NUTS interview: An Apple Arcade game about squirrely espionage

There's more to squirrels than you might think, as Shacknews learns more about NUTS, a new indie game on Apple Arcade.


Apple Arcade has been adding games to its library on a regular basis, giving new opportunities to small indie developers in the process. Apple's massive user base offers developers a unique opportunity to reach a different sector of players, something development team Joon, Pol, Muutsch, Char & Torfi is looking to jump on with their unique idea. We've seen stealth games, but we haven't seen many of those that revolve around squirrels.

NUTS is a game about capturing the essence of nature on film. Players are recording squirrels' daily routines in the Melmoth Forest. But there's more to the furry critters' movements than meets the eye. This simple project quickly turns into a greater mystery. To learn more about it, Shacknews spoke to Joon Van Hove about what players can expect to see in NUTS.

Shacknews: What can you tell me about NUTS? What is this game about and how long have you been working on it?

Joon Van Hove, Developer: NUTS is a game about surveilling squirrels in a forest. You set up your cameras by day, on tripods with precise aiming controls, and then you watch the recordings at night on multiple screens. If you've set up your tripods correctly, you'll see squirrels scampering about on your screens. Your mission is to figure out exactly where the sneaky little creatures go.

The story of the game follows your surveillance, but there are also stories about the characters, the world, and the mysterious behavior of these elusive little squirrels.

In 2018, I made a prototype at a game jam in Iceland, which had a surprising reception given its rough state and experimental nature. Watching people play it with joyful faces is what really convinced us to pursue making it into a fully-featured game. It's been in full-time development since early 2019.

Shacknews: What can you tell me about the game's main characters? Who are we following over the course of this story?

Van Hove: The player character is a research assistant who is helping Prof. Nina Scholz of the Viago Institute with her research. You don't know much more than that, to begin with. We purposefully left the main character rather ambiguous and made Nina the main character of the story. She talks to you on the phone, gives you missions, and tries to help you make sense of what's happening. Her institute recently received some extra funding, which allowed her to hire you. She's chatty, friendly, and just happy that you're helping her with this work since she's too busy to do fieldwork herself nowadays.

The personality of the player character is ultimately left up to the player. Do you keep your caravan clean, or messy? Will you learn your way around, or will you get lost? Are you a thorough researcher, taking notes and crafting theories about what's happening? Or are you a bumbling amateur who just points the cameras any which way, and hopes to catch the squirrels by accident?

Shacknews: This is a very unique visual style you're putting forward. How did you decide on it?

Van Hove: Abstraction and constraints are a big part of our creative process, partially because we're a small team with limited resources, but also because that's just how creativity works. Carte blanche can give you vertigo.

A lot of games do monochrome, usually black and white, or at least a very dark color and very bright color, like Return of the Obra Dinn, Hidden Folks, and Unfinished Swan. But why not subvert that, and not limit it to the obvious ends of the contrast spectrum, and instead look at color palettes? Once we started experimenting with fog, and distance-based rendering instead of light (there's no light or shadows in the game), we ended up in this eerie place. Kind of like a walk in the dusk where the light doesn't seem to come from any particular place, but you can still make out where to walk, almost. That interacted really well with the squirrel surveillance, as the squirrels will often just disappear into the fog.

Shacknews: Of all the things to track, why did you decide on squirrels?

Van Hove: It started as a matter of personal preference and practicality. They're small, they run fast, they can turn on a dime and jump ten times their body length, so what could be more fun to track in a forest?

But then once we started researching them, it turns out they are even more incredible than we imagined. To name a few things, they are the animal responsible for the most power and communication outages in the world! This is because they like to gnaw on cables, and that fact itself is because their teeth grow six inches in a year, and they need to grind them down constantly!

Shacknews: In what sorts of ways can you arrange your cameras?

Van Hove: You mostly just plunk your cameras down in the grass or on a rock, and aim them exactly where you want them to record. You'll get several cameras after playing for a while, and how to arrange them is up to you. This is what we most loved about this game mechanic: there's no "right way" to do things, and there's no way to fail.

Here's how it works: you get a GPS location of where a squirrel reportedly lives. If it's in a tree, you can set up your cameras around that tree. But you can also set up one of your cameras looking out over the field the tree is standing in to get a wide-angle. Or, you can scout out the area and see a cool rock and wonder if the squirrel might jump onto that rock. You can also probably climb that rock yourself and get an overview of a little stream that the creature might cross. If you're not lucky enough to catch the squirrel on your first try, you can always give it another go!

Shacknews: What sorts of events will the players witness while tracking the squirrels?

Van Hove: This is difficult to answer without spoiling too much! What we can tell you is that players will hike through Melmoth Forest from dawn, and then witness the night world after dusk from the safety of their research caravan. Players will find hidden spaces and happen upon secret nooks and crannies. Players will receive deliveries and send missives of their own. And always the calm voice of Nina will be by their side, as they discover more and more clues to the mystery at the heart of the forest.

Shacknews: Sound design seems to be a key element to this game. You even won the Audio Design award at IndieCade a few months ago. How did you go about getting the game's various sound effects?

Van Hove: To complement the game's visual abstraction layer, we decided to chase realism in the audio-scape instead, which worked out really well. Our foley artist did an incredible job at amplifying the physicality of the space, as well as adding character to, well, to the character. Muuutsch (Our sound designer, composer and voice actress) has a lot to say about this area of the game, so I asked her to give us a peek behind the curtain.

Almut "Muuutsch" Schwacke, Sound Designer: Glad you asked! Joon approached me specifically due to my Foley background because he had in mind to counter the stylized graphics with very natural sound. In general, Foley is a very useful thing for game audio assets since you can manipulate objects in just the way you need the sounds to be - subtle or obvious, long or short, rusty or clean, you name it. So, pretty much everything you can touch or handle in the game (including the footsteps) are all me stomping on, squeaking, rattling or handling my beloved Foley objects. I swung my jerry can (empty AND filled please!). I walked on a dirt bag, a mix of coconut fibre and old tape, and a big-ass plastic suitcase (for the caravan footsteps). I handled a rusty hinge for the door squeaks, pushed a lot of buttons, and tried to find the right materials for everything in the game. Yes, even for the toilet paper roll. To accumulate a bountiful collection of props it's necessary to alert friends and family members, go to flea markets and - most importantly - keep your eyes open when walking the streets! I have a really deep connection to my props, I know for each thing where I got or found it, from whom I inherited it, or who gave it to me as a present. This makes all those lovely people and corners of the city pop in my head when working and it is one reason I love this job so much. I feel a lot of love when doing Foley and I think that is the best you can want out of a job.

Another big aspect of the audio is the ambiance. Those are mostly library files and some vacation field recordings carefully arranged and snipped into individual bird, frog, cricket, and other animal noises that can be scattered around the map as 3D objects to make for a lively nature experience. Every chapter is a little different, as I tried to capture the respective mood of the colors in the ambiance. Since NUTS is set in a non-specified location I didn't think too much about which animals live in certain areas of the world, so an ornithologist might give me side-eye for the structural diversity, but overall I'd say it's a fictional European forest. Working on those ambiances gave me much-needed peace in the f***ing stressful year of 2020. I'm so happy I got the chance to work on this lovely game made by lovely people and I'm a little sad to let it go!

Shacknews: You're releasing on Apple Arcade first. What made you want to bring your game to Apple's platforms before branching out?

Van Hove: This is a boring answer, but we're not entirely convinced that, as a small indie developer, shipping on as many platforms as you can at the same time is actually the best route, as every new release gives you a new reason to talk about the game. On top of that, multi-platform launches are really, really hard to pull off, as context-switching is time-consuming, and all QA'ing has to be done multiple times, and you need all the platform holders to want to cooperate, etc. Staggering it gives us some breathing room, and hopefully, we'll stay in the public consciousness for a little longer because of it.

NUTS is available now on Apple Arcade. It's also coming soon to PC via Steam.

Senior Editor

Ozzie has been playing video games since picking up his first NES controller at age 5. He has been into games ever since, only briefly stepping away during his college years. But he was pulled back in after spending years in QA circles for both THQ and Activision, mostly spending time helping to push forward the Guitar Hero series at its peak. Ozzie has become a big fan of platformers, puzzle games, shooters, and RPGs, just to name a few genres, but he’s also a huge sucker for anything with a good, compelling narrative behind it. Because what are video games if you can't enjoy a good story with a fresh Cherry Coke?

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