NUTS is a first person, single-player narrative game about monitoring and reporting squirrel behavior. You play as a rookie field researcher coming to the remote Melmoth Forest to track the movements of the squirrels and discover why they behave so strangely. NUTS boasts bold style and an intriguing narrative executed through distinctive gameplay.
The core mechanic of NUTS is a unique type of environmental puzzle that requires you to navigate through the forest while tracking the path of some tricky squirrels. You are given cameras that you set up around your map based on GPS coordinates given to you by your boss, Dr. Nina Scholz. The cameras serve as markers and give you a small window to view the targeted squirrel’s path each night. Your objectives often require you to follow a squirrel from its starting position through the area to its nut stash.
I found myself attempting to anticipate the path of the squirrels and was totally wrong at times but pleasantly surprised. I really enjoyed playing back the footage each night and strategizing where to place my cameras next. Placing the cameras to stage the perfect shot during the day and scrubbing your footage each night feels fluid and seamless. It’s a perfect balance to keep you fully engaged and on the edge of your seat. This mechanic doesn’t change much throughout the game but navigating the different areas and discovering their hidden secrets is very rewarding. Even in areas where I was “stuck” for a bit, I was never frustrated with the gameplay itself. In fact I found it quite fun, and was definitely invested in my strategy.
NUTS promises intrigue and absolutely delivers. It presents itself as a mystery with nefarious roots. You feel on edge, trying to anticipate the nature of your study, and even your relationship with Nina. As things unfold and the plot thickens you might find yourself second guessing your initial theories. Throughout the game there are several questions posed that never get concrete answers — and I don’t think they need answers. Part of the appeal of the game is to speculate and craft theories. One might say you go a little… nuts. Just when you think you’ve got a handle on what’s going on, things are not as they appear. Throughout the game I was anticipating the next squirrely development and left wanting more.
The unique use of color in NUTS is absolutely mesmerizing and evocative. As a warning, some players may be sensitive to the high contrast color combinations used. Color itself is a very powerful tool for conveying emotion and mood, especially when the palette used is much different from what we expect to see in the real world. Day 1 immerses you in vibrant orange equipment, teal trees and foliage, and a dusty yellow sky. Night 1 captivates with starkly contrasted blues in a way that evokes night vision cameras. Trees shift from teal to magenta and violet. The horizon morphs from a soft buttery yellow to a muted minty blue. NUTS masterfully uses high contrast lines and gradients to establish its space without the use of any shadows or lighting. The more time you spend in Melmoth the less alien it feels. You become acutely aware of the mood of the forest as the color palette changes.
NUTS takes advantage of minimal yet purposeful audio design to create an eerie and unsettling atmosphere. Your task is to focus on the squirrels but it’s clear you’re not alone with them out there. You can hear resounding bird calls and babbling brooks. Melmoth Forest feels truly alive, and in a way, distressed. Ceaseless humming, soft subtle notes, and drawn out chords echo around you as you pursue the squirrels. At a certain point there is a shift in the soundtrack that really struck me. It emerges later in your study, replacing the usual ominous din with an energetic excitement. A sense of discovery, mystery, wonder, desperation. An invigorating chase. This moment is one of the elements that, for me, cements NUTS as an experience to be remembered.
While playing, I personally found myself skipping ahead and completing some of Nina’s objectives before she actually asked for them. I was so fixated on the squirrel behavior that when I discovered any anomalies along the way I went out of my way to track what was going on. This isn’t necessarily a fault of the game. In fact, I think it’s a strength for the narrative to be so engrossing to feel compelled to get to the bottom of things before you realize they need to be investigated. However, the way Nina responds to your various photos would suggest that she anticipates you to strictly take things one objective at a time and in order. You’ve got multiple cameras at your disposal which make it much easier to get photos of multiple objectives at once in one night. It’s just a little odd to hear dialogue that seems paced to span over multiple days all in one night when you hand in multiple photos at once.
One aspect I would have liked to see done differently was the way the days and nights rolled over throughout the game. The first time you enter a new area to start tracking new squirrels the Day resets to 1 and the color palette changes. Your journal does list a new location but all of your pictures are gone from the previous area. At first, this threw me for a loop and I had the idea that maybe we would be going through two different timelines — the “present” of 1997 and the past in 1982 when Nina mentions she was last in Melmoth. This concept intrigued me but it turned out to not be the case. I think by the end of the game having your counter potentially read “Day 32” or “Night 46” would really drive home the idea that you’ve been out here for a while and heighten the sense of urgency as your situation gets more dire.
Overall, I was impressed by the delivery of the mysterious narrative. There were turns I didn’t expect and events that left me guessing at what would come next. One small detail did stand out to me right away, however. On your first day, Nina mentions the phone line cuts out sometimes after you get disconnected from her mid-sentence. This immediately made me nervous. But it never seems to cut out again throughout the rest of the game, even as we move deeper into the forest. This detail sets up some mystery and tension in the beginning but never becomes relevant again. As the game goes on the need for this tension slips away and gives way to more pressing matters. For the sake of consistency, having this issue further into the game would make sense, and add to the drama, but ultimately it’s a small detail that isn’t missed with everything else going on.
NUTS certainly proved to me to be a captivating experience. The game is relatively short, with a few chapters that can be played over the course of several hours, and the pacing feels engaging even if some of the puzzles take you a little longer to complete. Although I think some different approaches could have taken the experience to the next level, ultimately I was really invested and satisfied with what I played. I would absolutely recommend this game to anyone looking for a compelling story with unique gameplay and an even more unique visual style.
If you’d like to avoid spoilers, you can finish reading here. If you’d like to play the game yourself, NUTS is currently available in a variety of different languages on Apple Arcade, Nintendo Switch, Steam, Humble, and itch.io. For more of my thoughts on the game, keep reading.
You can catch me live streaming more games over at twitch.tv/skittzipoo.
Time to get deep into my feelings here. While I had high hopes for NUTS to be able to deliver a sense of discomfort and mystery, I was not expecting to be so attached to Nina. She is essentially a bodiless character there to give us objectives, but she becomes so much more than that. I feel guilty for thinking that she was some kind of villain at first — that she was hiding something from us. But she was just the opposite. She gave us everything she could. She cares so much. For the forest, for the squirrels, for you. Her passion and resilience are echoed in the main character. You are essentially in the same position she was in 15 years ago trying to save the forest. Going through almost her exact plight. I was inspired by her. I felt for her. I feared for her safety.
Finding the cassette tapes hidden in each chapter is just extra content, but they provide so much insight into just how pure Nina is. I teared up while listening to the last one. Nina seems so at peace in the forest, like she belongs there, despite her admitting her loneliness. She even seems like she wants to come back. After exploring and finding Nina’s guitar at an abandoned post I was hoping she’d have something to say about it. I took a picture and faxed it over to her as soon as I could. I felt a pang in my heart when for the first time the phone didn’t ring after I faxed over a photo. Nina always has something to say, so why doesn’t she say anything about this! Eventually she acknowledges it as a “landscape” shot, but nothing else. I wanted so badly to hear her chuckle and say “Oh I can’t believe you found that old thing!” I wanted to give her a pleasant memory amidst the looming dread brought on by Panorama. Hearing her sing over the end credits makes up for it a little though. Her little love note to the forest assures me everything will be all right.
I like to think the flood wipes the forest clean of Panorama’s work. I like to think Nina comes with a rescue crew and greets you with an embrace when the boat finally floats to safety. I like to think Simon sensed the danger, and got to safety before the waters rose. I like to think the squirrels adapt and start over.
They are resilient and resourceful after all. They’ve protected themselves for this long. They’ll thrive. In the end, nature will thrive.