Created by two NYU graduates, Loddlenaut is a promising combination of PowerWash Simulator and the Chao Garden from Sonic Adventure.
If there’s anything that games like PowerWash Simulator and A Little to the Left have shown us, it’s that tidying up has a thrilling, hypnotic allure. Now, Loddlenaut combines the dopamine-releasing, low-key thrill of cleaning with the welcome task of raising a helper crew of adorable sea creatures called loddles.
Loddlenaut is the creation of NYU Game Center alumni Ricardo Escobar and Jin-Young Sohn, who began the game as part of their thesis project, then set up Moon Lagoon to turn it into a full game after graduating in 2020. Initially, Escobar tells us, the pair couldn’t decide whether to create a game set in space, or one set in an ocean. “And so we thought, well, let’s just have it be outer space on an ocean planet,” he says.
The plot involves a dastardly space mega corporation harvesting resources from this alien world. “There’s a bit of mystery surrounding what resource they’re exactly trying to harvest,” explains Escobar. “They got what they wanted out of the planet, and they just left it in disarray. So your job is to clean it up with the intent for the planet to go back on the intergalactic real estate market for the next corporation to move in. You’re really just supposed to be a janitor. But over the course of your time there, you develop a soft spot for the loddles, and your supervisor will realise that there’s something worth protecting on the planet.”
The loddles are the game’s star attraction, an axolotl-like alien species that you can care for and evolve. Escobar says they were inspired by the Chao creatures in Sonic Adventure. “I’ve always wanted [Sega] to bring [the Chaos] back,” he says. “But they never did. So I thought, well, we should just do it ourselves.”
Axolotls seemed like a natural fit when Sohn and Escobar were looking for inspiration for their alien-ocean version of a Chao. “These are creatures that are already kind of alien in their own right,” says Escobar. “If they lose an arm, they can grow it back. If they’re under the right conditions, they can undergo metamorphosis, and turn from an axolotl to a proper salamander. They’re already kind of like a Tamagotchi or Chao.” And perhaps most importantly, they’re very, very cute.
According to what you feed them, the axolotl-like loddles will grow different features. “They might grow flippers versus an extra-long tail,” says Escobar. “Instead of gills they might grow an alien-style antenna on top of their heads. And then after you’ve fed them a certain amount, they’ll grow a cocoon around them, and they’ll start evolving into an entirely new form, kind of like Eevee in Pokémon.” He says there are currently 13 different evolution forms, all of which are inspired by various marine creatures like manta rays or catfish.
Once they evolve, the loddles will take on one of two abilities, depending on the evolution route you have guided them along. One ability sees them cleaning the surrounding underwater plants, while the other sees them promoting growth on those plants, stimulating them to produce more fruit. Both of these abilities can be done artificially using machines that the player can construct, but the overall aim is to move towards a more natural solution. “The goal is for you to eventually leave this planet as a balanced ecosystem,” says Escobar. “We wanted the loddles to do all the things that your [synthetic] machinery can do.”
Loddlenaut has a strong environmental message throughout, with the player encouraged to recycle rubbish and carefully clean toxic waste from the flora and fauna around them. “It was hard to not make a game set in the ocean that didn’t involve some sort of environmental message, they’re just so tied together at this point,” says Escobar. But interestingly, Loddlenaut’s key mechanic of cleaning only came about long after Moon Lagoon had decided on the Chao Garden-like loddle raising, when they were wondering what the rest of the game would look like. “Initially, we thought it would just be a collectathon, exploring the ocean, and it was one of our advisors while we were still in school who suggested, ‘Well, what if you’re just cleaning everything up?’” says Escobar. The pair sought inspiration from the current methods for recycling and collecting plastic from the oceans, then added their own sci-fi spin. And they immediately knew they were onto a winner.
“Cleaning things up was so intensely satisfying,” says Escobar. “In all games, you get satisfaction from progress, and when you clean something up, you can see the exact amount of progress you’ve made. There are no meters or power levels, you can see the direct impact that you’ve had on the environment. It’s not about you asserting your dominance over this foreign landscape, it’s about you helping the landscape to get better.”
It’s a similar satisfaction to that provided by FuturLab’s 2022 breakout hit PowerWash Simulator, although Escobar notes that Moon Lagoon was working on Loddlenaut long before that game emerged. “What PowerWash Simulator did for us was just give us a huge boost of motivation, really,” says Escobar. “We were always worried about whether or not people would find the core clean-up mechanic as something that’s meditative and satisfying rather than monotonous and boring. And seeing the success of PowerWash Simulator made us realise that you can just have a clean-up mechanic that’s intensely satisfying.” And Escobar admits that he himself has fallen heavily for the silky allure of PowerWash Simulator: “You just get zoned in, and then two hours go by and you don’t realise that you’ve just been cleaning over and over and over.”
At first in Loddlenaut, you’ll be trapping rubbish in bubbles with your bubble gun, and you’ll also have a laser that can disintegrate toxic gunk sticking to plants and structures. As the game goes on, however, you’ll be able to upgrade your cleaning tools, as well as unlock new ones. “There’s this giant vacuum-cleaner thing that we based off a whale shark with their giant mouths,” says Escobar, adding that the contraption can be used to inhale clouds of microplastics. Another tool is a ridable floor scrubber that looks a bit like a scooter with scrubbing pads instead of wheels. “In certain biomes, instead of these big clumps of goop on the plants, there’ll be these puddles, kind of like oil spills, and so you’re riding around on your scooter, scrubbing them away,” says Escobar.
Initially, Moon Lagoon programmed Loddlenaut so that players would hit the 100 percent clean-up goal before they’d actually hoovered up every single little bit of dirt on each level. “But then we realised, partway through playing PowerWash Simulator, the satisfaction of cleaning up isn’t just the act of doing it, but it’s doing it all the way, cleaning up every little spot of pollution,” says Escobar. “So now it’s all about getting that 100 percent number in every single biome, and there are some rewards that you get once you’ve hit that number.”
This goal is made harder by the fact that biomes can get dirtier again over time if any pollution is left. “We wanted it to feel like if you have a fish tank in your home: you can’t just clean it once and then it’s done,” says Escobar. “If you leave it alone for a month, you come back and it’s all grimy again. There’s an incentive to return to [each biome in Loddlenaut] and make sure it stays clean for the loddles that are living there.”
Just like in real life, keeping things clean is a never-ending job. But it can be quietly thrilling, too.
Loddlenaut is being developed by Moon Lagoon and published by Secret Mode, and will launch on Steam on 16 November 2023.