How would you feel about stepping away from it all? True, we’re all doing our best to keep our distance from others at this moment in history, but video conferencing and social media still keep us connected with the rest of the world. I’m talking true isolation: rent a camper, drive out into the woods, leave behind all but the most limited methods of communication, and give yourself a handful of simple tasks to keep yourself busy, day in and out. Would you take this temporary reprieve in stride, devote yourself to seeing it through, taking in the unique sights and sounds of the forest along the way? Or would you grow paranoid, and piece together a bizarre narrative to explain the unusual events happening around you?
Noodlecake Studios knew what they were doing when they named their first-person adventure game Nuts. As a recent graduate working on a university’s research project, you spend your days positioning cameras throughout Melmoth Forest, then closely observing their footage from your barebones trailer in the evening. Once you find the spot where they disappear from your footage, you can shift the cameras to continue from that point during the next day, inching ever closer to wherever they stash their nuts. From that point, you print out a still photo of their hiding place, fax it to your boss, then receive a call from a phone that doesn’t let you dial out. You’ll receive more cameras to work with as it progresses, but, other than that, you rinse and repeat for three hours.
So far, so mundane, right? But these aren’t your ordinary squirrels, and this isn’t your ordinary research project. It isn’t long before you stumble into a squirrel’s stash filled with something more serious than simple nuts. From there, your footage grows ever stranger: it appears that some of them are gathering for meetings, and are even (distressingly) aware of your presence. Clocking in around three hours, it escalates a little too quickly, but the palpable sense of danger lights a fire under your feet to continue your investigation, then maybe get the hell out of there as soon as you can. Of course, that’s assuming you aren’t simply imagining things.
At its best, Nuts makes you question what you’re seeing. Yes, you’re faxing photos of each abnormality to your boss, but the game plants doubt as to whether she’s a reliable secondhand witness. Soon after the squirrels start behaving erratically, she’ll call you out of the blue to rant about the construction company leaning on your research project, exerting pressure to ensure it all comes to a pat conclusion. There are even moments where she feels the need to call you from outside the office, speaking in hushed tones, insisting that she’s onto something. With no link to the world at large, can you really trust what she’s telling you? Or are you both locked into an unusual delusion?
The game’s simple-yet-vibrant use of color emphasizes the paranoid absurdity of the situation. Each chapter has its own, unique palette at daytime, filling your screen with loud, bright oranges and greens, which fade off into a misty white sky. When night falls and you’re hunched over your monitors, you’re surrounded by muted shades that complement the darkness: while you’re never thrust into a pitch-black void, on the few occasions where you’re given a chance to step outside, it doesn’t make you feel any safer from whatever’s lurking out there.
Unfortunately, even with a three-hour runtime, Nuts’ find-and-track gameplay loop overstays its welcome. Later levels involve wider spaces, more cameras to manage, and increasingly erratic paths that the squirrels take. In one scenario, it took me five in-game evenings just to figure out where my target would make their first turn: as they began weaving through chain link fences and bushes, there were times where I was sure they would come through in one direction, only to lose sight of the furry bastard entirely and return to square one. Of course, this frustration feels like the intended reaction, but at a point where the story felt like it was ready to wrap up, the increased difficulty left me no satisfaction.
At the very end, the plot also ends things with a whimper. Nuts has its surprising revelations, and it doesn’t shy away from taking a strong environmental stance. But as it reaches its climax, the game tosses away all ambiguity about what you’ve witnessed over the past few hours. It leads to a striking backdrop as the credits roll, but given the way it discards the one relationship you’ve been building throughout the game, I couldn’t help wishing for something more.
If you’re looking to get lost in the woods for a while, with nothing but a GPS and some video equipment at your side, you could do much worse than Nuts. But the repetitive (and increasingly painful) tracking, combined with a wafer-thin ending, left me wanting a little more from my time with the squirrels.
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