Interview with Lantern Studio | The Making of LUNA The Shadow Dust

Explore the creation of one 2020's best indie game releases, LUNA The Shadow Dust!
March 13, 2020 10:25 AM by Morgan Shaver

I was first introduced to LUNA The Shadow Dust while browsing through Steam’s new releases back in February. Immediately, I found myself captivated by LUNA’s promotional art and hand-drawn animation. LUNA The Shadow Dust is, in a word, gorgeous.

After insta-buying it and digging deeper into the core game, I discovered there’s a lot more to LUNA than its captivating aesthetic. Gameplay wise, LUNA is a point-and-click adventure where you solve puzzles and work to unravel the mysterious origins of the main protagonist and the world they inhabit.

Many of the puzzles in LUNA require you to pause and take everything in, subtly discouraging you from racing forward to the next area. One puzzle in particular has you stand still in front of four wall panels in order to open the door to the next room. If you move away before a panel has finished filling with color, you disrupt the puzzle. It wordlessly asks that you be mindful and patient... and I love it. I really do.

This puzzle was the point in the game where I realized I was completely enamored by LUNA. It’s not just a puzzle game, it’s a visual novel told without text or dialogue similar to games like Journey. While there’s no speech, the game is far from silent as LUNA features an expertly crafted soundtrack that you’ll want to listen over and over again long after you’ve beaten the game.

I found it surprisingly easy to zone out and relax while playing LUNA. You feel welcomed by its warm environment while also kept cognitively active with unpredictable challenges and puzzles, ensuring that you never feel bored. It’s an experience I recommend to everyone, especially seeing as how the game is relatively short. You can complete it in a single sitting, or take as much time with it as you like. The choice is yours.

Unable to shake the game from my thoughts after completing it, I found myself curious to learn about how a game like LUNA was created. So, I reached out to the developers at Lantern Studio with several questions and found that team members Beidi Guo and Wang Qian were kind enough to answer everything in-depth. If you’ve played LUNA The Shadow Dust and loved it as much as I did, or you simply want to know more about it before buying a copy, you’ve come to the right place!

Below, you’ll find the full interview with Lantern Studio that elaborates upon the creation of a game that’s easily one of the best indie releases of 2020… LUNA The Shadow Dust!

Note: Some minor translation adjustments were made to the interview in-house by IO staff. We've also embedded relevant YouTube clips uploaded earlier this year to the Lantern Studio channel that correspond to some of the questions asked. For more insightful videos, be sure to check out the Lantern Studio YouTube channel

Interview with Lantern Studio | The Making of LUNA The Shadow Dust

© Lantern Studio

What was the inspiration behind the creation of LUNA The Shadow Dust?

Beidi: The original idea was based on one of the student animation films I made years ago. It was a story about a man who pilots the moon around and his long-distance relationship with his family.

The setting of that world inspired the making of this game. The novels by Ursula le Guin, the Earthsea Quartet, inspired us to write a story about the balance between light and dark rather than simply evil vs. heroes.

The 90s claymation game The Neverhood, other games like Machinarium, Samorost 1, 2, and 3, and Gorogoa – all of these beautifully handcrafted puzzle adventure games – gave us the motivation to make a puzzle game that is unique to us.

On the game’s website, it shows that LUNA was created by four people, all with varying backgrounds. How did you all meet?

Beidi: All four members in Lantern Studio are from China. Me and Fox have been good friends since high school in Shanghai. Around 2014, I was thinking of combining my old student film story into a puzzle game. I did some level design, wrote a story, and showed it to him.

Liking the ideas, Fox then introduced our developer Wang Guan who was still working in Ubisoft Shanghai at the time doing coding. Together, we made a short demo that we showed around to our game developer friends. That’s how we met our 4th member, Susie, our music composer.

The demo received some very positive feedback. We were excited that this idea might be able to become something bigger, so from then on we decided to turn these ideas into a full-length game and Lantern Studio was born in 2015.

Beidi, you’re listed as the person responsible for the incredible art and animation in LUNA. What the process was like creating art for LUNA? Are there any pieces of art for LUNA that took longer to complete?

Beidi: I am in charge of creating everything visual in this game. During the early development stage, almost all team members were involved in choosing what will be the best theme, style, design for each location and levels based on the concept art I designed.

Once these key points were noted, I started working on individual background and animation bit by bit. There were two big parts of my work. First, making graphic assets for in-game use, eg. characters animation, object animation, background, special effects, etc. The second part of my work was creating all the cutscenes.

We have more than 250+ sets of in-game animation and 20+ min of cutscenes in total. It was a lot of work, the journey was hard. We hope it pays off in the end.

The art has a very children’s storybook kind of feel, was this intentional?

Beidi: In a way, yes. We think a warm, friendly, not very realistic looking character style suits the story and the fantasy atmosphere of the game the best.

Also from my illustration background. My style was influenced and molded by various illustrations throughout the years. I think I personally gravitate towards styles that are mixed with the element of warm, cute, but also sometimes surreal. 

© Lantern Studio

Why did your team decide to pursue frame-by-frame character animation? What were some of the difficulties in implementing this style of animation in LUNA?

Beidi: This might sound weird but for us doing frame-by-frame animation is actually a more efficient choice compared to doing it in 3D or other forms simply because 2D hand-drawn animation is my background, although it is time-consuming.

However, it was the technique that I’m familiar with and also confident about. It might take us more time if we have to learn how to use new software. I always loved the tangibility in any handcrafted art form, and frame-by-frame animation has its unique charm of being able to let animators express themselves.

Together with the decision we made that there won’t be any dialogue in the game, we think using a hand-drawn animation style helps deliver the emotion of the character and helps the players connect with them.

All of the rooms and areas in LUNA The Shadow Dust feel so different from one another, yet they’re all equally captivating. Were any of the rooms harder to design than the others?

Beidi: Yes, the garden level has the most complex logic behind the puzzle, it took us a very long time to finalize all the details.

Some other levels like the boy's room and the specimen room required our programmer to do a lot more research on shading in Unity (the game engine we used to make LUNA) so it was more like a technique challenge.

Also, we had an issue in the three-color ball level that required study of how colorblind users see colors differently from us. We had to adjust the puzzle so colorblind players can also enjoy our game.

Was it difficult creating puzzles that’d be both rewarding, yet approachable? 

Beidi: Yes, it is one of the most difficult challenges we’ve faced, even now. We’ve tried to keep the creativity and difficulty in a healthy balance for each puzzle.

However, the more challenging a puzzle gets, the less approachable it becomes for more general players. So we’ve also tried to introduce a learning curve in the game; the puzzle starts from easy to hard. Hopefully, players will be able to get hold of the mechanism gradually.

The game is backed by a beautiful soundtrack composed by Wang Qian. Have they composed any other music that they’d be willing to share?  

Wang Qian: There were some other small indie games I composed as projects to practice music production skills such as Inverse, Legions of Steel, and Math Command. I can share my SoundCloud link here: https://soundcloud.com/elecorgan

Adding to that, watching Wang Qian play piano is absolutely mesmerizing. How long have they been playing piano?

Wang Qian: I’ve been playing piano since I was 6 years old. Later, I went to study at a Music Conservatory to be a professional musician.

What was the team’s reaction after seeing LUNA The Shadow Dust reach £17,570 on Kickstarter, surpassing the original goal of £12,000?

Beidi: We were very excited to be able to pass our goal. It allowed us to kick-start something that was quite impossible for us. Although we originally thought the game could be finished in 1 year, we ended up spending another 3 years to complete it. Making a game is very costly.

We've tried to use as little money as possible like working from home, not buying anything unnecessary, and doing most of the marketing in the beginning ourselves. Still, the funding ran out very quickly after the 1st year.

We have to come to the decision that we need to fund ourselves at some point by using everyone’s savings. We don’t want to give this up and that’s what we’ve decided.

Do you think the Kickstarter campaign was instrumental in the completion and release of LUNA?

Beidi: Yes, definitely. Although later on, we realized we didn’t raise enough money for the overall project's required budget, but we found the most lovely supporters and the indie game community via the Kickstarter campaign.

Also, knowing people are waiting for the game to be finished was both the pressure and encouragement that kept us going.

© Lantern Studio

Reading through the Kickstarter info, I noticed that two members of your team quit their jobs to work on LUNA full time. How did that feel? Was it scary, exciting?

Beidi: Me and Wang Guan, our programmer, decided to quit our day job to be able to work on this project full-time in 2017. It was not a rush decision, but still, I think it was a bold one. The team did calculations where it seemed to us we should be able to carry on developing this game for another 2-3 years.

Also, it was also a necessary decision due to the amount of workload. LUNA simply cannot be finished if all of us only work on it in our spare time. It was scary, but yes, it was also exciting. Towards the end, we were really struggling, but the game was able to be done in time.

Included in the Kickstarter reward tiers, the £700 option let one backer design a level of LUNA with the team. Can you share which level this backer contributed to?

Beidi: That tier let one backer work with the team to design part of the game. After the campaign, we got into touch with that backer, turns out he was simply too busy to be involved with the game development, but he’d like to give us the financial support all the same.

Also later on, in exchange for that original co-op reward, we decided to do a talk in his son’s school about game design. We really appreciated his support in LUNA.

© Lantern Studio

LUNA The Shadow Dust is currently available on Steam, GOG, the Humble Store, and the Mac Store. Do you still plan to release LUNA on mobile devices, like on the Google Play store for Android? What about a console release for Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, or PlayStation 4?

Beidi: Yes, we do. Our next task will be working on porting the game to platforms like Switch, followed by iOS and Android mobile platforms.

Are you still working on content updates for LUNA? On your blog, you mention upcoming news regarding merchandise, is that still in the works as well?

Beidi: Our current job involves optimization for LUNA, fixing bugs, and maybe changing some of the game design details in order to make it play even smoother. We’re also working with our publisher on the design and creation of some merchandise.

As we have spent all the budget on game development, we may have to wait for a short while to get that merchandise produced, but we definitely will!

© Lantern Studio

Are you planning to develop other games like LUNA in the future?

Beidi: If we think there have been enough ideas and inspiration collected to make another game, yes we will. We don’t want to rush into making a sequel or something like that.

Finally, what’s one important aspect of LUNA The Shadow Dust that you want everyone to know?

Beidi: LUNA The Shadow Dust is designed for everyone who loves a gaming experience. It has no dialogue and text so it doesn’t matter where you from, you can enjoy it. It categorizes as a point-and-click puzzle adventure game, but it’s not just for people who like those categories.

As long as you like to enjoy an emotional journey or simply like 2D animation and music [you will enjoy LUNA]. We will be really happy if the players feel warm and loved after playing LUNA. It’s a story about personal growth as well in a way. We hope it reminds you of people who guided you in the past.

By remembering them, we can then have the courage to overcome the difficulties in life.

I want to thank Beidi Guo, Wang Qian, and the rest of the Lantern Studio team for taking the time to offer insight into the creation of LUNA The Shadow Dust. If you’ve yet to play the game, I highly recommend checking it out.

A free demo is for LUNA The Shadow Dust is currently available on Steam, or you can buy the game outright for $19.99 on Steam, GOG, the Humble Store, and the Mac Store and is compatible with Windows PC, Mac, or Linux.

For more info about Lantern Studio and updates about LUNA The Shadow Dust, also be sure to follow them on Twitter and check out their official website!