The Needles

The Needles: Devil's Tuning Fork - An Indie Innovation

Andy Chalk | 12 Jan 2010 21:00
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The story behind Devil's Tuning Fork, an indie game developed by a small team of students at DePaul University, is perfunctory yet engaging: An unknown illness is causing children to fall into sudden, strange comas that the medical community appears helpless to stop. Yet one afflicted child - that would be you - awakens from his unnatural slumber in an alternate reality in which sight and sound have become one and the same. By solving the game's puzzles and escaping each of its levels, the player is able to save the other children and eventually himself.

Inspired by the system of echolocation used by dolphins and the famous optical illusion created by M.C. Escher, Devil's Tuning Fork was developed over the course of six months as an entry in the 2010 Independent Games Festival. Industry veterans Patrick Curry, Bill Muehl, Joe Linhoff, Scott Roberts and Alex Seropian, the founder of Bungie Studios and executive producer of Halo, served as advisers on the project and since its release late last year, the game has attracted some rather serious attention from the mainstream gaming media.

The hook is the vaguely Daredevil-like sonar system the game uses to provide "sight" in a setting that is almost impenetrably black. Players can emit two types of sound waves that bounce off the surrounding environs and paint a fleeting picture of the world: High frequency waves that travel long distances and provide fine detail, and low frequencies that are strictly short range but can penetrate objects, revealing weakened floor tiles that will collapse when the players steps on them. Concentrated bursts of sound can also be fired in order to ring bells and gongs that activate platforms and open doors.

The puzzles and platform action are admittedly simple; an occasional jump or dodge is required, but it's nothing that can't be easily handled by anyone with the manual dexterity required to boot Windows. As a conventional game, it would probably be over in less than five minutes, but the faux audio twist adds an engaging and unique challenge. Even so, it's not a big game by any stretch. It'll eat up a half-hour of your busy day, maybe a little more if you like to poke around a bit or a little less if, unlike me, you avoid getting hung up on an ill-defined puzzle. It's short, but it turns out to be an ideal length; as a one-trick pony, Devil's Tuning Fork has the potential to wear out its welcome fairly quickly but avoids that trap by not trying to squeeze too much mileage out of the gimmick.

As you would expect from a student IGF entry, it's a little rough around the edges. Exploration options are limited because each level is completely linear and the lack of feedback can make some of the sound reflection puzzles very frustrating. The flowing lines on solid objects can be incredibly disorienting. Yet in some ways, the game is also remarkably sophisticated: The music is sparse and haunting, and the anguished, angry voices that echo around the player when certain objects are approached can be downright disturbing. What it lacks in depth and variety, it certainly possesses in atmosphere.

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