Google's Valentine's Day doodle tries to save the pangolin

The doodle for the day associated with romance stars two members of an endangered species looking for love. We got a peek at where doodles come from.

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Think of Valentine's Day, and the first thing that comes to mind probably isn't wildlife conservation.

But that's one of the themes of Google's Valentine's Day doodle, which premiered on the search giant's homepage early Monday. It's one of the most in-depth Google Doodles the company has ever created and includes an interactive video game. It took about a year to develop and involved a six-person team of animators and engineers.

The doodle stars two lovestruck pangolins, scaly mammals native to Asia and Africa that look like a cross between armadillos and anteaters. Google notes in the game that pangolins are the most poached and trafficked mammals in the world. The game also includes a link to a World Wildlife Fund page, which invites people to donate to protecting them.

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Google's Valentine's Day Doodle took almost a year to develop.

Richard Nieva/CNET

"If they're endangered, they really have to meet," Helene Leroux, the head artist for the doodle, said during an interview at Google's headquarters in Mountain View, California. "So it was a perfect theme for Valentine's Day."

Step foot in the Google Doodle office and you might think you're at Pixar. A large blow-up version of Baymax, the health care robot from Disney's "Big Hero 6," greets you in the hallway. Desks are lined with Star Wars and Batman toys. There are tiny drawers full of sticker versions of past doodles. And most of the desks have Cintiqs, giant tablets artists use for digital drawings.

The artwork that stands in for Google's logo has also become a big deal for the company. It's pretty obvious why: For lots of people, Google's search engine is the internet. It's the first place they go online, and that makes the homepage some of the choicest real estate on the web. The first doodle, in 1998, was a glorified "out of office" message -- a Burning Man stick figure that indicated co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin were away at the annual festival. Now the Doodle team has 30 people, including animators, engineers and designers.

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Helene Leroux, head artist for the doodle, said the team chose its main characters from several different species that roll up into balls.

John Kim/CNET

But unlike animated movies and other creative projects, Google Doodles are fleeting. They go live on the homepage for a day, then are gone. (Actually, all the doodles are archived, but most people don't know that.)

Doodles have also become a de facto avenue for the company to react to news. When Prince died last April, Doodlers scrambled to create a Purple Rain design in an hour to honor the singer, the fastest a doodle has ever been made. And on January 30, two days after President Donald Trump signed a controversial executive order restricting immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries, the Google Doodle celebrated the 98th birthday of Fred Korematsu, an activist who spoke out against the internment of Japanese Americans. Some saw it as a political statement.

Google declined to comment on the Korematsu doodle -- or any potential political motivations -- beyond the blog post that originally accompanied the artwork.

The ecological bent in this year's Valentine's Day doodle was at first unintentional. It began as a design decision for the video game: find an animal that rolls. Runners-up included pill bugs and salamanders. The team originally settled on armadillos for the two main characters. But they wanted the game to feel more global, and worried armadillos might just invoke images of Texas and the Southwest.

So the pangolin it was.

The game is a side-scroller, like Super Mario brothers or Sonic the Hedgehog (in fact the game has striking similarities to Sonic, though the game's lead engineer said he's never played the Sega classic). In the game, available on iPhones, Android phones and desktop computers, you're a pangolin trying to woo your mate. You need to travel to four different countries, including Ghana and the Philippines, and collect various things to help you with your budding romance. In one level, for example, you collect flowers for a bouquet. In another, you gather music notes to write a song. They're like coins in Super Mario and rings in Sonic.

So after almost a year of work, how does it feel for a doodle to finally premiere, and then vanish from the homepage a day later?

"It's all this excitement, and then, nothing," said Jordan Thompson, head engineer for the doodle's video game, standing at his desk in the studio. A few feet away from him is a poster of a doodle inspired by artist Salvador Dali's painting "The Persistence of Memory," with two melting clocks standing in for the O's in Google.

"It's both exciting and terrifying because you have to get it right," he added. "The first time."

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