One of the things that video games can do magnificently is create worlds. These posts are an occasional exploration of games that I love because of where they take me.
There are video games that strive to recreate the real world in one way or another: the Grand Theft Auto series, for instance, which satirises modern America in many respects, but in others it has been pushing for a more and more intricate, realistic representation of the urban everyday of New York or Los Angeles; or Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, where a Shropshire village in the 1980s constitutes the naturalistic setting for a cosy apocalypse that wouldn’t be out of place in a John Wyndham novel; or Dirt Rally 2.0 and its rally courses that have struck fear into the heart of this gamer without ever leaving the realm of the real.
Then there are games that create realities distinctly different from our own everyday reality. The likes of Paper Beast, which puts the player inside a virtual world with its own rules and its own forms of life coming to an end, or Device 6, which thrives on the kind of worldbuilding that is possible only with the written word, or Fez, combining the two- and the three-dimensional in ways that wouldn’t be possible outside the virtual spaces inside a computer’s memory.
Tunic is firmly in the latter camp, but that doesn’t make the world it evokes any less impressive.
However, what I find most impressive about Tunic‘s worldbuilding has nothing to do with the game world it presents us with at a first glance – though that world is lovely to look at and to be in, even if it may seem a bit too cutesy and twee for some people. Its tilt-shift, isometric visuals are the kind of pastiche of old-school gaming landscapes that are only possible now, with modern hardware, but they evoke the feel of classic games, like Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda series. On that level, the world Tunic evokes is lovely, both for relative newcomers to games and for those who were there when Link first donned his own green tunic and cap and went out into the wilderness to save the Princess Zelda.
What makes Tunic considerably more memorable for me is the way it recreates the early days of video gaming in much more fundamental ways. What Tunic does that is rare in gaming in 2022 is this: instead of presenting you with a tutorial or a set of instructions, it lets you find out things yourself – which sounds simple, but Tunic goes about this in a very systematic way. Want to know what a button does? Press it. Want to know what the object that you just picked up is used for? Use it? Want to know how to get through these metallic doors with a pattern etched on the front? Figure it out – and no, it won’t be as simple as finding a key lying around somewhere else on the overworld map.
Strewn throughout Tunic, there are glowing, fluttering objects the player (or rather his avatar, a cute anthropomorphized fox in a very Link-like outfit) can pick up, and these turn out to be a game manual – but for one thing, the pages are not in order, so you might end up with information on parts of the game that you won’t reach for hours, and for another thing, most of the manual is written in a fictional language, with symbols that evoke meaning but that you don’t understand… though, as you find more and more of this manual, you may start to figure out what some of these strange letters in a strange alphabet mean. All of this is compounded by notes, scribbled onto the manual pages with a blue biro, giving the player the sense that they are playing a game they found at a garage sale for one pound, with incomplete instructions and a palimpsest of information that previous owners left. What does the exclamation mark next to these symbols in the manual mean? Why did someone circle that diagram, and how might it help me get out of the current section of the game I’m stuck in?
All of this reminds me so much of playing video games as a kid, back in the ’80s. Back then, games hadn’t been codified to the extent that most of them have now. Developers were making up systems and idioms and control schemes. Obviously some of these quickly developed into norms – press the joystick up and your character moves upwards on the screen, push the big red button and your ship shoots big pixely bullets at the jerkily animated aliens moving towards you -, but many others didn’t. All the things that seem self-evident these days weren’t at a time when joysticks came with four directions, eight at most, and exactly one button. How do you activate your special power? Do you wiggle the joystick left and right? Do you press one of the keys on the keyboard? This was compounded by the reality that the vast majority of games I played on my C64 (and later Amiga) were pirate copies, so I was literally left without a manual.
All of this generated an even stronger feeling of exploration and discovery: the worlds you were exploring didn’t only exist on the screen, they were created somewhere in between the screen, the computer and the player. You were learning a new and different idiom with every game. Sometimes you learnt reasonably quickly, or the game offered enough to keep you interested as you tried to find out how to interact with it. Sometimes you decided that learning this particular language, these particular systems, simply wasn’t worth it, so you moved on to the next one. But there were so many games to move on to, and so many different worlds and systems and idioms. And there was no internet at the time that you could search for instructions, let alone a walkthrough. Don’t know how to survive on that raft? Don’t know how to keep yourself from being poisoned and dying because all you brought was a spinach dip? Well, no one ever told you that exploration was for the faint of heart!
Obviously Tunic doesn’t emulate this perfectly, and it shouldn’t. It’s good that there is an internet that can answer your questions. It’s good that games, by and large, are more approachable. It’s good that they have ways to onboard new players. It’s good that not every single game develops its own language and its own systems, and that you can use your understanding of how games work to play other games. But at the same time that sense of discovery is often lacking. The worlds we explore have become more intricate, more technologically impressive, but they often feel familiar. Whether you’re fighting in the trenches of a historical war or on the surface of a planet many thousand years into the future, it can sometimes feel like 95% of what you’re seeing, hearing and doing is the same. So when a game finds cool, interesting, surprising ways to make you feel that sense of exploration again, embrace it, because this is one of the things that video games can achieve so well, perhaps better than any other medium. If a video game lets you enter a world that you don’t understand yet, see what you can find and what you can learn. Discovery is its own reward – especially when you’re not held by the hand while you’re exploring.
P.S.: What makes Tunic even more impressive is that it was developed by a single person (though with the help of artists and composers). Congratulations to Andrew Shouldice for his achievement!