This is a story about an acquaintance of my cousin’s girlfriend’s brother.
Since as long as Dave could remember, adventure games have always been one of his passions. He loved it when he prepared a mummy for a beauty contest, he journeyed through the worlds of Strata, and was really amazed by the number of items one could find in a snake’s stomach.
However, his all-time favourite was "Toonstruck." It was an insane world with crazy clowns, masochistic cows, a real-life actor who starred in “Back to the Future,” “Who framed Roger Rabbit?”, and tons of dirty jokes. However, there was one bad thing about it: the completely unsatisfying ending. It belonged to the “To be continued” category, but there was never a sequel. Years ago he learned about a "Toonstruck 2" which was almost finished, but sadly never got released. He even discovered some screenies and video footage on the Net but was never able to find the actual game, neither on torrents nor on Ebay.
One day he was invited by a couple of his pals to a video game conference. To tell the truth, it was nothing special to him: mostly action and 3D shooters, with the exception of some shady guys selling outdated console games. While Dave’s pals were playing the new "Call of Duty" edition, he yawned constantly and looked at the clock, when suddenly he heard a voice calling him.
He turned around to see another shady guy, perhaps the shadiest of them all. This one was a tall man in a dark raincoat and a wide-brim, his face covered by a scarf and glasses. Everything, including his walking-stick, seemed extremely old-fashioned, worn and tattered, as if it came from the beginning of the last century. However, compared to the children dressed up as Hulk or Spiderman and some Duke Nukem cosplayers, he seemed to be almost the epitome of normality.
"I just wanted to offer you something." His voice was low and raspy, as if he had been screaming for hours.
"What, another NES game?" Dave was way too bored to be bothered by politeness.
"No, something much better." As he put his hand inside his enormous raincoat and took it out, Dave saw a CD case. "Toonstruck 2. Have you heard about it?"
As excited as he was, Dave understood it could have easily been a fake. The disk case was blank, without any images or letters: it could equally be a test copy from the Burst office, just an empty CD or virtually anything else. Therefore he asked, “How much for it?”
The man seemed to smile under his scarf. “Just two bucks, kid. Two bucks and…”
"Nothing, just two bucks."
Dave suppressed an urge to scream out in excitement. Just two bucks! Even if it was phony, there was nothing to lose. This guy surely didn’t look like a retired Virgin employee, so perhaps he bought the game from one of them… or simply stole it. Ok, never mind, even if it had been stolen from the company back in the late 1990’s, nobody will ever learn about it.
"Alright, it’s a deal." As he stepped closer to the man, he noticed something he didn’t before: a small badge on his raincoat. In stark contrast to his appearance, it was bright with a coloured whirlwind (just like the ones painted on the "Toonstruck" disks) and words: “Mr. Tambourine Man!” Dave had wanted to laugh, but instead it scared him for some reason.
He was so impatient that he didn’t wait for his friends and got home by taxi instead. As he quickly took off his coat and sneakers, he launched his PC and put the disk inside. After a fairly usual installation program me (Unlike the first "Toonstruck," it was adapted for modern systems and ran pretty smoothly on his Vista.) the game started. The intro was identical to the first game: the same Virgin logo inside a human eye, etc. But the menu screen was completely different: it had a big map of the whole Toon world, and the music was “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” by Tchaikovsky.
He squealed in delight and pressed “Start”. It started with the exact cutscene that concluded the original game. As soon as Drew was sucked into the cartoon world, it continued with him waking up in Zanydu and recovering his bottomless bag. Flux told him the situation over the communication device: both Nefarious and Fluffy are still at large. Fluffy, disguised as King Hugh, is planning to conquer both the toon and the real world by using Bricabrac’s creating device. The only chance of stopping them could be using Drew’s own imagination, represented by the legendary Lighthouse of Creativity on a sky island.
Drew could get there via the “Train of Thought,” right from the place where he was standing, and Flux would meet him somewhere up there. However, Flux gave him a shadowy warning about “the unfortunate implications” and “the kind of evil you’ve never encountered before”. As he put it, “even Nefarious and Fluffy are cuddly rabbits compared to this… well, the latter actually IS one.” He gave a nervous chuckle, though he seemed to be much more serious than ever before. After they finished the dialogue, Drew jumped on a multicolored train full of toon characters, drove up into the sky and finally arrived at the crossroads location.
It was really captivating at first. It was clear that the game took on a Psychonauts-type direction, exploring both the beautiful and the ugly sides of Drew’s inner world. The middle path was the road to the lighthouse, but there was no way to get in. Drew needed two keys: the Sweet Key and the Nasty Key, which could be obtained in any order. Dave started with the first one and chose the left path on the crossroads.
The cutscenes showed either Fluffy’s or Nefarious’ plans, with the latter once again sending his henchmen after Drew. After a while of gameplay, which included a duel with a Wild West cowboy, obtaining a sheriff star, tricking the henchmen of Nefarious and stealing their prostheses (Lugnut’s hearing aid and Feedback’s mouthpiece), there was a meeting with Van Gogh (Drew’s idol) which almost resulted in Drew becoming his model. However, Van Gogh was on the verge of hysterics because of his obvious hearing troubles. Drew solved the problem by giving him Lugnut’s device, and in exchange Van Gogh handed him the Sweet Key. It was sweet in the literal sense of the word, for it was a cake painted in the style of Van Gogh’s Starry Night.
At this point, Dave felt extremely exhausted, for he was already sitting behind the computer for several hours. However, his curiosity got the best of him, and he went on to explore the right path on the Crossroads. It seemed even cooler than the “good” part of the island, since it included lots of horror movie spoofs. However, the spoofs got more and more serious as he proceeded. One scene had Drew sitting in the evil dentist’s chair, and if he didn’t react quickly enough, this ended in a quite gruesome Sierra-style death screen. (This surely didn’t help that it was accompanied by Henryk Kuzniak’s Tango D’Amore.) Another was a room full of dummies that all looked a bit similar to Spike. When Drew went to the other corner of the room, they began to whisper behind his back.
Eventually Drew found himself in a place called “Tooniverse Club.” There were zombie bunnies and other monsters, with the bartender (B.B. Wolf himself, in appropriate attire) standing behind the counter, pouring cocktails of a suspiciously red hue: it certainly was neither Chablis nor the prune wine. Dave clicked on a chair to sit down. “Good evening, Mr. Blanc. We haven’t seen each other since that party of mine. Quite a remarkable coincidence, isn’t it?” - the wolf greeted him. Suddenly a nearby customer turned to Drew, and Dave saw that it was Fluffy in an evening dress, holding a piece of cotton candy of the same cardinal tint. A close-up shot of Drew’s face showed that he was just as shocked as was the player.
“Hi, Drew,” she chirped.
“What the hell is happening?!” he screamed.
“I think it's time to tell you something,” the rabbit replied in her usual cheerful voice.
“THEN DO IT!” Drew yelled.
"You’ve been on the wrong side all along, Drew. With your talent, you’ve opened up a portal to this world, and we all used it to invade the real world. After our first plan failed, we had to lure you into the toon world once more. All these rabbits are really anything but rabbits…"
"What are they?"
"This won’t mean anything to you, but in fact they’re shoggoths. This is a sort of thing humans are not meant to know. Even former humans…"
"But what’s about Nefarious and his henchmen?!"
"They never actually existed. We had to come up with an excuse for why would you help us. We can shapeshift, remember it. Ha-ha-ha!"
Suddenly, the crazy dentist appeared on the club’s scene. He was rolling his cot in front of him, and there was a real-life man tied up on the cot… Sam Schmaltz!
"The boss?! What is he doing here?"
"He was on our side all along. Admit it, you hated all these rabbits he made you draw, and your hatred was like fuel to us all. But now we don’t need him anymore, we have many other people from all around the world to help us."
"What do you mean?"
"Just do what you’ve always wanted, Drew. Now you’re one of us, and you need this final step to complete this… SHOOT HIM, DREW!"
The cutscene ended, and now Dave was in control once again. There was a gun from the Wild West in Drew’s inventory. Without hesitation, Dave took it out and used it on Fluffy.
“Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! You’re truly foolish if you think you can shoot a shoggoth!”
Dave tried several other options, but there seemed to be none. Reluctantly, he used the gun on Sam.
Drew put on a white cowboy hat (which was in the inventory as well), looked at himself in the mirror, adjusted his hat a bit, took out the gun and pointed it at Sam…
Suddenly, the game was interrupted by a strike of lightning, and the power in the whole house went off. Astonished, Dave looked outside and saw a fallen power line. Strangely, it calmed him. “Just an accident. Must be a mere coincidence,” he thought to himself. He even put on his coat and went outside to see what had happened, but when he was trying to open the door, the door handle suddenly broke off in his hand.
Frightened but still trying to remain calm, Dave took out his cell phone and called 911. “Umm… Excuse me. My name is David Mitchell, there’s a fallen power line near my house, and the electricity is off. My address is…” What he heard in response was this. Almost fainting, Dave hung up and called the police instead. This, time the answer was the following. Dave’s hands were shaking so hard that he dropped the cell phone and it crashed, but it didn’t matter to him anymore.
Suddenly he heard something resembling the noise of a party, and though it was against all logical sense, he went to see what it was. The sounds were coming from his kitchen, but the kitchen was empty. He listened carefully and realized that the noise was from his fridge. Fully understanding the absurdity of the situation, he quietly sneaked to the fridge and suddenly opened it. What he saw made him completely drop his jaw, for it was neither his ordinary fridge with food and drinks nor anything resembling a party. Instead, he saw a dark and frost-covered tunnel heading somewhere he couldn’t see, and the party noise was coming from the tunnel.
Dave’s current condition was beyond fear; he was now in the “nothing to lose” state. That’s why he went into the hall, put on his winter hat, coat and gloves, climbed inside the fridge and went ahead. The tunnel was larger than expected; it must have been at least several hundreds meters long, with several forks.
By pure intuition, without following any explicit logic, Dave chose the right direction; he was too tired of being scared, so the only feeling guiding him now was the curiosity of an explorer. Startlingly, he saw a shimmering light in one of the paths. He followed it (though the noise was coming from the opposite direction) until he saw a metal door with a neon sign “Frank’s Cryo Crypt”. He turned the doorknob, and surprisingly, unlike the one at his own house, it budged. He entered what seemed to be a medical lab with operation tables.
It looked exactly like the ones from some horror movie, with one difference: instead of blood, there were traces of a strange emerald-green substance. Well, perhaps it was blood, just not human. He opened one of the drawers in the walls, and suddenly, a strange small cartoony creature looking like a green zombie rabbit in a pink tie and a top hat jumped out. Dave recoiled in fright, but the creature seemed to be even more afraid than he was, for it quickly jumped outside of the lab.
Only then Dave noticed that the room had another exit. Once again hopeful, he hurried to the door almost as hastily as the creature did and looked outside. Yes, it was fresh air of the outside world!
However, his happiness faded when he saw that it wasn’t exactly the same world as the one he left. It was a dark, rainy street, and the first thing that he saw was a neon sign saying “Seedy’s.” Very far off there were some psychedelic-colored hills with buildings that reminded him of Cutopian houses.
Dave looked at the ground and noticed a paperback that seemed to have been dropped by the creature. It was titled “Who flushed Ziggy Puffer, or the official Toonstruck 2 Hintbook”. He opened it to find the following text:
“Hello player (what’s your name?),
You have entered my game.
Drink with Irish/Scottish cheese,
And then make a Snout sneeze.
Play with masochistic cow,
Get a suit for Care-Crow.
Flush a fish in Zanydu,
But it won’t help you, too.
The only way to outside
Is finding all the keys I hide”
It was followed by a list of keys needed to locate. It included the Sweet Key, the Nasty Key, the Silver Key, the Ruby Key, the Mystery Key, the Sludge Key, the Nonexistent Key, etc. The next pages included illustrations that looked like Tim Burton’s works.
Unfortunately (or fortunately), Dave didn’t remember anything from that point. Perhaps his journey in search of the keys could be a story for another time or even constitute a book or an adventure game on its own, but all he remembered was a sudden loud ringing sound.
He woke up on the sofa in his living room and realized that the ringing came from the hallway. He ran to his door and let in his two pals, Gabe and Steve. The latter was a nerdy looking short guy with glasses, and the former was pretty sporty, tall and muscular.
"Hi Dave, how are you feeling?" he asked.
"Umm… Not bad, but I’ve just got up. You guys woke me from a really bad dream," he responded.
"We just wanted to make sure everything is ok. Yesterday you looked really bad by the end of the evening."
"What? But I left a few hours before the end; I got a taxi and drove home."
"You must be still sleepy, dude. You were with us until the closing of the festival, you felt exhausted and almost sick. We even thought you ate something bad."
"What? Didn’t you guys see that vagrant-looking man in a dark raincoat? He was wearing such a strange badge."
Of course Gabe didn’t see him, and neither did Steve. This almost convinced Dave that it was all part of a dream. They chatted for a while, snacked on some colas and chips, and finally Gabe and Steve left. This could have been the end of the story, but it wasn’t. Remember, Dave was almost convinced that everything was right, and he wanted to know for sure. He opened his iPad and typed in “Toonstruck 2.” Again, there were screenshots he had seen hundreds of times, and interviews he already knew by heart. But this time, something else caught his attention. A really small link on one of the less known adventure sites entitled “Toonstruck: the dark side of story.” The link was dead, and he had to use a Wayback machine to open the page.
According to the article, the story of Toonstruck was one of the darkest and most mysterious pages of adventure gaming history. It all started with some guy, whose name was still unknown (but it surely wasn’t Drew Blanc), but who really was a genius artist and animator. Once he got into an argument with his boss, who didn’t give a greenlight for his new show.
Starting from this point, this man’s mind started to shatter, and he began to confuse his toon worlds with reality. He killed his boss and went on the run through all the United States and Mexico, living in cheap motels and rented rooms and travelling either by train, by hitchhiking or on foot. He took his sketchbook with him and continued drawing all the while, living in a mixed world of reality and surreal.
His drawings were accompanied by written notes, and it was clear from them that he had created a whole world with a lot of characters and locations. Some of them were based on places he had been to and people he had met: for instance, the Wild West location was surely inspired by Mexico, while the gloomy industrial districts of Malevolands could have been influenced by the ruins of Detroit. At the same time, others were just a figment of his vivid imagination.
It’s still unknown whether he committed any more crimes during this period, but he was reported to having done strange things, such as sending his drawings and texts to nonexistent addresses or leaving encrypted messages in his hotel rooms. (At one hotel he even used toothpaste to write a message on the mirror.) Certain criminalists suggested that his paintings had their own code. Judging from the notes, he seemed to believe he was trying to save the world from destruction by some unknown evil forces, he spoke about worldwide conspiracies and other strange things. Eventually he was caught, proved insane and deemed a mental case. His further fate is still unknown; there are equal possibilities of him either being dead by now, still locked up in the loony bin or living a quiet life in some ho-dunk town in Arizona.
However, the story was not over. A few years later David Bishop, who worked at a Virgin subsidiary called Burst, had the idea for a game named “Trouble in Toonland.” It would have been a children’s adventure about a boy named Daniel, with his toon friend Gerald, saving the Toonland from a black-and-white villain Ghastly Graham. Meanwhile, one of the Virgin’s executives saw this very sketchbook at an auction selling crime memorabilia and became obsessed with it. He bought it at the auction and desired to make an adventure game out of it.
He convinced David to make some “minor” changes to the script, making it more appropriate for an adult audience. In fact, the first game was “testing the waters,” being mostly sweet with just a few nasty details like a masochistic cow to test the audience’s reaction. It included very little of this guy’s original sketches and was heavily reworked, changing all the names. They expected to make up for the financial disaster with the second installment, which would have been much darker, including all the creepy things created by him.
They didn’t expect Christopher Lloyd to star in a game like that; that’s why Drew Blanc was turned into a toon by the end of the first game. But this wasn’t enough to avoid a scandal: while they actually did manage to complete the work on "Toonstruck 2," some of the employees were strongly against its release because “it would be a very cruel joke for anyone who has played the first game” and they were not ready to “take the responsibility for the release of THAT.”
Finally the release of the game was scrapped, and eventually both the game disk and the sketchbook were lost. The official comment on this was the project being abandoned for financial reasons. They even took out a few screenshots from the most innocent parts of the game and put them up on the net. Everyone, except the most devoted fans (“Just like myself… until last night," - Dave thought to himself) bought this, and the story was concluded.
The article was written by Mark Bergman, who used to work for Burst during these years. He surely wasn’t a big shot there, for Dave didn’t find any mentions of him anywhere on the Net. But as he was about to give up, a title suddenly popped up: “The disappearance of a former Virgin employee“. Dave’s heart skipped a beat when he opened it: “Mark Bergman, age 36, was reported missing by his neighbors after he had driven away for a weekend and hadn’t returned home for a week.
Mr. Bergman, who used to be an employee of Burst, a subsidiary of Virgin, was currently working as a programmer in a small IT company in his home city.” The article said that Mr. Bergman’s car was later found crashed in middle of the Nevada Desert, without anybody inside, and the police had no idea how it had got there and what had happened to it. The seat cushions were torn, apparently, by the claws of some beastly animal, but they didn’t find any traces of blood. The only clue found at the scene of the crime was a small badge.
The article included a photograph of it, and it looked exactly like the one worn by the strange man, but it was colored in the shades of green and had the word “GHERKIN” printed on it. This piece of news was dated 25th May 2004: about three weeks after the publication of Bergman’s article.
As Dave read this, he heard someone laugh behind his back. It was the strange man who sold him the game disc, but now he recognized that laugh. The laugh of a demented clown who tortured balloon animals. SPIKE.