the artistry and psychology of gaming


Devil’s Tuning Fork

Devil’s Tuning Fork

Welcome to Gaming on the House; don’t look down and and mind your step! Each week, we’ll be climbing the rooftops of the gaming industry to seek out great experiences that everyone can track down and play, and the best part is they’ll all be free! That’s right; FREE! Gratis. Comp’d. Unbound. Unrestricted. Zero-down. On the House!… we talk about free games here, is my point.

Many may be surprised at how many fantastic games are really out there that everyone can legally enjoy with no monetary commitment. Taking together all the flash and browser games, freeware downloads from the independent scene, speed programming archives, free-to-play business modules, and even promotional re-releases from big name publishers, there’s a never ending supply of great games new and old waiting to be played, and it’s our goal to play them all! So, if you’re strapped for cash or just waiting around for that next big release to hit retail, why not give these games a try? After all, they’re free; what have you got to lose!

This week, we cut through the darkness with the help of an impossible object.

Devil’s Tuning Fork

Behold, the expert level design!
Genre: First-Person Puzzler Link to Game: Game Info: v1.21 was released in December 2009 by DePaul Game Elites, a small group of students out of DePaul University

It’s funny how stream of consciousness can determine what games get featured sometimes. Coming off of reading Ethan’s review of The Darkness II, I had begun wondering what game I should write about this week, to which I recalled my previous installment of Gaming on the House featuring the arcade shooter Echoes. Two of those words stuck out for me; darkness… echoes… two words that while being separate entities, seem to go hand in hand as concepts within a game world. Sure enough, I wasn’t the only one to think that, and we have Devil’s Tuning Fork as proof.

Part first-person puzzle game and part dolphin life-simulator, DTF takes you through an elaborate 3D maze of rooms, doors, stairs, and platforms, while only relying on limited sensory perception through a visualized form of echolocation. You know, kind of like how Matt Murdock fights crime. “But what’s the big deal?” you may ask, “didn’t we already get this type of gameplay in Metroid Prime 2: Echoes? That had an echo visor where you saw things in the dark!” Well, you’d be correct that the game had an echo visor which switched to black and white visuals and showed various enemy “pings” on screen, but really, there’s not much that separated Prime 2’s Echo visor from the Dark visor, or from the X-ray or Thermal visors from Prime 1, for that matter. Apologies for potentially pulling back a bit of a development curtain here and I do love the Prime games, but in retrospect, each of the visors were specialized tools for solving the same problem – the simple detection of hidden enemies and switches. You have to put on the right visor to see it, but once you’ve got it on, your all set. No further action required.

I mean… NOW… behold the expert level design!

Echoes in DTF are quite different, as they take on a more active role in the gameplay. Standing still, the game world is pitch black, with only the aiming reticule visible on screen. But once a sound wave is emitted, it illuminates the room for a limited time, bouncing off the nearby walls and platforms to indicate the path ahead. It’s a clever use of visual stimuli that allows for this type of “ping-based” gameplay to occur without relying on pure sound alone (which admittedly would also be interesting, albeit ridiculous considering the up front costs for adequate surround-sound speakers), and its limited impact on the landscape expands the concept to encompass the majority of the gameplay, rather than a single puzzle solution.

The echoes can be cast in several ways once you acquire the devil’s tuning fork (don’t worry, you’ll get a bit of light to guide you until then). You can send out a ping from where you are to flow outwards and around you (this helps your navigation around objects, stairs, holes, and trap doors). You can also send out a concentrated echo as a projectile to hit far off objects, and this is where the puzzles come in. You’ll find puzzles, mirrors, and various objects that need to be hit in order to perform various actions, and often you’ll need to bounce these echoes off additional objects to reach them. It’s a novel dual-approach to the concept of utilizing sound (or more accurately, a visual approximation of sound) as a gameplay device.

The manner in which the echo effects are implemented on screen are equally praiseworthy, taking inspiration from the lithography of MC Escher. The eponymous Devil’s Tuning Fork is a commonly devised optical illusion, or impossible object (often referred to as the blivet), a concept also frequented by Escher in his works such as Waterfall, Belvedere, and Relativity (of course, some people probably refer to this as “crazy stairs” now), so the design choice was an excellent fit. Not every inch of the room is lit up when casting echo effects, but rather the rooms are revealed in lithograph form, with lines of varying width wrapping around every corner to create a level of size and depth for accurate judgement. It’s a look that’s wholly unique to a game world, and is something that needs to be seen in motion to fully appreciate.

Actually, an interesting aside about the fork itself, you’ll find that the in-game fork is the only sprite-based object to be found; a shameful excuse for not being able to physically render the impossible object in 3D.

Contrary to everything your instincts may tell you, this bear is your friend.

The game falters a bit with a story that ultimately feels a bit tacked on. The reasoning behind the game is briefly covered in the opening, where children are all slipping into comas, and in going through the darkness, you are rescuing each of them (in the game they are represented by glowing stuffed animals). While the motivations behind these animals are somewhat weak, I would say that actually encountering them is pretty great, both for their contrasting visuals, and for the haunting audio of child voices that come along with them.

The game itself is also fairly slow-going, as the game literally calls for you to fumble around in the dark for a while. All the same, the game is spread across three chapters, and can be beaten in about half an hour or so, ultimately being more a proof of concept than a full retain release. Still, it is really a fascinating take on first-person games, with a very novel idea featuring some eerily wonderous art design. Granted the motion-sick or claustrophobic may find the game too uncomfortable to dive into, but for others, it’s certainly a change of pace from an otherwise well-defined video game genre.

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