It’s been nine months since the release of Tunic, the Zelda-like action-adventure game about a fox hero in a strange world; nine months for its community to dig out secrets upon secrets, decipher its multiple hidden languages, and puzzle over the curious ARG at its heart.
This jubilant community treasure hunting delights both Tunic creator Andrew Shouldice and PowerUp Audio co-founder Kevin Regamey, the latter of whom was instrumental in creating Tunic’s secondary hidden “audio” language. Tunic already has an initially incomprehensible written language dotted about the game’s signs, in-game manual, and other locations that the community has deciphered into a legible alphabet.
But its audio language, discovered a bit later, is a very different marvel. If you’re curious about the specifics, Regamey recently did a massive Twitter thread explaining how he created it that’s pure catnip for music theory, audio, and ARG nerds:
Tunic’s been out for a while now, sooooo…
Let’s talk about audio secrets! pic.twitter.com/efjtNw7RDZ
— Kevin Regamey (@regameyk) October 20, 2022
As deeply embedded as this language (which the community has dubbed “Tuneic”) is in Tunic, it may be surprising to learn that it wasn’t remotely part of Shouldice’s initial plans for the game. He was connected with Regamey almost by happenstance through a mutual friend in 2015 who knew Regamey had a penchant for exactly that flavor of secret-hiding. A few years before, Regamey tells me had made a game called Phonopath as a “glorified portfolio piece” in an effort to get a job at Valve.
“Phonopath is basically a puzzler based entirely in audio files,” Regamey says. “It’s like 28 stages long, and the goal is to find a hidden password within downloaded audio files, and you find them through spectrum analysis and signal processing and through music theory knowledge.”
It’s real music geek stuff, designed specifically for people who work in audio, and was inspired by Notpron, the Portal 2 ARG, and the I Love Bees ARG. But one thing he felt they all missed was an opportunity to do more with audio elements. Phonopath, then, was intended as an exploration of what was possible.
“All the audio components of these ARGs were always so rudimentary,” Regamey says. “It was like, ‘Reverse the file. It’s Morse code,’ or whatever. It was very, very easy. I was like, ‘Man, there’s so much more potential for puzzle gameplay in an audio file.’”
“Content for No One”
While Regamey’s pitch went over well, he was told to apply again in six months, and he took that time to co-found PowerUp instead. Which gets us back to his meeting with Shouldice, who already had the visual component of the secret language (referred to by the community as Trunic) planned out.
“The visual component of the language was something that very early on existed as part of the design where it was just meant to make you feel like you were in a place that you didn’t belong,” Shouldice says. “There’s more going on here. It’s unreadable. People often reference this feeling of getting an import manual and not being able to read it. That sort of feeling was what was meant to be invoked.”
Regamey and Shouldice talked at a party, and afterward Shouldice sent Regamey a very early build of the game. Regamey sent back a treatment of the game with his own audio included as a mockup of what their working relationship might look like. Shouldice loved it.
“And at the very end some text appeared on the screen, glyph text, the first glyph text that had ever been written by someone that wasn’t me,” Shouldice recalls. “And I had never read texts in this language that hadn’t been written by me. So I was like, wait, I don’t know how to translate this. I need to go get my notebook, ’cause I had never read it, I had only ever written it.”
Regamey interjects: “It said ‘Sound treatment by PowerUp Audio.’ And then in the corner it said, ‘Cool game, bro.’”
The two knew they had to work together. Regamey took point on creating a full audio language for Tunic that ended up woven through not just the sound effects, but even some of the musical tracks too. It’s a wildly complex system that both Regamey and Shouldice freely admit most players will never see. Regamey refers to it as “content for no one,” though acknowledges it’s not really for “no one” – it’s just content that’s so personal it’s mostly just something for the creators to enjoy.
And yet, people do find these complex, deeply buried secrets – it’s only natural someone will when thousands of people are playing.
“All you need is one who’s just a crazy passionate nerd who’s like, ‘This game’s for me,’” Regamey says. “This puzzle is what I need in my life. And they just put it on online and now everyone knows.
Hiding all the secret stuff…was more about acknowledging the player from a standpoint of the designers.
“It’s really hard to hide things in games in modern times…You can just jump in and decompile it…Let’s say we hide some input sequence, some cheat code of sorts, some Konami code-style thing in the game that you’d find by figuring out some audio puzzle. Well, they wouldn’t even hear the audio puzzle. They would just datamine the thing, find the code. Here’s the answer. So hiding all the secret stuff…was more about acknowledging the player from a standpoint of the designers. It’s that special moment of, you turn this rock over and there was something there waiting for you. And we appreciate you so much for looking under that rock.”
Regamey then adds that his favorite experience with the community digging into his musical language is being DMed on Twitter by people who want to point out typos. “They’re like, ‘That should be A flat and not B flat.’ You are correct. Absolutely. Nice work.”
Secret Finding and Defining
I ask the pair if there’s anything players haven’t found yet in Tunic. The answer is yes, of course, but is also a bit more nuanced than anything that should send secret-finding communities scrambling to hunt down every last easter egg.
“At a certain point what qualifies as a secret changes,” Shouldice explains. “There are things that are secrets literally just for me that aren’t content in the game anyway. It’s just things that we might know about it that have some special meaning to us or stuff. Also, this sort of torpedoes my previous statement, but a game like this, you can never say, ‘You did it, fun’s over, go home everybody.’ Because first of all, that’s going to ruin the magic, I think. But there’s at a certain point that it’s not just like there’s a chest that nobody can get to or nobody discovered. But there are other things like meaning and connections. I’ve seen people look at the story of the game and make fascinating unpackings of it. I guess you could qualify that as the secret. Maybe the gift that keeps on giving is people reinterpreting stuff that exists that isn’t just the bits on the disc.”
Tunic was in the works for at least seven years, and its success has meant Shouldice can take a well-deserved break. While fans are certainly curious about what Shouldice might do next, he’s not quite ready to answer that question yet – though Regamey does tell on his thought process a little bit.
“I’ll mention jokingly, I had my wedding earlier this year,” Regamey says, “and this guy, [at Shouldice] he’s rolling out of the wedding, I’m drunk on the dance floor and he whispers into my ear, he says, ‘Tunic DLC?’ And then I asked him the next day and he is like,’ I don’t know if I was serious about that.’ So no promises at all whatsoever.”
I ask Shouldice directly if we should expect any, to which he replies: “Not in any way that’s fit to publish.” Fair enough.
The two elaborate a bit later: the length of time and the enormity of layers to Tunic mean that committing to anything like it – DLC, a sequel, anything – would be an enormous commitment. Audience expectations would be daunting, especially given the many secretive layers like the multiple languages.
For now, they’re content enjoying the critical and popular success of Tunic. It was nominated in three categories at The Game Awards – best action-adventure, best indie, and best debut indie – which Shouldice calls a “significant honor.”
Every day there’s a little voice in my head that says, ‘Why aren’t you panicking and jumping into the next game?’
“To be here and to have our names on the list three times, it’s sort of surreal, you know what I mean?” he says. “I wish that I could experience the delta of me starting work on it to now, and just feel that difference. ‘Cause it’s been such a long time that it’s sort of hard to fit it all in.”
Regamey turns to Shouldice: “Do your parents now believe it’s a real job?”
Shouldice replies, “I should ask them what they think I do. Hard question.”
A moment later, he continues, “I think what the success of the game means and the backing of Microsoft, whether it was the 2018 announcement, or being on Game Pass, or the continued support from other platforms and the team and everything, means that I can exhale. Even so, every day there’s a little voice in my head that says, ‘Why aren’t you panicking and jumping into the next game?’ And that’s the challenge at this point. But it’s a good one.”
Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.