I'm still riding the high of unlocking Tunic's secret language
The other day, I was chopping grass and kicking ass in Tunic when my friend Alex joined the Discord channel. "Where are you right now?" he asked in an uncharacteristically serious voice. Alex had turned me on to Tunic a few days earlier and we'd been swapping stories and sharing secrets the same way people who grew up in the '90s always talk about having done on the playground. For a while, that's all I thought Tunic was: an extremely well-made, impossibly gorgeous Zelda game with some clever puzzles and hidden doors. Turns out, Tunic has secret homework.
I told Alex I was on the verge of finding the third hexagon tablet thing—the last item needed to complete Tunic's version of the triforce. Then Alex, who had been a few hours ahead of me in Tunic, suddenly got vague about what he'd been up to. "Let me know when you get the thing."
Cut to a few days later, and the two of us are excitedly blurting out nonsense at each other like "No no! Two bottom lines means it's 'eeee' not 'oooo!'" and "Is D just an upside down T?" while our other friends wonder if we've been the victims of a gas leak. We did sound a little silly, but I promise it makes sense if you've read Tunic's manual.
Wait, you can read this right?
Note: Major spoilers for some of Tunic's best surprises below.
Don't worry, that's the point. Tunic's lovingly drawn virtual manual is its main storytelling device. You find pages for the manual one at a time, each one telling you something new about the game. Most of the pages are covered in this curious runic language with scattered English words in the mix. Even basic mechanics aren't plainly spelled out: You have to learn by studying the illustrations on the pages and picking up on contextual clues. That, and testing things for yourself.
Taking a closer look at this drawing and the English annotation below, for instance, will lead to the discovery that draining all of your stamina by rolling too much will get you killed very fast.
This is how I carried on in Tunic for the first ten hours or so—admiring this charming manual, marveling at how it doles out information at a delicate pace, and glazing right over all those funny-looking symbols on every page. I got to what I thought was the "thing" that Alex was alluding to: a radical new ability to teleport short distances. That gave me access to some eye-opening pages, but that apparently wasn't the "thing" either. He said when I saw it, I'd know.
I kept plugging away at the game, trying to solve all of its mysteries. I found another page, but this one was different. It was the last page, a notes page like the ones I'd see in manuals all the time growing up but never used. This one had been used, perhaps by another hero of time. It was littered with half-drawn shapes and a grid of symbols I've seen on the other pages, but next to the grid are more symbols and a little drawing of a fox pointing towards them.
Below that, a demonstration of how to put a word together… holy crap! You're telling me there's a way to actually read the symbols? This was definitely the thing.
Except, even with the memo page's instruction, I still had no clue how to interpret a letter. At the risk of spoiling the fun for me, Alex provided one crucial clarification: The inner symbol represents the consonant sound and the outer lines represent a vowel sound. Based on that, and knowing what the words for "sword" and "fox" looked like, I busted out a notebook and started recreating Tunic's alphabet. Reading sword from left to right and then inside to out, what you get is (s)(or)(d). At first I thought I was missing a W somewhere in there, but Alex confirmed what I'd started to suspect—it's phonetic! How the translation sounds is all that matters. So sword is spelled "sord" and fox is spelled "(f)(aw)(k)(s)."
That really blew my mind, because it means cracking the whole language would mean more than just translating 26 letters into their runic counterparts. We'd have to ignore traditional grammar and just sound things out like a game of Mad Gab. This was a roadblock, but I had a personal breakthrough after successfully translating a phrase with a particularly funky spelling in Tunic speak: "fohkis iz krooshil." I was getting frustrated saying it out loud because it sounded like gibberish, but I finally placed the emphasis on the right letters and connected the dots.
Fohkis iz krooshil! Focus is crucial! Of course! The left-trigger lock-on mechanic must be called focus! I'm a genius.
One letter at a time
I love a puzzle game that can inspire that sort of gleeful self praise, but this was on another level of fun. I didn't realize how much I'd enjoy the homework-like process of suspecting a "b" is just an upside down "P," cross referencing my hunch with a few other words, and marking the discovery down in my notebook for later use. It turns out homework isn't so bad when there's a prize waiting for me at the end (like what I suspect will be Tunic's true ending).
So there sat Alex and I for hours staring at virtual paper and actual paper, decrypting a language that only exists in a single videogame.
Before I started translating some of the manual's longer passages, we wanted to fill in every letter and vowel we could. Alex suggested I start with the controls page, which shows actions assigned to buttons that I can easily guess, like "shield," "roll," or "move." That was a huge help, but vowels are what often threw us for a loop. The list on the memo page is incomplete and assigning definite sounds to each one sometimes led to disagreements. Are the sounds "er" and "ear" two different symbols, or are we splitting hairs? Don't even get us started on the difference between "ay" and "Aa". Eventually I got good enough that I was jotting down unmarked vowels and interrupting Alex doing his actual university homework to excitedly exclaim that I know what "oy" looks like.
Now with what I believe is the entire Tunic alphabet and several hours of practice under my belt, I'm starting to just read in Tunic. I can quickly breeze by common linking words like "the" or "of" and I have a lot of the letters committed to memory. Give me about seven minutes, and I can even translate a page of Tunic's dense manual.
I'd tease what exactly you get by mastering Tunic's language, but I haven't figured that out yet. I'm still in the "translating stuff for the fun it" stage of learning a new language. I'm starting to suspect that reading comprehension isn't at all required to see Tunic's true ending, though. There's a reliable mechanic that quickly guides you from one puzzle to the next. I'm trying to not lean on that too much, though, because translating the clues is a lot more fun.
I also suspect that however the ending turns out, it can't hold a candle to the surprise and gratification of our language antics. This is the most I've written words on actual paper since college! We just don't get notebook-worthy games often enough, which is understandable. Tunic's robust language might be one of the reasons it took seven years to come out. At least the folks at Tunic Team can rest assured it was worth the wait.
When I told my coworkers we'd cracked the code, executive editor Tyler Wilde said I should get into cryptograms. This may be the start of a very deep rabbit hole.