Luna revisits early animation to play with camera tricks

The everlasting image of a chunky rocket plunged into the eye socket of the Man in the Moon in Georges Méliès’s 1902 silent film “Un voyage dans la lune” is iconic, even today. As with H.G. Wells’s highly similar 1901 novel “The First Men in the Moon”, it epitomizes turn-of-the-century science fiction.

In both stories, men travel to the moon without oxygen masks and space suits. It seems folly today, but over a hundred years ago that kind of safety precaution was an unfathomable component for space travel.

sharing the ecstatic celebration of technology with Mickey Mouse in 1928’s “Steamboat Willie” 

Canadian game designer Nicolas Barrière-Kucharski describes both of these fictions as having a magical quality, an “irrefutable charm” that belongs to the era they were created in. It’s their naiveté that Nicolas and the rest of the small team at Montréal-based studio Double Stallion is hoping to capture in the animated 2D space adventures of Luna.

You can see how that’s being attempted with your first scan of the images from the game. The astronomical theme aside, Luna has much in common with Studio MDHR’s run-‘n’-gunner Cuphead and Red Little House’s puzzling adventure Fleish & Cherry in Crazy Hotel. Double Stallion takes cues from the same eras of animation as these two in-progress games for Luna, sharing the ecstatic celebration of technology with Mickey Mouse in 1928’s “Steamboat Willie”, and the humorous anthropomorphism seen in 1920s animation star Felix the Cat.

“We’re looking at a lot of references from such early efforts in animation as the Fleischer Studios and newspaper cartoon strips from the same era,” Nicolas told me.

Despite these animation influences, the overall art direction of Luna is said to be closer to 1900s silent, live-action film. That much coheres with the narrative’s hunt for color in a black-and-white world, at least. It follows astronomer Helen G. Wells (or rather, H.G. Wells) as she continues her lonesome work by exploring the moon.

Mimicking the disaster which befalls Méliès’ characters, Helen ends up crash-landing, prompting her to explore the caverns beneath the satellite’s surface. It’s here that she meets a caste-based society of insect-like humanoids known as Selenites.

“the camera itself as a second protagonist of sorts.” 

The greeting ceremonies are short-lived. Having shattered the relic that grants the Selenites access to a special power during the landing, Helen accidentally plunges their world into her own black-and-white existence. Owing as much, she then attempts to recover the relic’s colorful shards in order to progressively return the world to its former vibrancy.

The set-piecing that the treasure hunt allows for means that a series of platforming challenges and puzzles complicate each trip. The zones of the ecosystem that Helen explores contain different weather, flora, and fauna; luckily, she can use her umbrella to float across chasms, and it also acts as a boat in flooded areas. While dissimilar, the zones are all interconnected, and we’re told to expect them to be filled with secrets, riddles, and oral histories.

Collecting one of the shards grants Helen a new ability that gets added to her growing repertoire. But don’t expect to unlock the usual set of platforming verbs. Instead, each of these abilities is tied to a mechanical element typically associated with cameras. Zoom, lenses, exposure, and parallax are all turned into functions that will have to be toyed with in order to help Helen traverse the caverns.

“We want the player to not only explore the world by controlling the main character, but also the camera itself as a second protagonist of sorts. The camera and Helen are separate entities and are more “tethered” than unified like most games,” Nicolas said.

twist our expectations of the game’s flat, 2D perspective. 

Nicolas first described Luna to me as “harnessing the power of photography and cinema”, but I didn’t take him as literally as he meant for me to. You really are toying with the technical capabilities of a camera to solve the puzzles. Manipulating the in-game camera like this lends a sense of spatial exploration to Luna. It’s almost like you’re rearranging the environment as you need for Helen to pass through.

Take the simple example on the right into consideration. To get past the pillar, you have to shift the entire camera view to the left, taking advantage of the layer-switching mechanic to proceed. It’s a glimpse into the playful puzzles that Double Stallion is designing that will twist our expectations of the game’s flat, 2D perspective.

“The more camera powers the player/Helen obtains and change how the world is perceived, the more the latter will actually open up. Vision transforms the physical properties of the world,” Nicolas teased.

Not that he’d show it, but Nicolas can only tease Luna‘s more complex maneuvers at this time as it’s currently in the early stages of development. The idea is all there, in the works, but putting it all together is going to take some time, and Double Stallion is keen not to rush.

As such, it’s going to be a while before anyone is able to assess the fidelity of Luna‘s cartoon world. The same goes for the brilliance of the camera-based puzzles. In fact, I’m told that Double Stallion isn’t expecting the game to be finished until 2016 but, if it softens the blow, know that it will be coming to PC first.

You can follow the development of Luna on Double Stallion’s website