You’d be remiss for thinking this year’s universal indie hit Tunic was nothing more than a clone of The Legend of Zelda. Yes, the diminutive fox hero certainly resembles everyone’s favourite Hero of Time, yet Tunic plays quite differently than its most prominent inspiration. Not once do bows, hookshots, or boomerangs help Tunic’s protagonist solve puzzles nor do evil pig-men require the sword of evil’s bane to defeat.
Regardless of these differences and plentiful modern conveniences, we couldn’t shake the feeling that a retro essence permeates nearly every facet of the game; every minute we spent in this vibrant world ringing bells and collecting medallions triggered nostalgia for a bygone era of gaming – and not specifically of Zelda. We, as the player, couldn’t quite place what made us feel this way, so we reached out to the one man who could answer better than any other, lead developer Andrew Shouldice, and asked him from where Tunic’s roots sprouted.
“Inspiration [for Tunic] came from the classic sources of playing old games… I grew up on video games of the '80s and '90s,” Shouldice told us. “That era of NES games really spoke to me. We talk a lot about nostalgia, and a lot of the time I think that comes from not understanding what’s going on. When your imagination is free to fill in the gaps, a world becomes larger and more powerful in your mind. The more you learn about the world and video games and computers, how they work, the more concrete a box gets drawn around your concept of what a game could be. But when you’re a kid, you don’t have that.”
In short, Shouldice explained that he didn’t want to take a retro-style game and modernise it. Rather, he wanted to make a modern game that evokes the same emotions as a retro game. As he learned to program, making a video game like this was always the goal at the back of his mind. He wanted to codify that mystery and wonder that evolved from not knowing, to evoke a feeling that feeds into what we later equate to nostalgia.
Many years later, Shouldice successfully did so, releasing Tunic to critical acclaim. He didn’t do it alone – he stressed that many hands had helped. “As the team tells me, it’s my game. I can say that. It’s allowed,” Shouldice said with a laugh. “But there were definitely a lot of people contributing to [Tunic].” These included developer Finji lending support, audio design by Power Up Audio’s Kevin Regamey, Lifeform and Janice Kwan composing the soundtrack, and Eric Billingsley joining later in development to help decorate Tunic’s world.
But the specific inspirations for Tunic were Shouldice’s own. He had made lists of the games and moments which made him feel like the world went on forever, for example. That the boundaries weren’t so defined. When asked which games specifically, the original Zelda wasn’t the first that he mentioned. In fact, he cited an even more iconic NES game.
“We had a copy of Super Mario Bros. at home," he explains. "One of my memories was finding the Warp Zone for the first time. I want to think of it as this important moment with a lot of gravitas… I was very young at the time. The word ‘Zone’ was an unusual one that I probably hadn’t seen before. Warp was a word that I hadn’t seen before. [Walking along the top of the level], doing something that feels like you would break the game… and then it says a bunch of words you don’t understand. It was paralysing and wonderful. I feel like that moment, being overly poetic about it, rippled forward with unknowable languages and new, secret potential.”
Unknowable languages would become one of Tunic’s most distinctive features. Both the in-game instruction manual and dialogue are written in a cryptic tongue, leaving you to infer meaning. Much like when we were children, this inference leaves much of the story up to our imagination and the mechanics for us to discover and guess at, rather than being told and shown the boundaries of the game. The less you know about these boundaries, the more secret potential a game like Tunic has.
“Early on in [StarTropics] you can find a really powerful item in a secret room. In that secret room there’s another secret passage, and you go through that secret passage and there’s an identical room with another cool treasure. And in that room there’s another button you press that goes to another room with a lake full of bones and you instantly die. I carry this [experience] with me as something sinister and dark. A weird trick that was played on me.”
Similar to StarTropics, Shouldice said Fez is pretty magical in his mind. A prime example of what he calls “paced reveals,” those that played Fez when it first released a decade ago or shortly after had a unique experience as the depth of the game hadn’t been uncovered. Many played through Phil Fish’s puzzle platformer to the end without knowing of the layers upon layers of well-hidden secrets and came away happy regardless.
“You get to the end [of Fez] and realise that every part of the game has an extra dimension,” Shouldice elaborated. “And the analogy is that this isn’t just a 2D world – it’s a cube. The game itself has a new dimension you didn’t see; every point has new meaning and stuff to understand behind it. I love that because that’s the greatest gift a secret can provide to you as a player. ‘Hey this game you thought was neat? Not only is there more of it, but it integrates with all of the stuff you already knew.’ It’s like discovering a bombable wall for the first time in Zelda. Every wall could now be a potential secret. I definitely was thinking a lot about this while working on Tunic.”
Tunic’s in-game instruction manuals, its most original and Fez-like mechanic, play a pivotal role in every aspect of the game, especially with puzzles that weren’t based on whacking switches in a certain order or hauling blocks onto the correct pressure plate. Rather, these puzzles require you to decipher the gorgeous artwork and infer from that cryptic language to learn where to go, what to do, and how to do it. Pages of these manuals were scattered throughout Tunic’s world for you to find, and collecting each page feels almost as impactful as discovering a hidden room or reaching the Warp Zone in Super Mario Bros.
This idea came from when Shouldice would visit his friend’s houses when he was younger, and instead of watching them play, he’d flip through an instruction manual, not fully comprehending what it tried to communicate to him. Reflecting upon this experience, Shouldice realised Tunic had to have a manual in it with his own cryptic language. It was a perfect way, he said, of replicating the feeling of being a kid and not being fully equipped to understand. We wholeheartedly agreed with him as, while reviewing Tunic for Nintendo Life, we hadn’t realised we could parry monsters’ attacks until quite late because we failed to properly examine the page with that information on it. It came as a revelation that inspired us to wonder at what else we might’ve missed.
These pages are so important that all 56 must be found to achieve the game’s true ending, yet you must also use them to solve a sprawling riddle featuring hidden statues and some very Fez-like logic puzzles to find the last few. Even outside of these late-game trials, Shouldice layered many little secrets into Tunic to always give the sense that there was something more there, something to be discovered. In fact, some late-game puzzles were so obscure that we asked Shouldice if everything about Tunic had been discovered; Fez, for example, has puzzles that fans still haven’t solved.
He answered our question with a laugh. “Saying 'go home everybody, no more fun to be had' is not something I ever want to do, but I can now say with confidence that there’s at least a couple of things out there that people haven’t stumbled into yet.” We hope fans of Tunic never find all the mysteries the game has to offer, or that Shouldice never reveals if they’re all uncovered; as a monument to childhood wonder and games from two to three decades ago, it would be tragic for us to see the boundaries form around one of 2022’s most successful indie games – to see that potential for discovery eliminated and the last layer exposed.
To close, we asked him how he feels now that Tunic has been well-received across all modern platforms. “Anybody making anything for any length of time – seven years [for Tunic] – is going to have a lot of doubts about it. I certainly did," he replies. "The moment of pressing the publish button and seeing the reviews… knowing that feeling of nostalgia, wonder, exploration, childlike glee, and seeing what’s behind this waterfall, that all of that made it through, is the big win. It’s wonderful. I feel very fortunate.”
But even if every corner and crevice of Tunic is illuminated, Shouldice gives us hope for future games that encapsulate this nostalgic wonder. When asked what’s next for him and the world of Tunic – perhaps a Tunic 64? – he stressed, quite sternly, that there were no official announcements.
“There’s nothing like that in the works,” he continues. “But I love games about secrets and discovery. I would be surprised if I didn’t try and do something like that again. Maybe make something with characters, you know? Some dialogue that is actually readable would be nice.”