The hero of Tunic, a nameless little fox in a little green outfit, awakens near a cave. It’s tough to miss, marked by torches and a mailbox. Inside, there’s a weapon (a stick), and we take it because it’s dangerous to go alone. Nobody tells us to do this. We just sort of know, the way we know that there will be a sword eventually or that we’ll collect pieces of hidden health power-ups. Whether it’s by experience or general cultural osmosis, we know how this sort of game plays out. From its title to its former title (Secret Legend) to its mechanics and the way it looks, this is not a game shy about its influence from The Legend of Zelda. Tunic shifts the top-down perspective ever so slightly for more of a diorama look, but it’s unmistakable: this is a world where we will collect some mystical objects to open the way forward and run into little roadblocks that we can pass through later with the right item. Bosses, dungeons, explosives, shapes.
These are, of course, far from the shiniest tools in the toolbox. But Tunic does something genuinely enchanting with them, offsetting our familiarity by essentially baking that familiarity into the game itself. Lacking even the sparse text of the original Zelda’s old man in a cave, the game is willfully designed to be opaque and inscrutable in places because its text is predominantly written in made-up runic symbols. Think of The Wind Waker and those parts where the characters converse in an ancient language you don’t know, only that’s what most of Tunic looks like. The menus, the signposts, and the onscreen pop-up text when you enter a new area are only ever partially translated at best: when you pick up that stick in that cave, you have no idea what the game is saying besides the yes or no prompts, but you can surmise through what happens when you hit “OK” and through your experience with how video games work that it’s asking you to pick up the item.
Later, you’ll open a treasure chest and get a small sculpture of a fox head, accompanied by a pop-up menu with similarly illegible text. Are those symbols the name of the object, or is it a generic “You got an item!” message? We are meant to be puzzled, reliant on experience and context clues in addition to general experimentation: we can find out what the fox sculpture does by equipping it and then hitting the corresponding button to use it. Or perhaps we wait until we get the right page of the instruction manual, which functions as an in-game collectible. Collected out of order, the manual is written in the same confounding language but peppered with the sort of lush illustrations that recall a bygone era, something out of the box that you read in anticipation on the ride home. It’s a gorgeous thing to find and flip through as well as essential to progress, demonstrating new abilities while featuring maps and helpful scribbles from a prospective previous owner.
Manuals, however, have never been reliable. You can’t force people to look at one, and you can’t ensure that they even keep them in the first place. None of the cartridges I inherited from an uncle, for example, came with boxes; more than a few of those games I never figured out at all. As games grew more sophisticated, the contents of a manual increasingly became part of the game itself. Better graphics lessened the need for outside material to prime your imagination for what each block of pixels was supposed to represent. Detailed manuals persist now as nostalgia exercises, save for the odd game like Highfleet, which is certainly a nostalgia exercise in its own way, but is also complicated enough to more or less require the handsome PDF that accompanies it. In the form of a collectible, Tunic’s instructions become a sly workaround for our indifference, made to be a shiny reward rather than the homework we must do before starting the game.
And this is what’s so brilliant about the game’s piecemeal approach, providing pages out of order. You’re essentially forced to play Tunic as though you were supposed to read the instructions but didn’t have the patience. Or maybe it’s more like a kid who doesn’t really understand all the big words and doesn’t want to ask, or like a person who imported a game in a language where they only recognize a few words and phrases. Whatever the intended touchstone may be, Tunic simulates the less-confident grasp we had on these mechanics before they’d grown so widely exposed, before so many designs had been standardized. In Tunic, most of the new abilities are actions you could perform from the start, that you’d have theoretically known about if you read the manual from cover to cover.
But it’s risky to dredge up that approach to games, because it often induced frustration. Most aren’t designed to make you fumble your way forward. Technically, you’re supposed to wait until an imported game has been translated and you can actually understand the text, or you’re supposed to notice the signposting that an impatient kid might ignore outright. When I think of being stuck in a video game, I think of when I’ve missed details, or that I hadn’t yet learned that the game itself could be a problem (I still recall a particularly harrowing rental of Superman 64). I’d play things over again because they were what we had on hand, and because there might be something I had overlooked. I think of my willingness to brute-force my way through a game as a kid, because, free of a job or a deadline, I had the time to look in each corner and experiment with strange approaches.
Through a lot of extremely clever design, Tunic turns feeling your way around in the dark into more or less the intended way to play. The world is full of hidden chests and paths obscured by the scenery, the sort of places you might absently poke around in if you’re stuck. Discovering things feels downright revelatory: shortcuts you weren’t meant to find until later, paths that reveal new areas or give you a glimpse of something you’ll get down the road, mind alight at the possibilities for what happens in between. Trying some random button combination can reveal a new power. Progression-wise, the game appears traditionally gated by item requirements but is really a liberal sprinkling of the style in something like Outer Wilds, which restricts movement more by the fact that you haven’t learned what to do yet with your existing skillset. When you learn enough about Tunic, you can very well go back and take a different route altogether; I’m dying to see how speedrunners learn to piece it all together.
I hesitate to use the word “nostalgia” in this context because so much of the cultivation of nostalgia is empty. It tends to be a lot of referencing, banking on the power of stored emotions as they’re teased out with the right signifiers. Tunic works as well as it does because it’s built in the style of something we recognize, but its power does not come from being like Zelda. Its power comes from the way it cultivates a sense of mystery and discovery, recreating a new version of the mindset that we have only come to inhabit less and less often since we were small. And it does that while accommodating and incorporating the things we know now that we didn’t know then, making them all feel like new.