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GDC: Interview with the indie team behind Nous

3:00 PM on 03.11.2012 // Chris Morris

Awesome Shark Volcano, the team behind the IGF nominated Nous, was able to take some time with me after the Game Developers Conference was over to talk a bit about their game, Nous. We covered everything from the history behind Nous' development, to how they approached the art and audio design.

The team even admits to stumbling through a long road of multiple failures before finally arriving at their IGF worthy design. Check out the interview, and then play Nous for yourself.

Destructoid: What is Nous about?

Brett Cutler, Game Designer: Nous is a top-down action game inside an AI that’s going insane. Nous can’t figure out what it’s for, and it constantly switches personas -- incompetent shrink, abusive drill sergeant, suicidal robot -- on its spiral down. The player’s choices and playstyle shape the character that emerges.

What is the history behind the development of the game?

Jason Meisel, Graphics Programmer: We began in May 2010. We wanted to create the most “awesome” game we possibly could; we even went around asking people to name the most awesome things they could think of (spiders, bears, motorcycles, and bears riding motorcycles were all very common responses.) However, we soon realized that wasn’t working out.

We created tons of prototypes that involved different gravity-based mechanics and gameplay styles. We then shipped the first playable version of the game based on one of those prototypes. We kept creating prototypes, reaching even farther into things like sidescrollers and bullet hells. It wasn’t until Brett pitched Nous that we stopped focusing on gameplay and began focusing on the experience of the game.

What inspired the design?

BC: Failure. Every milestone we had a different game -- we kept prototyping and throwing it out. We went through so many desperate changes, searching for a great idea but we never found it. We did the only honest thing and poured that frustration and searching into the game itself.

How did you arrive at the final mechanics and theme?

BC: In the end, we took what was good enough and built up the narrative. The illusion of talking to and influencing this program drove the final design and the last few months of work.

How did you approach audio design?

BC: Nous needed to sound like a computer in pain -- the SFX are electronic screams. We wrote a lot of original music but in the end relied on a computer -- we used super-slow-mo versions of classical music tracks and ambient electronic tracks to build the world inside Nous.

What influenced the art direction?

Pohung Chen, Producer/Physics Programmer: A lot of it was due to the lack of art production power. We went with simple abstract shapes because that is within our artistic ability. We then just relied heavily on graphical effects to make the game look interesting and unique. I think it really helps that a lot of players feel very saturated with the super-realistic, high production value art style that many big titles go with today. So seeing a game stripped to bare minimum essentials and still have a visually interesting style is refreshing.

How did you achieve the visual aesthetic?

JM: When we switched our thematic direction to Nous, we knew we wanted to leverage our graphics technology (which had already been built up to a large number of effects at that point). However, it had to be in a way that we (as programmers) could accomplish ourselves. We decided to make the game more abstract, and I created simple 3D meshes that could be patterned, lit, and moved in interesting ways. We applied particle effects liberally, and iterated on the environmental art a ridiculous number of times. Finally, I created many different glitching and distortion effects that, in tandem, made the visuals much more interesting.

Why did you choose to go with a narrative driven game?

BC: Nous has a lot of text, and I didn't mean it to be that way. But it ended up being the best way to communicate. When the game wasn’t working, when we hated just not being good enough -- those are real feelings. Narrative ended up being the only clumsy tool I had to get through and reach people.

What challenges did this present and how did you tackle them?

JM: As the focus shifted towards narrative, it became more clear that a large portion of players just wouldn’t appreciate what the game was doing. We originally wanted Nous to come off as mocking the pretentiousness of “artistic games”, but to be effectively poignant, it had to become just as pretentious! We decided to focus on those who would enjoy the style of game it was becoming; the haters were a hopeless cause. We finished with something that people either love or hate, but the former seems like it’s a large enough group that we did what was best.

What did you take away from your IGF experience?

Treb Connell, Technical Director: I was incredibly impressed by all the indie games, especially the submissions for the Nuovo awards. They helped me reconsider what a game can be and what effects it can have on a player. I hope that these games motivate developers to think outside the box. I know that I’ll be trying to.

JM: IGF was incredible! It’s an incredible feeling to have developers you admire be impressed with your work. I’ve been becoming a bigger and bigger fan of the indie community over the past few years, and being in the same pavilion as all these truly awesome games and developers was an huge honor. I’ve never really felt like a part of the industry, but this week I’ve felt right at home.

Where is the game available to play?

TC: It’s available for free on

Chris Morris,
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