A year ago, virtual reality game Luna came out for the Oculus Rift and Microsoft’s Mixed Reality platform. Designed by Funomena, a studio founded by two of the designers who helped build acclaimed indie game Journey, Luna was unlike any other VR game to date. It looked like a storybook come to life. Instead of placing players in the body of a gun-slinging android or a Marvel superhero, it told a fairy tale about an owl, a bird, and a fractured moon. Through puzzle-solving, players traversed the bird’s narrative, rebuilt forests and lakes, and interacted with the creatures of nature.
Now, inspired by the possibilities of augmented reality, Funomena has rebuilt a smaller version of Luna specifically for the Magic Leap One headset. It’s called Luna: Moondust Garden, and it builds on its original premise of an interactive storybook world by shifting the immersive aspects of VR to the creative, 3D world-building of AR. The game costs $4.99 and is out today for the Magic Leap One Creator Edition.
“If you’re developing for a screen, you can do a camera cut. The players are at your mercy, like with a film,” says Funomena CEO and co-founder Robin Hunicke. “When you move to VR, suddenly the camera is the head. You have to think about encouraging the player to look somewhere. And with AR, you’ve lost control of the visuals.”
So without the ability to control where exactly the visuals appeared, Funomena decided to give players the choice. Using the Magic Leap One remote, you build Luna’s world on any flat surface around you by planting seeds in the ground. In my time with the demo last week, I began by sprouting patches of grass, rocks, and ponds of water on the coffee table in front of me and on the floor next to my feet. The goal was to inspire a scared fox to come out of hiding by rebuilding his home. Because Magic Leap is an untethered device, you’re able to walk around with full motion, while the visuals stay fixed to where you’ve originally placed them.
“Thinking about context and the environment itself is much more important and you have to be much more collaborative with the player,” Hunicke says. “Engaging with the tech with respect to scale, and how your intuition about space necessitated certain designs. People don’t look at a seed and naturally try to plant it in a wall.”
Funomena has worked in AR before, developing an experimental game called Woorlds for Google’s Project Tango platform (now known as ARCore) back in 2016. But with the Magic Leap — given its higher-fidelity visual capabilities, room tracking, and spatial audio — Funomena had much more sophisticated technology with which it could tell a unique story.
According to Edgard Ortega, a senior producer on the project, Funomena had to think about the best way to tell. That meant adding a voice-over, which added to the overall storybook vibe Luna already communicates visually and with its narrative. The company also couldn’t just dump its original VR assets into AR. Instead, it had to build a smaller, more contained world. “That diorama quality meant we had to rework a lot of the assets,” he says.
Hunicke says she and her co-founder Martin Middleton began talking with Magic Leap way back in 2013, and only just got their hands on a developer version of the Magic Leap One a year ago. But it’s a long-term goal of the company to create the kind of experiences that Moon Garden provides.
In 2012, Journey took the industry by storm and racked up countless awards because it blended serene, awe-inspiring visuals and incredibly moving soundtrack with a simple, allegorical story about traveling to the peak of a mountain. What pushed it so far beyond your standard game experience was the ability to make that trek with another anonymous human player who could only communicate to you through emotive chirps. Hunicke and Middleton left the studio behind Journey, thatgamecompany, shortly after the release to found Funomena, with the intent of creating similar experiences that were centered on newer, next-gen hardware.
“We feel strongly about shaping new technologies to increase the joy and peace in the world, and considering how to make them humane as possible and positive as possible. It was immediately a fit on the vision side,” Hunicke says of Magic Leap. “We really love the idea of building an experience that exists in this world. They’re lower-fidelity graphically, but higher-fidelity in that [the game characters] can respond to you, see you, use the data of the environment.”
Luna: Moon Garden is, of course, just the first step in Funomena’s exploration with mixed reality. Given that the Magic Leap One is still a very pricey headset, costing $2,295, Funomena is also focused on how to bring these kinds of experiences to more smartphones and bridge the gap between high-end and more accessible forms VR and AR.
Hunicke says that creating for three-dimensional space — or “three-space” as she calls it — is the next big shift in interactivity. “Something like this technology can completely replace large, flat monitors and all the plastic and mercury in them. Attentional objects that pay attention to you in three-space is mind-blowing to me,” she says. “It gives the opportunity to dream very, very unique futures, creative futures. It’s really exciting.”