The Delicate Balancing Act of Making a Video Game Built on Secrets

For years, the designer behind 'Tunic' was carefully crafting his Fez-inspired adventure, trying to figure out how secret to make his secrets.

Warning: This story features spoilers for Tunic, but not immediately. You’ll get a warning later in the story.

Andrew Shouldice has been obsessed with video game secrets since a young age, and the culmination of that interest is Tunic, a tremendous Zelda-inspired adventure game about a fox on a mysterious island.

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“When I open a door in the mountain and there's a staircase, that's another question,” said Shouldice in an interview with Waypoint. “If I start using the new magic system and realize it's got a lot going on, and it opens a world of possibilities, that's a big ol' pile of questions. If the new area on the map has a bunch of strange cool stuff I haven't seen before—question city, baby. The s-tier version of this are the questions that apply broadly—that are not just a single question, but a new dimension of questions. A new axis along which mysteries can live.”

The best example of this, according to Shouldice, is accidentally blowing up a wall in the original Legend of Zelda, and realizing this reshaped how you view the entire game.

“That's not just ‘hey cool, this wall has a hole now,’” said Shouldice, “it's ‘holy moly, I didn't even know this was a thing,’ which quickly unfurls into ‘whaaat, these are all over the place!?’ or ‘This was here the whole time!?.’ If a game lets something ‘have been there the whole time’ then what else is here.”

Tunic frequently pulls this off, and the unique part about making a video game filled with interconnected secrets is that, at some point, you have to tell other people what those secrets are. When Tunic was nearing the end of development last year, it was time for designer Shouldice, keeper of the game’s secrets for years, to say what was hiding inside Tunic.

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“I had to spill the beans, for practical reasons,” said Shouldice. “We were getting to the point where the marketing folks needed to know what they could and couldn't share, and QA needed to know all the things they needed to test. So I made [a] Nearly Every Secret In Tunic Dot Slideshow and showed it to the team. It was cool, because I was starting to realize at that point that there were a lot of secrets in Tunic.”

Shouldice had been able to dodge some bullets in public by this point, sneakingly showing modified versions of the game’s various glyphs—crucial to solving some of its logic and language puzzles—to prevent eagle-eyed players from solving the game ahead of release. 

This reveal, however, was unavoidable.

A section of the internal presentation on 'Tunic.' Courtesy of TUNIC Team

The slideshow included an early look at what Shouldice calls “Ending A,” or the ending that most players will bump into first, because it’s the one the game explicitly pushes players to. 

“People will probably be mad about it,” reads a note by Shouldice in that presentation. 

Warning: Those Tunic spoilers are going to start, in which we’re going to talk about the game’s “bad” ending. We will not spoil the story contents of the “good” ending.

Tunic is a game about exploration, and the game explains precious little. You don’t know what the buttons on the controller do, you don’t know how your weapons work, and you don’t know why you’re running around this island. Over time, you piece parts of the world together, and it becomes clear you’re on a quest to collect three items that will, in theory, open a magic cage locking away—well, who knows? But you should probably let them out! When you do, it turns out—gasp—they want to fight you. When you defeat them, Ending A triggers, which reveals that players had been tricked, and this whole quest was about placing you in a magic cage. The person inside was looking to trap someone else, so the cycle begins again.

“I showed the storyboard for Ending A,” he said, “and was met with: ‘wow that's so mean.’”  

But Tunic has two endings. Alternate endings are often locked behind a choice, whereas in Tunic, it requires going down a secret path that players might not have known even existed. 

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“I wanted to make a ramp that always had something Too Big For Lil Ol Me just on the horizon,” said Shouldice. “An area you knew about but hadn't explored, an enemy that was too strong, a puzzle that was too much. A language you weren't meant to understand.”

When you “beat” Tunic, the game presents two options:

  1. Retry: Missing [X] pages. Return to seek another path.
  2. New Game+: Copy save and carry most items into New Game+.

“We didn't want people leaving the game thinking ‘ok, well that was a bummer I guess,’” said Shouldice. “It's kind of antithetical to the ‘say nothing; let them find it’ kind of mentality, but I think this was a good place to acquiesce. After all, a mystery isn't a mystery until you have a clue, right? Until then, it might as well not exist.”

The first option, then, is a breadcrumb. You don’t have to keep playing, but what if you did?

“My absolute favourite thing is when it feels like a game has More,” he said. “Part of it is ‘saving’ it and savouring the game's content, but I think mostly it's just the fact that things like this just radiate that feeling of mystery, that excitement of not knowing—and I just love that.”

Earlier in development, before these endings were properly mapped out, Shouldice knew the game would have this More. The question at that point was what that “More” would entail.

Shouldice dug through his old notebooks of ideas and found an earlier outline of how Tunic’s various endgames could play out. Even though Tunic is done and many of its secrets have been unearthed, Shouldice still blocked out parts of this outline when he shared it with me, mostly because it had some ideas that Shouldice wanted to reserve the right to use later.

An early diagram of how 'Tunic' could end in different ways. Courtesy of TUNIC Team

If, after looking at this outline, you wondered if Tunic was influenced by 2012’s Fez, another game infamous for its well of secrets, you would be right. Shouldice had Fez on the brain. 

“It [Fez] has the same ‘restarting’ motif, and a bummer (but beautiful) ending that hints at a way to do things ‘correctly,” said Shouldice. “The Tunic plan got churned around many times over the years, and eventually I needed to just commit to something.”

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I reached out to Fez designer Phil Fish, who recently granted Eurogamer an interview about Fez’s 10-year anniversary, about Tunic’s puzzles, but Fish said he hadn’t played enough yet.

Shouldice thinks of how Tunic plays out as “first ending” and “second ending,” but any search about Tunic reveals how players actually frame it: bad ending and good ending. 

“This was never meant as a punishment for players—it isn't a condemnation of folks who didn't solve The Big Riddle,” said Shouldice. “It was meant to be a legitimate ending (with credits and everything!) that left just enough of a hint to let people pull back the curtain and realize there's a whole lot more to find, if they're down for that sort of thing. It's that feeling of there being a new dimension to explore, secrets that have been there the whole time, etc, etc. It's trying to hit that moment I mentioned loving, when you realize there's more and your imagination can run wild.”

“If the new area on the map has a bunch of strange cool stuff I haven't seen before—question city, baby. The s-tier version of this are the questions that apply broadly—that are not just a single question, but a new dimension of questions. A new axis along which mysteries can live.”

I’m cool with bummer endings, but it’s a weird feeling when a game explicitly says “hey, maybe this isn’t the end?” but your search for clues reveals that maybe you wouldn’t be smart enough to put it all together on your own, so maybe this is your ending. (This is where I admit that I didn’t even try, but made some assumptions based on my past experience). It’s the push and pull I have with games like Tunic, in which I’m drawn in by their promises, but frequently find the more intricate puzzle solving beyond me, at which point the question becomes whether I want to just look up a video of the second ending, or use a guided walkthrough on my iPad, while I follow the same steps in my game. Both are unsatisfying.

In Tunic, players are collecting pieces of an arcane instruction manual that seem to describe a video game much like the one you’re playing. The pages help guide the player’s quest, and instruct them about gameplay mechanics they might not otherwise have guessed at. You can beat the game without collecting all the pages—ending one—but as you might’ve surmised, the true ending is only possible with all of them. But the real hangup is that getting the final page is gated behind a much trickier meta puzzle players call “the golden path.”

One of the earliest spirations for 'Tunic' was 'Fez.' Screen shot courtesy of Polytron

“For the final puzzle, I wanted to make sure that ‘if you know, you knew,’” said Shouldice. “But ‘if you know, you know,’ what tips you off that there's even a puzzle there? That's where the touch ended up being the lightest, I think. The approach was to leave an array of avenues to make the connection, without having any of them be The One Big Clue. Instead of burying the revelation super deep and concentrated in one spot, it's hidden juuuust under the surface, and broadly enough that there were lots of places to stub your toe on it. The hope was that folks would have lots of opportunities to have their own ‘ah ha’ moment, without it ever feeling like the game handed you a solution.”

Tunic has been out in the wild for a month or so, and Shouldice said that within a week, people were already finding what he dubbed the “tricker, double secret” stuff in the game. It’s a refrain I’ve heard from a lot of people who work on video games: presume the audience will solve something exponentially faster than you’re assuming and you’ll still be wrong.

In Eurogamer’s Fez interview, Fish said he wasn’t sure if, 10 years later, the game still had secrets, but admired how “people have stumbled upon some truly unbelievable coincidences that sure seem like they are a thing, and I'm not about to confirm or deny any of them.”

A month is a lot different than 10 years, but Shouldice may pay more attention than Fish.

“I don't think I ever want to say ‘you did it everyone, no more secrets here!,” said Shouldice. “So: there's at least one secret that's just for me. :)”

Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is patrick.klepek@vice.com, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561).

Tagged:

Tunic, Fez

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