[Checking out student game and IGF Student Showcase winner The Devil's Tuning Fork, Andrew Vanden Bossche examines its unique echolocation mechanic in conversation with the development team.
After seeing videos of The Devil's Tuning Fork
, I was worried that the floor of PAX East would be too noisy to check out the game. Fortunately, they were as far from Rockstar's hip hop blaring booth as possible and provided headphones. It was the same sort of circumstances I had watched the video in, which allowed its slow pace and moody atmosphere to show.
The Devil's Tuning Fork
is a first person puzzle game, not unlike Portal
in genre. Play comprises standard puzzle-platformy type gameplay, combined with a core mechanic that revolves around the fact that the world is completely dark until illuminated with sound waves.
Clicking the mouse creates a pulse that travels through the surfaces of the game world and lights them up. The solitary tones, dark world, and creepy background voices create a very eerie experience.
Jason Pecho, the project and tech lead, told me the eerie themes of the story were "an emergent property of the way we decided to use the echolocation mechanic." They had started with the concept of shooting out a sound wave and it visualizing everything, and in the prototyping process put a creepy placeholder sound effect in. The playtester reaction to it was so strong that it came to define the direction of the project.
"They" is a team of 15 DePaul University students, marshaled by their game designer in residence Alex Seropian, one of the initial founders of Bungie, to create a game to enter in the 2010 Independent Games Festival student showcase. The team was formed to function very much like its own company. Aside from project lead Jason Pecho, the project has a producer, three level designers, five artists, and five programmers.
Pecho told me that Seropian gave them guidance but let the team pick its own direction. "Alex Seropian was instrumental in the connecting phase," he said. "He asked us the right questions for us to realize what we needed to work on."
While the sound is a major theme, it's actually more of a game about sight. The mechanic of the player having to constantly reveal the landscape is both limiting and empowering to the player. "One of the things we wanted was to not show the player anything unless it has their input. A lot of times the screen is black, and it's up to the player to see," said Pecho.
A game like this, he said, is highly dependent on having interesting shapes for players to look at. In particular, the game has a lot of moving platforms, which makes for a very different scene each time the player emits a pulse. I found in my own experience that I had to constantly reorient myself at the start of each pulse, since the world had changed during the short period of darkness.
The game's story came only after the gameplay and atmosphere had been established. "We started with the mechanic. The first and most important thing is the game mechanics, and you want a story that enhances the game," said Pecho.
One of the things Jason Pecho said he found out from working in a team environment is you can't make everyone happy. The team couldn't get everyone to agree on a story, or even if there should be one, so Jason made up a story strike team to come up with an established story they could work with. "If you want to create an atmospheric story, there needs to be something narrative about that atmosphere," he said.
The story they came up with revolves around the protagonist wandering through a mansion while trying to save children whose souls are trapped in stuffed animals. The narrative is present and pervasive, but indirect, which Pecho saw as a plus. "It's really interesting to see how the players interpret what's going on," he said. "We never let the villain be seen because we want the player to be in control. It's more immersive because it's their interpretation."
Right now, the team is in the process of adding new levels. Currently, the game takes about 40 minutes to an hour to complete, and Pecho would like it to be around four-five hours. In order for it to justify that sort of length, it needs new game mechanics which could take about three months to a year, depending on if a publisher picks it up or not.