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Indie | Nestlings

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[Editor's Note: Right, so this is a (spoiler-heavy) article about a Half-Life 2 mod made by me. Since Fraser McMillan's on-staff here, feel free to take this as a conflict of interest warning. This was written with no input and only minor production editing from myself. I'm honoured to see such a fabulous write-up.]

Nestlings presents a rare dichotomy. Not of the nature one might anticipate; it doesn’t exist in the purgatory between film and videogame as some, possibly even Lewis himself, would have you believe. Nestlings is a videogame, but it’s a videogame that uses the interactive language in a unique way by fusing two seemingly disparate techniques.

Borrowing the practice of incidental environmental detail from the Half-Life series and structuring an entire narrative around it, Denby’s creation walks a dangerous tightrope. That a three day development project which lasts no longer than ten minutes and takes place in an area consisting of a seemingly deserted residence and literally nothing else can approach enigmatic status is nothing short of amazing in itself.

From the off, it’s evident that sheer atmosphere drips from Nestlings’ every pore. We’re presented with this exceptionally unexceptional stone house, surrounded by trees and enveloped in darkness. We’re drawn towards it like a moth to a lightbulb. I never had any compulsion to break the illusion by running to the edge of the surrounding blackness. The venue had its own gravitational force.

The first ten seconds are reminiscent of Valve’s intangible but highly effective method of guiding the player’s eyeline and forcing specific collisions to occur without them ever appearing rigidly scripted, and that can only be a good thing. In a sense this is our establishing shot. A burned out car sits by the entrance. The lighting is positioned for maximum effect – it’s uncomfortably dark, and the ominous looking trees cast long, black shadows. A note is pinned to the door, warning Annabelle not to enter. Who is Annabelle? Am I Annabelle? At this point it’s unclear.

nestlings1That malevolent presence refuses to let up upon the inevitable rejection of that advice. Again, the house itself is nothing out of the ordinary from an aesthetic or structural standpoint, but the light sources are arranged to accentuate the creeping, uncomfortable effect. Exploring the rooms and reading the notes left to the mysterious female at the centre of it all becomes gripping. Though the scribblings themselves are ordered sequentially, their placement is not, and piecing together the writer’s well captured and perenially disturbing downward spiral into obsession – via fear, self-loathing and a lot of desperate yearning – is morbidly fascinating.

IN THE MIND
The environment itself maintains the overbearing hostility throughout. It’s scary. I paused for breath before opening each door, my hairs stood on end as I tread slowly through the rooms and I became paranoid to the degree that I began to delude myself. My own footsteps, the creaking of doors and the minimalistic but perfectly befitting music [By the wonderful, wonderful, wonderful Kevin McLeod, whose music is also used in the brilliant Small Worlds - Lewis] were the only sounds in that dreadful place, but my knowledge of this didn’t prevent me from imagining distant thuds, clatters and, at worst, howls of anguish.

[Continues...]

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3 Comments

    I’ve had this in my Steam list since it was released, but only just now did I play it. Wow.

    I’m far more impressed than with Lewis’ first mod (although I gather he’s remaking it). And that it was made in three days! Constraints really are a boon to creativity. Simple, but effective. And surely one of the creepiest Wallpaper designs ever?

    Didn’t realize Kevin McLeod did the soundtrack for the fantastic Small Worlds as well, very cool.

  • For the record, I think Nestlings is much tighter than Post Script Ep1 v1 as well. There are still things I’d change, though. For example: what Fraser thought was “inherent nonlinearity” in the notes setup was just me not being able to think of a better way to present the story in time.

  • I actually read the first half of them in order and I thought that you might have made it that no matter which note you read, it would always become the next one linearly. There are definitely bugs still in it, mattresses flopping through the floor, odd shadows, but they add to the atmosphere! I think, with more time, it could’ve benefited from shorter notes, and more narrative revealing rooms as well.

    And I do understand you were trying to do a lot more with Post Script whereas Nestlings was much more a self enclosed affair. One thing that disappointed me with Post Script is how it felt like a long path gated by a couple simple puzzles, and not a town at all. After seeing all the lush screenshots beforehand when I discovered, by circling the perimeter, that the field and small lake was just a tiny enclosed dead end, well. There’s no question that the distance between what I think I should be able to do and what I actually can is a lot smaller when you are just concerned with a single house.

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