part of the story. We have seven cutscenes throughout the whole thing. In total, it adds up to about 20 minutes of 2D animation. That’s quite a lot of work for a studio the size of ours.
“The [animation] can be very intense and very time-consuming,” she continues. “[But] there’s a certain charm that can only be achieved by hand-drawn animation. The process is very hard, because we only have one person. But we break it down into very short tasks to make sure I don’t get too overwhelmed by the workload.”
Alongside the demands of animating everything by hand, organisation also presented an issue for the studio. Having a team spread out across multiple time zones meant coordinating meetings was difficult at times, with members of the team active during different hours.
“Communication is a big challenge,” says Guo. “Just to set up a time for a meeting sometimes is difficult. Someone has to stay up really late or get up really early.
But we work it out and we also found an advantage of this setup, because we can all attend a game convention in different locations at the same time. So it kind of has its pros and cons… To be honest, I would prefer if everyone could work in the same office, but… reality is unpredictable sometimes.”
LUNA The Shadow Dust is due to release this summer for Windows and Mac. You can already play a brief demo of the game on Steam, which takes you through the first half hour and some of its absorbing early puzzles.
Format: PC / Mac / Linux / iOS / Android
Developer: Lantern Studio
Publisher: Coconut Island Games
Release: Summer 2019