You know – I never really gave Tunic the time of day. Despite finishing the title, it received only a passing nod in my now retired Month in Review series. This wasn’t uncommon. I did this for several games when I didn’t have a lot to say about them. What’s odd, is that Tunic has remained in my head. Normally the passing nod is all it takes for me to move on from a title, but Tunic has lingered. Why?
After some reflection, I think I know why Tunic has remained entombed in my noggin. It does something that makes it highly distinct from the mountain of other indie Zelda-clones: it has a manual. Yes. Really. I know that sounds insane, as we’re like 15 years removed from the last time games shipped with manuals, but hear me out. It’s how Tunic utilizes its manual that makes it noteworthy. The manual isn’t just for informational purposes – Tunic uses it as a key component in many of the game’s puzzles. For that reason, many of Tunic’s puzzles were some of the best I’ve solved all year.
Before we continue onward, I think it’s important to establish how Tunic’s manual actually works. You’re not given the whole thing from the start. In fact, you’re given none of it to start. Players are expected to find all of the pages scattered throughout the game world. The first several pages introduce this concept of assembling the manual, while also teaching the player about the game’s basic controls. Functionally, this is identical to how most games deliver their tutorials – all Tunic has done is add extra steps.
What makes the way Tunic chooses to deliver information so interesting, is how it is displayed within the manual. Almost the entire thing is written in some gibberish fox language. This obfuscates almost the entire manual. As a result, extracting info from it becomes a bit like solving a puzzle. Players have to work out what certain symbols mean, and pay attention to a number of small details. They’re then asked to make a connection between the information they’ve decrypted, and apply it in the game world to demonstrate their comprehension of it.
My favourite, and least spoilery example of how Tunic teaches through its cryptic manual comes from player upgrades. Throughout their adventure, players will collect a host of weird looking trinkets. Players aren’t told what they’re for until they find page 18 of the manual. This shows the different trinkets, alongside a picture of the shrines where you heal. This should prompt players to try interacting with the trinkets the next time they stop by a shrine. Or they’ll run straight there. No judgement – that’s what I did. This will immediately reward players with a permanent stat upgrade, cementing the lesson they just learned in their memory. While it may seem like a bit of a faff, players are a lot more likely to retain information they had to work out for themselves. It’s kind of like how you probably still remember how to ride a bike thanks to all the scraps you got while first learning.
Player upgrades are a fairly straightforward example, but there is a ton of discoveries like this that players will make throughout their journey. Because Tunic is never forthcoming with information, you’re always left wondering what else its hiding from you. I spent hours pouring over every inch of the damn manual looking for new clues that might help me to unlock more of Tunic’s secret. In some cases, doing this would reveal entire new sections of the map for exploration. You can never be truly certain that you’ve cracked Tunic, and that lends a wonderful satisfaction whenever players manage to solve one of its many puzzles.
In an industry that is filled to the brim with games that routinely spoil their own puzzles, Tunic stands out as a breath of fresh air. It doesn’t shout out solutions, or spoil its puzzles. Instead, Tunic quietly provides just enough information through its manual to get the player’s wheels turning. This allows its many mysteries to provide a fair bit of satisfaction when players finally crack them. I know it won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I’m glad I took the time to peel back so many of Tunic’s layers as it became one of the most satisfying puzzling experiences I’ve had all year.