‘Tunic’ Finally Got Me to Stop Playing ‘Elden Ring’ Every Day

A world that asks the player to wonder about what could happen, rather than telling them what should happen.
A screen shot from the video game 'Tunic.'
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Some of the earliest gaming memories have nothing to do with actual games, but the colored paper inside the box—the instruction manual. That ride back from the store, new game in hand, was electric, the instruction manual a window into what was waiting at home. It was an era before trailer (Reveal! Story! Gameplay! Final!) bombardments, or multi-year marketing campaigns. Even the biggest games were largely a mystery before you had a chance to play them, and the instruction manual teased the adventure that was to come. 

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Tunic understands this feeling, and despite being a video game released into a world of multi-year marketing campaigns, is trying to capture a sense of mystery—and buddy, it succeeds. Though I have yet to finish Tunic—I’ve played five hours—I can tell you that it’s the first game to break the Elden Ring spell, occupying enough brain space that I’ve reached for when I’d otherwise have explored the Lands Between. I can also tell you it’s a game that’s had my brain humming with possibility in the same way Fez did so many years ago.

There’s no setup for Tunic. You’re a cute fox that wakes up on a colorful island. You’re here for a reason, most likely, but what? Who knows. There’s no glowing arrow pointing in what direction to head next, no obvious tutorial area to play around in to understand how the controls work. In fact, the first piece of text the game throws at you is written in a language you can’t read, a moment that had me chuckling, as though it was the game doing a bit, before I realized this was the primary language in Tunic. You’re supposed to feel totally lost.

That feeling is something the game tries to capture over and over. Think about what happens when you pick up a new item in a game. Almost every time, it will stop to carefully explain what you’ve picked up and how it might be useful. You might even get a short clip that shows the player using the item in action. No way to screw this up! In Tunic, you will pick up an item without a description, let alone an explanation for how the player should use it.

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You won’t know what it does until you decide to use it in the world and see what happens.

Early on, much like the game’s indecipherable language, I considered this a joke. Surely, I will run into a shopkeeper that explains what’s going on, and it’ll all make more sense. Nope. Instead, I spent an hour accumulating indecipherable items in my inventory, before I realized it was time to start using them and see what happened. Imagine my surprise when—slight spoiler ahead—a blue orb turned out to be a bomb that iced enemies for several seconds, or if I used [REDACTED] enough times, the game rewarded me with upgraded [REDACTED]. 

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The game doesn’t leave you totally helpless. Tunic comes with an instruction manual, one that’s been divided into dozens of individual pieces to be discovered by the player. Much of the manual is written in the same unknowable language that litters the rest of Tunic, but some of it is in English, and all of it has been clearly illustrated in a way for players to make guesses at how the world fits together, guesses that will make more sense as you collect more pieces and the manual fills out. There are even markings made by a mysterious omnipotent being, the way you’d rent a game at the rental store and realize there really were people who wrote down passwords in the section at the end, or a stranger who took out a pen and jotted secrets on the manual’s map that you can now take advantage of. The manual might not make sense at first, but the artwork gestures at how a thing might function, and once you realize the game is encouraging experimentation—or feeling okay feeling lost—you, like me, might start vibrating at the game’s frequency and start solving mysteries.

When I figured out how [REDACTED] worked by tossing a [REDACTED] into a [REDACTED], and then realizing they were all [REDACTED] across the world, I cackled at the game’s own ingenious, while simultaneously feeling like I was a genius detective myself, because figuring out how it worked unlocked a really useful new upgrade for my character.

This feeling permeates every part of Tunic—storytelling, combat, exploration. Elden Ring is playing in a similar sandbox, but whereas FromSoftware’s world is enormous, Tunic is very small. Both evoke that feeling of “well, I guess I’m going to walk in this direction and hope for the best?” That knot in your stomach as you head down a path, further and further, not knowing if it’s where you should go but because you don’t have a better idea, is exhilarating. And both have a sense of isolation pierced by communities reaching across time and space.

Maybe it’s not shocking that Tunic took me away from Elden Ring. One has you running around as a cute fox trying to save the world, even if you don’t know why. The other has you running around, potentially with a cute fox mask on, trying to save the world, even if you don’t know why. What they have in common is rewarding players for curiosity. Each game goes about it in a different way, but the conclusion is the same: the reward is worth the effort.

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