🦊 Tunic ⚔️
Wednesday, January 18, 2023 :: Tagged under: video_games culture games. ⏰ 9 minutes.
🎵 The song for this post is The Scavenger, by Lifeformed for the game Tunic. 🎵
I spent a surpising amount of my 3-day weekend playing Tunic: I yelled at the screen, got impatient, got hooked, yelled at the screen again, smiled a lot, thought a lot. I expected to do a That Consumption Life post lumping this in with other games I recently played, but decided to make this its own post because it turns out I have a lot of reactions to it.
Here's a trailer if you've never seen it before:
Expectations, going blind, reversals
First, I'm going to write spoilers here. Continue reading if you are pretty confident you'll never play this game. Some people say "I don't care about spoilers" but I think they're wrong, The Sixth Sense is a very different movie if you already know he's a ghost going in.
On Tunic, I heard two of the same things from two people who's opinions on games I highly respect.1
- "It's a Game of the Year! I loved it, three cheers!"
- "It's important to go into it knowing as little as possible"
This sets expectations! To take an example from Ian Danskin's unbelievable genre video I'm always linking, if you know you're watching a murder mystery, you're going to watch it differently than you'll watch other kinds of movies. You'll have a different reaction to watching the gardener reveal an oddly specific amount of detail on their daily gardening routine than if it happened in, say, a rom-com.
So a big experience of my Tunic playthrough was feeling myself waiting for it to flip the script, to Do Something Awesome. There are several of these in games that have been some of my favorites:
Most famously, Richter not actually being the final boss of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, and there being an entire second castle.
In Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time: when you grab the Master Sword from the Temple of Time, the game could conceivably end (or open up the Final Dungeon) at this point. You've done a lot of dungeon-ing, your inventory screen is mostly full, you're way stronger than you started. But there's so much more game to be had.
Chrono Cross end of Disc 1. I remember being speechless and dumbstruck when it happened to me as a teenager.
The Messenger, which goes from a Shinobi tribute to a Metroidvania, also packing in a Gradius minigame and an "Aladdin lava chase sequence."
(now is when I confess I've never actually played BioShock, but "would you kindly" is legendary 😜)
Most of these are plot reversals that reveal you're only halfway through the game, The Messenger is interesting because it's also a mechanics change. But in both cases, the "flip" is substantial, revealing, and denotes a lot more game to happen.
(okay, last spoiler warning)
Tunic? You hit that moment that looks like the end of the game (you're like "okay, it's a fakeout"). It's just a massive depowering of your character (more on that later). Then you backtrack a bit to re-power yourself. Then, optionally, you can play a variation of The Witness or Return of the Obra Dinn for hours if you want the True Ending. It's… a bit of a mechanics switch? But hardly a grand reversal, IMO, and I was a little underwhelmed by how much hay was made here. I wish more folks told me "it's cute Dark Souls with a few little puzzles," since most of the actual puzzling of the game is learning its mechanics with no help, From Software style.
Throw every other game into a Vitamix
It's fitting that I read this amazing takedown of ChatGPT by Nick Cave, which had these great lines about art generated by AI:
It could perhaps in time create a song that is, on the surface, indistinguishable from an original, but it will always be a replication, a kind of burlesque. [...] What makes a great song great is not its close resemblance to a recognizable work. Writing a good song is not mimicry, or replication, or pastiche, it is the opposite.
The following is not me calling Tunic unoriginal; I think extremely the opposite. Maybe it's just me showing off my pattern matching skills. But I couldn't help but feel that Tunic, more than most games I can name, sticks a ton of existing work into a blender and hits "mix":
The main character is very styled after Link, the Heir looks very Zelda-ey. Green Tunic (we even named the game after this design), sword, shield, the not-a-hookshot.
It gets compared to The Witness a lot, but I wouldn't say it's just because of "line puzzles that bleed out of their containers into the whole game," but also the color palette.
The gameplay is extremely Dark Souls: stamina bar, a dodge you gotta time perfectly, giant hard bosses, discovery of game mechanics by just kinda meandering in the world, brutal world (a lot of places I walked into killed me pretty immediately).
The story and lore, as much as they exist, are very, very Hollow Knight. I mean, consider the default ending:
There was once a kingdom, but it was ruined. As part of an effort to save that kingdom, a being from that kingdom (who was the best) got sealed away in a magical cage. You must find the three artifacts to open the cage. Then you challenge them in battle, and if you succeed (without the hidden conditions for the better ending), you take their place in the cage, locked away forever.
This isn't a knock, I'm just floored that it does remind so much of (at least) these games and comes out in the weird place it does.
Audience, who is this for, and hitting a niche
One of my favorite things about Tunic: who knew what the world needed was "Dark Souls, but also nerds for deep puzzles like The Witness." When I think of a Dark Souls gamer vs. a puzzle game enthusiast (e.g. Adventure Games, La-Mulana, Obra Dinn, The Witness)… I wouldn't have thought they overlapped much. But this game is great! And many people like it!
It reminds me a bit of a Friends schtick where, because pages of a cookbook were stuck together, Rachel tries to make a multi-layer English Trifle, but instead makes it with half of a Shepherd's Pie. Everyone finds it disgusting, but Joey? He likes it! "The custard? Good! Jam? Good! Meat? Good!!"
This is what I mean by saying I think it's very original. Even the proto-puzzle of building up the game's instruction manual that's written mostly in a language you can't read dredges up delightful nostalgia of playing early games and looking at the manual for clues before you could read (fact about me: game instruction manuals motivated to teach myself how to read around 4. I just had to know what Robotnik named his robot slaves).
So it's a weird mix and while I don't think I'm a Souls gamer, I love shit like this.
Lore doesn't need to be spelled out but please don't make it insulting in inconsistency, or, take a stand you cowards
I got into a discussion on Twitter where I called Hollow Knight's story "non-committal" and The Witness "cowardly" and so I'll just paste a light reformatting of the tweets here; little bites of opinion will break the tedium of Pablo Essay Voice:
a lot of popular art is full of affective aesthetic but doesn't really challenge anyone or anything meaningful, if that makes sense…
JBlow games have thematic cowardice, where they try to be deep but aren't bold enough to say anything concrete. BioShock: Infinite also, but differently: trying to so hard to Say Something but not alienate people, it was hot nonsense. In both cases: take a fucking stand! The tape recorders in The Witness were just vague libertarian/inspiration porn and hot air.
Hollow Knight… "cowardice" is strong, but I'd call it more like "nobody in any group will be challenged, it's just themes + aesthetic. Glory! Honor! Sacrifice! Great music and art! Shit like that, but divorced from any world you'll live in. You? You're fine, change nothing"
like, I hate to pick too hard on HK here bc it's a phenomenal game and I love so much about it, including its cast and worldbuilding. but that worldbuilding and story aren't in service of a narrative that challenges anyone at all, it's just kinda neat (which isn't nothing!)
maybe too big a point for a tweet, but: it's hard to make popular art that isn't safe, bc (said inartfully) majority groups don't like being told they're the problem and may have to change, which is often present in what I'd call less "cowardly" work
for example: Green Book is saying something defined, but is it really brave to say "racism bad!"? vs. Sorry To Bother You takes hard aim at many people I know in SF, specifically
but HK is part of a fluffy type of art that doesn't even commit to Green Book-style questions. It's all vibes and affect.
(and I suppose it doesn't have to. and I don't think it'd be improved if The Knight talked or whatever. but I think it's easier to make (and sell) that kind of art by a mile, so I'm way more impressed at things that take aim)
hard to fit all my favorite examples on Twitter, but I always ask myself "can Mike Pence sit in the audience and pretend this isn't challenging him?" like he did at Hamilton as a basic taste test
So Tunic is a bunch of loose affective gestures. It's got Lore and a Story, kinda? But a lot of it doesn't make much sense? e.g. why is The Heir "supercharged" by the pink miasma in Phase 2 of the boss battle? Suppose the Ruin Seeker were trapped in the cage (first ending), would they get a Phase 2 supercharged-by-pink phase even though it poisoned them on their journey? Miasma seems to be either HK's Radiance Infection, or FFVII's Mako Energy, or a poison, depending on what seems cool in the given moment.
This game rocks and I loved it and everyone who made it should be given many cakes
Okay, with all this said: I loved it. Not all the time, but on Monday I was definitely "10 more minutes"-ing for a good 2 hours before I finally peeled myself off the couch to do what I planned to that day. Then I came home and played more Tunic until I finished it.
The game is punishing. I'm not a Souls gamer. The enemies are cute but for most of the game (especially right after getting the sword and shield) any of them can fuck your whole game up. You're exploring a new area and praying to find another save point. Then you'd consider if it was worth using the save point because it means all the enemies you killed so carefully will respawn, making it harder to explore areas you just cleared out. I died a lot of (what felt like) cheap deaths and lost a lot of progress.
About that: growth requires challenge. There's a ton of game discourse on difficulty that I'm here for, truly, and I love games that include difficulty as part of accessibility. Most of my friends hate hard games. But it made victory that much sweeter. The end of every boss battle, I had no HP, always zero MP, and all my potions depleted.
The game got a lot more fun once I powered up and felt a little more safe exploring. Then it depowers you and sends you into battle gauntlet. I remember being extremely upset; it was just starting to get more comfortable. But then when I got through the gauntlet, it's hard to remember the last time I felt prouder in a game.
And the puzzling is delightful, actually. I'm less into the "full Witness" mode, but piecing together clues from the instruction manual (and the margin notes in ballpoint pen) were a type of fun I don't normally afford myself.
So maybe play it. And maybe I should try a Elden Ring (or Outer Wilds, or La-Mulana).
1. ^Andi McClure (both points in one post) and James Coglan ("Game of the Year" / "try to know nothing")
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