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Designing content for "no one" to create Tunic's vibrant and charming world

Developing features that are not meant to be found can be the biggest joy of design.

For fans of an older generation of gaming, Tunic feels like more of a spirited reprise than an original composition. With its light item-based progression barriers, classic sword and shield weaponry, and of course, the titular green tunic, its structural and visual components are familiar, if not classic.

Yet Tunic is a game about feeling like a stranger in an unknown place: enigmatic, tentative, and a little bit dangerous. As its developers shared with me, it’s also a land of secrets, designed to deliver an experience that varies depending on the player’s whims.

With the debut of Tunic just around the corner on March 16, we spoke to developer Andrew Shouldice, programmer Eric Billingsley, and Power-Up Audio creative director and audio designer Kevin Regamey about the long path through development, how to design for non-linear exploration, and the joy of making certain features for “no one”.

Game Developer: The game has been in development since what, 2015? I can imagine as a designer, it must be hard sometimes to know when a game is really done. Did you have any particular goals that made you feel like you were close?

Andrew Shouldice: It was tricky. As development went along, it became clearer and clearer what the game was, what its shape and size were, and really, it's been a matter of iterating on it and improving those areas and those experiences as we go. So it wasn't like we [went] “oh, we just hit eight hours playtime!”. It's really been a matter of polishing and refining as we go.

Kevin Regamey: We have our to-do lists, of course. With shipping and projects, there are certain [cascading] deadlines involved. It's challenging, but I think that our lists are dwindling. They're getting smaller and smaller. I think we're all happy [with] where it's at right now.

Eric Billingsley: Yeah, like, there's always more you could do, but the game feels like it's in a really good spot at this point. I think there was a certain point, like maybe about a year ago, where enough of the game was looking finished and sound and stuff were coming in, that [was] like,”oh, this feels like a real, complete game, I could actually sit down and play through and explore this world”. And that was a really good feeling. Since then, it's been rounding off the corners, making sure there's no stuff that really sticks out as needing work, finishing up last little things.

I've been following Tunic for a long time and reading about its influences from The Legend of Zelda for perhaps just as long. What were some of the key design philosophies you took away from the series? Was there anything in the series in particular that inspired or informed the process for Tunic?

Shouldice: Since the very beginning there's been this really particular, highly-specific feeling that I got playing the old Zelda games, this feeling of genuine discovery and mystery, and knowing that there are things about this world that you don't quite understand.

The example in Zelda is the bombable wall. Imagine you've never seen a bombable wall before in your life. And suddenly, you discover one accidentally. You haven't just found a bombable wall. The piece of information that has been added to your understanding of this world is not, "there is a wall right there that I can bomb, and there's a door behind it". It's that there are vulnerable walls in this world. Any wall that I looked at previously, and thought "that's a wall, I know, everything there is to know about it", is now a question mark, how big this world is suddenly just got a little bit bigger. It's that particular feeling that comes from a lot of different games, especially old games, not necessarily because they're old, but because we were young when we played them so that feeling of wonderment was maybe a little bit stronger.

So that was the goal. I hope we hit that. All signs are pointing to "yes". When people play the game, they say that they get that feeling, which is heartening.

Let's talk about the design around the game's secrets. Andrew in another interview, you summarized Tunic’s gameplay as, "exploring the countryside, fighting monsters and finding secrets". I like the idea that there are all these secrets hidden in the game; I think it's a great way to reinvent a repetitive space and make it seem very exciting and new again. I also noticed on the [in-game] signs, you have a glyph made-up language. According to some of the chatter online, that's something that people can actually translate and figure out through other context clues in the game. Is there anything you can share with me about developing that glyph language?

Shouldice: The glyphs are really there to help evoke this feeling of being in a place where you don't belong. So, if anyone's had the experience of either reading an instruction manual, from a game that's in a language that you don't speak, or even reading an instruction manual, when you're like three years old, and being like, I don't know any of these words...you automatically get that sense of wonderment like, what does this mean? It could mean anything! And having people feel like they're a stranger in a strange land, they don't know everything that's going on--that was sort of the key idea behind not only the glyph language, but the instruction manual in general, you know, it's just bursting with secrets and mysteries for you to to find.

As for people chattering online about [the glyphs] meaning anything…I don't think it means anything.

[Editor's note: in the time since this article was posted, Tunic has since been officially released and Game Developer has learned that the information provided in this interview is incorrect. We regret the error.]

Oh, maybe it's wishful thinking on my part that you could use context clues to decipher [the glyph language]. Maybe I just want the language to be real. That said, the game doesn't rely a lot on directly telling you things. To get the tutorial pages, you have to collect them from the environment, the signs aren't written in a language the player speaks, etc. Is there anything you can tell me about some of the design techniques that were used to give the player kind of indirect guidance and structure in the game?

Shouldice: There's a bunch of techniques that we use, like, camera positioning. But really, it's mostly just sort of leaving things up to the player to explore.

Billingsley: For us, the camera positioning and the fact the game is from this isometric perspective allows us to kind of...maybe there's a secret passage hidden there, and you don't see it, but later on, you'll come back to it from a different from the other end, and then you, you understand that it's there. And then that kind of expands your idea of the space you're in and helps you understand. With the manual pages, specifically, a lot of them do have essential information. And those ones might be in obvious spots where you'd find them. Some of the other ones might be more difficult to find. And we can precisely tune how much knowledge they gain from that by where we place those things and curate the way the player reaches these understandings about the world and about the game itself, through that.

Regamey: We're fully okay with players not necessarily taking that critical path. It's not like we have this directive that must be followed otherwise they will have a terrible experience. It's like Andrew was saying, this idea, this kind of core design philosophy of making the player feel like they don't belong somewhere, and they don't understand the boundaries of the environment that they're playing within--if you don't understand the boundaries, and don't understand the environment, and don't think you even belong there, then is there really a critical path? If you're not supposed to be there in the first place? How could there be a split place you're supposed to be if you're not supposed to be anywhere, right?

Billingsley: That's a good point, I think, like part of the design philosophy as well is to not have too many hard gates on where you can get to. Like maybe it's harder to stumble your way somewhere, but you could still do it. And you might feel like oh, maybe I'm not supposed to be here yet but it's neat that I am here, I'm going to just keep exploring and see how far I can get.

Shouldice: If you leave a door open just a crack, so people, if people are really intent on exploring every nook and cranny, can pry that door open and go exploring… that is something that we encourage. Especially early on in development, one of the problems was, if you leave that door open just a little bit too much, then a higher percentage of people [are] bumbling around in directions they're quote-unquote, not supposed to. Obviously, people are supposed to have a good time and feel like they're exploring and stuff like that. But every now and again, we want to offer a gentle touch without ever explicitly blocking anything off, if that makes sense.

Yeah, I noticed that the nonlinear structure was somewhat mitigated by the fact that, if you go into a dungeon or something and get past a certain point, there’s a shortcut to get back to where you were before, along with the classic item gating and skill gating aspects of the progression. As you were going through this process, did you feel that you were maybe revisiting conventions that we've left behind in game design? I mean, you played them as a kid and now get to design them as an adult. What was that process like for you?

Shouldice: In the classic Metroidvania style-- I don't know if that's a four-letter word on Game Developer or not [laughs]. The idea of a tool doing a few different things--it should increase your traversal opportunities [or] expand your combat capabilities and unlock new areas and stuff like that. And one of the variations that we ended up settling on is having as few hard gates as possible on some of those things.

In Zelda games, you have this feeling of like, collecting a set of keys for a set of locks, and you see the locks in the world. And you're like, I betcha, I'm gonna get a key for that lock sometime soon. And then you do. And anytime you see that lock, you use that key. And in some ways, that's super entertaining, right? That's very satisfying.

But I think I prefer situations where it's less obvious. Like sometimes you have an item that works with this thing that you've seen in the world, and maybe allows you to get to a place that you couldn't get before. That's great. But I vastly prefer things that are like..."use sword on bush, so I can get past the bush" is a key and lock situation. But it's not a very good lock, because, you know, I throw a certain item that explodes. And now that bush isn't there either, right? But it was really hard to get that item that let me explode the bush. Is there a different way that I can do it? Can I bait an enemy into chopping down this bush for me? So this idea of, not hard gates, but soft gates or sort of "firm gates" is much more appealing to me than "you need super missiles in order to get past this" or whatever.

Sometimes there's one obvious way to get somewhere that requires a new tool. And then maybe, after you've done that, it becomes more obvious that you can get your way back and it becomes more obvious that there's a second way you could have done that. Maybe next time you play the game you want to try doing things in a different order or something like that.

We talked so much about how much this game is inspired by The Legend of Zelda; what other inspiration did you pull from classic games? Were there other games that influenced this process?

Shouldice: People often say that there's some [Dark] Souls influence here, which is not entirely untrue. Again, four-letter word on a site about game development, I'm sure. Fez has some mysteries and puzzles in it that I definitely drew from and the visuals of a game like Monument Valley is something that I admire greatly.

Billingsley: For visual stuff, there's some inspiration from Studio Ghibli films in certain areas of the game. The game Rime--the way environments look in that game was sort of an influential thing, especially the way they got their nice water effects and stuff.

Did you guys have a specific reason why you chose a fox for the protagonist?

Shouldice: The silly answer is the true answer. I didn't really know how to do 3D modeling all that well, when I first started work on [the game]. The fox was extremely rudimentary looking and angular and I wasn't about to be like “I'm gonna make a character creator and you're gonna make real people” because I wasn't able to do that. So an animal made sense. And you know, foxes get up to trouble. It makes sense that this would be the sort of little critter that would go on on an adventure.

I really adore the art direction of Tunic. The brightness and boxiness feel like an elevation or maybe an extension of the pixel art of the games that inspired it. So in terms of the isometric viewpoint, was that decision made just in the interest of giving the player kind of a broader field of view so that they were more encouraged to explore, or were there other creative reasons to make that particular decision?

Shouldice: Originally, it just looks cool. Anything that's isometric just gets me, like, bloated diagrams, and isometric, turn-based RPG sort of things. The rigidness of the vertical lines and the regularity of the grid I like to look at a whole lot. And as Eric mentioned before, there's a lot of cool things that you can get with it. I remember extremely early on, like in the first months of development, I was experimenting with, “how do you cut away to show if you're behind a tree or something in the trees in the way? How do you make the tree disappear so you can see what's in behind there?” And nothing looked right. Because the solidity of the world was compromised when you started making things fade out. And it was like, that tree is not a real tree, because we can make it transparent if we need [both] to see it and see you behind him.

And in some ways, that was sort of antithetical to this idea of, you're just wandering around this world--if the environment itself is folding itself away so you can see yourself, then this is not an ambivalent world at all. But this idea of, you can slip around a corner and sort of hide from the camera and maybe slink off to some place that you're not supposed to be at is exciting and cool. And yeah, like Eric said, you can [find] all kinds of treasures there.

Billingsley: Yeah, it's good. I think the isometric perspective is good for hiding treasures, because it really allows us to control when you get these bigger vista views, and when you would see a certain landmark. And the isometric camera, and the fox choice, ended up working really well together because you got this sort of zoomed out view, and the fact that it's a fox, it has a pointy nose and a big bushy tail. It reads really well. You can tell which direction you're facing and that kind of thing.

I’m really enjoying what I've heard of the audio so far. I saw people slagging on the music for not matching the tone of the game, but personally, I think if you're going for that bright, adventurous spirit, you did a good job.

Regamey: The music has been interesting; the composer, Terence Lee and Janice Kwan as well, they've been doing a great job on it. I too, have seen some comments here on Twitch and so forth on the demos out there. I don't think I heard anyone saying like, "the music is bad." But I did absolutely hear people saying like, "I don't think the music fits this gameplay--because they're fighting like some big, you know, horrible skeleton monster who was wrecking them over and over again."

I think they almost expect like, the Dark Souls soaring brass strings, pounding drums. There certainly are more intense tracks in Tunic. Absolutely. But I think that that style has done a really good job of matching the visual style as far as how rounded all the corners are, the matte textures. It's all very bouncy and colorful. And I think there's a… again, back to the design philosophy of like, where am I right now? The slight disconnect of, this is a cute, bouncy little brown fox character...and I'm getting absolutely brutalized by this combat. Those two things being a bit disconnected. I think the music just helps to serve that as well. I fully understand where people are coming from with that opinion. But I think that if they play a little more of the game they might change their tune. We'll see.

Billingsley: Yeah, I think there's something to be said for contrast being a good thing sometimes. Maybe you wouldn't associate these things together as much but having the chill music can maybe help you overcome the frustration or I can put you in the right sort of relaxed mood to tackle [it].

Shouldice: Early on, when I was thinking, "I'm gonna make a video game!", I was listening a lot to Terrence's Immersed, the album that he did for the Double Fine documentary. And I wasn't thinking "ah, I love how brutal and hard this music is." It was, “it's just this wonderful, heartwarming, adventuresome soundtrack.” And I'm glad that that is what we have. Like, for this project, something that makes you feel brave and courageous and maybe chilled out at times and scared at other times, but not necessarily your "bossfight.wav" bombast all the time.

Regamey: It's funny because Terence did kind of a similar thing for Dustforce for us. The hardest levels of Dustforce, they're kind of levels that, like point zero 1 percent of players finish. It's just brutal, brutal hard, but it's equally chill. I think it's fun, a good niche of making relaxing tunes for stressful environments.

So obviously, audio isn't just about music and soundtrack. It's about effects as well. I was watching the demo, a gameplay demo with Andrew on YouTube. And he got to one part, and he was like, wait, listen to this, I really liked this one sound effect. And I listened to it and was like, Ooh, that is a good sound effect, that does sound good. So when you do this stuff, I assume that to a certain extent you're having to create new sounds for situations and that those become unique and organic to your game. Kevin, is there any sound that you are particularly proud of? Something that makes you go, “Ooh, that sounds good”?

Regamey: There's a lot of things that Tunic is doing from a core design standpoint that we're trying to try our best to match on the audio side of things as well. We're doing some pretty cool things that may or may not be acknowledged by the average player, like tuning various sounds to the music at all times. No matter where you are in the game, or what the music's doing, when you do this sound that the player can do at will, it'll be in tune with the music, that kind of thing. It's not like a music game, so to speak, you know, it's not like a rhythm game or something. But just this idea of the world being kind of cohesive, as this kind of this thing without boundaries, like as Andrew was saying, in terms of not being certain of what it is or where you are, I think that was kind of our goal with the sound effects as well. So there's various things that we’re suggesting to the player, there's more to the audio than meets the eye or the ear, then-- just like the rest of the game.

Terence Lee (composer on <i>Tunic</i>): A lot of the music, especially in the early parts of the game, is designed to be about the world rather than the player. Tunic is a game about mysteries, and the essence of a mystery is in its relationship to the world around it, so by musically highlighting the world, we hope to make it feel full of depth and secrets. I think the naïve musical approach would be to make the early game music focus on the protagonist and characterize their experience as adventuresome or determined. It would be an unearned attempt at an emotional connection - you don't even know who your character is and what their purpose is, so expressing that musically would feel superficial. To me, the main character of the game is not the fox, but rather the mysterious world you are in, and the music is about that enchanting place, not just one of its travelers.

Also, a lot of the game is spent wandering around, looking for clues, and thinking deeply about the world around you. Having an atmospheric soundtrack helps get you in the zone, while music that is more upfront and action-oriented will wear you down over time. There definitely still are some very energetic tracks in the game, and we reserve them for when things get truly dangerous. (Editor note: answer added 3/25/2022 via email). 

Billingsley: Yeah, the sounds in Tunic, really, the sounds and the music [and] the visuals all complement each other in this very specific way that works just really well together. The tuning definitely plays into that. Like sometimes you'll hear a sound of like, oh, I thought that was part of the music, but it's reacting to what I'm doing. And that's really neat.

Now that part's cool. [Game] secrets seem like one of those little labor of love things where you don't know if there's going to be a payoff, but you're doing it because it’s something you really want to do and it amuses you as well. Are there any other little things that stand out to you as being like, I don't even know if anybody else will see this, but it really meant something to me.

Shouldice: We have a phrase, let's all say it together now.

All: CONTENT FOR NO ONE

Shouldice: Yeah, that's the thing where you hide something so deeply that you don't care if anyone finds it [because] you just like knowing that it's there. And short answer, yes. There are lots of those. Eric has gone in and added little tiny, beautiful embellishments to the world that bring it to life in really satisfying ways. 

Billingsley: Yeah, a few months ago, I spent probably more time than I should have adding fish to the game and giving them specific behaviors with like, a flocking algorithm so that they would move nicely and in an interesting way. You only ever see the shape of the fish and they're always underwater in the background. It's probably a detail that I put more effort into than necessary. But once I finally got them behaving well and placed them into these environments, it was so nice to just sit and watch them swim around. It's a very good feeling. I love stuff like that.

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