Tunic launched this month after almost eight years in development. The cute-looking action-adventure game shares a lot with The Legend of Zelda and Dark Souls, but it’s quickly become apparent that those influences are just the surface layer of a deceptively deep game. The world of Tunic is steeped in mystery, and your heroic little fox will have to solve a host of puzzles to get to the heart of its secrets.
[Editor’s note: Spoilers follow for Tunic]
One of the biggest mysteries in gaming is the Golden Path. This game-spanning puzzle is frequently hinted at in the pages of the game’s manual, but its meaning always seems woefully out of reach. As its nature becomes clear, however, it proves to be one of the most creative and satisfying puzzles in gaming history.
The path to understanding the Golden Path isn’t easy, but the seeds are laid early, whether by discovering the huge stone door atop the Overworld’s mountain or picking up intriguing manual pages in the library. The first real breakthrough, however, comes from the collection on page 49, which provides a golden grid with 25 numbers. With a bit of mischief, it is possible to connect the dots from the previous pages (especially the clues on pages 21 and 22), noting a few golden clues (even if you can’t decipher the language).
Each square references a specific manual page, and on closer inspection you can find a golden line pattern hidden on each, which eventually fits into a large and intricate route that traverses the entire grid before arrive at the center. The hunt is on.
By drawing said line, you will eventually have the code to unlock Tunicmountain gate. There’s some nice physics to piecing together the Golden Path this way. During the review period, others in the Tunic press The Discord server has gone so far as to print the manual template or recreate it in its own logs. It harkens back to a golden age of video game secrets and rumors, before readily available guides and walkthroughs, when players swapped theories in the schoolyard and sketched out dungeon maps and points of interest.
The path TunicThe patterns are hidden is in itself a stroke of genius, too. Peering through virtual pages for golden lines could easily have become a chore, but each piece of the path is hidden in a slightly different way. A coffee stain becomes a clue, a printing error a telling sign. It encourages and forces players to see things differently, to reconsider things they might have overlooked or overlooked before.
My favorite example is on page 9, which discusses the game’s data management screen. There’s nothing on the page itself that seems to map correctly to the Golden Path, and it may feel like to hit a wall. But if you decide to check out the Load Game screen itself, you’ll find a curious new game file that wasn’t there before you grabbed the required man page. Charge in and you find yourself in an endlessly repeating, top-down dungeon, following – what else? — a golden line along the ground.
This constant recontextualization of parts of the game’s language is fascinating and produces a euphoric high as you discover the connections. It’s possible to uncover the game’s secret file before you even know anything about the Golden Path, but if you don’t yet understand its importance, it’s an alluring but impenetrable mystery. Like so many other things in Tunicit feels like the game is trusting you to know what to do, and when you live up to that expectation, the feeling is intoxicating.
The Golden Path puzzle is much more than the sum of its parts, however. Yes, every step of solving this great mystery is satisfying and meaningful, but it also works in a holistic sense and ties into the overall plot that pervades the entire game. It’s impossible to play through Tunic without having a idea of its hidden depths, from the runic language of the manual, to the rocky remains of powerful golems that dot the landscape, to the ancient CRT screen that can be briefly seen when you access the manual. As such, a large overarching puzzle (which also happens to be key to unlocking the “true” ending) is a perfect thematic fit. The Golden Path puzzle embraces Tunic’s unwavering meta-nature, and therefore, no matter how bizarre the hoops you have to jump through, it all makes weird sense.
Good puzzle design like Tunicis key to fostering a sense of player ownership, a sense that they are unlocking the mysteries of an island rather than solving a game developer’s puzzle. It’s the polar opposite of, say, the lock-and-key Byzantine puzzles of Resident Evil, which in retrospect seem incidental to the overall experience, arbitrary obstacles to overcome and forget. Compare that to something like The return of the Obra Dinna game which, although essentially a large puzzle, provides meaningful stakes in the world for every conclusion the player makes and rewards them for doing the appropriate amount of detective work.
In Tunic, the Golden Path ticks all the right boxes. It feeds on the mysterious air that hangs over the island, hidden behind locked doors and inside intriguing patterns. Every successful stage feels earned, whether it’s discovering the connection to the mountain gate, finding a specific piece of the path, or tapping into the final model and claiming your reward. The fact that said reward – the elusive page 1 of the manual – is the key to finding the game’s true ending is just icing on the cake. In many ways, this puzzle is not so much about the destination, but the journey.