Naut: A user-made interactive sci-fi odyssey

From the plains of Shadow of the Colossus to the post-apocalyptic USA of Death Stranding, video games are uniquely placed to make us feel alone in vast, hostile environments. To that list we can add Naut – an upcoming adventure positively dripping with a lonely, foreboding atmosphere. About an astronaut fighting for survival on a windswept planet seemingly bereft of life, its most striking image is that of a tiny figure almost lost in a hazy landscape. There’s a distinctly cinematic quality to Naut – which makes sense when you consider that Wolverhampton-based developer Vorn is first and foremost a filmmaker.

It was when Vorn first saw Media Molecule’s user-friendly
development platform, Dreams, that Naut first came about. Initially, Vorn
thought he’d use its toolset to make an animated feature film, before he
started thinking about making his first interactive experience instead. “I saw
Dreams as a pathway to game design and to experiment with ideas,” he tells us.

Naut’s eerie minimalism didn’t come all at once – rather, it
emerged gradually as a result of paring earlier ideas away. “Naut came out of
another idea I was working on, where you play as a survivor of a deep-cave
expedition incident,” Vorn explains. “You’d interact with a janky radio to
communicate with your colleague who’s above ground in the hopes of gaining
information and navigating to the surface… long story short, I decided to go
where the gameplay was taking me. I wanted to build on the greater-scale
adventure experience, so I pulled a few things out, shelved the script,
remodelled my character, and Naut was born. There’s no radio. No explanation.
No HUD.”

With Vorn having to learn just about every aspect of game
development from scratch, making Naut has presented all kinds of challenges –
though he adds that Dreams’ approachable design, which has allowed him to do
everything from 3D modelling to sound to game logic in one place, has helped
him find his feet. “I love the editing UI and the fun, playful style it brings
to the development process,” he says. “It has its own DAW [digital audio
workstation] that people have made albums on. It’s great for animated work.
Being able to do all of this on a console still blows my mind.”

The downside, Vorn notes, is that Dreams is somewhat closed
off: it’s only currently available for PlayStation consoles, and works made
with the platform can’t be exported as standalone pieces of software (though
work is reportedly being done behind the scenes to enable this in the future).
But, Vorn adds, “that doesn’t really bother me too much, because I’m just using
it as a tool to make what I want while having fun and learning a lot of things
which are transferable.”

Given that Naut is driven by its air of mystery, story
details are in short supply – Vorn says there’ll be “some” puzzles to solve on
your travels, but the game’s “mainly about the exploration and journey”. He
still has a fair bit of work to do before the game’s finished, too, ranging
from tweaks to models and animation to sound design. “A few people have asked
about VR, so I’m thinking about testing that at a later stage,” Vorn reveals.
“I really want to harness the [PlayStation 5’s] DualSense technology, too, when
that becomes a possibility.”

What’s already firmly in place, though, is Naut’s evocative
design. It’s something that’s already gotten plenty of attention on Twitter and
Reddit – including an unexpected “Looks cool!” tweet from The Game Awards
presenter Geoff Keighley – and even a smattering of interest from game
publishers. “I hope it evokes a sense of vulnerability and introspection,” Vorn
says of his handmade sci-fi opus. “There’s feelings of isolation and a chill of
despair, but also prosperity. It’s ethereal with a touch of mystery. I see
it as an intimate epic. I hope someone enjoys it as much as [I’m enjoying]
making it.”

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