With its themes of togetherness, creation and rejuvenation commingled with brilliant sound design, Luna is a quick, impactful indie game that transitioned well to console play from its virtual reality roots.
(Plus, and I know you noticed, it gives me a great opportunity to use an amazing pun that I couldn’t if I didn’t enjoy it!)
Funomena, a team of 30 folks based in San Francisco led by noted indie talent Robin Hunicke, originally released the esoteric, interactive story Luna in 2017 on virtual reality and PC platforms. Today marks its PlayStation 4 and PlayStation VR debut, and it’s certainly worth trying. Likely via either medium, though this review is of the PS4 version.
It’s a game that’s relaxing without descending into boredom. Slight overtones of loneliness, albeit not dark, that transition into hopefulness. More an experience than a traditional video game. Which seems to be the exact intention. If someone is arguing whether games are art, Luna attempts to prove that no one should even be questioning it.
The tale centers on Bird, a little feathered friend that boasts a mighty song, trying to recover bits of the Moon by uplifting other critters. The other main character is Owl, ever foreboding and mysterious. Funomena’s presentation here is like a virtual picture book, with hand-crafted art and a soothing vocal narrator. The simple yet effective story is told through its environments and player interactions, with bits of narration interspersed that act more as guidance than exposition.
Luna packs a decent variety into its two to three hour playtime, as there are a handful of main “phases” that form its framework. Two of them revolve around light puzzle elements. One that’s semi-rhythmic in nature, as Bird sings to open nuts growing on a tree, while the other has the player forming constellations of different shapes or animals.
It’s necessary to complete these puzzles in order to open each of its level. What I like about the puzzles is they aren’t stagnant. They evolve each time, presenting slightly different challenges. One introduces a rotation element, the next takes away certain visual clues. It’s never too hard, and I appreciate the feeling of progression.
Speaking of its levels, they are mini-worlds each with a distinct animal inhabitant. And these are the true highlight of the game. Each of these spaces is effectively a dreary spot in need of enlightening, both literally and figuratively. Bird is fly enough to help! This is where player choice comes in, though there isn’t a strict set of goals or guidelines. It’s really a sort of free-flowing activity, which offers the player a chance to “cultivate” the scene with different plants, trees or flowers.
The player has to coax out each animal by planting those objects throughout this defined play space. Brighten it all up. Change the size. Sprinkle in color. As the player places trees or bushes, life awakens. Even though it’s simplistic and guided by context clues, it’s still satisfying. Plus, this allows for a level of creative expression. It’s especially fun to see one’s handiwork come to life in the background of the cut scene that ends each segment.
More an experience than a traditional video game. Which seems to be the exact intention. If someone is arguing whether games are art, Luna attempts to prove that no one should even be questioning it.
It’s almost a cliche these days to compare something to thatgamecompany’s Journey, though it’s natural here based on the team’s background of working on the 2012 independent classic. Luna dabbles in similar themes, as Bird tries to communicate using bits of song, though I’d actually align it more with recent titles like Fe and Gris from Zoink Games and Nomada Studio, respectively. Both of which I quite enjoyed, though this here is a much more swift adventure.
Sound plays a major role, especially in the puzzle areas. Since the player interacts with the game using a type of cursor controlled by the joystick, interacting with many of the game’s visual elements will spark a unique sound. Trying to connect a star chart to form a constellation? Guitar strings twang when the cursor crosses over any connections that already exist. It’s a subtle touch, and I found myself messing around to see how many different notes the team programmed.
Expanding on the game’s auditory direction, part of why it works so well is its free form design combined with a smooth, natural soundtrack from Grammy-nominated composer Austin Wintory (Journey, Abzu). His incorporation of chimes and piano chords amidst sounds of flowing water or ambient tones were great on console, and I’d imagine even better when immersed in VR.
The simple yet effective story is told through its environments and player interactions, with bits of narration interspersed that act more as guidance than exposition.
As much as I enjoyed Luna, I have to admit there were small moments of frustration. I think it’s equal parts the game’s fault and my own. Within the first space, as I was planting trees and changing their colors to my heart’s desire, I started to question how I was going to progress. The world seemed complete, or at least my version of it was, which meant I felt stuck. I rotated the camera, poked and prodded though couldn’t complete the instance. It wasn’t readily apparent that I had to keep adding flora until a visual cue popped up and I could conclude the level.
This is a case where the game’s abstract nature works against it. Especially for me, as I tend to be goal-oriented. Luna nudges in directions, lets the player create rather than enforcing strict guidelines. Which started as a confusion, then became much appreciated after I learned I had to form my own path. Perhaps this is the intent.
The other downside is that it ended way too abruptly! It’s not that I assume a game like this would be grandiose in its finale, it’s that I hoped it would be more interactive. Especially after giving the player tools throughout to express individuality. Just when I expected to create my digital masterpiece, Luna took the reigns and ended its story on its own terms. It’s not my ideal conclusion, though it certainly didn’t ruin the overall experience.
My thoughts on the ending are not too damning really, since the real treat is the time spent in the game’s melodic, inspiring world. The puzzles are never too difficult, and ultimately a means to open levels where the player is way more free to tinker. Nothing is overly complex, nor does it need to be.
Funomena achieves a status of interactive art with Luna, in multiple respects. It’s a visual story about unification, overcoming feelings of desertion or guilt and a sense that planting seeds can grow fruitful relationships. This all means that, in the time it takes to watch a film, I’d recommend instead taking a quick virtual trip over the Moon.
Release Date: October 17, 2017 (VR), November 22, 2017 (PC), June 18, 2019 (PS4, PS VR)
Platforms: Windows Mixed Reality, Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, PlayStation 4, PlayStation VR
Recommendation: If you made it this far, you already know I think it’s worth a shot! Really thinking that virtual reality version might be even better, too.
Sources: Funomena, Screenshots from PlayStation 4 Pro.
Disclaimer: Review code provided by Funomena.