Alone, on the surface of Mars, the only thing that you have to keep you company is the sound of your car’s engine. You don’t know how long it’s been since you’ve seen another person, but you are certain the ghostly inhabitants of each house you find offer you no help in your journey. Each time you crash into a mysteriously appearing rock, it only highlights your loneliness – oh great, you’ve fallen through the floor again…
Naut is a 2014 game created in Unity by the French game collective Klondike. It was produced specifically by three of the collective’s members: Lucie Viatgé, who did the game’s visuals and animation; Tom Victor, who programmed and did tech art; and Titouan Millet, who did music and additional coding.
After the jump, we explore the existential crises of Mars as viewed through the windshield of a convertible car.
The game starts you off as an astronaut in the middle of nowhere, standing on the front porch of an idyllic-looking white house (which turns out to be completely empty if you choose to enter it). Visible for miles and miles is the almost oppressively empty expanse of Mars.
A little ways away from the starting area, immediately visible as you step away from the house, is a shiny convertible sedan parked in a detached garage. With no other landmarks in sight, the game points you directly toward the conclusion of entering the car.
Things start to get weird at this point. As you drive, obstacles sprout up into existence in a radius around you. You can confirm these are random by approaching one, driving backwards from it until it disappears, and then approaching it again – it won’t come back. It’s not quite procedurally generated, but still interesting.
Driving towards mysterious, beaming light sources off in the distance will lead you to other idyllic-looking houses, each one populated by a strange wiggling ghost that imparts a single line of prose. Every house will also have another convertible parked in front of it which you may swap yours out for. If you are playing with a friend, they can take the second car and drive alongside you.
While you drive, the Martian environment around you changes as time passes. Massive lightning storms cloud the sky randomly, streaking the ground with massive bolts of lightning that occasionally hit you with no ill effect. A day-night cycle is in effect in the game, causing the world to be enveloped in darkness for a few minutes before a new dawn approaches. This aids in the effect of making the landscape of Mars feel like a living world – albeit, one with no actual life upon it.
The game as a a whole is barren, empty, and sometimes boring. This appears to be the intent, as to better emphasize the massive loneliness of being on the road in an unfamiliar environment. We could draw comparisons to Sega’s 1986 arcade game Out Run, which had a similar premise of driving across the countryside. Where Out Run displayed vibrant life, however, Naut possesses sterile fear.
The emotions tie together to form a familiarity that almost invokes the uncanny valley: after a few minutes spent driving from house to house, it starts to feel like a road trip across the highways of Nevada. Every house is a brief breath of respite from the dry and coarse road, and every individual appears to have their own memorable story.
Although the heart of the game is loneliness against a massive world, Naut finds itself being an extremely amusing game to play due to a number of glitches left into the game. The developers themselves state that these glitches were allowed in as a way to add extra fun to the game, and involve such madness as driving upside-down, allowing your car to jump indefinitely into the sky, and driving underneath geometry.
While the glitches make the game extremely funny to play (one can, if their car is flipped upside down, jump upwards into the sky until the entire map is past the game’s draw distance), they can be somewhat frustrating as the game’s loose controls cause your car to flip out of control frequently.
4 out of 5
Naut is charming, frequently amusing, and sometimes frightful, but still has a certain spirit about it that makes it last in your memory. Although driving upon the face of Mars may get boring after a while, it’s a relaxing experience that feels like a moving painting more than just a video game. The allure of wanderlust consumes you and gives you a certain sense of melancholy as you speed across the red dust, journeying from one mysterious house to the next.
Overall, despite Naut’s general lack of replay value, we found it to be an extremely engaging diversion with a great emotional lasting power. We truly loved the visual and audio design, and thought the gameplay had its glitchy charm. Naut is a game that will stick in our memory for a long, long time.