Life on Mars: Naut’s Developers on Letting Players Tell Their Own Stories

The first time I saw Naut was an animated gif floating around of an astronaut with bright red gloves and funny little legs bounding endlessly across a pink and purple desert, lightning crashing all around him. Even though it was just six seconds before it would loop, I must have stared at that gif for at least half an hour over the course of just a few days, bookmarking it to watch again and again, transfixed by how much I loved its look. I had no idea what the game was about, but I knew I needed to play it.

Even after playing Naut, it’s hard to pin down what it’s actually about; there’s no intro cutscene, no expository text, no tutorial to explain what you’re meant to do. The most you’ll find is on the game’s official site: “Is there life on Mars?” reads the tagline. “Wander around, drive through the desert, hear what the cosmos has to tell you.” That might sound vague, but there’s really no better way to describe what you’ll do in the game. You start the game as a “naut” on the porch of a house in the middle of the Martian desert with a classic Cadillac convertible parked out front. There’s a second naut who stands motionless beside you, an empty vessel reserved for a friend to join you in local co-op. Beacons of light dot the horizon like lighthouses to highlight other homes, each of which plays host to wiggling apparitions that speak in cryptic, detached phrases as you approach.

“Have a nice ride,” reads the game’s website.

I spoke with the game’s developers — Titouan Millet, Lucie Viatgé, and Tom Victor, three friends part of a larger collective of French developers called Klondike — over Skype to find out where Naut came from and what it all meant.

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Naut was created last year during Jam Shaker’s Desert Bus Game Jam, tasking 20 people to make 10 games in 48 hours for charity. The theme for the event was “shelter” — a theme that didn’t necessarily translate to me initially in Naut as I journeyed alone across the endless, empty desert on my way to each beacon, avoiding lightning strikes and blindly navigating through nightfall’s harsh darkness. As Millet explained it though, that’s exactly the point.

“We wanted to make [you feel] like you have to find shelter to protect you from the storm,” he said. Millet admitted that the time constraints of the game jam proved challenging, but still, as he expounded the concept, it became obvious that the team succeeded nonetheless; though the game makes no effort to direct you, seeking refuge from the elements and the overwhelming vastness of the landscape draws players toward the other houses naturally. “You feel very lonely because the world, the environment, that you can explore is very big compared to you as a character.”

It’s a sparse world, filled only with rocks and dust and a questionable sense of life, and approaching the other houses serves only to muddle things a little more. Floating above their front porches, the ghost nauts each warble enigmatic, often nonsensical phrases; sometimes these are nothing more than silly, comedic non sequiturs, but occasionally a line would jump out like, “The people I love the most in the world have told me the things that hurt me.”

“I preferred to talk about very human stuff, like a child could say,” Millet said. His goal was to establish a strange and mystical vibe while still keeping the dialogue very grounded.

“They say very regular stuff you could say on Earth with your friends or your family or with someone on the street. Well, maybe not [someone on the street],” he laughed. “I wrote them like very sad characters and I wanted the player to ask himself if they are actual ghosts or maybe the reflections of yourself, of your character, or maybe some people of the past or the future. But in the end, it’s really nothing. It adds something to the atmosphere of the game, I think.”

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Millet wrote the dialogue very early into the project’s development, intending to populate the desert with other characters, but Victor explained that as the team neared the end of the game jam, they realized they weren’t going to have time to design other characters and would need to come up with something else.

“We thought, ‘We’ll just change the color of the regular naut,’ and [finish],” he said. “So in the end, like 10 minutes before the end of the jam, we put a random [effect] on the basic nauts model. And I think his animation is [taken from] the frame where he sits in the car, so he looks kind of like a fetus, floating in the air.”

“A floating ghost fetus,” Millet said.

He and Victor both cite David Bowie’s “Life on Mars?” as a specific inspiration for Naut‘s off-kilter story elements. “[The song] speaks about a lot of things, but not about Mars,” Millet said. “It’s like Naut. It’s on Mars, but maybe that’s just one interpretation you can make of the game.”

The very first house I came across while playing Naut had a ghost that didn’t say anything silly or sad; he simply made a request: “Next time you see him, say ‘hello’ for me.” The only other character I had seen at that point was the other naut, still standing back on the porch of the original house, so I set out to return to him. Unable to find my bearings, I found myself lost and unsure in the desert, searching fruitlessly for what felt like ages before finally giving up.

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“It’s what we like in some games, that you can make up your own story like you did,” Victor said. “It’s great for us to hear about that.”

Millet added, “Initially, we thought about adding some little tasks or missions, like you will see one character and he will ask you to find some object to bring it back to him, but in the end, we didn’t put it in the game. But I think it’s OK. […] You just have to talk with people instead of doing missions for a score or anything.”

Yet, for me, the draw of Naut was never the idea of a goal or a mission or of piecing together the mystery — it’s that first image I saw, that animated gif of the naut bounding across the desert.

“The graphics really work [to] sell the game,” Millet said. He cites a strong response from Twitter users to the image and credits Viatgé for the game’s vibrant, inviting look. “Some science fiction games are very dark, you know, and not so friendly, but [Viatgé] chose a style that is very life-friendly.”

Viatgé cites Ben Esposito as her primary inspiration, an artist who designed levels for The Unfinished Swan and is now working on a solo project called Donut County. She also mentions briefly another upcoming project she’s been working on, the adorably chaotic Anarcute, and it’s easy to see how her distinctive style carries over between the two. Viatgé says the least during our interview, but it’s her work on Naut that spoke the loudest.

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“Every time we do a game jam, we learn a little,” Victor said. “In this one, I tried to place the camera in a different place. It’s difficult to control, but it just looks good, I think, when it’s placed at the feet of your character.

“At any time during the game, the screen looks good because your character is out of the middle. That was the thing I probably spent most of the [development] time doing. […] That gif you mentioned is probably a combination of all of our work — my camera, [Viatgé’s] character and animation, and [Millet’s] epic thunderstorm.”

The team all say that they’d like to return to Naut at some point to flesh it out further, but are unsure when they’ll have time given the individual projects each are working on. Still, while Naut isn’t the most complete game in the world by any stretch, for three people to have cobbled together in 48 hours, it remains one of the most interesting, gorgeous games you can play right now.