It all began with one artist and a single image. About five years ago, Swedish artist and developer Adam Stjärnljus opened Photoshop and began working on what would eventually become Planet of Lana’s key art. It depicted a solitary young girl dwarfed by a lush alien landscape, a small, canine-looking creature standing loyally by her side. For over a year, Stjärnljus kept working on that germ of an idea, about a girl on a quest to rescue her sister from invaders with Mui, her animal companion, helping her traverse the treacherous landscape.
From there, it would be another two years before Stjärnljus’ fledgling studio, Wishfully, could get the funding it needed to finally get the game into production. But throughout, that initial piece of artwork has remained the team’s “guiding star” – a constant source of inspiration for the hand-painted story the studio’s aiming to tell. It’s also inspired investors to lend their support for the project, and even prompted composer Takeshi Furukawa (The Last Guardian) to get in touch and offer his services.
Playing Planet of Lana for ourselves, we can see why the game’s become one of next year’s most anticipated indie releases. It’s a puzzle-platformer in the cinematic vein of Another World or Playdead’s Limbo, but with the co-operative elements and melancholic atmosphere of Fumito Ueda’s Ico or The Last Guardian. Its visuals are captivating, its puzzles deftly woven into the landscape; at one point, we’re able to use a giant creature’s fascination with our furry sidekick to lure it into a position where we can use its bulk as a platform. Then there’s its story: a few untranslated lines of alien dialogue aside, it’s told entirely through those painterly visuals, and soon goes to some unexpectedly dark places. Planet of Lana may not look as nightmarish as Playdead’s output, but as we discovered, brutal deaths are far from uncommon on Novo, the alien world that provides the game’s backdrop.
Amid the bustle and din of Gamescom, we met Stjärnljus to find out about Planet of Lana’s beginnings, the role a red-top newspaper played in securing Furukawa’s music, and how much work goes into designing those environmental puzzles…
Planet of Lana’s been in development for a long time. Can you talk about what it was like back in its early stages?
I worked on the game for a year by myself, and then we started the studio four years ago. Then it took us two years to find funding, but in retrospect, that was really, really good. If we’d had been an established studio, we couldn’t have had such a long pre-production. But since we had that pre-production, we could really find both the game design and figure out how the game could work with the companion. It took so much work to make that feel good.
Also, the visual style actually started more flat and more retro-inspired, like Another World or Prince of Persia – games that I grew up with. So it was frame-by-frame animation and 2D – flat. But then we realised that the vision we have for the game – this epic, cinematic, immersive experience – wasn’t going to work in 2D. So then we went for this mix of 3D and 2D, while still keeping that hand-painted look that the concept originated from. It’s been a process of iterations – a lot of iterations and work to make it happen. I’m very happy with where we’re at now. There’s a lot of depth in the world, but it still has this hand-painted style.
What was the process of simulating that hand-painted feel in Unity like?
All the 3D rocks and stuff like that combine with sprites, and all the lighting is hand-painted. So the light is painted and then it’s a mix of real tangible [3D assets]. It still reminds me of those classic games like Flashback and Another World – I love those games. It’s very inspired by those, and obviously Inside and Limbo. But also The Last Guardian – except they had a bit bigger budget than us!
We actually use the same composer – the same guy who made the music for The Last Guardian, [Takeshi Furukawa]. It’s quite a fun story, how we got him. It was right at the beginning – the first conference we went to, after about one and a half years working on the game. We’d just started the studio and had worked on the game for about five months. And we took the concept to the conference, and then The Daily Mirror wrote an article about the game. [Furukawa] saw that, saw the images, and then contacted us. I thought it was a hoax, because I actually pitched the game as, ‘Inside plus The Last Guardian’. So then we started talking with him. And we clicked creatively and then signed with him after two years. It’s just been amazing to have him on board. We actually recorded the music in Budapest with a full orchestra – like, 70 people. He said to me when I met him recently, that he’d never before nor after contacted a studio in the way that he did with us. We’re a small indie studio, but he saw something in it that inspired him.
Did he say specifically what he saw that inspired him?
It was the concept art, and by then we had a few other [pieces]. There was something that struck him in that. I think that image has done that a lot of times, and that’s why we’ve kept going, even when it’s been tough, because we’ve had so much good feedback. It just evokes emotion, this story about a little girl and her companion. It raises a lot of questions, like, ‘Why are they there?’.
I mean, there’s been a lot of challenges, to be honest. It’s our first game as a studio, so it was challenging, convincing people that we can do this. But a lot of us at the studio come from an animation and film background. So we have experience running a company, and we have experience in storytelling and animation and art and all that stuff, but not a lot in actually creating a game. So that’s been a journey.
Also, it’s a very ambitious game. We were never interested in doing a small game. But, as I said before, we had that long pre-production that really enabled us to [iterate]. We pitched it first and didn’t get a yes. And then we got feedback, really valuable feedback, and we just kept working on it.
Would you say that the tone of the game changes as you progress? Does it get darker?
It does. We want to tell the story through playing the game, so you get to explore a lot of different [environments]. There’s a lot of focus on variation and this very rich backstory. You get to this old shipwreck that you get to explore, it’s quite dark… there are scary creatures and stuff like that. So we have this tranquil, lush environment, but you’ll definitely explore darker places. And this epic story will unfold as you play the game.
We really wanted to make a fun game at its core, that’s good to play and has the right balance of challenging puzzles, that’s not too easy, not too hard, and still quite approachable for a broad audience. Obviously, the first chapter you’re playing is an introduction to how you play with Mui and Lana. And then we’ll ramp it up as you go along. We also have this hypnotic ability that you’ll unlock later in the game. Mui can hypnotise creatures so you can control them. It opens up a lot of variation of the abilities and how you can solve puzzles and interact with the world.
How big a part will those hypnosis abilities play later in the game? Will there be a difference between who or what Lana can hypnotise versus Mui?
Lana doesn’t have a hypnotic ability, but she gains a different special ability that opens up a lot of variation and fun mechanics to the puzzle-solving and interaction with the world. But we don’t want to spoil exactly what that ability is at this time. Mui’s hypnosis will play a substantial part in the game – it becomes a link between Lana and the creatures of Novo and is essential to harness if Lana and Mui are to make it through their adventure.
You’ve mentioned Studio Ghibli as an influence on this. I think they’re such an inspiration for so many artists and game designers. What makes them special to you?
The film Spirited Away left such an impression on me. I think I saw it when I was 19 or something like that. It’s just something about how it lets you into these worlds and how you see it through the eyes of a child. There’s something very special about it. In Spirited Away, I loved how you got to see this weird bathhouse for ghosts, but there’s still people doing the dishes and smoking out the window. There’s all this attention to detail in the world-building and still this tonality of an emotional, dramatic story, but it also has its quirkiness and fun things. There’s just something about that mix that’s unique. The tonality of that storytelling and world-building has also been a guiding star for us.
Would you say the game has an ecological theme? That’s a common thing in Studio Ghibli movies.
Yeah, but it’s in the background. The planet isn’t Earth, but it’s still very reminiscent of Earth, and that’s a very conscious decision, because we wanted to kind of evoke the same emotions that you have yourself when you’ve been out in nature, been in fields, walked through the grass. Obviously, the creatures are very different from the creatures on Earth, but in the sense that you to get to appreciate being in nature, definitely.
So how much do you have left to do on the game?
We are in polish mode right now, and it takes so much time shaping up the last 10% of the game. But in a game like this, where the immersion is such a big part, that 10% will make all the difference in creating the magical experience that [we envision].
How do you come up with the puzzles? Do you sketch them out first?
It’s so hard creating puzzles that balance the right difficulty, that invoke the feeling of being smart, logical and fun. Our technical animator, Dan Faxe, wasn’t part of the puzzle creation in the beginning, but when he came into the process, it quickly became apparent that he had the right brain for the task. We have a game design group of four people in the team that work on the general puzzle ideas, then Dan takes those ideas, sketches them out, and presents for feedback. Then we have that process back and forth until we feel a puzzle can go into the prototype phase. We then have the whole game, but only the puzzles, in a very rudimentary form without any animation or visual flair. After that, Christian Enfors, one of the game designers, can prototype puzzles quickly with visual scripting, and we can test to verify the puzzles before implementing them in the real game. This whole process is without any involvement of the programmers, which relieves a lot of unnecessary work since we can be sure that a puzzle works before spending valuable programmer time on it.