Planet of Lana: Exploring the Ghibli-inspired world with game director Adam Stjärnljus

3.22.2024
By Alicia Haddick, Contributor

Planet of Lana began as a single piece of concept art. “The project started when it was just me and I wanted to make the game of my dreams,” explains Game Director Adam Stjärnljus, taking us back to a time before Wishfully, the studio, had even been founded. “I sat down and had this very loose idea of this young girl and her furry companion, and that it was going to be a sci-fi story set on another planet.”

“I love Studio Ghibli films, especially Spirited Away and Ponyo, so I wanted to blend that together with a modern puzzle side-scroller—very inspired by Inside and other indie classics like Journey,” Stjärnljus continues. “They were so powerful in their visual storytelling and I was inspired by that. So I drew this first image, which we still use as the main key art of the game, where Lana and Mui are standing in a tall grassy field looking up to this cliff where one of the scout robots sits.”

This single piece of concept art served as a guiding star for the project, leading to the foundation of Wishfully in 2018 as Planet of Lana expanded into full development. It was merely an idea at this point, but one Stjärnljus and team really wanted to see through to the conclusion, captivated by the questions the art elicited. What was this planet? Who were the girl and these creatures? What happened to lead them into this situation?
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We open Planet of Lana by descending through the clouds to the surface of Novo, a planet decidedly alien yet intensely familiar. When we eventually reach the surface, our focus lands on a young girl, staring at the water below a ramshackle village that houses everything she’s ever known. She has no parents, but does have a sibling, who soon guides our young protagonist on a journey through her home, past the pair’s guardians, and into the woods beyond.

The connection between the siblings is clear, a feeling that if they don’t stick together then nobody will stand up for them. Of course, it can’t last. Before long you’re separated not just from your sibling but the entire village, as it’s destroyed by invading cybernetic aliens. Your only remaining companion is a small alien blob-like creature, Mui, who stands by you when you need it most.

You’re left with no choice. You don’t know who these hostile aliens are other than that they’re incredibly dangerous—and that they hold your sibling hostage. You have to save your sibling. You must.

Planet of Lana communicates all this information in a luscious side-scrolling opening without dialogue or voice acting. It leaves players wanting to venture further into the unknown, in awe at this unique and unusual land. And it sets the tone for the remainder of the game, a cinematic puzzle-platforming tour through an alien planet.
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It’s been a challenging road to get here, though. Stjärnljus and partner Maria Brunsson had no game development experience. The pair came from documentary filmmaking, with neither the influence nor investment to put Planet of Lana into full production at first.

“It allowed us to fail a lot, because we weren’t funded at the time,” is how Stjärnljus puts it to me. A small team of “seven or eight people” worked on Planet of Lana in their free time to find the core DNA. Stjärnljus says the game benefited from this pre-funding period, a three-year process where the team worked on world-building and visual style, laying the groundwork to jump right into development as soon as they could make the leap.

This long pre-production phase was heavily influenced by the team’s prior experience in documentary filmmaking, taking time to define the game’s vision before the expectation of creating something commercial was thrust on the project. Many of the team worked on both their own films and on for-hire projects in Sweden before making Planet of Lana. This included Through the Valleys, a documentary about PhD student Robin Blomdin leading a research project in Mongolia and Kyrgyzstan.

“It was a very conscious choice to have this sci-fi planet that looks like Earth, without things like pink trees,” Robin Blomdin explains. ”I felt that was important since I’ve been traveling a lot. I did another project a few years back when I was in Mongolia and Kyrgyzstan where I got this strong experience of nature and being out in grassy fields, feeling the wind blowing through you and being exposed to nature this way. I wanted to reminisce and evoke those emotions and the memories players may have where they’ve been out in nature and can feel this resemblance.”
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The team’s filmmaking background also led them to approach game development with the language of cinematic storytelling, guiding the player's eyes through each scene and evoking emotions that are enhanced by the player’s direct involvement. While Stjärnljus cites gaming inspirations like The Last Guardian and Inside, film is still the team’s main reference point, with classic sci-fi storytelling like Star Wars influencing how the team hopes to evoke a sense of wonder and anguish from players.

Film’s influence permeates all aspects of the game, from the many puzzles you interact with to the choice to make it a 2D side-scroller instead of a vast 3D world (beyond the other technical challenges it would incur). Keeping the game in 2D gave the team greater control over image framing, helping guide the scene and (by extension) the player.

“About 80% of the team had never worked in games [prior to Planet of Lana], so we were all new to the industry and game building,” admits Stjärnljus. “We were avid players, but had never worked with them professionally before. Me, Klas [Martin Eriksson, Co-Director], and Dan [Faxe, Game Designer and Senior Animator], we all came from film and animation. It helped a lot in this game because creating a side-scrolling title means you also get control over the framing in a way you don’t when you have a rotating camera. You can build these things like theater and can have more control over the storytelling.”

Still, the team was ultimately making a game and not a film. “There were a lot of obstacles too when trying to convert what we knew from film and animation—because we’re not making that,” says Stjärnljus. “We wanted to make sure it was mechanically fun all the way through.”
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Planet of Lana uses tools from film to enhance its story, adapting cinematography and music and framing to work in a different medium. At its core it’s an intimate coming-of-age story, which still feels relatively unique and rare in gaming. But it’s told on a grand scale, thrust into a fight against strange creatures on an alien world, reminiscent of but different from our own. Without the team’s film background, it would be difficult (if not impossible) to tell such a compact yet evocative story.

“I’ve always loved these improbable heroes and coming-of-age stories,” says Stjärnljus. “We knew we had this 11-year-old girl that was going to be the hero, and then the story evolved over the years from there. But I really feel that it’s a nice contrast—this epic backdrop of war and invasion against this improbable character, going out on this very personal journey where she’s lost her only family, her sister, and then finding herself in the process. It’s this cinematic kind-of matinee adventure—with fun gameplay, too.”

The results speak for themselves. You instantly attach to Lana and Mui and their journey, and the game’s Ghibli inspirations are hard to miss. Like Chihiro in Spirited Away, Lana takes a journey through an unfamiliar landscape, meeting new challenges and hoping to accomplish something that seems almost mundane when compared to the extreme lengths she needs to go to. In Spirited Away, Chihiro wants to find her way home. Here, Lana simply wants to find her sister again. But both require a larger-than-life journey, with fear and excitement in equal measure, culminating in something that remains with the viewer long after the credits roll.

Planet of Lana is available now on the Epic Games Store.