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The Independent Gamer: 'Nuts' Developer Explains Why Squirrels Fulfilled Design Need

Nuts Noodlecake Studios
Courtesy of Noodlecake Studios
Belgian designer Jonatan Van Hove talks about the project's evolution after the initial seed of the idea was formed at a game jam in Iceland, and steering away from tropes to arrive in a "mystery story area."

The Independent Gamer is a curated roundup of news from indie gaming, landing here every other Friday.

It's not every day that a colorful squirrel surveillance mystery game enters the conversation, but that is the description of NUTS, a mobile title where players become field researchers tasked with recording and reporting on the behavior of squirrels for less than desirable pay.

The game hails from development team Joon, Pol, Muuutsch, Char & Torfi, who are Belgian game developer and designer Jonatan (Joon) Van Hove, French artist Pol Clarissou, German foley artist Almut Schwacke, Irish narrative writer Charlene Putney, and Icelandic based artist Torfi Ásgeirsson.

"It started from a bunch of experiments we did with putting cameras inside game worlds," says Van Hove. "Even before there was squirrels we had this abstract world where you could put objects in and take pictures of them and put those pictures back in the world."

The idea developed, beyond simply an abstract concept, at a game jam in Reykjavik. Eventually, the squirrels were chosen for their ability to move around really fast in open spaces. "They instantly fulfilled the design need," says Van Hove, adding that because squirrels move so quickly and mostly repeat their movements, they brought a lot of freedom to the game. Instead of making "tons" of custom animations to make every single move look good, the team was able to focus on the scale of the forest — partly modeled off the Forest of Fontainebleau in the south of Paris — that served as the squirrels playground. "It has these really crazy rock formations and we literally looked at tons of pictures of those," says Van Hove. "It's pretty easy to imagine a squirrel running around on that terrain."

The other thing that attracted the team to squirrels, narratively speaking, was that they're known to be mischievous. "Kind of like rats, but they're cute somehow," says Van Hove with a laugh. He summons one of his favorite facts that he learned during the research period: "They're actually the animal most responsible for power and communication outages in the world. The reason for that is because their teeth grow six inches every year, and they need to whittle them down, and gnawing on rubber is actually really comfortable for them."

Of the game's development, Van Hove explains that the team didn't want to make a game about a specific set of geographical or biological squirrels, but rather "a little bit more fantastical, or fictional." Since there are no squirrels in Iceland, artist Clarissou observed the how the animals behaved from his backyard in Montreal.

Van Hove says that he was intrigued by the idea that so often in narrative games, the player is a defined character in the story, complete with a name, gender and background and characteristics. "I have to be interested in that character to be interested in the game," he says, bringing up the game Firewatch — a game he draws inspiration from — and the character of Henry. They turned that idea on its head for NUTS, asking players to embody a character they know little about — mostly just the fact that they took a job as a field researcher. "For all intents and purposes, it's just you."

And inherently, the game is about surveillance. "It's impossible to play the game and not feel like you're some sort of mall cop or security agent looking at a bunch of screens," laughs Van Hove. He adds that the visual style aided the story and steered it toward a thriller-like angle. "Not horror," he clarifies. "None of us are particularly interested in horror as a genre; rather trending toward family friendliness," he says, "no shooting or violence."

He explains that the team wanted to move a little bit away from game tropes, and that's how they ended up in this "mystery story area." Van Hove says that the idea is for the player to learn about what the squirrels are doing and where they're going. Players are guided in the game by a university professor, whose voice is heard periodically. "It's not entirely clear who's in charge in your relationship with the squirrels," he says. Therefore the idea of: "Were you part of their story, or are they part of your story?" was intentionally left vague, for people to interpret.

He explains that when the team started prototyping the game, they realized that players may expect some sort of reward when they achieve the moment of payoff — and figure out where the squirrel is going — but they were adamant that this be a narrative reward over something like in-game currency to upgrade camera equipment, or simply points. "So you end up discovering something about the world," he says.

The team, who met each other at various non-mainstream games events in Europe, worked remotely even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. But, during development amid the stress of coronavirus, he emphasizes that the personal wellbeing of everyone became a real focus." If someone couldn't manage a task due to their situation, the game was simply adapted. "Obviously the pandemic has been stressful, and sometimes you just need to take a day off, and that's been true for all of us."

NUTS, published by Canadian outfit Noodlecake Games, is available now on Apple Arcade, and drops on Steam and Nintendo Switch on Feb. 4.

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The Medium became available Jan. 28 on Steam, Xbox One and the next-gen Xbox Series X/S consoles.

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The game released Jan. 28 on PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One and PC.

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