Elden Ring, Tunic, and Narrative Through Exploration

Hey everyone! This is technically the next Backlog Abyss, but it’s going to be different from the listicle format I was using in the previous installments. This time around, I’m narrowing my focus to two particular games I finished in March, and comparing my experiences with them since there are a few similarities worth pointing out. This is less a review of both games and more an examination of those similarities. I hope you enjoy the new approach!

*Light spoilers for Elden Ring and Tunic, by the way.*

After seventy hours, I finally finished the main story of Elden Ring. I had previously written about the first twenty hours of my journey through The Lands Between and the sense of wanderlust that permeated throughout, and I can’t say that feeling ever left, even in the final stretch. Every new location, legacy dungeon, and boss encounter kept me guessing what would be around the corner, and it constantly held my attention in a way that few other open world games have. There were dull moments, sure, but they rarely manifested aside from the copy-paste mini dungeons that I eventually started ignoring (unless Fextralife told me that a cool item relevant to my build was inside).

Elden Ring is not only my favorite game of 2022 so far, it’s one of my favorite games of all time. Any complaints I have completely melt away when I think about the insane high points that this game achieves. I struggled with bosses and celebrated my eventual victories over them, and I flew my horse into the abyss more times than I care to admit. My journey through The Lands Between was mine, and mine alone. It’s a personal narrative that I was able to craft for myself, and I can’t stress how important that is to me when playing any game that dumps you into a sprawling world and simply says “have at it”.

It got me thinking a lot about other games that have achieved a similar feeling for me. The most obvious one is The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, especially if you go the extra mile and disable the HUD elements and let your sense of adventure carry you through. It’s a game that (after the cleverly masked tutorial plateau) gives you a set of tools and throws you into an enormous world to explore and inhabit. Obviously there’s a story in both of these games with a primary objective, and certain criteria that are required to achieve an ending, but it’s those in-between bits where your story happens. It’s a powerful thing to allow the player the agency to go off in any direction they want and drink in the world at their own discretion. Exploration is just as important to telling a story as…well, the story.

(La-Mulana also achieves this, but that game scares the shit out of me. One day I will finish that game, and you will hear about it!!!)

Anyway, after giving myself a week to recover from post-Elden Ring daze, I booted up a little game called Tunic. Developed almost solely by Andrew Shouldice over a seven year period, it’s an isometric adventure that draws inspiration from The Legend of Zelda, with an emphasis on weighty, dodgy, rolly, stamina management-y combat. It’s also a game where you’re dropped into a world with challenging foes and minimal direction on where to go or what to do. Everything is written in a unique language that you don’t understand, barring a few scattered words in English to help you along. It gives off the feeling that you’re truly out of place here (though the language was deciphered mere days after the game’s release), so the best thing you can do for now is explore. And my god, by god, and on god, does this game nail that sense of exploration that I crave in these kinds of experiences.

During your journey you’ll come across manual pages that are reminiscent of ones that used to come with NES/SNES games. Finding these pages is critical to understanding the world of Tunic as it is filled to the brim with secrets. A suspicious looking path behind a small waterfall could lead to a whole new area, or a much needed shortcut. Relics and consumables can be found throughout to help your survivability against some of the tougher encounters. The manual holds much more than just simple instructions and item descriptions though (also cute art). I really don’t want to spoil too much about the big puzzle, but figuring out the majority of it on my own felt incredibly satisfying. It reminded me a lot of FEZ with the whole overarching puzzle aspect to the world that had people working together online to figure it out. Shit like that is why I love video games as a medium.

As I was playing Tunic, I couldn’t help but draw parallels with Elden Ring as I sought out every nook and cranny of its meticulously crafted world. Both games achieve a strong sense of mystery within their respective worlds; no matter where you are, you’re being pulled toward something. Sure, they’re ultimately striving for different design goals, and my play time with each game is dozens of hours apart, but it’s how they nail these exploratory elements within their respective frameworks that I find so endearing. Elden Ring is a sprawling, grandiose world that turns its terrain into a puzzle, challenging you to navigate it just to see what lies in that hidden cavern over there. Tunic, on the other hand, feels much more quaint, though all the more deceptive in what it’s hiding from the player. 

There are other similarities that I could point out, but I really wanted to keep the focus on how both games handle their respective exploratory elements and how they both give off a similar vibe to me in that regard. I think Tunic is ultimately the more friendly option due to it being a lot shorter and also having accessibility options that give you infinite stamina/health, but Elden Ring does a decent job of giving the player a chance to cheese the shit out of it, and I appreciate that a lot as someone who isn’t much of a big chad gamer man these days. In fact, I think each game’s knack for letting the player explore works to their benefit. If you’re stuck at a certain point or boss fight in Elden Ring there’s a strong chance you can just go somewhere else for a while. There are not a ton of progression gates and you can get some absolutely busted weapons/spells/items very early on if you know where to look. Tunic is admittedly a bit more rigid in this regard, but there’s still no shortage of secret-hunting for stat upgrades and sub-weapons that will make things moderately less painful.

If I haven’t made it clear by now, I love both of these games. Elden Ring is the culmination of FromSoftware’s modern design philosophy, and it’s an experience I will never forget. Tunic feels like a culmination of the isometric adventure game; a synthesis of all the best ideas from classics like The Legend of Zelda to recent breakout indie hits like Death’s Door. It may not move mountains in the same way Elden Ring is currently doing in the modern internet discourse machine, but it’s certainly worth examining and learning from. Both games may have their faults, but none of those faults matter when they nail their core message. You’re a stranger in a strange land. There’s a whole world out there to explore. Have at it.

Stray thoughts:

  • I didn’t know where to shove this thought, but I think it shows an incredible amount of confidence on FromSoftware’s part to make large swaths of its world not only optional, but completely missable. I missed an entire area during my initial playthrough! I eventually went back and did it of course but it blows me away thinking about what else I could’ve missed.
  • I got the True Ending in Tunic, and let me tell you, finding some of those manual pages without a guide made me feel simultaneously like a genius and a complete idiot sometimes. What a wild ride.
  • I really hope you enjoyed the change of pace for Backlog Abyss! I’d love to write more pieces like this where I connect a couple of games and talk about some of the things they do well instead of a traditional review. I’m sick of reviews lol.

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