LUNA The Shadow Dust
Let me introduce you to LUNA The Shadow Dust, a little hand-drawn puzzle adventure with a very curious story of development. All factual information I'll give in this post is taken from a gem of a PressKit that Lantern Studio got on their website. It's beautifully detailed and I recommend checking it out if you're interested.
Invaluable Artistic Freedom
Lanten Studio's creation followed a general pattern almost every indie company I've read about goes through: one person got an idea for a game and shared it with an old friend. That friend called up another friend - here a former Ubisoft programmer - who agreed to join in. A team of now three people created a demo that they showed to their comrades from the gaming industrys. The demo did great, and they continued working, meeting their future composer some time after. One of my favourite indie studios, Supergiant Games, followed almost exactly the same path.
It's no secret that you need to invest a lot of money - a lot of money - into game development, probably more than you could imagine. Lantern Studio started a Kickstarter campaign for LUNA that was very successful and raised £17.570. It should have been enough to cover the development but unfortunately it wasn't. Despite the fact that Lantern Studio struggled financially, they turned down a potential investor to preserve their artistic freedom that would have been apparently at risk if they had accepted the offer.
The development process itself wasn't easy either: it just so happened that the members of Lantern Studio were living in different corners of the world, so the development of LUNA happened simultaneously in London, Toronto and Shanghai. Somebody had to get up early or stay late - for three years, 2017-2020. Beidi, the author of the original idea, and Fox, the main programmer, left their jobs to develop LUNA full-time.
Inspiration for LUNA
The original idea was inspired by the animation film Beidi created when he was a student in 2007. It was a story of a man who pilots the Moon around the Earth and keeps long-distance relationship with his family. LUNA was also influenced by the Earthsea fantasy series written by Ursula Le Guin. According to the developers, they wanted to draw players' attention to the importance of good and evil being in balance, rather than being opposed to one another.
If you have played popular point-and-click titles that are already a classic - or will be when they are old enough - LUNA will make you sweetly nostalgic. The game was also inspired by the one and only The Neverhood, which you can feel literally in the first room, and by Amanita classics: Machinarium and Samorost. Lantern Studio were also impressed by Gorogoa, released in 2017 - I love this game and always recommend it. All these games are united by one key thing - they are stories told without words. Like LUNA.
When it comes to artstyle and atmosphere, the developers of LUNA drew inspiration from the Ghibli animated works and illustrations of Shaun Tan and Jean Giraud as they were trying to create a surrealisic but tangible world.
This game looks incredible. It is very warm and cozy but sometimes contrastingly cold and haunting, even spooky. LUNA is fully hand-animated: 12 frames per second, 3 layers per frame, 17 sets of interactive animations per character and 8 cycles of movement instead of one or two. This fairly short game has 250 animations (!) and 20+ minutes of cinematics. Just imagine - the game is 3 hours total and 20+ minutes you spend watching absolutely magical cinematics. I would watch LUNA the cartoon all day long.
Puzzles in LUNA are just up my alley. They are neither too easy nor too difficult, although the last one was probably a little overkill. Puzzles are really inventive and instantly reminded me of Gorogoa; they vary enough to keep me interested. Those very detailed animations are not skippable, and apparently it is driving some people nuts :D If the puzzle requires you to walk here and there, use items multiple times, or you are just trying to understand what you're supposed to do, it can take longer than anticipated. Many people critisize LUNA for being too slow, the animations being too slow; you want to rush forward but the game is stalling you by all that hand-animated beauty, bah. I'd say it is probably 30% truth and 70% the anxiety of the 21st century: if something is happening in silence for more than 3 seconds, people freak out and their cortisol levels go through the roof. Chill out. Yes, sometimes you know how to solve a puzzle but you have to wait all those 12-frames-3-layers. Just let yourself be in this story for a little longer. It is short, and it will be over very soon. Enjoy your time.
I love games that tell stories without words. Every time they prove to me that there are things that can surpass language barrier because they are understood universally, regardless of what culture you come from or what language you speak. This is an astonishing form of narrative that I discover every time anew, and every time it makes me beyond happy. The story is so coherently told without a single word, that it's hands down one of - if not the - strongest qualities of this game.
The game also has great, fairytale-y nostalgic soundtrack, one more point of influence to replace conventional item descriptions and dialogues.
LUNA The Shadow Dust is a magical picture book that tells you a moving proverb of good and evil in a very unexpected way. I am not a pro point-and-click player if those exist, but the puzzles did not seem too complex to me, and neither were they too simple. In every room you have to absorb your environment and be attentive to the little details to learn was the puzzle is. Exploration of every room is that of a child trying to comprehend what's happening: you need to touch the touchable, push the pushable, drag the draggable and see if something will come out of it. It brings me fresh joy: I love when games don't tell me outright what to do but allow me this child-like exploration experience and several failed attempts.
The game does have a secret room and a secret ending that adds one more cinematic to the finale. Usually I don't like secret endings but here you can get it at any moment since you are able to load any chapter, and in the end it's obvious where this secret room is. I always appreciate it when the game does not try to hide the secret ending so badly you'll only find out it had one by accident on Reddit three years later.
If you can muster enough strength and wait a few moments while the boy climbs the ladder or gets down, I recommend LUNA. It is a beautiful little game for an evening or two that will warm your heart.
Playtime - 3hrs