This past year, retro video game fans got a treat in the form of Tunic, a cute, colorful hack-and-slash adventure game where players direct a fox through a Legend of Zelda-esque world. With its intuitive gameplay and clever level design, Tunic won praise from all sorts of critics, but what attracted the most attention was one particularly clever throwback to the physical-media games of yesteryear: “manual page” collectibles scattered throughout the game’s environment, written (mostly) in a cryptic language.
Though difficult to decipher at times, these pages were crucial to the final puzzle that unlocked the game’s “good” ending. In this way, Tunic both critiques the method of addressing problems by just lashing out with violence (as most games do) and depicts an oddly Christian-like framework where a “word from beyond” is necessary to achieve salvation.
Note: The following contains potential spoilers for Tunic.
At a basic level, the game seems straightforward. You’re a cute fox adventurer battling robotic and animal enemies; there’s a vaguely female ruler fox seemingly trapped in a spirit realm who you can communicate with via shrines; and there’s a massive temple with three missing emblems. It’s all extremely familiar. An early page found from the manual expresses this best, showing your little fox drawing their sword against an unseen foe: “Again the same battle, fought uncounted times!,” it says. It’s iconic, and the player feels certain they can follow the familiar path, battling their way through zones and taking down bosses.
As the player collects the manual’s pages, however, they get the sense that something’s wrong. It’s impossible to be certain what, exactly, because the player only finds random pages, some of which aren’t even translated. They may be giving you information about an already-completed zone or warning you about a boss that’s in a completely different region. There will often be page references and annotations to material the player hasn’t found yet. But just enough information is available to make you aware that something’s not quite right. Certain references in the manual to “prisons” and “powers” make you wonder if the “natural path” you’re continuing down is really the wisest course of action.
As you proceed, one thing becomes clear: the ruined civilization you’re exploring was no paradise. Entering the game’s “Quarry” section reveals the power cells you’ve been using contain diseased and corrupted fox corpses. You also become aware that others have sought the same prize you’re currently pursuing. However, it’s only when the player finally unlocks the portal and enters the spirit fox’s area (“The Final Shore”) that the truth is finally revealed: the spirit fox is no trapped princess but rather, “The Heir,” the game’s final boss who will, in fact, kill you.
Fortunately, death is not the end here, though it does reduce most of your stats to zero. Only in ghost form are you now able to find and acquire the page showing that your opponent in the “Again the same battle, fought uncounted times!” page spread was indeed the Heir. The phrase’s further significance becomes clear when you return to fight the Heir again and defeat them, as doing so merely traps you within the “Final Shore” region and you become “The Heir to the Heir.” This is the battle fought “uncounted” times because it’s a cycle of violence, a trap for glory-hungry young foxes. (A fan-translated version of the manual suggests that the civilization created this mechanism because someone must remain in the prison to serve as a defense against an extraplanar threat.)
If the game were to leave the story there, then it would merely be a cynical cautionary tale about the cyclical nature of violence. But it doesn’t. There are hints dropped in the manual about the “Holy Cross” and following the “Golden Path” to find a second ending. Specifically, the manual hints at a massive locked door in the mountain that seems to have no key or solution unless one recovers all of the manual’s pages and figures out an enigmatic puzzle contained throughout the whole.
To assemble the manual requires exploration of the entire game world, critical thinking around several strange puzzle rooms, and careful observation of different zones. But it’s worth it in the end because when you finally open the door at the mountain top, you find a letter from the game’s creators instructing you to “pay a visit to a certain someone and share your wisdom.” Only then can you finally meet the spirit fox and help them escape their prison. The end credits show both playing happily in the colorful world outside.
It’s important to clarify what Tunic is doing here. Before Christians become too excited over this game where salvation from the natural path of violence is found through following the written word of the creators, a word of caution is appropriate. While certain sections of the manual seem to suggest that the “Holy Cross” path is connected to the game’s “Cathedral” level, this is a red herring; that’s one of the game’s darkest and most dangerous areas, full of brainwashed foxes. It contains a cross, and even a radioactive energy-fox crucified upon it, but there is no salvation to be found there. In fact, translating the manual reveals that it specifically says it’s a “tragedy” to believe that the Holy Cross is found only within the Cathedral. Tunic’s creators have no intentions of endorsing any religion.
Rather, Tunic’s manual advises the player to “look all around you—the Holy Cross is everywhere!” Careful observation and exploration is what matters to achieve enlightenment. This suggests a more animistic form of belief. And yet, all the observation and exploration would be meaningless without the manual’s “extraplanar text” and specifically, the word of the creators. True victory cannot be achieved on one’s own, and certainly not by merely “following your heart” and making the “right” decisions, as some games structure their narrative. There’s no impersonal sense of being at one with the universe, but instead, a concrete personal entity that one must seek direction from.
Tunic depicts a world where following one’s instincts leads to disaster, and enlightened words are necessary to interpret the mystery of the natural world and find true freedom. While it certainly contains a deep suspicion of institutionalized religion, the extent to which Tunic mirrors a Christian understanding of truth is remarkable and something worth paying attention to.