nat

Drive across Mars, discover the unreal in Naut

Naut is about not knowing where you are, not knowing what is real. How did you get there? What are you doing? Not just that: it wants you to experience these unanswered questions washing over you with a warm complacency. It’s a sci-fi opera with psyche-fi undertones.

But first, a story: I first got drunk when I was 15 years old. Three cans of hastily drunk Somerset cider in and my head isn’t right. I go to the bathroom. There’s a mirror in there, which I stare into for longer than I should, watching my pupils swim like goldfish in a bowl. I’m fascinated with all these new distortions.

thoroughly anachronistic, verging on surrealism. 

Suddenly, I’m so lost in the moment that I forget where I am. I feel like I have to reverse engineer my entire life from birth to present just to work out how I got there, in my friend’s bathroom, drinking the alcohol my parents and the law forbid me. Halfway through I say “fuck it” out loud, shrug my shoulders, and decide instead to roll with the confusion, laidback as a hammock. That’s where Naut wants to take you.

It starts. You’re on Mars. On a porch—the porch of a typical American-style, rootin’-tootin’ white picket fence home, with a bay window at the front and a sports car wallowing in the shade of the garage. Around this house are miles of wild pink Martian soil, untouched. Alien flora and lumps of rock puncture the ground in unkempt patterns. And you’re standing there, on this porch, in full astronaut gear.

None of this adds up. Still, that’s the image that Naut opens up with. In fact, it’s the background of the main menu. Why is this house here, on Mars? Why is this person wearing a spacesuit—do they need to if there are plants and buildings on the planet’s surface implying a degree of terraforming has taken place? What year is it? If you’re asking these questions then you’ve become that teen in front of the mirror, tin of strong brew cider in their hand, trying to piece together their life so that it makes sense again.

Yes, it wants you to drive. Just drive 

This image of an astronaut on the porch of a domestic home on Mars is thoroughly anachronistic, verging on surrealism. But you don’t dwell upon the strangeness of it all as the purple pastels all around it submit the game to the zany logic of a Chuck Jones cartoon. The Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote could run along the horizon kicking up soft clouds of dust and it wouldn’t be out of place here. Anything could happen, it’s a cartoon—it evades explanation.

Naut has no intention of answering any of your bemused questions. And so it doesn’t. Instead, it invites you, through its ultra-widescreen format, to see the breadth of its panoramic landscapes, and to then match this with the convertible in the garage. Yes, it wants you to drive. Just drive; drive wherever whim takes you, go find something.

As you drift hazily across the apricot tundra, you’ll find other wooden houses that seem to have been stolen from Pleasantville. On the porches of these houses are wavy apparitions, ghosts of people, and they’ll tell you tales of legendary desert foxes and those who have gone missing in the Martian desert. The immateriality of these isolated folk suggests that they are mirages. That would probably make sense.

It’s not until the forked lightning starts to frazzle the ground in operatic fashion that you learn to stop searching, and start looking. Naut is a game that wants to be looked at. It wants you to make your own compositions with the in-game camera; frame the screen with mountain ranges, park your car at the center, and hope that the lightning carves the image into thirds. Create the one perfect cinematographic shot of a lonely space cowboy in a crappy B-Western without a plot. Mock up a still from the barmy astronaut musical The American Astronaut. It doesn’t have to make sense it only has to be picturesque.

enjoy the ride as the car becomes a surrogate rocket. 

But this is not the ultimate in carefree to be found in Naut. For that you’ll need to drive your car over rocks until it flips upside-down. There’s a bug in the game you can exploit here. It’s one I expect its creators know about it but have kept it in to allow for moments such as the one you’re about to experience. You’re not supposed to be able to beep the car horn (or “klaxon” as it’s called in the game) more than twice without the car’s wheels returning to the ground. This is due to the beep simultaneously bumping the car into the air, as if a pneumatic hop, and so it would be able to fly. But, once the car is upside-down, you eschew this restriction, beeping as many times as you like without pause, and as you do the car will continue to rise into the air.

So, when the car is upside-down, beep its horn, and keep on beeping it until it flies, as if the car was trying to return to a sky road it has fallen from. I imagine that the astronaut is grateful that their car is suddenly floating up into the sky, towards the edges of the habitable atmosphere, away from the planet they’ve been trapped on. I reckon their only compulsion would be to enjoy the ride as the car becomes a surrogate rocket.

Was it mania, or perhaps the illusions of prolonged loneliness that they experienced down there? What was real and what was hallucination? It doesn’t matter now. Sure, it expresses the dichotomy of hallucinations and reality, but Naut only wants to engage your imaginative mind, not test your academic knowledge—it’s Tarkovsky’s Solyaris if it were remade for kids.

Notice that the camera doesn’t let you look back down to the planet’s surface as the astronaut ascends. There is only upwards now, destination. The only possible response is to submit to the drift. Fuck it. 

You can download Naut for free on itch.io.