Tunic is a game about a little fox, and big ideas. Many of these ideas it wears on its sleeve readily. The first that immediately jumps out to a casual observer is that despite its isometric graphics, it looks a little bit like The Legend Of Zelda; when you finally get a sword (after beating back slimes with a stick) you can even chop grass and bushes, just like Link.
Shortly after, you’ll fight tougher sword-wielding, pig knights with shields. Rolling to dodge attacks and stamina management suddenly reveal themselves as integral parts of the games. Suspicion rises, and shortly after you’ll be delving into knotty dungeons that knit themselves together with smart shortcuts. Ah, it’s Dark Souls!
Then, you’ll inevitably notice a few odd things here and there – shortcuts and places you can get to that maybe you shouldn’t be able to get to; geometrical tricks meticulously designed and folded into the world seamlessly. There’s also a mysterious language that crops up, runic and obtuse and… well, that’s Fez, right?
Lead designer Andrew Shouldice confirms my suggestions with a grin: “there’s definitely a document somewhere that has those three games listed right next to each other. Good work!” But, that’s the easy stuff. Tunic does wear these influences heavily. Shouldice also says he was influenced by Ustwo Games’ mobile puzzler Monument Valley, “what would it be like if you had a game like that, but it wasn’t these little dioramas, you’re exploring a larger space. That’s definitely something I’ve thought about a lot over the years.”
The diorama aesthetic of Monument Valley definitely shines through in Tunic. The short demo that was available after E3 was beautiful, a soft-shaded, gradient-filled dream world, with a wonderful breezy soundtrack that invited many players in. Tunic has been in development since 2016 though, and there’s a lot going on beneath the surface. When players pause, they’ll note that the game pops them out of a screen, leaving them to view a dim CRT in the background. It’s here where the game’s manual is eventually pieced together.
In-game, they will find pages – these pages can be accessed via pausing, and reveal a classic, 16-bit era, Legend Of Zelda or, Super Mario, Or Sonic The Hedgehog style instruction manual complete with maps, hints, and instructions. This is where I learned, 25 minutes into the demo, that holding the roll button let me sprint. On restarting the demo it was clear I could always do this, but it wasn’t until the manual spelled it out to me that I picked it up. It’s a key trick of the game, and something Shouldice feels is a key element of Tunic.
“There’s this feeling of leafing through a manual, and not understanding everything that’s in it, trying to comprehend it, finding secrets that are buried inside it,” says Shouldice, explaining how the manual is going beyond just aesthetic dressing. He shows me a pristine copy of the manual for The Adventure Of Link that he keeps on hand during development, a “fun little artifact” but something that’s full of controller diagrams, illustrations, and photographs of CRT screens that point to secrets and areas of interest.
“There’s something really special about the object of these things, leafing through them and almost having them be a part of the game themselves.” Shouldice explains further: “you might find some secrets marked on the map, they’re a little bit unobvious perhaps, and we are trying to do that sort of all over the place, you know, bury secrets in the manual and use it to tell the story.”
There’s an interesting compromise in Tunic’s manual though. We talk about how older manuals were both incredibly enticing, but also completely at odds with the way that modern audiences consume media, treating each new area and new area as a secret to discover and cherish, whereas Link’s Awakening named every one of the game’s eight dungeons in its manual. Shouldice talks of a “middle ground” where the manual can be drawn out and separated in the game world through its pages, meted out when the story or pace of exploration deems them necessary. One thing that Shouldice is adamant on however is that “nothing in the game unlocks mechanically based on having a page. It’s just a piece of paper. That’s pretty strong as a game philosophy… nothing magic happens.”
This part of Tunic’s design is part of what attracted producer Felix Kramer to the project. Kramer, who has worked on games such as Fez and Blaseball is no stranger to unique ideas and innovations, and they talked about how they felt about the game’s use of a manual and the era of games that it evoked: “I used to spend time with friends playing obtuse games that we rented because the box art was cool, trying to figure out manuals before we could fully decipher what the game was about – all with missing pages and cryptic notes from previous renters, it almost felt like we weren’t supposed to be doing it. ”
Tunic does feel, in a way like a game of forbidden charms, evoking an era of gaming not just in a flat, reverent way, where the graphics or the gameplay or the music toy with our perceptions of the mid-90s by creating facsimiles. Instead, Tunic sets out to capture a specific feeling of exploration and challenge that was present in older games, the feeling of struggling uphill with a playful manual at hand, and it does so in a more holistic way. As a result of this, Tunic is surprisingly hard.
Given the ever-present debate about accessibility and difficulty in games, I raise a concern I have with Shouldice, that the game’s aesthetic and presentation may invite players into the game that are unprepared for its demanding, stamina-based combat which borrows heavily from the Souls games. “The reason for the difficulty, generally speaking,” says Shouldice “is to help people feel like they are a tiny fox in an inhospitable world, and to make you feel brave and courageous as you take on the challenges around you.”
Level artist Eric Billingsley also has an interesting take on the way the game’s difficulty and presentation intertwine “the flip side is that someone might come in [to Tunic] seeing that it looks like maybe a game that could be a bit more casual to pay and then realise, oh, maybe I do like this kind of thing,” referring to our discussions of games like Dark Souls and Bloodborne, “and maybe it’s not the type of person who would have played a grimy looking Soulslike or something, and maybe we introduce them to that kind of thing.”
“Not everything needs to be in the ‘if it’s hard it needs to be largely beige quadrant!’ chips in Shouldice, “it can be easy to say something like Fez is straightforward and easy because it has no fail state, but I was recently revisiting it and yeah, some of it is demanding.” Billingelsy adds that the game is designed in such a way that roadblocks shouldn’t happen as there are nearly always multiple places you can explore (the demo is less freeform, with lots of construction work signs blocking areas off). Billingsley also believes that repetition and success are important, “if you feel like you’re improving each time, and that you’re eventually going to get it, that’s an important aspect in everything. It makes it all the more satisfying when you finally do it.”
Parallel in some ways to the axis of difficulty is accessibility, which is also amongst Shouldice’s concerns, especially when working with a publisher like Finji, whose accessibility options in the recent Chicory went as far as turning off the wet sounds that might cause people with misophonia to feel uncomfortable. “The M.O. of Finji, in general, is to make sure there are decently robust accessibility in their games. I think there are lots of ways to make sure people are going to be able to have a good time with something that isn’t just necessarily renaming hard mode and easy mode, you know?”
Kramer also adds that they believe it’s on them to communicate a game that requires “patience, practice, and perseverance” but wants players to feel that they will find themselves “rewarded for going places they might think they shouldn’t go, or finding ways around situations that look daunting or scary.” This is a philosophy that ties directly into Tunic’s core influences of Dark Souls and the original Legend Of Zelda, especially in the way that the game’s intricate world and levels are designed.
Tunic’s world looks vast to begin with, but as you zoom into ground level to play as the tiny fox, it becomes clear that it’s less a sprawling expanse, and more a densely plotted series of interconnecting areas and zones. Billingsley, who handled level art, worked hand in hand with Shouldice to turn simple boxy designs into intricate levels, and often needed to flatten them back into 2D maps that could be represented in the game’s digital manual. Secrets and exploration is a key element though: “the way the spaces are connected, you might not realize this shortcut is there unless you go on to the other side of it, and then you come back”. The vertical slice the demo presents is less open than this, but its small size betrays the wealth of secrets and shortcuts within.
People were incredibly thorough with Tunic’s demo, with some going as far to debug the game to break its tight boundaries, but beyond more obvious looping shortcuts, Shouldice said he enjoyed filling the demo with secrets, including one secret that is completely unmarked: “I like that sort of stuff is entirely arbitrary and there if you find it, but if you don’t, that’s okay.” The secrets are often so well hidden, that even Billingsley didn’t catch all of them until playing through the game.
For all of Tunic’s references, and nods to the past this little adventure about a fox is still its own thing. Shouldice is especially satisfied with the way they have stuck to their guns with the game’s isometric design. Whilst the viewpoint is frequently used to provide clear and concise information to people, in strategy games, visual blueprints and design documents, Shouldice and Billingsley have used it to draw the players eye “in such a way that they move through the world and can explore properly but allowing them every now and again, to slip behind a corner that looks like they shouldn’t be able to slip behind it.”
This is vital to Tunic’s identity too – its crisp visual language renders things simultaneously baffling and evocative. Early in my playthrough I didn’t realise that bushes were bushes, until I chopped some up with a sword. Billinsgfley related the challenge he found in how to take the clean isometric look and apply it to natural environments. In a game world that needs to convey the sort of overgrown ruinous decay of a Soulslike, he found himself wondering “how often do we want to put those details in? that’s a constant balance we have to maintain”.
I think that this is scratching at what’s key to the innate interest at Tunic’s heart. It maintains a constant balance with old and new, known and unknown, the clear and the obscure. The games it references will prime many players for its secrets, but in other ways it sidesteps those direct influences by aiming beyond them, and into something slightly more tenuous, a feeling conjured by certain design ideas, by the game’s homage to paper manuals and beyond.
The main mystery that’s left to solve (beyond the game’s release date – Finji let me know that whilst the game is circling a final development period, – Tunic won’t be released for some time) is the game’s mysterious language. These hieroglyphics and runes turn up everywhere, from within the game’s manual, to its in-game signs, with only pictograms of items and control buttons helping make any sense of it. When I ask Shouldice, he’s baffled: “I don’t think anybody needs to worry about the secret language. I don’t think that it’s worth anybody’s time really. It’s probably nothing.”Billingsley also adds that he isn’t “actually sure what’s being referenced. I’ve not seen anything like that”
Maybe they haven’t seen that page in the manual yet, or perhaps it really is absolutely nothing players should be concerned with. Either way, Tunic is shaping up to be an unforgettable experience: tough, evocative, standing on the shoulders of giants, but confidently forging its own way. I can’t wait to see where this little fox ends up, after all, it’s a wide, terrifying world out there.
Tunic is planned to launch in 2021 for the Xbox One, Microsoft Windows and macOS.