I know most of you probably have a person that's hard to shop for - even with the glut of quality (and less quality, but still admittedly enjoyable) games on the market today, even when you're buying presents for another gamer, separating the wheat from the chaff can be a difficult and dangerous task. No one wants to be greeted with that awkward stare at a less-than-stellar gift, and I was determined to find something that really made a friend of mine smile.
She'd recently had a pretty successful exhibit, so I figured I could afford to splurge a little, despite not knowing what, if any games, she'd enjoy. See - the two of us went different ways going up. I ended up continuing to enjoy videogames for the gameplay, the art, the story - everything. She enjoyed adventure games, and pretty much only those; and when the 'death' of adventure games hit, so too did her interest in gaming. Our circle of friends - largely gamers themselves kept on trying to get her back into the hobby, and she'd occasionally play one from time to time - but none of them held her interest, and we eventually just decided she wasn't interested in gaming - modern or otherwise.
Which was fine, of course; but I'd begun to think that it was less that, and more that she was looking for the sort of game that wasn't made very often anymore. And with the glut of early-access games on a certain digital distribution services, I figured... Let me just see what I can find. I know, I know - your chances of buying something horrible, incomplete, or horribly incomplete are pretty high - but I'd also seen a lot of amateur developed games that were fun, charming, creative - maybe a bit simple in terms of gameplay or content, but possessing the kind of heart that I think my friend had missed. Truth be told - I was getting kind of excited myself, and I guess looking back on it it was much a hope that I'd find something as it was the desire to to show support.
Tunnels didn't look like much, at first. The graphics were definitely of the 199X Myst-rip off variety, with loads of - admittedly pretty - pre-rendered backgrounds and overlayed interactive objects. What caught my eye was that it was a brother-sister team. I thought that was pretty cool, and interesting enough to be worthy of a glance. The asking price was three-fifty American, and thus well within my price-range. No reviews had been left yet - no hyperbolic glee or trolling, no rage that the game didn't have the most responsive combat or the most beautiful graphics... Nothing. It was that complete lack of publicity that sealed the deal to me. Why not try it, and if I like it - gift the copy and write a nice review?
So I started the game.
It throws you right into the thick of things. No menu, no options, no ability to save, to load - nothing. Tunnels just has you awaken in a tunnel - some sort of archaeological dig, by the look of it. You can look in all directions in 'real-time', similar to what games like RealMyst let you do; this was a step up from having to pixel hunt for directions to find items or clues, but also sent my head spinning, especially because the map itself was beautiful.
You're probably wondering how a dust-ridden tunnel can be beautiful - but I, I just don't know. Despite the cheesiness of the graphics, the soft ambient music - calm, slightly somber - created this fantastical feeling of being on an adventure that I hadn't felt in years. I could smell the stale dirt, see the phosphorescence of the waning electric light above, feel the crunch of my boots against the carefully set path...
You still had to click the pathway to move forward of course, and as you did so the menu would pop up. Better late than never, I suppose? You were greeted immediately with a questionnaire of all things. Which of the following appeals to you most of all, with a list of desserts - I chose cake. Would you rather stay at home, or leave your home? I chose leave. Where would you like to go, with a list of places - Park, Bay, Mountain, Forest, and... Research Hospital. Mmh-m. I really wanted to choose the last option, but I chose Forest. Of note - I'm capitalizing the choices here because they were capitalized in the text present. The penultimate question was, do you like archaeology, with a yes or no answer. I chose sure - and the last question was, are you having fun?
I had to think for a bit there - the questions had kind of ruined the mood, but I still felt pretty pumped, so I chose yes. The questionnaire then 'folded' itself up like paper and disappeared into the distance. I was kind of expecting it to go into the brown backpack icon that had appeared on the corner right of the screen, but no such luck.
Along the causeway of the dig, several items had been placed. Shards of pottery, burnt books, fragments of tools. You could investigate them, but not do much with them, and I began to get frustrated. The causeway went on for about twenty minutes, as I spent a lot of time trying to get any object to do anything - but again, nothing. Then I came to the end however, and everything changed.
There was a mask - one of those funerary masks they sometimes pressed for famous people who've since passed on. It was highly stylized, of white and blue ceramic, of a fairly old woman with a wrinkled face; the plaque nearby read that this was the grey lady. Despite my initial shock at a new and non-generic object, I couldn't find anything to do with the mask at first, and soon began to feel that I'd experienced everything there was to see in Tunnels. Turning away, I attempted to move back towards the entranceway and see if there was at least a credits section - but a strange 'thwickwickwick' reel of mechanisms caught my attention.
I had my character look back - nothing had apparently changed with the mask of the grey lady, but I knew that something had made that noise and I carefully spent time looking around the mask... When I noticed my cursor turn from a pinprick of light to a barely-visible crosshair. I clicked - and the underside of the mask 'slid' open, revealing a hidden compartment - filled with cake, and candy and chocolate.
Seriously weirded out, I moved the items aside - yes, even the cake, and it 'moved' about as naturally as you'd expect any 1990's game to move an object, completely undamaged by whatever limbs my character had - and underneath were several documents, talking about the grey lady in some detail - her life, her death, how she was perceived as a protector of children and a regional spirit, and her end of life in Forest.
Now we were getting somewhere. I noticed that the secret compartment itself had a hidden back, and tried moving that away - doing so caused the pedestal and the mask to slowly rotate, at about 15 FPS, and reveal a passageway up to a forest by the road. My character looked at the sun for a bit, then the game faded to a title screen that hadn't been there the first time I played. Only two options were visible - one with the crumpled 'paper' of the first questionnaire, and a small brown mask icon. I was curious why they hadn't chosen the mask of the grey lady - but the time it'd taken to play the game was maybe an hour, tops. Excited, I tried the mask icon.
Back in the tunnels, the pedestals had been removed, and the various artifacts scattered and broken - seemingly on purpose. Taking a step forward caused another different questionnaire - this was apparently the big thing that Tunnels had going, with your answers creating different stories or perhaps results; I didn't go back and try every option with previous questionnaires, which is probably what I regret most. This time, the questions were about physical activities - sports, recreational hobbies, the longest distance ever walked - with a draggable mile-line that went all the way to 10108. I filled in these pretty randomly and got much the same experience as before; the grey lady's mask, but the hidden compartment had been ransacked and there were used pill jars and a knife in place.
I could take the jars, empty as they were, but not the knife, which just made a strange metallic mewling sound when clicked on. It definitely sounded nothing like a knife, that's for certain.
Using the pill jars caused the tunnels to disappear, and I re-appeared in a maze of new tunnels - all alike. You could walk in any direction, but it didn't seem to matter, and eventually the terrain disappeared and I heard my character breathing - and then I was back at the title screen once again.
The third round, with a new icon - that of a fire - saw a tunnel complex without pedestals or light. The ambiance from the prior two trips was gone, replaced with a strange whirring sound, like a ceiling fan that had gotten snagged on something large, perhaps something wet.
And the stand of the grey lady was completely blasted - char remained where it had once been. Hesitantly, I tried interacting with the stand and then the char, but nothing happened. Heh, I even tried turning around to see if I'd trigger some providencial hint again, but nothing happened. I knew there must be something more, however, so I turned back around once again and started interacting with the wall, desperately. To my surprise, it used the same sound as the knife - and then began to rotate at the same speed as the pedestal had, earlier.
Behind the wall was an entire shrine.
Gigantic stone calendars lined the ceiling - at least I think they were calendars. In the center of the room was a huge statuary that I didn't recognize - it wasn't the grey lady, and I wasn't sure if there was a concrete mythology to the game. Perhaps I'd missed something. There were multiple areas on the statue I could interact with - the woman's hands, her eyes, and her horns. Did I mention the horns? They were perhaps as tall as my character seemed to be.
But there must have been a time limit - because my character slipped out of control, and the third questionnaire came up - asking if I preferred to be happy or to be sad, warmth or cold, groups or loneliness. I couldn't even fill out the damn thing before getting thrown back to the title screen again - and icon four, a painting of some kind, didn't start. Instead, it simply opened up the last icon I could find, one of a very stylized human face - kind of like one of those old dramaturgy masks, half-smiling and half-crying.
I was back in the tunnels maze, but I had the knife from before, and a very rudimentary health bar that looked like it'd been ripped from another game. The same ten-second loop of something breathing was playing, again and again. I couldn't find it... But it couldn't find me. Eventually, I heard something that sounded like it was deflating and received a prompt to use the knife. I don't know why, but I just waited, and the breathing sound queued up again. The camera shook wildly, and I received all sorts of questions, rapid-fire. Most were personal. My weight, for example - whether I was male or female. Which of the following names I loved most; and hated most. If I had ever worked for a branch of a certain military force; which age group I fell into. Sometimes they were more than that - embarrassingly personal.
Answering them - all of them, even the ones that began asking very specific things, yielded nothing at first. Then the title screen came up and one by one, the icons erased themselves and the game closed.
The experience was very brief, but I was perplexed, so I decided to try contacting the authors. I'm not sure which - or maybe both? - sibling I was talking to, but I actually got through. I know, I know, I should've capped it, but... It was a weird conversation.
AquaUltra: Hey Binefrons: Hello. Thank you for playing Tunnels! What did you think? AquaUltra: Hello, sorry, I'm not a very fast typist... AquaUltra: I enjoyed it, but it was short - and I wasn't sure what the point of all those questions was. I was wondering if you could explain? Binefrons: The questionnaire added replay value and a sense of thrill to the gaming experience. There were a lot of interesting hidden things in the game proper. Did you find all of them? Binefrons: Could you tell me, what affected you most?
I want to add that 'Binefrons' typed at a ludicrously fast speed. I mean, there was no delay between my question and the response.
AquaUltra: No, I don't think so, sorry. Probably the sense of claustrophobia, I guess? Of being in a place I shouldn't be? Binefrons: What sort of the place, of the following, would you say that reminded you of? A cavern; an attic; a warzone; a mental asylum..? AquaUltra: Who am I talking to?
At this point, Binefrons didn't type anything for maybe twenty minutes. At first I thought they'd just gotten angry or left, or had an internet issue or something. I'd started watching something when I got a response.
Binefrons: Sorry, that wasn't the question I asked. Could you try telling me which one of the above the following reminded you of? AquaUltra: A warzone. Binefrons: Thank you! We're trying to make the experience feel authentic. It's hard, since it's just the two of us. Binefrons: Would you be willing to take part in a clinical study to improve the quality of the game? AquaUltra: No, thank you. Binefrons: No - thank you. I'm really glad you enjoyed our game. Thank you for playing!
I thought that was it, but then something - and I'm not sure what, exactly, happened.
Binefrons: Binefrons: Binefrons: Binefrons: Binefrons: Have you ever been court-martialled? Binefrons: Did you receive a dishonorable discharge, or an honorable discharge? Binefrons: Would you be willing to testify in a jury of your peers? Binefrons: Have you ever held beliefs that could be considered harmful to yourself, your peers, or your country?
And then Binefrons logged off. I sent a copy of Tunnels to my friend - she couldn't access it, and the next day the game was off early access. The mystery itself became more interesting than the game, but eventually I started to forget about it, until recently - when I found several of the questions, word for word, in the 'test questions' page of book I used as a part-time TA. Further investigation revealed that many of the questions in the game - spelling and grammar mistakes included - were lifted entirely from other material. Leaving the question of how much else was lifted from other material - and what the purpose of the questions was.