Devil’s Tuning Fork is an unusual 3D exploration game created by a student team at DePaul University known as the DuPaul Game Elites. The game takes place in the dark, shared subsconcious of children in a coma, where the player must use waves of sound to illuminate their surroundings. The goal is to free yourself and other children who are imprisoned in this alternate reality and find the cause of the mysterious epidemic.
Visually, Devil’s Tuning Fork is a uniquely mesmerizing and somewhat disorienting journey into the unreal…where the world around you pulses, shifts, and fades away almost as quickly as it appears:
A few of the DePaul Game Elites members joined me recently to talk about creating the facinating world of Devil’s Tuning Fork, including Richard Kossak (Art Lead), Kyle Sullivan (Visual Design Lead), and Kevin Geisler (Graphics/AV Programmer). Special thanks to producer Matt Lazar for arranging the interview:
Uncommon Assembly: First off, amazing work on this project. Can you tell me a little bit about the background of your team?
Richard: Our team is made up entirely of DePaul University students. We have six artists, six programmers, two designers, and a producer. This is the first time DePaul has set up a class with intentions of creating a game for the Student Showcase of the Independent Games Festival. It was the brainchild of our game designer in residence, Alex Seropian, co-founder of Bungie. For many of us, this is the first game we’ve ever worked on. I can’t speak for Kyle, but after this experience I am definitely hooked.
Devil’s Tuning Fork is really unlike any game I’ve ever seen before. Can you tell me what the inspiration was for such a bizarre and fantastical world?
Kyle: The echolocation theme came about during a brainstorming session in our concept phase. We realized that the idea had innovative merit because it was all about perceiving the world in a new way. Simply put, our game made the act of looking at things fun again. Our very first prototype consisted only of a sound wave and a cube, but the cube looked awesome. We knew we wanted to develop a world around the premise of having fun looking at stuff. However, we really had no go-to references for how we wanted the game to look, since our own game was based on a pretty abstracted version of what real echolocation was actually like. Scientific research was little help, and we had a hard time finding media references we liked (there was an old Magic School Bus episode about sound visualization, but it was pretty wonky), so developing the visuals became an iterative process.
Richard: Yeah, we’ve had quite a few seemingly random inspirations for this game, including the echolocation abilities of dolphins and M.C. Escher’s wood etchings. We wanted to create a visual style that people haven’t seen before which required a long process of experimentation. We, as artists, would decide on a direction to try, the programming team would recreate it in-engine, then we’d see that maybe it doesn’t look as good as we had hoped. Although there were moments of frustration, we iterated until we came up with new solutions that led us to new routes we hadn’t previously considered.
What kind of tech was involved in creating this game? What engine and visualization/rendering technology was involved?
Kevin: As far as tech goes, we really tried to blend a lot of different techniques in order to create something different. We used the QE Engine which is an academic engine built by Professor Joe Linhoff at DePaul University. The shading technology itself went through several iterations trying to balance both performance and creative vision.
Essentially, the visuals are accomplished by creating spherical lights that dynamically grow to simulate a moving sound wave. To make these waves more aesthetically pleasing when they overlap, we incorporated a lot of blending and fading techniques. For the stripes, we discussed procedurally generating them, but to keep our performance at a good level, we went with textures.
So the moving stripes are all scrolling textures, that are then “lit” by the growing lights?
Richard: Yes, the stripes are a texture that the artists made, which is then moved via code. They are meant to give the feeling of energy as well as resembling the hatching technique Escher uses.
What can you tell me about the prototyping process used to develop the unique look of this game? It’s quite unusual, and I would imagine the artists, coders, and designers had to work very closely to realize such an unconventional visual style.
Richard: It was definitely a learning experience. It’s always tough taking the collective visions of 15 people and trying to combine them into one cohesive experience. I do have to say, though, that as difficult as this process could have been, our team worked really well together.
Kyle: Prototyping was certainly a team effort – making a game about echolocation, and making it fun and innovative, was everyone’s responsibility. Since Devil’s Tuning Fork is a game about perception, we knew that the visuals would be intimately tied with the gameplay mechanics. In the early stages of development, we had many round-table discussions regarding what exactly our game would look and play like. We would break the team up into cross-discipline “strike teams” and brainstorm different visualization systems. Once we had several concepts we liked, it was up to Richard and I to quickly prototype sound ping visualizations in Maya. We probably made a few dozen of these animatics, iterating on them each time. Once our visualizations were refined enough, the programmers would take these references and attempt to replicate their look in the game engine.
Refining the look was also as much about solving problems as it was about creating a unique style. Since we were trying to achieve a new mode of perception, we wanted to avoid as much as possible using properties of light in the game engine. This meant no shadows and no highlights. Unfortunately, this flattened the image and made it hard to differentiate things on-screen. Luckily, using Escher as a primary artistic influence provided us with a solution to this problem. Looking at his woodcuts, we realized that striped hatching lines were an excellent way of conveying the form of three-dimensional objects without relying on lighting. At the same time, by studying Escher we also learned which volumetric objects are most aesthetically pleasing when combined with a hatching look.
As far as student teams go, this was a pretty large group… 15 members in all. Was it difficult to get everyone on board such a crazy idea? A 6-month dev cycle is relatively tight.
Richard: This is a pretty united group. In order to participate in the DePaul Game Elites, each student had to go through a selective application process. Because of this, I think all members on the team felt an obligation to create a game that hasn’t been seen before. DePaul University gave us all a great opportunity to be a part of this project.
Kyle: Yeah, I think everyone who made the cut felt like they had earned their spot on the team. The chance to work with an industry veteran like Alex Seropian was also a once-in-a-lifetime experience. On top of that, here was our free ticket to do whatever crazy idea we wanted before we graduated. Our excitement for the project allowed us to maintain a high energy level throughout the entire six-month development process.
How important was it to your team to create such a highly stylize game?
Richard: Since the beginning of this project, the goal has been to create an innovative game that challenges the player to experience something that they haven’t experienced in a game before. On day one of the brainstorming sessions, we all agreed that we didn’t want to make “just another game”; we wanted to push the envelope. I think this mentality helped us in making such a unique experience for the player.
Unlike many student games, Devil’s Tuning Fork’s art feels very polished. The art style is cohesive and clean, and feels very finished. To what or whom do you attribute this?
Richard: The art team has definitely been working hard for the past six months. We’ve had numerous 10:00 a.m. -11:00 p.m. work days, creating and polishing assets for the game. I’d like to think that it’s all because of my great organization and motivational skills as the Art Lead on the project, but I can’t take all the credit. We’ve really worked well together as a team.
Kyle: As Visual Design Lead, maintaining a cohesive look was a top priority of mine. I had never been in such a role before, so it was definitely a challenge to coordinate a project like this. As a team, we knew we had a wicked cool art style, and we didn’t want to lose it during the production process. We would never have gotten anywhere if it weren’t for the guidance of Scott Roberts, our faculty art advisor. Throughout the project, he constantly challenged the art team to really push the game’s design and aesthetic elements.
Of course, through our iterative development process all of the artists became acquainted with the visual style. We all took part in learning what worked and what didn’t. I’m reminded of David O’Reilly’s essay, Basic Animation Aesthetics. O’Reilly argues that in order to maintain aesthetic cohesion it is necessary to establish strict design rules. While we didn’t start off abiding by rules—nobody had the answers ahead of time—we basically created our own aesthetic through experimentation and iteration. I realize now that what made the visual design of the game so successful is that we were eventually able to define our aesthetic rules in hard terms and carry those rules out across all artistic assets. Here are some of the hard-written list of aesthetic rules that we established for maintaining a cohesive visual design:
- Stripe patterns should all flow in a unified direction: stripes on walls should flow downwards (with the exception of Level 3, in which the verticality of the level called for upward flowing stripes. Stripes on floors should flow in the direction of the next exit, to direct players towards their goal.
- Stripe patterns shouldn’t be random – they should run either horizontally or vertically. No diagonal stripes.
- If a shape has some kind of detail that needs to be conveyed, it is better to think about creating a meaningful silhouette rather than to try to shrink the stripe patterns to fit the detail. Stripes need to follow a uniform size.
- Shapes need to be juxtaposed. Rounded columns need to be offset at the ends by square bases or thick lips. Moulding should be used at wall corners to break up the shape of the room, and at door frames to emphasize the door frame’s shape.
- Escher was inspired by Italian Renaissance architecture. This style emphasized mathematical forms. This meant that most forms we used should be able to be broken down into basic geometric shapes. Clean shapes are valued over organic shapes.
So where do the DePaul Game Elites go from here?
Richard: The model established by the DePaul Game Elites will become a yearly program here at DePaul University. It would be really great to give more students this opportunity to participate in a development cycle modeled after professionals in the industry.
Kyle: I’ll actually be a bit disappointed once this project is over. When you’re around the same people for six months, everyone falls into a groove. Right now we’re at a stage where work simply gets done because everyone is comfortable with their roles. Given the opportunity, I’d love to see what we could accomplish outside of the IGF competition.
And what’s next for Devil’s Tuning Fork?
Richard: Well, we plan to continue working on Devil’s Tuning Fork, improving what we can and taking into account any feedback we receive through the website. We check those suggestions every day and value the input from our players.
Kyle: I’m really surprised at the amount of attention our game as gotten. I would have been perfectly happy walking away from this project with only the experience I gained through it, but it seems like Devil’s Tuning Fork has generated quite a bit of buzz basically overnight. I feel like we’ve got a good thing going here, and the influx of YouTube views and indie blog postings has re-energized me to continue improving the game over winter break.
Thanks again for taking the time to talk with me about the amazing visuals behind Devil’s Tuning Fork, fellas. Good luck with IGF in 2010.
For more information on Devil’s Tuning Fork, including concept art, music, team membersand the DePaul Game Elites, and to download the game, visit the official Devil’s Tuning Fork website.
All images copyright DePaul Game Elites (with permission):