Imagine this nightmarish scenario: you’re stuck, several fathoms under the sea, inside the cockpit of an alien-looking machine. You gaze at the bank of levers, buttons, and dials that lie in front of you, unable to comprehend what on earth they all do; but at the same time, you know that the only way of escaping to freedom is to figure out how to operate this contraption.
Such is the premise of Nauticrawl: 20,000 Atmospheres, a mix of survival sim and dungeon crawler created by Sicilian developer Andrea Interguglielmi. In the early going, getting to grips with the machine’s controls is a key part of the experience: exactly what all those controls do is kept deliberately vague. There are no tutorials to ease you in, and no tooltips to hold your hand – only the chattering lines of text that scroll up on the machine’s retro-looking monitors.
For Andrea, Nauticrawl’s lack of hand-holding is not only a stylistic choice, but also “a solution to a problem.” Tutorials, he says, “want to teach you about a game as if it was a piece of software that you’ll need to use for a job.” Rather than bombard players with instructions, he figured it might be more fun to simply let them figure out the controls for themselves.
Says Andrea: “The key was to set a plausible premise that is central to the whole game: you stole this machine to escape from a horrible place, but it was never meant for people of your kind. Now you’ll have to deal with this desperate situation. That’s when the game starts, and then you’ll most likely die after a few minutes – but that’s part of the premise as well.”
Rather than appear in a flash of inspiration, the idea for Nauticrawl gradually emerged from a lifetime’s experiences: as a child, Andrea used to tape cardboard boxes together to make submarines (“I’d get in and pretend I was a pilot taking part in some sort of dangerous mission”). Years later, he clambered aboard a vintage tram in Turin, and was immediately struck by the driver working away at a bank of levers and buttons – a sight that must have stuck in his mind, because it resurfaced when he was watching television one evening. “I was watching 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and I thought, ‘Let’s mash together the Nautilus with a tram,’” he explains. “And there you have it – that’s when Nauticrawl’s journey began.”
Andrea’s journey through the games industry began almost 20 years ago, when he worked as a pixel artist on various handheld titles. Moving overseas, his focus shifted from art and animation to programming, and he found work at companies such as Lionhead and DreamWorks Animation. “I’m not sure how,” Interguglielmi says, “but I eventually landed back here, in Palermo, where it all started. (It’s) where I live right now, making games from home as a solo dev.”
Andrea began work on the Nauticrawl prototype in his spare time, slotting in an hour each evening to work on it. “I didn’t have a clue where this was headed, but it was very satisfying to see the machine coming to life,” he tells us.
From the start, his goal was to keep the project contained, both in terms of its location and its scale; by keeping the player trapped inside the machine, with only monitors and a tiny viewport to the world outside for company, Interguglielmi could handily sidestep the need for expensive, time-consuming things like character models and cutscenes. “I’ve modelled the assets in Blender and then assembled it all in Unity,” he explains. “Unity is probably my favourite tool in the whole process.”
There was one aspect of Nauticrawl’s development that proved to be less than easy, however: balancing its mix of real-time cockpit sim and turn-based dungeon crawler. With no clear view outside, the player instead has to explore the world via a monitor, which provides a top-down impression of the landscape – and the deadly creatures inhabiting it. In early builds, the game’s action unfolded in real-time, but Andrea soon realised that asking players to get to grips with the controls as warning lights flash and enemies close in was simply too frustrating. At the same time, he couldn’t make the game entirely turn-based, either.
“The world outside had to be slowed down, so I decided to go back to turns, to let you think about your next move without rushing,” says Andrea. “But the machine simulation inside the vehicle had to stay real-time, or it’d feel wrong to be locked from touching the levers while the enemy takes a turn.”
Fortunately, the game’s premise provided a logical solution: a machine that requires steam pressure to build up before it can move, and creatures that respond to movement. “The player can choose the amount of time it will take between each move, but that will come at the cost of using a certain amount of fuel. To make the game more strategic, I also made sure that every gauge in the game displays some sort of preview, of how your next move will impact on resources such as fuel and battery.”
Interest in Nauticrawl steadily grew thanks to exposure on Twitter, which in turn attracted a publisher – Armor Games Studios – whose backing has allowed Interguglielmi to work full-time on the game for the past year.
With development almost finished at the time of writing, Nauticrawl’s shaping up to be a unique and challenging steampunk adventure. Andrea freely admits that Nauticrawl isn’t for everyone, but then, the fine line between frustration and triumph was written into the game from the start.
“It’s definitely a game for those willing to explore, try different things, fail, and figure out solutions,” he says. “Reactions are usually strongly divided between, ‘I can’t handle this deadly madness of controls and gauges’, and ‘Give me more of all of that: I want more buttons and ways to die!’”
“Behind the hood, the levers and the buttons are really operating a fully functional and simulated machine,” Andrea tells us. “Opening a valve will really pump up the fuel to the engine, and in turn, the engine will start charging the battery, which will give power to the various systems on board. It’s all numbers flowing from one component to another, based on user input. But the ultimate goal here was to make this feel like fun, and to do that, I had to drop any real physical model of motion or strictly realistic rules about the consumption of fuel or electricity. All these values are arbitrarily controlled in a way that will make the player feel like they’re achieving good results, without going completely insane to do that.”
Nauticrawl is out now for PC and Mac.