Indie | Devil’s Tuning Fork
By Fraser McMillan
We’ve all had nightmares. The claustrophobia, the loss and the terror that cause us to wake up sweaty, panting and vulnerable are experiences that we’d rather avoid. That’s why, by developing a game that taps into that sense of primal fear, you’re at risk of limiting your audience a tad. Shame on the audience, however, because that’s exactly what’s happened. And for the most part, it’s great.
Devil’s Tuning Fork is a short, first-person puzzle game developed by students at Chicago’s DePaul University. Though that style seems to be the current genre of choice for the indie connoisseur, this little nugget does things a little differently. Darkness is a concept that shouldn’t be alien to PC players especially, but what about complete blackout – the kind we experience before and after life, the kind we experience in our deepest, darkest dreams?
The premise, established quickly and without bluster by a short introductory animation, is thus: children around the world are falling into comas without any apparent cause, and one child has the ability to rescue both him or herself and the others. Using the titular apparatus, the player must navigate their own vegetative phyche using visualisations of sound patterns. There are three types of sound, all activated by mouse clicks, and these include the bog-standard room-wide sweep, a low hum to see through objects and a concentrated shot of decibel that’s used to activate various triggers for doors.
Mechanically it wouldn’t be anything special without the blindness, and you’d whizz through in about two minutes on top of that, but this point is far from a criticism. Overbearing anxiety and unease, created solely by this lack of typical visual indicators, completely make the experience, enveloping the player in nothingness. It’s scary in a smartly unconventional way. It also urges caution like few before it, and moments of confusion that would be easily rectified in other titles are exacerbated tenfold. The Fork has a fairly generous rate of output, but most individual physical actions are taken on faith that the platform you saw infront of you three seconds ago is still there. Of course, it always is, but the paranoia this fosters is something rarely found in the medium, especially using a perspective as famed for precision as the first-person.
Tonally, the team score again. The sounds that emit from each click of the mouse add a lot to the atmosphere, with the combination of these and a kind of ambient fuzz in the background coming the closest to constituing music. In a way, there almost exists an atmospheric void onto which the player projects, and the combination of elements means this is deftly realised. The visuals are designed to unsettle the user further, with their rapidly moving and overlapping coloured lines creating an optical illusion to futher confuse matters and instill paranoia that everything is slipping away.
Perhaps that’s an analogy for the game itself; it does take place inside a the mind of a comatose young person after all. The presence of kids’ toys as objectives in themselves is another disturbing touch, each one apparently the manifestation of another mysteriously afflicted child, with proximity to these producing echoey, otherworldly half-speech presumably begging for freedom.
I thankfully don’t have any experience of what it’s like to be unconscious in this way, but Devil’s Tuning Fork is a very interesting exploration of what it may actually feel like. It’s, rather appropriately, a particularly frightening fever dream which results in surprisingly perturbing psychological effect. It’s original, it’s constrained, and it uses fantastically stripped down mechanics for something very interesting indeed, with suitable narrative framings to boot – the ending is a bit abrupt, but well realised. It also perfectly suits the short-form, because I doubt I could have played much further without it becoming a bit too much. It’s a great experiment that exemplifies why we love the PC and independent gaming. I implore you to grab it from here.