Last week, Funomena Co-Founder and CEO Robin Hunicke wowed OC4 attendees with a talk on Building VR Titles with Feeling, where she dove into the emotional resonance and marriage of narrative and design at the heart of her studio’s upcoming game, Luna. Today, we’re excited to share that the team’s VR fairy tale come to life is now available for Rift on the Oculus Store!
With a visually stunning style heavily influenced by origami and emphasis on the ability of games to move us in compelling ways, Luna brings the wonder and artistry of indie favorite Journey home to VR. Following OC3 in 2016, Luna was praised by Engadget for its ability to “have you feeling like a child again.” By E3 of this year, VentureBeat declared it “magical and spellbinding.” And we couldn’t agree more.
To celebrate Luna’s launch, we sat down with Hunicke to learn more about how Bird’s story took flight.
What was the initial inspiration behind Luna?
Robin Hunicke:Luna began in my mind as a game about letting go of mistakes. At the time I was thinking about the initial story, I was going through a bit of an emotional time in my life, looking back at all I’d accomplished and wondering where I was headed next. We’d shipped Journey to massive critical acclaim, and I was considering starting a studio of my own—but I was also very aware of what I perceived as “failures” or “bad patterns” in my life that seemed to haunt me even when things were going well.
Lots of games are about going back in time and making things right, or getting revenge, or changing the past to heal the future—but in real life, you can’t do that. Your mistakes make you you, in a way. The trials, traumas, and difficulties you experience become the basis for your future self, building a foundation of experience. Learning is really failure. So I guess this theme of being open to making mistakes and willing to move forward even when you feel uncertain is at the core of both Luna and Funomena, as a whole.
At OC3, you spoke about VR’s ability to help people work through trauma. How does that come to life in Luna?
RH:Luna is a fable about a little Bird growing up in Golden Gate Park, who gets convinced by a mysterious Owl to swallow the last piece of the waning Moon. This causes an unexpected storm, and Bird gets blown far away from home. In the course of the game, players realize that Bird isn’t the only animal that has made this fateful choice. They also realize that they possess a unique capacity to heal the animals and reform the missing Moon.
We all make mistakes. We all have to experience unexpected change, difficulty, stress, and even loss. This is what it means to be human, and like the Moon cycle, it happens time and time again. I can’t say for sure that the story of Luna will connect with people in the way that I expect, but my hope is that by experiencing this fable, people will be able to acknowledge and let go of something they have anxiety, fear, or sadness about—just giving themselves permission to talk it out with someone, acknowledge it, and then ... let it go.
How does gameplay in Luna work to drive the narrative forward?
RH: Each level has three stages. The first is an interactive, kinetic, physical sculpture that releases Bird’s tangled memories of a specific place in the game world. By untangling these memories (which take the form of Cat’s Cradle puzzles in the starry sky), players reveal the seeds of that world’s memory—which they can then use to bring the world back to life.
That’s the second gameplay component—creating a terrarium with those seeds. Players pluck them from a palette and place them down in the world, where they spring to life as trees, flowers, lily pads, and so forth. By reaching inside, players can stretch or shrink them, change their color, or wand through them to hear each seed’s unique musical sounds. As they put more energy into the world, it starts to buzz with fireflies and hop with frogs and fish and other small forms of life.
When the world is fully alive, the Bird is able to sing out, calling forth the animal that lives in that terrarium. Then we transport players down inside the terrarium itself, where they’re surrounded by the living, magical world they just created. They can see the animals up close and help heal them, all the while helping the Bird find its way home.
How have your earlier game design experiences (e.g. Journey) informed your work in VR?
RH: Making games is a process of gradual understanding. You begin not knowing exactly what you want or how you’ll get there ... and over time, you see more and more clearly what it is you need to do. Journey, Boom Blox, even MySims all taught me lessons about how and why game design is an evolutionary process that involves every member of a team.
Luna began in my notebook as a series of sketches and watercolors. Then I attached to it snatches of poetry and autobiographical writing—a lot of quotes from books and articles that Martin Middleton and I were reading as we prepared to start Funomena. When we brought Glenn Hernandez on to be the Art Director, the world expanded even further and took on some of his experiences and influences, which you can see in the concept art. This process continued with each hire, and now the game is a blend of ideas, experiences, and influences from everyone who has touched it.
Journey was the same way. It began as a seed in Jenova Chen’s mind and became something much greater than the sum of its parts as we each contributed to it in our own unique way. This is why I find it so important to have a diverse, openly communicative, and caring team around me—because in the end, they help me weave the fabric of the experience with art, sound, music, and code.
What kind of response to Luna have you seen since thus far? What’s the best reaction you’ve seen while playtesting the experience?
RH: That’s a very interesting question. There are two very common reactions to Luna that both surprise and delight me in equal measures.
The first is from older, non-technical (and, in many cases, non-gaming) folks. They’re reluctant at first to put the headset on, saying things like, “I don’t play a lot of games,” or, “I’m probably doing this wrong.” But then, as the experience unfolds, they become completely immersed—40 minutes later, they come out thinking they were in Luna for just 10 or 15! There’s a visible sense of wonder and amazement in their voice as they say things like, “I had no idea how beautiful games had become,” or even more surprising, “I had no idea people made VR for people like me!” This always makes me a little sad, but it also recharges my battery—because it means we still have work to do, reaching folks with this amazing technology!
The second is from teenagers who just soak up the world, taking every opportunity to move, reach, turn, lean in, inspect, poke, and explore the world in front of them. One literally dropped their controllers when Turtle appeared at the end of the level and tried to hug it—like, physically reached out with their arms to give it a big, welcoming squeeze. That actually made me cry! It was just ... very moving to think that we’re getting so close to being able to create that connection with virtual characters—especially when they’re so stylized. That’s just amazing to me.
How would you describe the ideal player for Luna? What other games, films, books, or other cultural artifacts would most appeal to them?
RH: Oh, that’s another really great question. I would say if you like fairy tales, magic, and cute animals, you’re definitely in for a treat. If you like building little worlds, it’s also probably for you. We were definitely very inspired by Maurice Sendak, Mary Blair, Playmobil, and fairy tales and fables from all over the world. We were also greatly influenced by abstract painters and sculptors like Georgia O’Keeffe, Umetaro Azechi, Lee Bontecou, Anish Kapoor, and Gabriel Orozco.
Last but definitely not least, there’s a lot of origami influence in the design and art direction. I folded a lot of paper at the beginning of the project—my personal favorite designer being Hideo Komatsu. We’re working with Linda Mihara over at Paper Tree on a folding project related to Luna that I’m super excited about. It’s wonderful to have such a talented and storied family of folders right here in the Bay Area, and I love that they’re as inspired by VR as we are!
What’s your favorite part of the game?
RH: Oh my, I don’t know if I have a favorite part. It’s all one thing for me. If anything, my favorite thing about Luna is that we really did build what we wanted. We didn’t make a lot of compromises with our artistic vision, and we built something we can all be proud of. That’s not easy, but it was totally worth it.
Did you encounter any obstacles during the development process? If so, how did you overcome those challenges?
RH: Hahahaha—yes! I’m laughing because I have never worked on a game and had it go smoothly. Obstacles are everywhere, from issues with your design or technological setbacks to team communication issues, schedule pressures, or unexpected financial concerns.
I would say that we overcame the obstacles on Luna by being honest and confronting things that weren’t working (even if it took time to get there). That means communicating with each other as a team, even when those communications were not easy or pleasant. I personally learned some of my biggest lessons as a leader on this project, and I know Martin would say the same thing as my co-founder.
In the most difficult times—when we thought we’d run out of money, or we couldn’t figure out how to make something work right, or when players seemed lost or bored—we were honest with each other about it. We talked it out. And we made the changes we had to make to keep moving forward.
Honest, trusting communication is the one thing you really need to collaborate creatively, in an effective manner, IMHO. You can’t be worrying if someone is holding back, or secretly judging you, resenting you, or feeling like they don’t agree but are refusing to let that out. Hidden, unexpressed resentment is game design kryptonite!
If players come away from Luna with one idea or impression, what would you like it to be?
RH: Typically in playtests, people say that the game is relaxing, meditative ,and beautiful. We get a lot of compliments on Glenn’s unique, storybook style, Alyse Miller’s touching animation and Allena Hail’s immersive 3D world design. We also get a lot of compliments on Brad Fotsch’s audio design (the world is just very delightful sounding) and Austin Wintory’s haunting and beautiful score.
I’m quite happy with that. I just want people to understand how beautiful, tactile, and engaging games can be ... and how they can leave room for us to tell our own stories inside of them.
What first attracted you to VR as a creative space?
RH: My initial experience of VR was with Atman Binstock—who’s now Chief Architect at Oculus! His enthusiasm and passion for what was then a highly experimental prototype technology convinced me that this was the medium of the future.
I know that we’re still exploring the very beginning of what VR, AR, and MR (which I suppose some now just lump into the category XR) can be. There’s a long way to go before we have completely independent movement, functional and lightweight glasses that layer information over the world and allow us to communicate at great distances as if we were in the same room. But we’re moving closer to it every day—and I, for one, am thrilled!!!
Where do you think VR will take us in the future?
RH: I believe we have the potential to reduce the physical and emotional distance between people by increasing our sense of genuine presence with each other through these technologies. It will take a while for us to really understand the design affordances here—and to make the applications that really leverage them. But we will, and it will be awesome.
What’s next for you? Any exciting projects in the works?
RH: Yes! I’ve been working on two new concepts for XR. One is a small, silly, and creative experience based on unique characters, and the other is a sprawling, magical, mystical title that’s inspired by games like Skyrim and Myst. I’m really excited about both of them!
We’re also hard at work on Wattam, which will ship for PC and console in 2018. That’s Keita Takahashi’s next game, and the Funomenauts are thrilled to have such a silly, charming, and delightful game waiting in the wings so close on the heels of our first release. It’s a fantastic time to be a game developer—the future is quite wide open!
Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
RH: Just that you really can do anything you put your mind to. If you had told me five years ago that starting Funomena was going to lead me to all the wonderful places it has, I would have laughed out loud. If you had told me 10 years ago that I had games like Journey, Luna, and Wattam in my future, I would probably have fainted.
Life is a strange, short ride, and the best thing you can do is go for it. Worst case—you make some mistakes, recover, and grow. There really isn’t any good reason not to try, when you stop to consider that. Even the strangest, most unexpected failures can lead you to someplace great.
Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us, Robin. We can’t wait to see what phenomenal things Funomena does next.
Check out Luna today on Rift!
— The Oculus Team