No matter what you may think about newly announced indie game Nero, you can’t fault it for setting its sights too low.
“The idea is to invent a new genre. It’s a little bit ambitious,” says executive director Alberto Belli, a gregarious Italian man with a clear gift for understatement.
That lofty goal seems even loftier once you realize that Nero represents the debut for his studio, Storm in a Teacup. Based in Rome and London, the practically newborn developer—they just moved into their office in February—has made a big push to bring AAA talent onboard, recruiting an international staff that’s worked on major franchises like Batman: Arkham, Assassin’s Creed, and Crysis. Belli says Nero will do much to define the future of their studio, and in that light, it’s easy to understand why they’re aiming so high.
The team currently refers to their project as a visual novel, a term Belli admits “means a lot of things and nothing.” To some, the phrase will no doubt conjure images of Japanese titles centered around text and still images, but Nero’s about as far from that as you can imagine. Instead, it’s a first person game with an emphasis on exploring otherworldly landscapes and solving puzzles, accompanied by music and narration that will help communicate its “very personal” story.
As touchstones, Belli mentions Myst and Journey, the first for its perspective and puzzles, the second for its focus on giving players an emotional connection that they’re compelled to share with others.
After seeing a bit of in-game footage, there looks to be plenty of potential on both fronts. Despite the fact that I’m told the content was made in just 25 short days, it’s surprisingly far along. There are, as you might expect, some rough technical edges, but nothing that indicates how astonishingly early the build is. More importantly, the art direction is already distinctive and beautiful, even in this initial state. There’s no HUD or GUI cluttering the screen, and that won’t be changing as development progresses. The only thing the team plans to add, Belli notes, is your character’s hood infringing on the very edges of the screen to better immerse players.
It’s for the best, too, because the world of Nero seems like one you’ll want to get lost in. The main environment on display is the nighttime forest seen in the game’s debut trailer—a world of floating jellyfish, breathtaking purple skies, and bioluminescent plants that look straight out of James Cameron’s Avatar—but we also get brief glimpses of two other environments: a haunting desert and an indoor area that calls to mind abandoned ruins.
In total, Belli says there will be five levels, each offering about one to two hours of gameplay across 15 puzzles, and each sporting a unique look. “Basically, this is the world recreated by the mind of a kid,” he explains. “It allows us to tell a wonderful story, but on the production side, this means that we have five levels with totally different art directions, with some common [visual] elements connected to the story.”
The puzzles themselves are a bit more of a mystery at this stage. Belli reveals that you’ll primarily be interacting with the environment using something called the “Sphere of Light,” which emerges from your outstretched arm and affects objects it encounters. In one brief segment, it’s used to light a few lanterns out of a larger circle to resemble the hands of a clock reading a specific time, the solution to that particular puzzle.
Exactly how these mechanics will expand and be fleshed out into a full suite of puzzles remains to be seen, but Belli makes one thing certain. “Everything in the game, everything you do is connected to the story,” he boasts. That includes the main puzzles—those required to progress through the level—as well as the optional ones, which will offer more backstory and a better opportunity for players to understand the full scope of the plot.
This story, touted by Belli as “deeply personal,” is another open question. He says it will be delivered through narration—the same inviting British voice from the announcement trailer—and accented by a soundtrack with a distinctive mood designed to complement the rest of the game.
Given how essential Belli believes Nero’s story is to the overall experience, it’s no surprise that he’s keeping the details tightly under wraps. With a little goading, though, he’s willing to offer a few small hints. “We’re using ‘Beauty will save the world,’ [a quote from Fyodor] Dostoevsky,” he teases. “It’s a story about love, but it’s simple. It’s about questions that need to be answered.”