NUTS is a superb example of how a single well executed mechanic can mean an indie game punches well above it’s weight.
Created by an international team of independent Game Developers and published by Noodlecake, NUTS is described as a game where “The code is made in Reykjavik, the trees are planted in Montreal, the books are written in Copenhagen and the foley is recorded in Berlin.” It’s a simple, if novel premise.
You are playing a researcher who has come to Melmoth Forest to study the behaviour of nocturnal squirrels.
Each day, you’ll receive instructions from your lead researcher over the phone. They’ll provide details as to what they’d like you to catalogue. You’ll then deploy a selection of cameras in the forest where you believe the squirrels will be travelling that night. You’ll head to your monitors and review the footage from the night before.
Didn’t quite catch what you were looking for? Well then try and try again. Nuts has a wonderfully physical, yet cerebral, quality about it.
Every day you’ll need to challenge yourself to solve the whole puzzle, without having all the clues. You know where the squirrel starts. If you position a camera at this angle, you’ll be able to see everything going down that hill. But when you review the footage, you’ll notice that actually you catch another glimpse of the squirrel much farther along the trail at a later point. So you reset and take a new day. You point a camera to capture the new location. You see that actually, rather than disappearing like you thought, the squirrels are entering a cave. Now you need to see inside.
What makes NUTS so satisfying is the same thing that makes other photography games, like last year’s excellent Umurangi Generation, so engaging. It’s also why photo “modes” in other games often feel so disappointingly flimsy in comparison.
Traditionally, the player is effectively pausing the game and removing the UI, repositioning a floating camera point if you want a particularly dramatic angle. It’s weightless and fleeting.
The act of framing a shot, the decisions and difficulty in positioning and planning. These limitations are what makes the action of taking photos so tricky and therefore engaging, especially in games. It’s the kernel of what makes Nuts great.
But more than most photography games, Nuts takes this a step further. It adds a layer of review and response that makes exceptional use of the physicality of the gameplay. Pick up the directive from the fax machine. Pin it to the Corkboard in your caravan. Go outside to physically carry and place the camera. Head back to the caravan. Check your feeds one last time. Press the delightfully tactile record button. Night begins. You use in-game buttons on the TV to scroll through the footage, pausing when you see a squirrel. Hit the print button. You pick up the printed photo, carry it to the fax machine and send it. Was it right? You then pick up the ringing phone.
You didn’t get the required footage of the squirrel? Then time to open the door of your research caravan and start another day.
This is a process. You are experimenting to get results. It’s methodical, but not slow. It’s deliberate without being fiddly. It’s exceptionally tactile and meaningful. You’re encouraged to spend time considering your shots, soaking up the excellent ambient sound design. This all builds to the moment where you finally get a clear shot of a squirrel you’ve been chasing for four nights now, and a burst of catharsis.
The process is joyful, even before the end result. Every time you interact with the objects in the world they provide you with satisfying clunks and clicks. The foley design deserves a lot of praise for how much of the game it’s carrying. It’s a joy that carries through into every interactable aspect of Nuts.
There’s the perfectly memetically titled “enhance” box that allows you to zoom in on the recorded footage you have, messing with the playback speed as well as the focus. All accomplished by pressing chunky buttons and turning a clicking selection dial.
I love the Corkboard. A tangible record of all your actions in a given area, with pictures piling up on top of documents as you progress through missions in a level.
This is also all taking place inside the only piece of “civilisation” for miles in the form of your research caravan. It’s a tightly cramped space that then makes you appreciate the openness of the forest even more when you leave.
The physicality and groundedness of the gameplay of Nuts ends up contrasting with the deeply ethereal neon artstyle in a pleasant way. It’s a deliberate artistic decision that I think pays off well. With a more realistic art style filled with greens and browns and (probably) red squirrels, there really wouldn’t be enough of visual interest to keep the player entertained, especially at night.
But a world of blacks; neon greens, oranges and purple? That’s something that holds your attention. The foliage and rocks blend together under a haze of draw distance limiting mist, while the outlines of trees and branches cause the unified colour palette to seem fractured and oddly unnatural. This unnaturalness only heightens the groundedness of the core mechanics.
At night, on film, you’re picking out these bright squirrels against the backdrop of an area that’s almost approaching a photo negative. On top of that, each of the levels provides just enough variety in the colour palette to avoid things getting too familiar.
It’s a good thing too. There’s a perfect sense of progression in Nuts. As much as I’m delighting in the measured pace of the photography and the otherworldliness of the art, even I can admit it would outstay it’s welcome if it went on too long.
Instead, six levels. Each a small area of woodland that you’ll be getting to know intimately as you try and find perfect angles to capture the travels of the many squirrels.
Overall, the game’s narrative leads the player through each area, with just enough variation to keep each level intriguing. It’s an ecologically minded game where your nature survey has the potential for big consequences for a local business intent on bulldozing parts of the forest. Pair that with the odd behaviour of the squirrels you’re there for and you’ve got a narrative that will absolutely hold your attention for the 3-4 hour run time.
(Review based on pre launch Version of the game provided by the Publisher)