Welcome To The Machine: Nous

By Adam Smith on October 6th, 2011 at 1:03 pm.

All games have spikes, sometimes they're just well hiddenr
The autumnal quasi-summer has abandoned me and more than ever I am in need of indoor entertainment, preferably without spending a single penny as I’ve squandered all my money on garish Bermuda shorts. Enter Nous, a free game which claims to be a computer program seeking its purpose and identity. In order to learn it offers to teach the player, a quid pro quo in which both discover something about themselves. I should stress, that’s what the program does, not the game itself. It’s a top-down shoot ‘em up with a weirdly compelling narrative and there isn’t a fourth wall in sight.

It’s almost obligatory for any game with an apparently emotionless or friendly computer guide to contain a thoroughly expected twist in which nerve toxins are released, promises are broken and it turns out benevolence was not an available subroutine. Nous knows this and it knows that you know this, so it plays with the idea. That’s what it does the whole way through its brief existence – plays with ideas.

Did you try a pacifist run on Human Revolution, or any other game that allowed it? Nous knows all about that. Want to try it in a top-down shooter? It will tell you how. It will also tell you to use an Xbox controller and I did, but then I went through again using the keyboard and managed just fine. Definitely don’t be dissuaded if you don’t have a controller connected.

I’m intentionally not saying too much about what you’ll actually be doing in the game beyond moving and shooting because the narrative is really a deconstruction of tutorials. Nous asks, at first, “what am I?”, but the way it approaches the question is to tell you and to see how you react to different types of instruction and output.

It’s amusing, it’s thoughtful and it’s fun. Best of all, it gives the strong impression that Awesome Shark Volcano, based at DigiPen, are thinking hard about self-referential design without ignoring the apparently simple things, like combos, dodging and destruction. Get it here.

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17 Comments »

  1. icupnimpn2 says:

    I have a hard time with arena shooter or pure arcade/action games since I’m not much of a score attack person. It’s amazing how even a little bit of story or context can transform an experience for me. The scene at the start of Shatter was one of my favorites in recent years, with the paddle breaking out and going rogue. And that was about enough to give me a sense of purpose.

    Will give this a try.

    • Gnoupi says:

      I had the same feeling with Hard Lines, on smartphone: http://toucharcade.com/2011/06/22/hard-lines-review/

      It’s a basic snake/tron kind of game, but they added some little things, like regular messages from the opponents. Or when you play in pure snake mode, the line is telling you a story, or jokes, during the game.

      And it’s really all that it took to make an ages-old gameplay more appealing (at least for me)

  2. Hoaxfish says:

    Any games where there is an omnipresent AI, but one that isn’t completely psychotic?

    • Gnoupi says:

      Defense Grid, I would say.

    • Inigo says:

      Marathon. Durandal isn’t psychotic, he’s just a dick. With a god complex.

    • Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

      What could possibly be the point of an AI that isn’t psychotic? One day even your shoes might be smart enough to plot the downfall of humanity.

    • Josh W says:

      Doom, but he’s really apathetic so he doesn’t have any effect on the game.

  3. Durkonkell says:

    Well, that was rather lovely and entirely playable with just the keyboard. And I’m not even very good at this type of game!

    Oddly compelling, without the narrative there I doubt I would have played it through, or sat through the credits.

  4. PleasingFungus says:

    That was fun! The shmup-gameplay didn’t quite work as a game on its own (the optimal choice of fight-or-absorb in each situation felt too obvious), but it was a good enough filler between the narrative.

  5. Koozer says:

    I cannot comprehend how the alt-text typo could happen.

  6. The Tupper says:

    Bah. Getting an error – anyone else managed to play this using XP or is it just me and my ancient OS?

    • BrettACutler says:

      Hi, this is one of the developers for Nous. Can you tell me exactly what the error message is?

    • BrettACutler says:

      I’ve updated the build on WhatIsNous.com. This version has been updated to fix a crash on start resulting from bad resolution settings – the “Device Reset Failed” error. Give it a try if Nous crashed for you.

    • nemryn says:

      I had the same problem (or a similar one, at least), and the new version fixed it. Yay!

    • The Tupper says:

      Hi Brett.

      Yeah that was the error I was getting and the new version has indeed fixed it. Thanks. Lovely wee game, by the way – and really nice to see an indie title that’s not afraid to employ a joypad controller.

  7. Sepulchrave76 says:

    I just finished playing it now and thought it was really great. When it

    *SPOILERS*

    apparently booted me back to desktop, it felt like I really had upset the AI and started hammering on the keys, not just so I could get back to the game and play, but so I could try and make it up to it.

  8. Snuffy the Evil says:

    I uninstalled this after I played it to make some more room on my hard drive. Just now I found this in my pictures folder.

    http://dl.dropbox.com/u/3803707/nous.png

    Well.