Indie Developer Interview: Moonlight Kids

The Wild at Heart, a quirky 2D action-adventure game that marks the debut of US studio Moonlight Kids, was recently published by Humble Games for the PC and Xbox platforms. Writer/designer Justin Baldwin joined me via email to discuss the game for The Avocado.

Please tell us about your history in the game industry.

Myself personally, I didn’t have a typical path to games. I never worked at a full-on game studio and I didn’t go to school for it or anything. I started making crappy little games as a teenager using Flash during the height of Newgrounds. I started doing it professionally at 22, working at an agency developing online games, as well as websites and what not. Eventually I made my own mobile game with Alex [Atkins] and some other folks that got picked up by a publisher that led to Alex and I being able to work on our own. For a while we did contract games with Cartoon Network, which is how we met Chris [Sumsky], who was a games producer for them at the time. Chris and Ankit [Trivedi] both had their own games studio as well, after that. We always wanted to work on something together but things just never quite lined up. But eventually the stars wound up aligning and we decided to form a new studio together to develop The Wild at Heart.

For those unfamiliar with it, could you please give a brief description of The Wild at Heart?

The Wild at Heart is a story-driven herd-like adventure game about childhood escapism. You play as two kids who find themselves lost in a magical forest realm after running away from home. In this realm they can befriend and utilize a small herd of li’l buddies called Spritelings that can do various tasks like rebuild broken obstacles, collect craftable resources and aid in solving puzzles.

The lush art design is particularly engaging, though I can’t quite put my finger on what it reminds me of; I’m not sure I’ve seen anything like it in a game before. What do you call this style and was it influenced by any other media?

Illustrative story book I suppose is what I would call the style. This was probably the first project I got to explore my personal style more as opposed to building an art direction around an existing idea. The art came first for this game. Personally, a lot of what influences me (and ultimately the game style) are various book illustration styles as well as other media like Song of the Sea, Gravity Falls, Yoshi’s Island, Steven Universe, and Ghibli films.

Do you regard The Wild at Heart‘s Deep Woods setting as more of a metaphor or an actual fantastical place?

The intent was for it to feel like both. We intentionally left certain things to the player to interpret the world and story how they want. It is an actual place in our story but metaphorically the world is also a place where forgotten things can end up, which might explain the random junk, arcades, and other objects scattered around the forest, as well as being in line with how Wake and Kirby are feeling personally.

How long did it take to develop the game and what were the greatest or most surprising hurdles?

By the time we built out a full team, acquired some funds and really started working full time, Alex and I had already spent over a year part-time concepting, writing and building out the world. But as far as full-on production, we spent a little over two years developing the game. As far as hurdles, it’s probably the most obvious answer but getting the Spritelings to behave was quite a challenge. Getting them to navigate properly and act smart about what to do definitely came with its share of headaches. Especially getting all that to work while still maintaining performance!

Slate‘s Evan Urquhart memorably described the Spritelings as an improvement on Nintendo’s own Pikmin formula and I saw the gustbuster as an elegant 2D update on Luigi’s Mansion. Were these nods intentional, and are there any other titles that inspired The Wild at Heart‘s gameplay?

There is no denying that Pikmin is an influence, same goes for Luigi’s Mansion. They are games we love and we view that aspect of our game as a love letter to those games. There just aren’t enough Pikmin-y herd-like games out there and that just felt wrong to us. We definitely made an effort to try and put our own identity and spin on it though, and we hope folks see that. Other games that influenced us, heck, hard to say since we love so many games and are inspired by a lot of them but if I had to pick a few I would say Zelda, Metroid, Dark Souls, Earthbound and Secret of Mana.

What is your favorite character or area in the game?

Favorite character is probably Kirby; she’s just super adorable and as a character she is just so fearless, funny and strong. Area in the game that is my favorite is probably Crystalfall Coast just because I love Pacific Northwest coastlines which are totally the vibes that it has.

Are there any gameplay mechanics or story sequences that didn’t make it into the finished game? If so, what caused them to be cut?

Yeah, it happens with every game; something, oftentimes many things, always wind up cut. There was an additional side-quest character that we all really liked that we had to shelve and we had an entire area that was designed out that we decided to cut due to it needing more balancing and work. There were moments where you would encounter the villain Big Pockets sort of stalking you and disappearing just as you’re able to notice him. But ultimately it always comes down to time. There just wasn’t enough time to do everything we wanted. Who knows though, if we ever decided to do DLC maybe some of our shelved ideas will make it in.

Do you anticipate producing a sequel or other console ports for The Wild at Heart? If not, what’s next for Moonlight Kids?

Well, the dust has yet to settle for us since release, so I can’t even say at the moment, it’s really dependent on how it does. The main priority right now though is supporting the base game. As far as ports go, currently we can only confirm Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S and PC.

The Wild at Heart is available now on Steam, the Humble Store, and on Xbox platforms; you can even play it at no extra charge with an Xbox Game Pass subscription!

Follow @MoonlightKids_ on Twitter to keep up with all the latest on this game and future projects. If you’d like to see more from me, you can find me on Twitter under the handle @SinginBrakeman. Thanks for reading, and be sure to let everyone know what you think about The Wild at Heart in the discussion below.