Developer Interview: Lantern Studio

Despite the tidal wave of a fresh and first release still foaming at their heels, Lantern Studio generously spoke with us about their team and their shining achievement, LUNA The Shadow DustLUNA The Shadow Dust, a wordless, hand-animated puzzler, released on February 13 for PC. It’s a tender tale fortified by a brilliant soundtrack and a hauntingly radiant aesthetic. Players ascend a tower as a young boy and his round companion, solving intricate challenges framed with world-building artwork and clever environmental clues. The narrative is dazzling despite the lack of text, and it plays the keys of the heart as deftly as you must learn to play at least one “instrument” in-game. We spoke with the four-person team about their inspirations and aspirations for their studio and their luminescent new title.

Lantern Studio Logo

|| Where is your studio based, and how did your team members first meet? We know Lantern Studio is made up of four stellar developers: Beidi Guo, Fox, Wang Guan, and Wang Qian. Where are you from, and what inspired you to work together?

All four members in Lantern Studio are from China. Me (Beidi) 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 to do the coding. Together we made a short demo and showed around within 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.

|| What book, movie, or other media triggered the initial idea for LUNA The Shadow Dust? Were there specific stories, games, or even soundtracks that helped give LUNA The Shadow Dust its beginning?

The original idea was based on one of the student animation films made by Beidi 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 novel by Ursula Le Guin, “Earthsea Quartet,” inspired us to write a story about the balance between light and dark rather than simply evil vs heroes.

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

The relationship between the characters inspired us to write the music so that it conveys the emotions. Each one of them has their own theme and we took inspirations from Celtic and old East European music. We were also inspired by the music from games like Journey and Ori and the Blind Forest.

|| Why choose a wordless narrative for LUNA The Shadow Dust? The game does a phenomenal job of conveying atmosphere and story through its cinematics and soundtrack, but foregoing words can often be a risky business. Why choose this path for LUNA The Shadow Dust?

Sometimes the meaning behind a text content might be lost in translation, however, we can all understand emotions by looking at characters’ facial expressions and movement. It is the universal language we all share. Like one of my favorites, Oscar-winning animated film “The House of Small Cubes” by Kunio Kato, and “Arrival,” a picture-only graphic novel by Australian artist Shaun Tan. Neither of these two works has dialogue yet I can still be moved by them deeply.

So we tried our best to animate and edit the cinematic together with the music in order to deliver the exact emotion we’d like our players to feel. It also leaves individual players enough room to let the imagination run free, each one will have a very personal understanding of the game, we want people to be able to interpret the mystery of the game in their own way.

Last but not least, as a small team we have a very very limited budget, writing dialogue is also not our biggest strength, so by making a game that has no need to apply localization is definitely a better choice from us.

|| How would you describe the logic behind LUNA The Shadow Dust’s puzzles, and how do you recommend a new player go about solving them? What should players be aware of before they dive into LUNA The Shadow Dust’s gameplay?

We want the mechanics to be easy to use. It is a game of experimentation. We’ve reserved both classic style point & click game’s puzzle and also created some different kinds of puzzle mechanisms in the game. The puzzles go from easy to challenging gradually, yet not impossible to beat even at the later stage.

As the visuals and music play a big part in the game, we also decided not to use an inventory system, which means all the clues of the puzzle will be presented directly in front of you within the environment. We’d like our players to really explore the rooms, look at the paintings and listen to music or sound.

|| Internally, do you have names for the boy and his companion in LUNA The Shadow Dust? The characters are described as “the boy” and his “mysterious friend” outside of the game, and the game itself is wordless. If they truly have no names, why not?

Yes, Üri and Layh are the names of the boy and his ball-shaped friend. Due to the non-text feature of the game, we don’t really have any chance to introduce them the normal way. However, you can find out their name via achieving some auto-get Steam Achievement. Seeing players give all different kinds of nicknames to the characters is also a really rewarding experience, we love to see players are engaging while playing.

|| What advice would you give other indie developers for the release of their first game? From an outsider’s perspective, the launch for LUNA The Shadow Dust went off without a hitch. What would you say to other studios looking to enjoy a similarly successful release? Are there things you would suggest to watch out for?

First of all, our publishers and marketing colleagues helped a lot in the preparation of the launch. Publishing games are very challenging, we start the preparation a few months ahead just to make sure we thought about all the possibilities. We’ve also really valued all feedback (good and bad) from players, we tried to reply to their comments as soon as possible. Within 3 days after launch, we’ve already received a lot of small bug reports and gameplay improvement suggestions, we will make sure to have a new update very soon as well. It is not the time to relax yet, we’re prepared to continue working on the post-launch work for at least another month.

|| The four members of Lantern Studio are stranded in an isolated wilderness. The team gets one physical book, one music album, one movie, and one game to share. What do you choose, and why?

We talked about this and found it is almost impossible to find ONE item of each category that fits everyone’s tastes lol. So here’s actually our recommendation to whoever is reading to check out an old classic Chinese animation which was loved by all of us when we were kids. It’s called: “Prince Nezha’s Triumph Against Dragon King.”