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Road to the IGF: Awesome Shark Volcano's  Nous
Road to the IGF: Awesome Shark Volcano's Nous Exclusive
February 29, 2012 | By John Polson

February 29, 2012 | By John Polson
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More: Indie, Exclusive, IGF, Design

Awesome Shark Volcano brings identity-challenged artificial intelligence to life in its top-down arcade experience and IGF Student Showcase finalist Nous, which aims to bridge the gap between art-games and traditional titles.

Nous is filled with reactive narrative, as the AI sorts its identity. The game also offers active play, where players bounce around the screen while racking up massive smash combos; and passive play, where players dodge and lead enemies to converters to make them allies.

Here producer/programmer Pohung Chen and game designer Brett Cutler speak about their freely downloadable title Nous. In particular, Cutler speaks of identifying as a "self-centered artist, full of himself but doubting his worth," and how this was channeled into the neuroses of Nous itself.

What does Nous mean?

Brett Cutler: Nous (pronounced "noose" or "now-s") refers to a philosophical (Greek) term representing the ability of the mind to order and rationalize the world. Nous, the AI embodied in the game, can't decide what it is, and this drives the narrative - in each level, the AI proposes a purpose for itself, and then rejects it, sometimes violently. You interact with Nous through your play style (you don't ever have to kill anything) and through dialogue trees.

So you, the player, by working through the game, build a model of Nous with your interactions and how you interpret it. Your experience of the game is the only place "Nous" the character is ever alive. So your interpretation and ordering of this character literally defines it.

Now, the letters n-o-u-s are also the French word for "you and I," or "we." Which makes Nous a poor title for internet searchability. But it also has a nice reflection of the themes of the game -- you and the AI work together to build an experience.

In an industry where the biggest games have such clear identities and genres (e.g. Drake, Kratos, Mario, and Sonic), how does a game with an ambiguous identity compete?

BC: Short answer: poorly. Longer answer: fairly poorly. Obviously we have no grounds to complain about the reception our game has gotten, but I think we intended it to be more approachable than it is. I heard a fair amount of "Yeah, I've heard of it but I haven't played it."

I don't think there's enough concrete material for potential players to latch onto -- it's not a complicated game, but it doesn't have an aspect that slots easily into something players recognize. It's basically a top-down shooter, but because that's not obvious from pictures or video, and the story hook is hard to sell, we scare players off. Those first impressions are important, and I think we definitely stumbled on them.

On the other hand, if a player commits, I think we can give them a pretty deep cut. Nous is the type of game (personal, artistic, at times surprising) that can foster memories.

As a character, Nous isn't easy to sell. The AI doesn't have a face. It doesn't have a voice. It does, and it spits words. But it's not even consistent in its personality. What works, though, is that at the end, players feel like they've gotten a personal experience.

And when the pretense is dropped and we say, look, Nous is the farthest thing from a character, it's just bunch of words -- well, then players become more attached to it because they're all it has. The character feels real, but the world says it isn't -- so the natural response is to cling harder and treasure it more.

What served as inspiration for Nous?

BC: The Coen Brothers' Barton Fink and Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy both occupied a lot of mind space at the time I was writing Nous. Both are about the self-centered artist, full of himself but doubting his worth -- I identified with that. It helped me to put those fears and neuroses into the game and the character. It's messy but honest, I think.

There's a scene in Barton Fink where John Goodman runs down a hallway (the hallway is on fire), blasting away on a shotgun, shouting, "I"ll show you the life of the mind! I'll show YOU the life of the mind! I'll SHOW YOU the life of the mind!" That's what I want Nous to be.

Could you tell me about the team who worked on the game? Any notable previous game projects?

Pohung Chen: There were four of us who worked on Nous. I was a technical producer in charge of schedules, helping with playtest sessions, and making sure we ship on-time. I also wrote code for the game (mostly physics).

Treb was our technical director, wrote the core engine, serialization, script binding and miscellaneous coding tasks. Brett was our game designer and gameplay programmer. He wrote most of our scripts and is in charge of the overall player experience. Jason was our graphics programmer, and he made things pretty. We are all students at DigiPen Institute of Technology in Redmond, WA. Nous was our sophomore year project.

I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and tinkered with computers since I was a kid. Making games is cool because it is a product built by people from many different disciplines. There are so many unique challenges involved in shipping a game. I get to solve new and interesting problems every day.

BC: I grew up with a judgmental perspective and a desire to make things that were better than other things. I'm glad I'm making games because it's almost as good as being an astronaut (Plan A). As a designer, I get to pretend I'm in charge. It's given me a great form of argument, the appeal to the game: "Guys, the game needs all these shaders. The game needs a completely different art style. The game is hungry, get me a sammich."

PC: And it is then my job to explain why we cannot do some of the crazy things Brett wants us to do, like getting him a sammich.

What development tools did you use? How long was the development cycle?

PC: We used Microsoft Visual Studio to manage and build our project. Most of our code is written in C++ with custom Lua binding as a scripting language to iterate on gameplay code.

We're using DirectX 9 for graphics and FMOD for audio. Our engine is component-based, and it deserializes composite game objects from XML files. We used Subversion for our source control (We've gotten smarter since then and have all switched to Mercurial).

As for our production and development process, we had rigid milestones once a month, as required by the DigiPen faculty. The instructors preached iteration for building great games. Unfortunately grades are due when they're due, so we are forced to build iterative processes within rigid, waterfall deadline structures. As much as we would like to go with the "we'll ship the game when it's done" approach, that option was not available to us.

We started on early ideas for our sophomore project and building our core engine technology early summer of 2010. We went through a bunch of vastly different ideas and mechanics hoping to stumble into something awesome. We didn't come up with the framing and theme of Nous until February of 2011. Once we did, we built early iterations of the game and the technology needed for it until the end of April.

From there, three of us started moving onto new projects for our junior year. Brett continued to work on Nous and re-did the writing and content for it until about October of 2011.

BC: Caffeine. Sleep. Bravado.

Were there any notable advisors or external sources of help for the project?

PC: The environment at DigiPen is truly unique. We definitely could not have built Nous in isolation.

Playtesting was a big part of our process, and we have a student-run organization that manages weekly playtesting for games being developed here at DigiPen. It was a really good avenue for seeing what people liked, what was stupid about what we built, and a conclusive decider on which ideas worked and which didn't.

Playtesting is good for picking out ideas that work when the team is in conflict about which direction to go. You learn about implementation and execution as you build the game, but you have to watch real players interact with what you've built in order to have any validation that your game is engaging.

Our peers were also a great resource while building this game. Seeing other great games being built alongside us was incredibly energizing and encouraging. Watching some of the upperclassmen games being developed at the same time as Nous gave me a lot of insight on how other teams and games worked.

We have three instructors (Benjamin Ellinger, Chris Peters, Rachel Rutherford) that run all of the game projects classes at the sophomore and junior level. All three of them work tirelessly to make the structure of game class better and are oftentimes helping out student teams late into the evenings. All three of them had a huge impact on the way we think about game design, technology, and team dynamics.

BC: I'd like to thank everyone who sat down to play our game and told us it wasn't good enough. Because that's what drove us -- it wasn't great, we were doing it wrong, we had to work harder. Eventually we exerted our way right into something kind of neat.

And don't stop telling us it's not good enough.

Why do you think your game deserves to win the Student Showcase?

BC: Nous is clear and focused in its confusing messiness. It's an ultimatum to the player: Play me, or maybe don't, but I'd prefer you do. It's fun and sad. It asks the deep questions: do you like all these flashing lights?

Water cooler talk: why should the average gamer play your game?

BC: Nous is an arty game, right, but it's not pretentious, and it tries to be a satisfying experience even to the player who skips past every piece of dialogue in the game (and there's a button to do that!).

I don't want to see games with literary themes get shunted into their own ghetto -- I want to see these messages get brought into a broader context. Nous is an experiment in bringing the goods while keeping the brains. A game is a game, in the end, and Nous works to keep that.

Play it. Marvel at the awesome graphics, make a lot of stuff blow up -- it's pretty great! And when the screen goes dark, and you've got that time to think about what just happened, well, remember what Nous is.

What are some interesting things about your game that you haven't talked about before?

BC: So the music in the game, the ambient rumbles and strings, were added literally the day we shipped. We had written several tracks in different styles across the iterations of the game, from when it was Dr. Gravity and the Invention of Gravity onwards, and the tracks weren't fitting completely with the Nous environment.

Then we remembered a program we had fiddled with months before, designed to get extremely slowed-down versions of sound files. Basically, the tool to make the music for Inception. It hadn't worked with our earlier concept, but for Nous it was perfect -- the menace, the fragments of almost-recognizable melody, the implication that time is slower within the world of the computer.

We ran several classical music recordings and fragments of our old score through it, and amazingly had found our soundtrack.

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