Games

‘Nuts’ Asks You To Snoop On Nature In Order To Save It

A woodsy riff on the first-person puzzler.
February 4, 2021, 2:00pm
Nuts Screen
'Nuts' screenshot courtesy of Noodlecake

Why don’t animals deserve privacy? This isn’t the defining question of Nuts, recently released on Apple Arcade and out this week on PC and Switch, but it is one that occupied my mind as I surveilled the squirrels of Melmoth Forest using a set of camera traps. Throughout the course of its notably procedural first-person adventure, I peered into their carefully hidden food stashes, spied on their social gatherings, and watched as they sat absent-mindedely on tree stumps. Nuts doesn’t play a narrative “gotcha”—I was a sympathetic rather than sinister snooper—but it does thrive on a depressing modern irony; in order to save nature we probably need to spy on it. 

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In Nuts, this is because a logging company is intent on building a habitat-destroying dam. To thwart their efforts, your job as a newbie field researcher is to secure photographic evidence of the squirrels that call the woodland home. You do this by setting up cameras in the wild, reviewing grainy VHS footage at your campervan, and then heading back into the undergrowth to tweak camera positions based on where the critters scurried off to. The game marries the often clinical first-person puzzler, popularized by the likes of Portal, with the moodier narrative vibes of walking simulators such as Firewatch. To its credit, Nuts finds a harmony between these two approaches, and carves out its own wholesome-creepy niche in the process.

A good chunk of time is also spent interfacing with a pleasingly rickety VHS set-up whose three CRT screens precisely reflect the perspectives of the cameras. This is another of the game’s loops: press play, wait for the appearance of a bushy tail, hit pause, zoom in, track to get a better view, zoom in again—huzzah, hit the print button. I don’t know whether this was the intention of its makers, but I ended up working—and arguably feeling—like an AI-assisted machine. I generated data, scrubbed it, and honed in on my stipulated target, all with an increasing and unnerving algorithm-like efficiency.

The CRT and VHS interface of Nuts.

If you’ve ever watched making-of features for BBC nature documentaries, you’ll know that filming animal subjects is a long and often tedious process. Committed camera operators will sit in the same spot for weeks at a time waiting for the perfect shot. Nuts has its fair share of monotony but not as a result of doing nothing but repeating the game’s twin mechanical processes of positioning cameras and evaluating their material. It’s the downtime between these activities when the game’s walking sim credentials really surface, providing moments of negative space that free up an experience otherwise intent on structuring your gaze.

Ambling back and forth between cameras and campervan provides an opportunity to soak up the game’s captivating arboreal setting, rendered in a seemingly beautiful, subtly shifting three-tone color palette. But as I discovered troubling landmarks of splintered wood and industrial waste, the saturated hues became queasy rather than alluring; they spoke to a place that is sick, even as the serene nature-filled audio fluttered on. Nuts is full of such ambiguities and contradictions, including, most obviously, its technology-filled wilderness; the game provides enough space to consider the inherent strangeness, and maybe even tragedy, of this scenario.

Nuts didn’t coalesce in the way I expected it to. Its visual puzzles remain modest where other games might have leaned into spiralling recursiveness; it asks questions rather than offering definitive answers. To cap it off, the game ends on a note of genuine cosmic weirdness, an opportunity for both I and the squirrels to finally escape the camera’s all-seeing eye.