At first glance, the upcoming action-adventure game Tunic looks remarkably similar to The Legend Of Zelda. Its protagonist is a cute little dude (well, a fox, in this case) with a sword and shield and similar taste in green adventure-wear, and they get to run around all sorts of lush forests, bright temples and more. But upon playing the game, people have already discovered that it's a fair bit tougher than it looks. More Dark Souls, than Zelda, perhaps.
Just because Tunic isn't dark and gloomy doesn't mean it can't offer its fair share of challenges, so I spoke to Tunic creator Andrew Shouldice to find out how he's managing expectations, as well as tackling difficulty and accessibility. We also talked about the joy of exploring and uncovering secrets, but we'll check behind that waterfall in a bit.
"It's a tricky one, because you have people look at Tunic and think, 'Oh it's a cute, cuddly little thing'," Shouldice says. "And it is! There is a fox that is cute, and it is cuddly, and it is you. But, when people get a chance to sink their teeth into it they're like, 'Aww... Oh.'"
Shouldice has released demos for Tunic for various events since the game was first announced in 2017. While the game itself hasn't changed too much since then, his difficulty tweaks seem to be what players have picked up on the most, with many calling it a bit "Souls-y". That's not really what Shouldice is going for though. Instead, he's trying to make a game that captures that feeling of being in a dangerous place, but he doesn't want the only takeaway to be that it's too difficult.
"You can have something that's challenging and makes you feel brave, at the same time being pleasant to look at, colourful and lush."
"I feel like some games lean into that a little bit, especially when people start throwing around the term Soulslike, and they think it's mega hard and that's all there is to it," he tells me. "Tunic is meant to evoke feelings of those older video games where it's like this big place to explore, and there are places you're not ready for."
A number of tough little indies have come out over the last few years, the most recent I can think of being Tails Of Iron. I'm curious why the style is popular, and Shouldice reckons there's been a recent return to "games-as-challenge", as opposed to "games-as-experience".
"People talk about the Souls games as being the starting point for that, a game that's really meant to test you," he says. "For a while, I think that went hand-in-hand with [the genre] grimdark, like brown and grey, smoke pouring off of skeletons and stuff like that, which is rad and cool and I'm into it.
"But now it's like we're coming back to 'Nintendo difficult', like the old SNES games, those weren't grimdark but were often extremely colourful. I think we're swinging through a region where you can have something that's challenging and makes you feel brave, at the same time being pleasant to look at, colourful and lush."
For Shouldice, it's all about that feeling of bravery. Being an explorer setting forth into a place that feels dangerous, but at the same time retaining some of that Zelda-like lightness. You're not gritting your teeth in determination against impossible armies of zombies; instead, you're a tiny fox approaching a hostile world thinking, 'I can do it!'
"We don't wanna make something that people say, 'That game, the hardest game ever made'," Shouldice tells me. "Difficulty exists to make you feel like you're a stranger in a strange land, in a place you don't belong, and finding that balance is a challenge."
It's hard to talk about this stuff without venturing into the whole "difficulty debate". Tunic looks like a game that's going to draw people in with its cutesy aesthetic, but there isn't exactly going to be a "win" button if it gets too tough for some folks. Shouldice says he wouldn't want it that way, but also doesn't want to alienate people that might be concerned about how hard Tunic might be.
"People who're looking for an easier experience will be able to look around in the accessibility settings and find something that's gonna make it more approachable for them," he says. "I think a game being difficult, and a game having the difficulty there to make you feel heroic, the argument that the only way for that to be valid is to make sure that you can't make it easier for anybody is sort of bogus."
While he's not sure yet exactly what the accessibility settings will look like yet, there are other aspects of the game that will help players find their way. As you progress, you'll find manual pages written in glyphs scattered around, which will reveal secrets and tips about things you might not have even known existed in Tunic. Shouldice says it's all part of emphasising the feeling that you don't belong, but at the same time offering some help. The best part though, is that they're inspired by the old manuals you'd find in game cases.
"I used to go to my next-door neighbour's house, and they had the Metroid II Game Boy manual there," he tells me. "My friend would be playing the game while I leafed through the booklet. I was extremely young and didn't understand a lot of the things it was talking about. But the magic of pursuing this document and soaking in all these illustrations and maps and tips, I think the intention is that it helps along that feeling of really puzzling through a mystery. Of finding true secrets."
I interviewed Shouldice over a video call, and at this point he proceeded to lean down next to his desk and produce the old NES manual for Zelda II: The Adventure Of Link. It's full of little maps and cute pictures of Link offering players tips. He shows me one particular illustration he likes, of Link on the floor waving a little white flag, with a sword and an arrow stuck on his bum. That's the picture for the tip, 'What do I do when I run out of lives?'
"There's a lot of cute stuff here, but it shows that manuals were part of the design of those games," Shouldice says. "They'd say things like, 'If you go here, you'll find something to help you! But the most powerful weapon of all is...' And it won't tell you, but it'll leave these tantalising hints."
It seems there'll be plenty of secrets to uncover in Tunic beyond its in-game glyph manuals, too. As well as the feeling that you're a small fox in a scary world, the game is designed to evoke a sense of wonder and encourage thorough exploration.
"I like the feeling that you've found something genuine. That authenticity to a discovery that comes from realising that you might not have found it, that not everybody has found it," Shouldice tells me.
He adds that, when you do find those things, it reinforces the idea that there could be more waiting for you. You start to wonder how many of these you might've walked past and not realised or thought to probe further. I'm the sort of player that, upon finding out that a game has breakable walls, will run around slapping every wall that looks slightly off, just in case. Shouldice says that's kind of the point of these sorts of secrets, you get a childlike feeling of, 'Wait a second, there's more?!' It changes your perception of the game, almost making you feel like it could go on forever.
Possibly the most important part of this, though, is the social aspect. When you find something you feel like not everyone found, you want to share it. It's something that helps build communities around games, giving tips to others to help them find something, though not necessarily telling them exactly where it is.
"It's fun to hear hints from people and fun to give them," Shouldice says. "It's something we've seen a lot more of running demos, people will come into the Finji Discord with questions, like 'I've seen this chest and I can't get to it'. You might think that game developers don't wanna spoil it, but everybody will come up with their own little riddles to give oblique hints. We want to help, but also keep the joy of discovery."
Tunic doesn't have a release date just yet, but when it does come out it'll be on Steam and Xbox One.