Nidus turns a beautiful ecosystem into a frantic shooter

Scavengers rule is a beautiful exploration of a complicated, fascinating, sometimes brutal ecology. Nidus is Also a beautiful exploration of a complicated, fascinating, sometimes brutal ecology. Their approaches and styles are different, but the underlying themes share a connection – and an artist. Caleb Wood is an animator and now game developer who worked as a concept artist on Max’s sci-fi show while simultaneously developing his recently released arcade bullet hell game solo.

After starting his animation career 15 years ago, Wood decided he wanted to get into game development in 2020. Nidus was meant to be something simple that he could use to teach himself how to program. “But since I can produce pretty good quality art,” he says, “I felt like I should at least try marketing and see what I could achieve.”

In Nidusplayers simultaneously control a flower and a wasp in a symbiotic relationship, as they battle all manner of strange insects and critters in their wider ecosystem. Wood draws parallels with the symbiosis The reign of the scavenger, where dozens of strange aliens live in tenuous, dangerous harmony. At times, the people who make an emergency landing there also consider how they can coexist with the nature around them, with varying degrees of success.

But he calls these parallels ‘autonomous’; he says he didn’t consciously plan much about it as he worked on each project. “I’m definitely drawn to natural themes and things like that,” he says. “[But] the only thoughts going through my head [for Nidus] was that I want to use these creatures and insects and even the background as a canvas for loop animation.

Much of Wood’s professional experience lies in creating these looping animations. Nidus specifically draws a line from some of his previous short films, such as the one from 2015 TOTEM. Here animations are built from intricate details, becoming more complex over time, and it’s easy to see it as another example of both the natural themes and the fluid, repetitive style present in Nidus.

During development, these types of animations increasingly influenced the game as a whole. Woods began creating “weaving loops” in specific areas, such as insect shells. “It was a way of packing more and more information into a small piece of animation,” he says. And as these animations became more and more detailed, he began to realize that overwhelming the player’s attention would eventually become part of the game’s difficulty.

“As the game slowly became about splitting the players’ ability to focus, I just decided, ‘Okay, what if I lean into that and make everything absolutely overwhelming and hard to watch?’” says Wood. Combined with the neon colors and simultaneous control of two characters, Nidus is hectic. (Maybe more hectic than intended – Wood says he may not make design choices like the dual controls again, calling it “not super accessible.”)

On the other hand, Scavengers rule has a much more stripped down art style. “It’s like playing with geometric shapes when you’re designing,” says Wood of his work on creature designs. It was “refreshing,” he says, to go back and forth between the two projects.

Both animation for TV and games felt the same, as he tried to create solutions to limitations. On Scavengers, Wood would receive requests from the show’s co-creator and art director, Charles Huettner, to serve in a particular narrative role. In Nidus, the art should match the game. “Whenever I worked on creature designs for the show, my mind would clear to dive back into the mess Nidus,” says Wood, and vice versa to return to the reduced designs of Scavengers rule.

He also says that working on a team for Scavengers meant it was easier for him personally. “You just focus on your small part that’s going to serve a bigger purpose,” he says. When working alone, making one design choice also meant dealing with all the knock-on effects. For example, changing an enemy’s weak spot means not only editing the art, but also everything further down the line of dominoes: code, game design, and so on. “That gets out of hand very quickly,” says Wood.

Wood isn’t sure what’s next, but he would like to continue making games, as part of a team if possible. Although he says Nidus was helpful in giving himself a full understanding of all the different parts of game development, he says it would be “great” to get a dedicated programmer. But whatever his next project, given his existing oeuvre, there’s a good chance it will involve strange creatures and the way they coexist.

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