Stonefly, a chill mech game, respects the environment and its creatures

In the treetops of Stonefly’s lush forests, humans use bug-shaped mechs to navigate the wild ecosystem. Tangles of vines wrap around tree stumps and limbs, with massive leaves shooting out into every direction. Other creatures, like oversized bugs, live under rocks and in tall grasses that dot the stony structures hidden behind the treetop forests. In this world, humans and bugs evolved alongside one another, and Stonefly is about their culture of environmental respect.

The world’s many dangers are intertwined with its gifts. It’s a lesson that Annika, the player-character in Stonefly, soon figures out after she leaves the comfort of her father’s home to retrieve his stolen mech — a family heirloom that’s worth is in its heart. She flies off into the wilderness of the forest’s crown on the back of a cricket, which eventually leads her to a mech that looks sort of like a spider. She can upgrade and evolve it, changing its looks and features over the course of the game. Much of the action-adventure gameplay centers around exploring; while gliding from marshes to canopies, off mushrooms and rocks, Annika looks for resources to continue upgrading her mech. Occasionally, that means defending herself from the dangerous bugs of the world.

a scene at stonefly’s camp, with a big mech with spider legs Image: Flight School Studio/MWM Interactive

There are plenty of different kinds of bugs — ones that shoot slime, torpedo objects, or attack and sting. Annika must use her mech to stun bugs and push them off platforms. There’s no killing here; that was an intentional and key decision.

“Annika gathers silk from worms, discarded shells from cicadas, that sort of thing,” Stonefly developer and Flight School Studio creative director Adam Volker told Polygon. “She is very Nausicaa in that way. We figured that these societies would have evolved alongside the other critters of the forest. Some of them are dangerous, but killing them would cut short the role they play in the larger forest’s ecosystem.”

Volker said Flight School built out the characters’ belief system in internal writings that aren’t in the game, but the balance and culture of respect is clear in how characters interact with the environment. Like Studio Ghibli’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Stonefly’s environment is as important as its characters — the push and pull between the two, the unnerving tension between humans and everything else around them. Stonefly’s hopeful respect of the natural world shines through, a showcase of an aspirational balance.

I could feel this influence throughout the game, which is made extra charming through Stonefly’s visual aesthetic. The game just looks dang good. Inspired by mid-century modern artist Charley Harper, Stonefly’s world minimalist cel-shaded look is a 3D reinterpretation of Harper’s “incredible talent for distilling an object down to its most iconic form,” Volker said.

In the game’s 2D backgrounds and environments, Volker said the team could focus on graphic interpretations of the world that pop like Harper’s work. Making the aesthetic work in 3D was harder, Volker said. “It was fun and easy while I was making the early concept art, but then putting a player in that space broke a lot of the visual design,” he said.

A mech shooing away bugs on a green mossed covered rock Image: Flight School Studios/MWM Interactive

Ultimately, though, it worked. Stonefly’s visual design encourages a special curiosity about the world; it’s like our own, but not too much. It’s still rooted in real-life research, though, and that makes its message all the more impactful.

“Learning the different ways leaves can grow made it really easy to design brand new shapes inside of that system,” Volker said. “Starting purely from my imagination, in my experience, doesn’t actually give you as believable a result as when you use reference.”

The humans in Stonefly are just as important as the other creatures who live in its world; a core part of the game is centered around Annika’s reflections on her life with her father, and the other characters she meets on this journey. Respect, in this case, isn’t necessarily a given: That respect comes slowly, and in waves, as the Stonefly crew makes their way through the environment.

“The story is about independence and finding your own compass,” Volker said. “Family and different types of friendships are woven into the narrative as well. Annika undertakes a literal journey to retrieve Dad’s mech, but really the journey she takes is internal.”

Stonefly was released on June 1 for Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X.