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Tunic has one of the best video game puzzles ever

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Tunic launched this month after almost eight years in development. The cute-looking action-adventure game shares a lot with the The Legend of Zelda and Dark Souls, but it has quickly become apparent that those influences are merely the surface layer of a deceptively deep game. The world of Tunic is steeped in mystery, and your heroic little fox will need to solve a bevy of puzzles to get to the heart of its secrets.

[Editor’s note: Spoilers follow for Tunic]

One of the game’s biggest mysteries is the Golden Path. This game-spanning puzzle is frequently alluded to in the pages of the in-game manual, but its meaning always seems tantalizingly out of reach. As its nature gradually becomes clear, though, it proves to be one of the most creative and satisfying puzzles in gaming history.

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The route to understanding the Golden Path is not an easy one, but the seeds are laid early on, whether it’s by discovering the enormous stone door at the top of the Overworld’s mountain or by picking up some intriguing manual pages in the Library. The first real breakthrough, though, comes upon collection of page 49, which provides a golden grid with 25 numbers in it. With a little savvy, it’s possible to connect the dots on previous pages (especially the hints on pages 21 and 22), noting a few golden-colored clues (even if you can’t decipher the language).

Each square references a specific manual page, and on closer inspection, you can find a hidden golden line pattern on each one, all of which eventually fits together into a grand and complex route that traverses the entire grid before arriving at the center. The hunt is on.

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The revelatory Golden Path page in Tunic’s manual

Image: Andrew Shouldice via Polygon

By tracing said line, you’ll eventually have the code to unlock Tunic’s mountain door. There’s a pleasing physicality to piecing together the Golden Path this way. During the review period, others in the Tunic press Discord server went so far as to print the manual’s template, or recreate it in their own journals. It harkens back to a golden age of video game secrets and rumors, before readily available guides and walkthroughs, when players would swap theories in the schoolyard and sketch out dungeon maps and points of interest.

The way Tunic’s patterns are hidden is itself a stroke of genius, as well. Poring over virtual pages looking for golden lines could easily have become a chore, but each piece of the path is hidden away in a slightly different way. A coffee stain becomes a clue, a printing error a telltale sign. It encourages and requires players to see things differently, to reconsider things that they might have ignored or skimmed over before.

My favorite instance lies on page 9, which deals with the game’s data management screen. There’s nothing on the page itself that seems to correspond to the Golden Path correctly, and it might feel like hitting a wall. But should you decide to check out the Load Game screen itself, you’ll discover a curious new game file that wasn’t there before you picked up the requisite manual page. Load in, and you’re in an endlessly-repeating top-down dungeon, following — what else? — a golden line along the floor.

Tunic’s map depicting a ruined atoll

Image: Andrew Shouldice via Polygon

This constant recontextualization of parts of the game’s language is fascinating, and begets a euphoric high when you figure out the connections. It’s possible to discover the secret game file before you even know anything about the Golden Path, but if you don’t yet understand its importance, it’s an enticing but impenetrable mystery. As with so much else in Tunic, it feels like the game trusts you to figure out 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, though. Yes, each step of solving this grand mystery is satisfying and meaningful, but it also works in a holistic sense, and falls in line with the general intrigue pervading the entire game. It’s impossible to play through Tunic without getting a sense of its hidden depths, from the manual’s runic language, to the rocky remains of powerful golems that pepper the landscape, to the old CRT display that can be briefly seen when you access the manual. As such, a grand overarching puzzle (which also proves integral in unlocking the “true” ending) is a perfect thematic fit. The Golden Path puzzle embraces Tunic’s unflinchingly meta nature and as a result, no matter how bizarre the hoops you need to jump through, it all makes a strange kind of sense.

The mountain door in Tunic

Image: Andrew Shouldice via Polygon

Good puzzle design like Tunic’s is key to fostering a sense of buy-in from players, a feeling that they’re unlocking an island’s mysteries rather than solving a game developer’s puzzle. It’s the polar opposite of, say, Resident Evil’s byzantine locked-door-and key puzzles, which, in retrospect, feel ancillary to the overall experience, arbitrary obstacles to be overcome and forget. Compare that to something like Return of the Obra Dinn, a game that, while essentially one big puzzle, provides meaningful stakes within the world for every conclusion the player draws, and rewards them for doing the appropriate amount of detective work.

In Tunic, the Golden Path ticks all the right boxes. It feeds into the air of mystery hovering over the island, lurking behind locked doors and inside intriguing patterns. Each successful step feels earned, whether it’s discovering the connection to the mountain door, finding a specific piece of the path, or tapping out the final pattern and claiming your reward. The fact that said reward — the elusive page 1 of the manual — is key to finding the game’s true ending is just the icing on the cake. In many ways, this puzzle isn’t so much about the destination, but the journey there.

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