The person onscreen tromps through the cold. I can see them as they pass under the treetops, making their slow way to their destination. I can't see their face because the bird's eye view on the satellite camera only gives me so much detail. I know their ammo is low, but there's only a little ways to go until they reach their destination.
Then I see it out of the corner of my screen. There is a thing. It's alive, but it's not human. My onscreen companion stops dead in their tracks, hoping the inhuman creature can't see them visually. There's a tense moment as the thing faces in their direction, but it doesn't move in to attack. Eventually, it decides there's no prey and moves on.
Unfortunately, the time spent standing still has allowed another unknown thing to hunt them down. This thing, more exoskeleton than flesh, can see them just fine in the cold. Thermal vision perhaps? It closes in as my digital companion attempts to run. It won't work. I watch them get taken down.
"Respawn?" the prompt blinks.
Welcome to Noct.
Noct is a survival game like DayZ or Rust, but presented from a top-down perspective, like Hotline Miami. Instead of a 3D or pixel visual style, Noct looks like you're staring at some far off figure from a drone or satellite camera. You can play alone, but the game is meant to be played with friends; an entire of crew survivors scrounging for weapons and avoiding the horrors wandering around.
"I was inspired by Hotline Miami to develop the game," says creator Chris Eskins. "The control system for this game is very much like Hotline Miami. My friends and I, we'd play DayZ and stuff, but we wanted to play something different. I just said to my friends, 'I'm gonna start working on a game for us to play.' I wanted to capture some of the elements in those zombie survival games, but at the same time make it unique and different."
The thermal imaging visual is one of the most striking things about Noct. When you watch the game in demo or videos, it makes the title stand out. You know Noct is Noct at a glance.
"I've always been fascinated by thermal technology, the Apache guncam footage from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan," says Eskins. "I always felt that watching that footage, it's so eerie that you have that sense of detachment from what you're watching. It doesn't look real, but it is. I started experimenting with using that visualization style. You're watching and controlling them, but at the same time, you feel a little helpless. It helps with that sense of dread."
The player character and monsters are equally indistinct in the thermal imaging. The PAX South build had three primary hunters (there will be more in the later versions): a larger, slug-like creature with arms, small insectile creatures, and larger versions of the insects. According to Eskins, some monsters can detect players through straight vision, footprints, and heat. If I had to guess, the slug-like creature - the one described in the passage above - probably had limited vision. Once I stopped moving, it couldn't find me. Eskins says that a sound element will be forthcoming, but he needs to add a system so players can tell how much sound they're making.
"You want to create the feeling that players are being hunted in the environment," he tells me. "The more unpredictable you make the AI of each creature, the better I find it becomes."
Noct is hard. All of the monsters kill in one hit. All of them run faster than you do and your only defense is a few guns with limited ammo. You can find more ammo lying around, but Noct isn't about persistent combat. You're going to have to avoid things to stay alive.
"People seem to have more fun when the game is difficult. When it has that challenge," Eskins explains before going to help an attendee with the game. "There is going to be a melee system, which is good for taking out smaller monsters, but you always want to be scavenging for ammo. In the full game, you'll want to share weapons and ammo with your friends."
The visuals and one-hit kills reinforce the feeling of fear in Noct and seeing fuzzy shapes slides in and out of the darkness can be frightening. Eskins has his own philosophy about what makes fear work in video games.
"From a top-down perspective, the main thing I tried to keep in mind was the Jaws analogy," he explains. "Jaws is so scary when you don't see him, when he's hidden under the water. There's just one shark, but it instills fear. The idea that you don't know what's out there. Then you blend that with the haunting music and these grainy visuals; it does get creepy. I think that right combination of not presenting too much to the player, letting the players' imagination fill in the void is better than just going 'here's the monster'.
There also will be a class system and players will be able to modify weapons with things like sound suppressors.
"We're doing a class system," says Eskins. "It'll be class kits that players can equip. Each kit will do something different. Players will be able to get a barricade kit, which will allow them to barricade and fortify any structure. There will be some survivalist kits. I don't want to add stuff where you're micromanaging your food; I'm trying to keep it simple, but I do want players to get a kit that helps them make food and medpacks for survival. Expanding that way opens up the game's itemization."
What's on display at PAX South is only a brief snippet of the game. I still died a whole lot, which lets me know that if the R'lyeh rises from the Pacific, I'll be one of the first to die when the elder god awakens and sends his darkness across the world. Until then, Noct is a decent facsimile of running for your life from dark horrors.