tunic is a video game's video game

I complained in my last essay about CONTROL's unwillingness to lean into being a video game. I'd been hoping it would violate its own spaces and mechanical boundaries in order to both amplify the potential of its premise and to highlight why video games have unique and untapped power to convey strangeness and unreality through mechanical, narrative, and level design. Alas.

So of course the next game on my to-do list was Tunic, a video game about its own video game-ness if ever there was one.

(i hear you buddy)

I think Tunic is best known as the indie Zelda clone where you collect the instruction booklet in-game, and also the booklet's not in English. That part of the premise harkens to a very specific nostalgia – one I didn't experience much. Though I played games in the NES/SNES era from which Tunic draws its aesthetic influences, I was interested neither in importing Japanese games where I had to decipher meaning nor in reading instruction booklets, as a rule.

But there's more to Tunic than the booklet hook, though it's the best lens through which to see what else is going on. The instructions provide all of Tunic's expository storytelling, and the fact that you collect the book in scattered non-linear pages means that certain narrative twists or bits of intrigue can be placed in logical places in the “page order” of the book while also being given to you right when it'll make the story beat land with the most heaviness. The booklet is both the game's primary mode of storytelling and the story itself.

The booklet is somehow both a lovingly depicted physical object–you flip through the pages with satisfying animation and sound work; you can see the game itself projected on a CRT in the background if you look past the edges of the book–and decidedly non-physical, an object collected in shards via gameplay rather than plucked from the back of a game box. This annoyed me in moments when I wished the game allowed you to add your own scribbles to its own homages to hand-drawn clues and errata, but it clicked for me when I understood the presentation as more of a stage-play version of the nostalgic act, rather than a simulation of the real thing.

In other words, Tunic is as self-conscious a video game as anything I've ever played. Everything about it screams artifice. First and foremost, the visual design resembles the Switch remake of Link's Awakening but leans even harder into a paper-doll aesthetic. That's perhaps a concession to allow for indie-budget polish, but it's also a signal that the game is less organic than its initial, familiar beach-forest-mountains landscape imply.

The puzzle and secret design takes this a step forward, where almost every hidden passage or treasure is hidden by virtue of the game's near-locked camera perspective. Combined with the game's reticence to reveal its gameplay mechanics, Tunic bombards you with the same specific thought upon discovery: “wait, I could go there/do that the WHOLE TIME?” It's wonderful, and it's wonderful because Tunic pulls it off by making the artifice of the playground explicit, like a well-crafted dollhouse, or a game of Mouse Trap where all the little gizmos and Rube Goldberg sequences work like they should because the craftsmanship is evident and top-notch.

I said before that the booklet was the story; it might be more accurate to say that there isn't a story. Your little fox protagonist is cute but has no character, because Tunic's too conscious of her status as player avatar rather than inhabitant of a real world. Some of the major story “twists” and reveals, delivered through pure visual storytelling (with minor assists from the bits and bobs of English in the instructions), make no coherent sense except from the perspective of Tunic as video game, whose world does not exist separate from the context that it's a game world.

SPOILERS in the next two paragraphs.

Take for example the reveal of the manufacturing going on beneath the Quarry, where you collect the blue (and, for non-speedrunners, final) key. The thing(s) being built, the machinery built by enslaving the ghosts of the world, are the pillars at which you pray to progress; that they are built in this way changes nothing, does not stop prayer from being an effective tool to activate them, does not stop the fox from continuing to pray and causing them to let out a weird mechanical scream before turning on the lights. There's no emotional weight to the reveal, but there's almost a wink behind the apparent horror, because what it draws attention to is that the artificiality of Tunic exists on every layer.

Or take the “holy cross,” a crucial late-game mechanic that is also a play on the fact that a D-Pad is in the shape of a cross. You (meaning the fox, meaning the player avatar) are not given a golden crucifix in-game; there is no narrative or “diegetic” justification. There doesn't need to be! You discover a page of the instruction booklet that tells you to jam out patterns on your D-Pad like you're locking in the old Konami Code and you do it and there's a jingle and a long-closed door opens up and it's so satisfying, so purely video-game in concept and execution, that at no moment was I jarred by the contrivance.

End spoilers.

All this joyous, open artifice, this stripped-naked gameplay universe, reflected neatly in my mind as I watched a YouTube video of two Tunic developers reacting to a speedrun. They were delighted – and often unsurprised – as they witnessed their polished indie gem getting broken and destroyed left and right for the sake of saving frames. The design philosophy of Tunic seems to have been “be a game, at all costs, and remind people of why they've loved games for decades.” Zelda aesthetics, '90s design choices, Souls gameplay and difficulty curve, no single AAA-style concession to “well how do we make this make sense in the game world.

Tunic isn't the perfect gaming masterpiece or anything, but it's pure delight through nearly the entire runtime. Like some of the best indie games over the past couple of decades, it demonstrates the gaming medium's unique capacities, as opposed to movies or television, to enthrall the player–and does so while also being a beautifully realized love letter to that exact concept.