In the weeks since Xbox’s first-ever Twitch indie games showcase, there’s been one game that’s really stuck with me — a wholesome little fishing RPG called Moonglow Bay.
As the first title from global indie developer Bunnyhug Games, Moonglow Bay quickly caught my eye. The “slice of life” game features a charming, unique voxel art style, an emotional tale about a rookie angler honouring their late partner’s final wish by keeping a fishing business afloat and 100-plus aquatic species to catch. Plus, a cute dog (or daughter, if you play in drop-in/drop-out co-op) accompanies you!
But I became even more intrigued when I discovered that Zach Soares, Bunnyhug’s North East England-based co-founder and creative director, actually hails from Canada and chose to set Moonglow Bay in 1980s Eastern Canada. The studio’s name is even affectionately taken from the eponymous Saskatchewan hooded sweatshirt.
With all of that in mind, I reached out to learn more about Moonglow Bay and Soares — plus Bunnyhug art director/co-founder Lu Nascimento (his real-life partner whom he met in Quebec) and three others from the team — emailed me back some thoughtful answers.
What got you interested in making games for a living?
Soares: I grew up pursuing a career in dance that didn’t pan out but games had always been a curious part of my life, while secondary. Building things like amusement parks and building narratives with Lego and K’nex was how I spent my time at home. When I found a digital equivalent while going through university (I discovered [professional voxel editor tool] Qubicle and joined game jams) it felt almost natural to shift to games. The collaborative nature is so motivating.
Shelley Lowe, lead programmer (Melbourne, Australia): I grew up with a PlayStation and always enjoyed playing games but had no idea what went into creating them. When I went to university, I enrolled in computer science despite having zero idea what programming was. Luckily, I found that I really enjoyed programming and realized game development could actually be a viable career path for me. I love the creative problem-solving and collaborative aspects that come with creating games.
Jeiel Aranal, programmer (Manila, Philippines): I grew up with a Famiclone [a ‘bootleg’ console for playing Famicom titles] and was really fascinated by games that let you build your own levels, like Battle City and Excitebike, but the game making bug really bit me with PCs and how that openness allowed you to change the games you played.
Albertine Watson, game designer (Treaty 1 Territory, Manitoba): I would dig around bargain bins for anything that looked strange or different, so I grew to appreciate games that I think most people wouldn’t find conventionally appealing from a pretty early age. […] But I think it was The Sims that left the biggest impression on me. I was fascinated by its sense of humour and soundtrack […] By then, I’d been gaming for about four years, and it absolutely blew my mind that millions of people liked this kind of thing, because there was nothing like it at the time. I think the wheels started turning right then.
Nascimento: My dad used to fix computers for a living, and a lot of the time he would exchange his services for computer parts — that made it so that we had a basement full of very old, but still functioning, ‘Frankenstein’ computers. I didn’t have access to consoles because of financial restrictions, but I’m not ashamed to say I had access to emulators and ROMs — and that gave me the possibility to hack them and add my own shoddy pixel art, create my own maps and private ROM hacks.
From that moment I always carried two possibilities of careers: either I’d make art for games, or I’d become a fashion designer, since I had such a passion for it and for watching my mom sew so skillfully. The decision came once I had to choose a course in what we call a ‘Technical High School’ back in Brazil — I felt like studying and having a career in fashion would be rocky as an alternative kid, so in games, I felt like I’d fit like a glove.
Q: What is it about fishing that appeals to you and how have you tried to recreate that feeling in-game?
Soares: I was introduced to fishing when I started working summers at a provincial park in [Ontario]. Being by the lake, your customer base frequently were fishermen, so starting there I had to learn what they needed to have a good time — all the baits, rods, lures. Honestly, it was fun seeing the cool lure variants and the differences between rods.
From this, I started going out to the shore of the lake and tried some fishing every once in a while. I went into fishing with confidence despite how terrible I was. Even now, I don’t think I’m great, but I enjoy the peace and patience involved. I’m a very patient person so fishing never felt like much of a bother; the intervals between catches always felt quite quick to me so that feeling gets captured in the game pretty easily.
What was actually most important was the atmosphere: it’s not loud, it’s very meditative, and the same mood carries when reeling in a fish. It’s not utter chaos, though it can be with bigger fish… it still requires patience when reeling. My appreciation for all tools based around fishing and that exploration is easily reflected in-game. I played tons of fishing games but really finding one that can touch on many experiences is hard to come by. So that’s what we set out to do: make a fishing game that felt rounded out — one you can approach from different angles [like line fishing, ice fishing and trap fishing].
Q: How did you settle on the idea of setting the game in 1980s Eastern Canada? Did draw from your own experiences in the country?
Soares: I was born in ’92 so I can’t say my experience of the ’80s has anything to do with our choice of decade [laughs]. I think the selection of the ’80s has more to do with it being devoid of the internet and tech was still super clunky (all technology, not just electronics).
Nascimento: I was born in ’94 but I grew up surrounded by the ’80s — all my clothes and toys were hand-me-downs from my sisters, who were born in the early ’80s in a country that everything was late to arrive to by at least a decade. Those memories made that decade a comfortable place to start.
Soares: As to why Eastern Canada? Pointing a light to it is one part, but also it being the focal point of fishing in Canada. It feels perfectly fit to locate a game in the East Coast when mentioning fishing, especially since we wanted Moonglow to feel vast, which is easier to execute if you’re talking about an ocean and not a lake.
Eastern Canada also has a ton of history to it, specifically the Maritimes. And simply making someone curious and going “oh yeah! There is something east of Montreal!” is enough to make me happy […] Some NPCs [non-player characters] in town come from different parts of the East Coast and other countries altogether so I hope it makes players want to look into [Canada’s] history and get some potential Moonglow lore.
Taking from real life makes the world-building in the game so much more rich and relatable. For example, the town design is a mix of Lunenburg [Nova Scotia], St-Johns [Newfoundland], Halifax and some other small towns around Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, so hopefully, that feels familiar to some.
Q: How did you both end up in England? Did that major change in location and resulting experiences influence your approach to Moonglow at all?
Nascimento: I needed to leave Brazil because of some traumatic events that left me unsafe, so I travelled to Canada for as long as I was allowed while I looked for a job that would sponsor me a Visa to live outside of Brazil, and I found a job in the U.K. I loved the time I spent in Canada and was really sad to leave, but the fact that Zach decided to come with me made the move much easier.
I don’t think Moonglow would have come to life without this move! In fact, Zach and I were working on another game until we got the opportunity to meet Coatsink [Moonglow‘s publisher] and they gave us the opportunity to pitch a game that would be funded and published by them.
Soares: I don’t think Moonglow would have come if not for Coatsink and the change in location. You don’t often think of making something set in your home country until you’re away from it. You retain the good memories and want to bring [them] to life [in] some way. […] The only obvious influence you’ll find from the game which comes from our experience of moving around will be in the town’s sense of community. Despite moving a ton, our biggest blessing has always been having a dog forcing us to build relationships in our communities. Despite the hardships one experiences, when you find the right people around you it’s always a comfort, even when away from family.
Q: How many people are working on the game and what’s it been like working remotely with a global team during the pandemic?
Nascimento: At the moment, we have 12 people on the project! There’s Zach, me, Shelley Lowe, Jeiel Aranal, Albertine Watson, [Seattle-based composer Lena Raine], [Coatsink narrative designer] Jon Davies, Arion [Arcana, Sao Paolo-based technical artist], [Norwegian sound designer] Martin Kvale, [U.K.-based business developer] Callum Underwood and the two most recent people to join, [Toronto-based] Andrew Carvalho and [Genoa, Italy-based] Simone Trachina (although, sadly, we will be 11 as Simone concludes his work).
There’s so much I love about making Moonglow Bay, but most of all is getting to work with the wonderful team 💕
I couldn’t not paint them little portraits!@Voxels, @DevRelCallum, @_shelleylowe_, @kuraine, @jondavieswrites, @JeielVtx , @littlebluerobot, @ArtofArion & @MartinKvale pic.twitter.com/Ofz7cSwCuc
— Lu Nascimento (@viiolaceus) March 27, 2021
Zach and I were really lucky that there was almost no change at all to our lives, including work. We were already working on this game remotely for a while before the pandemic started, and prior to that, we were used to working from home as freelancers. From that experience, we also knew how important documentation and communication was (and when I mean communication, I don’t mean being stuck in meeting after meeting for hours).
Aranal: Most of my previous game dev jobs have been remote work, but I came to Bunnyhug from a big studio, so working with a small team again felt like coming home. I was also doing international collaborations in my last job so in a way, it feels like I’ve been training my entire career for this moment.
Lowe: I’d done occasional work-from-home days in my previous studio job but this was my first time working remotely full time and with an international team. Working remotely during a pandemic is very different than just working from home and with lockdown restrictions — all the days did start to blur together. I’ve felt very fortunate to have a supportive and understanding team during this pandemic.
— Zach Soares (@Voxels) May 12, 2021
Watson: I’ve felt enormously fortunate not only to be working at home during a global health crisis, but also to be working with this team. Zach and Lu have always worked hard to get face time with each of us despite everyone’s time differences, and we do game nights together every other week. Everyone is really supportive of one another, and I feel very close to the team despite our distance.
Soares: We’re a small team, especially for the game’s size, but working with them has been a huge blessing. Couldn’t imagine making it with anyone else, honestly. For a while it was just Lu, myself and [Lowe] working on the game but the tasklist was getting massive so bringing on [Aranal] and [Watson] was great.
At this point, it feels like we’ve been making this entire game during a pandemic but everyone’s been great. Taking time away from work when things just felt like too much. It’s been a hell of a mental challenge making a game this way but this team has seriously proven itself despite the time differences alongside [waves to everything]. It all comes down to communication and trust, and I can trust in everyone on the team so much.
Q: You’ve worked with voxels a lot and even teach courses on it. What first got you into voxel art and what is it that continues to draw you to it?
Nascimento: It was a collective decision between me and Zach — we did so many fake game mockups together before we arrived at Moonglow, and the way his voxels and my 2D art seemed to fit together was such a nice surprise.
Soares: Because of the artistic dynamic between Lu and me, the game was going to be made with voxels without a doubt. Lu has always wanted to go into concept art in a more complete capacity, and I’ve always wanted to prove the worth of voxels as more than just tech.
As to what got me into voxel art? [It’s] a bit more chaotic [laughs]. My first voxel game experience was 3D Dot Heroes without even knowing it was voxels. I just liked the creativity in it and how easy it was to work it (with a controller, no less). I was doing my degree in urban planning at the time so I was looking at ways to integrate voxels with urban design […] Long story short, I modded like crazy and started doing game jams using voxel art […] Anyways, the reason I chose to teach it through [the online course site] Domestika — and what continues to drive [me] to make voxel art — has everything to do with exploration.
It’s a young art form and the tooling is still quite barebones compared to other crafts, so I want to keep pushing it so that it’s not a one-note art form and many people of many disciplines can use it. I still have animation styles and general techniques I want to explore with voxel art, and making games is the best outlet to exercise that creativity.
Q: In Moonglow, you can meet NPCs and befriend them. How does this system work and what kinds of people/stories might you encounter?
Moonglow Bay folks are keen to kickstart their business & what they offer can reely reefurbish yours.
Visit vendors for upgrades to your wares, as well as bait, tackle & anything an angler cod need.
Just remember, the more delicate your cuiseane, the more you can shell it for. pic.twitter.com/53pi4pCqkm
— Moonglow Bay is COMING SOON ⛵ 🐟 (@MoonglowBay) May 13, 2021
Nascimento: Well, that system is a bit more hidden and diegetic compared to the other systems in the game.
Soares: Building friendships is one of the systems we use to motivate the player to interact with the town. Everyone in town will have something useful to tell you and the friendships you build reinforce and reward that interaction. You’ll learn more about the core NPCs by befriending them, but that aside, you’ve got side stories of other NPCs that unlock as the game progresses. So the typical poking and prodding you do in RPGs is expected. The stories you hear will vary — some will reminisce on old times, and others will have more pressing worries you’ll be there to support. Hopefully, these stories resonate with people but also make them care for the town in a way that pushes them to keep playing to see them happy.
Q: A bunch of games are about a father-kid relationship [like God of War or The Last of Us]. Was Moonglow‘s focus on a mother and a college-aged child an intentional response to that?
Soares: The story itself was something we wanted to tell from the outset; choosing a middle-aged character was intentional to set up the tone of both the gameplay and the town dynamics. The presentation of a mother/daughter was definitely intentional but we can’t fail to mention that you can choose your character at the beginning of the game. Your daughter is always the same but the parents and their relationship is for you to choose.
Nascimento: Choosing a mother for the trailer was a very conscious decision, to go against this new trope in games. I know many more single and widowed mothers than I know of fathers, and yet they seem to be nowhere to be seen in games.
Soares: Yeah, and the college-aged child made the most sense to us, too. So rarely do we see what it means to have a relationship with your parents when you’ve flown the coop and acknowledging that dynamic is important. It’s not weird to befriend your parents in adulthood, and it’s certainly not unhealthy to speak to each other on equal ground.
Q: On a broader note, what led you to tell this emotional story at the heart of a fishing game, and was that a tricky balance to strike, tonally?
Nascimento: I have always been big on emotional games and stories. In fact, I think the stories I tend to like and tell are very depressing — my ideas almost always lean tonally towards things like The Road [or] Papers, Please. The game’s story feels like a balance between my tendencies and Zach’s [laughs].
Soares: [laughs] Yup, the game is most certainly a balance of our own preferences, as I like to play games that put me in a state of flow quite often, which typically happens when playing something relaxing. On top of that, we never liked the extremes in fishing games. You’re either playing these hyper-realistic fishing sims or only experience a fishing game as an extension to something larger, so the interaction there is super limited.
— Moonglow Bay is COMING SOON ⛵ 🐟 (@MoonglowBay) May 5, 2021
The first thing was setting up the world and then telling a story within it. We knew what struggle we wanted the player to go through and I think the hardest thing has always been about setting the pace at which you tell such a sad story. In a sense, having the town and their stories helped us to tell this story in a nice way, so thanks, Moonglow residents! The town in itself helped to find that balance.
These interviews have been edited for language and clarity.
Moonglow Bay will release later this year on Steam and Xbox consoles (plus Xbox Game Pass for Console and PC on day one).