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Nanuka: Secret of the Shattering Moon screenshot

The secrets of Nanuka: Secret of the Shattering Moon — An interview with developer OutOfTheBit

Last month saw the announcement of Nanuka: Secret of the Shattering Moon, coming to PC and consoles next year. A new, cinematic 2D puzzle platformer set in a colourful cartoon land, the game follows plucky but clumsy Nanuka, who is utterly unprepared for the adventure ahead.

It’s being developed by OutOfTheBit, a studio that’s been operating since 2008 under the philosophy of innovating without forgetting tradition. Its most recent release, Full Void, fully embraces that ethos.

To find out a bit more Nanuka: Secret of the Shattering Moon and what to expect when it releases next year, I sat down for a chat with the team. All four of them. Ali Motisi, the director of OutOfTheBit and lead developer of Nanuka, was front and centre. He was flanked by pixel artists and animators Tom Cullen and Leo Halwart, while their PR and marketing lead, Rosalia Trupiano, smiled in the background, keeping vigilant for any spoilers.

OutOfTheBit may be a small outfit but it became clear pretty quickly just how close-knit and passionate the four of them are about Nanuka.

No spoilers!

It doesn’t take long to get onto the main topic of the game itself. Of course, the announcement trailer — which you can view above — was a great little appetiser, but it was very light on details. Naturally, I asked if they could draw the curtain back a little on the game.

“Obviously, we’re not ready to spoil too much of the story at this stage,” Ali says, and rightly so. They’ve been hard at work on it and that’s the whole point of a teaser trailer: to tease. Development on the game picked up straight after Full Void went gold, with the idea to create a game that was a complete departure in terms of colour palette and story.

A few details as to what’s in store were shared by Ali though: “There is a mystery — a shattering moon. Nanuka is a purple belt, [as a player] you’re not ready. You’re not a black belt, so you’re not the wisest martial artist. It’s a new, progressive adventure.”

Players will travel across different locations, clashing with a variety of enemies as they go about solving the mystery, but there are also a few plot twists in store as well, Ali promises.

Bringing Nanuka to life

We shift focus to talking about Nanuka herself. In the trailer, she came across as a bit of a bumbling fool, yet she has this unwavering charm about her — much to the delight of a lot of fans in the comments section on YouTube. Just how does an instantly likeable character like that come about? As it turns out, through trust, trial and error — and designing through discovery as opposed to strict expectations.

In the prototype stage, Nanuka went through a few different looks but none of them really clicked. Initially, she was a female warrior, complete with a sword and shield. “Like Wonder Woman,” Ali tells me, “but it wasn’t much fun.”

Nanuka: Secret of the Shattering Moon screenshot
Image: OutOfTheBit

Artist Tom had his work cut out, going through plenty more designs. Trusted by Ali, Tom has been allowed to draw with freedom. And then at some point, thanks to his natural quirky and cartoony style, he came up with a version that, barring a few tweaks, is the final version of Nanuka.

“I think it was a little bit more serious at first,” Tom recalls. “But when I was just drawing naturally to try and find a design, we actually came to like the idea.

“Oh, she’s nice!” was the collective response. And her aesthetic immediately got the team thinking about what kind of character she was. “Maybe she’s not the wisest person,” Ali recalls them thinking about the design — and from that the decision was made on her and the game’s style.

Ali’s been a big fan of the design from its inception, as it brought up fond memories of his time with the Monkey Island series and its bungling protagonist, Guybrush Threepwood. “He’s not the smartest person, and it’s very relatable. I like that as he starts the game, he doesn’t know what to do. He wants to be a pirate, but he doesn’t know how. And I always like that aspect. So like, the story is real. The adventure is real.”

It’s a theme that will carry on throughout, balancing serious with silly. The stakes are high for Nanuka in her adventure and while the consequences for failure would be suitably dire for her world, the game takes the time to not take itself too seriously at times. Much like Sailor Moon or Dragon Ball, in amongst all the drama, OutOfTheBit wants to make sure there’s still some room for fun.

“That goes for the villain as well!” Ali adds.

Nanuka has a world to live in — a world that has been completely hand-drawn, along with Nanuka herself, frame by frame. It’s a very lengthy and very difficult undertaking, but it’s very much a labour of love for the two artist/animators, Leo and Tom. The pair of them have a heap of talent between them, and not an ounce of it goes to waste as they go to work designing, illustrating and then animating.

There’s not really a shortcut to it! We really just draw it,” Leo tells me. For Nanuka, the cartoony style has been a boon to them, giving them less to worry about when it comes to rendering. Things don’t need to look realistic, which can be time-consuming. As a result, the two of them have been able to cut corners without compromising quality while focusing on giving the visuals plenty of vibrance and flair. 

That doesn’t mean things are easy for them, though. With every frame being hand-drawn, the same goes for every asset as well. Effects, overlays, characters and cutscenes must all go through the painstaking process. “It takes quite a while,” Leo says — with heavy emphasis on the ‘quite’.

Nanuka: Secret of the Shattering Moon screenshot
Image: OutOfTheBit

Making things their own way — with a little help from Robyn Powell

The indie sphere is saturated with 2D side-scrolling action games. With so many out there to compete against, one might wonder just how Nanuka can stand out amongst the crowd and come out on top. OutOfTheBit isn’t just relying on quirky hand animation and its clumsy-but-likeable lead, they have another ace up their sleeve when it comes to the game: their own engine.

“I’ve used third-party engines in the past, like Unity, and quite often it’s hard to have a hook to play the sound at the right time. With our engine, I know exactly what kind of animation I’m playing,” Ali says.

Sound plays a vital role in Nanuka, and it’s much more than a backing track to the gameplay. For Ali, it’s about bringing the sound and the game’s interactivity together to create a more immersive experience for players. “We use our own framework, our own engine to run the game, and there are hooks to play sounds or music in specific points, so we can connect the animation with the sounds or the music in a way that they used to do back in the day with hand-animated graphics.”

The team is, not for the first time, joining forces with composer Robyn Powell, who crafted the wonderfully dystopian synth score for Full Void, which you can listen to for free on the OutOfTheBit website. “She’s really good, and she can do a variety of styles,” Ali gushes. “She’s amazing, and she’s doing a really great soundtrack. We put the song on the trailer, but we’ve got two more songs from her, and they’re unbelievable. They’re so good. I love them, and I can’t wait to use them in the game or do another trailer in the future with those soundtracks.”

With a unique engine and Powell’s soundtrack combined, the team is aiming to create a much more distinct feel to controlling Nanuka. “We anchor the animation to the movement of the player, and that gives weight to the player, and we do that with sounds as well,” Ali explains. “So we know exactly when we step on something or when we, you know, touch a surface, and we can choose sounds that connect directly with the animations. It’s subtle, but when it’s done right, it gives a different feeling when you play. It’s really satisfying.”

Nanuka: Secret of the Shattering Moon screenshot
Image: OutOfTheBit

Putting the “feeling” in puzzles and story

Environmental puzzles are at the heart of Nanuka: Secret of the Shattering Moon, just like they were with Full Void. Such a mechanic can be hard to get right, and so I asked Ali just how the team goes about creating a level that gets players thinking critically, while also keeping things fun and engaging.

“It’s really tricky,” he tells me. “I feel like we learned a lot while we were working on Full Void. Really, that was a great learning experience. The key word is iteration.”

OutOfTheBit’s approach to puzzles is about how they want the player to feel. And from there, they build. “In Full Void, at the beginning, we wanted the feeling of being lost. You don’t know exactly what to do, and you’re being chased. So we have a feeling that we want to convey on each level. And then we start from the feeling, and we iterate.”

From there, they start to build in the environment, which is where Ali notes the importance of his animators. “One of the reasons I like to work with artists like Leo and Tom is that sometimes you cannot think of puzzles on your own with placeholders. You need to have a location. So we start from the environment and the feeling that we want, and then we think, ‘what could be there in that environment that makes for good gameplay elements?’. And then you think, ‘how can I use those elements?’.”

Once those are in place, the team then thinks about the elements and interactivity, and how to introduce these concepts steadily to the player. “For instance, I introduce platforming,” says Ali. “You need to run and jump, and you understand the distance where to jump. Then you introduce a breakable platform. Okay, now you know that you need to jump, but now do it within a certain time, otherwise, the platform will break, and then you will fall.”

And then finally, the sense of urgency comes into it to spur the player on. “Now we’ve got a platform, a breaking platform. Then we introduce an enemy chasing you. So we kind of ramp it up slowly.”

Full Void is just one big chase. It’s like a horror film. But Nanuka can fight. So that really adds a new dimension to the game and an extra layer of interactivity. This made for a different pace of game and required a change in the team’s approach to the player.

“With Nanuka, we want to work more with rewarding people rather than frustrating people. So the game is a lot more lenient on you [than Full Void]. We want to make the game more accessible. We would just want people to enjoy the animation, the game, and the story until the end. So it’s all about rewarding creativity and experimentation.”

Along with addition of combat, Nanuka will feature some new mechanics to go with it. The first of which is parrying. It’s no secret that there’s been a rise in its popularity in recent years and it seems like OutOfTheBit are fans of it too. But like Dark Souls, the parrying mechanic here looks to be reliant on skill. “If you’re good, if you parry at the right time, or if you do certain moves, the game will reward you if you can defeat the enemy sooner. We reward you with lots of good audio and visual feedback. And we can do a different animation because it’s all custom-made.”

Ali says they’re also bringing in finishing moves in an ode to fighting games. “If you block an attack on time and it’s the last bit of energy for the opponent, then you can finish them off with a nice custom-made animation, which is very satisfying to see.”

Nanuka: Secret of the Shattering Moon screenshot
Image: OutOfTheBit

The team behind the game

Moving away from Nanuka, I look to dig a little deeper into the studio itself and where their identity came from. They have a philosophy of innovating without forgetting tradition, but just what is tradition to them when it comes to games?

Ali grew up with Commodore Amiga, and played the Mega Drive and Super Nintendo as well. He loved that despite their limits you would see a lot of variety. Flicking through games magazines in the ‘90s, every single game looked different. It’s not quite like that now, and he points out that with much bigger teams, design by committee can dull a game’s identity.

“Nowadays, if you look at most AAA games — with some exceptions — they look very similar. You see the hand of the artist a bit less. Because again, if fifty people work on a game, how can you see the hand of the artist? Which one, right? But if it’s two or three people, that’s different.”

Ali wanted to take what he loved about games of the ‘90s and bring that into OutOfTheBit and what they do. “Obviously, there is a lot not to take, like how games were very frustrating. They had lots of limitations. If you die, you have to restart from the beginning. So we’re trying to get what was good about those games, the handcrafted nature of the variety, and then making them modern and accessible to everyone.”

What’s next for OutOfTheBit?

2025 may seem so far away, but time has a habit of moving fast. Naturally I ask, where does OutOfTheBit go after that?

“We’ll have a short holiday after that,” Ali emphatically responds, and the team laughs and nod in agreement. But Ali isn’t one to sit around and wait for things to happen. He’s always got an eye on the future. And for him, one project can lead into another. “I always try to have a very blurry idea of what to do next, because you want to see where you’re at, where you learn from the game you’re making, right? I wouldn’t have come up with Nanuka if it wasn’t for Full Void.”

OutOfTheBit is a studio that likes the idea of doing short, single-player adventures with puzzle platforming. It’s nice to tell a story with handcrafted art and audio. It could be a sequel to either Nanuka or Full Void, or something completely new. But whatever the team works on next, it will be with those themes at heart. Ali has aims of becoming a bit of a Studio Ghibli of games, and has taken a lot of inspiration from them.

“At the moment, you know, in an age where major animation studios, the big stuff they do is all 3D, Studio Ghibli is still here doing handcrafted stuff. And they’ve been very successful, they’ve won awards everywhere and they’re doing really well. They set themselves apart by being traditional, but they still innovate. The modern stuff looks better than from the ‘70s or the ‘80s, but it’s still handmade. And that would be my idea, you know, we still want to show that we create stuff from hand, basically from scratch.”

As we wrap up our chat, I can’t help but ask if everything is on schedule and if there is a date in mind. The game is set to release next year, but its release date is still TBA on Steam. “At this stage, we’ll keep it vague just in case,” Ali says coyly. “You never know. There could be an opportunity to have a partnership or something. And you can move the date.”

There will, of course, be plenty more announcements on Nanuka coming up in the future. Rosalia is hard at work in the process of producing a series of developer logs to give fans a look behind the scenes at the making of process, as well as showing off some of the game’s features. 

They’ll all feature on OutOfTheBit’s YouTube channel in the near future, so make sure you subscribe if you’d like to see some behind-the-scenes details. More details of Nanuka: Secrets of the Shattering Moon can be found on Steam — where you can also wishlist the game.

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