One of the year's biggest AAA games and one of its most humble indies have found themselves compared since launch. Elden Ring, the latest From Software game, is a fantastical world with tough combat and obscure secrets to uncover. Tunic, an indie game that recalls the heyday of top-down games in the The Legend of Zelda series, is a fantastical world with tough combat and obscure secrets to uncover. But within the context of those similarities, we can take a closer look at their differences--from the obvious to the subtle--and the design philosophies that those represent. The two games approach a similar sense of mystery, but their methods are profoundly different.
In one way, the mystery of how to even approach these games creates a shared connection between them. Both are opaque and challenge you to figure out many mechanics and structures for yourself. The major difference comes in how the two games expect you to solve these riddles.
Tunic uses a series of in-fiction gameplay manuals to help gently guide players through. The manuals are sometimes in English, but more often in a fictitious code-language, with cheerful NES-era illustrations throughout. This serves as not just a tutorial, but as a central part of Tunic's puzzle loop. Deciphering the manual pages and relating them back to the world is a puzzle in itself, and it rewards your trial and error by filling out the pages with more information as you experiment and discover solutions.
Elden Ring, by comparison, seems to revel in the complexity of its quest steps and obscure solutions. The steps aren't clearly laid out, the world is much larger, and often the completion of a single quest could take hours or more to figure out on your own. But Elden Ring isn't structured to be completed by yourself. It's built around players sharing information, both within the game through its messaging system and outside the game through the use of wikis. In many ways, it's structured more like an alternate reality game (or ARG) than a traditional video game; ARGs often require the braintrust of communities of players working together to solve. The developer knows that most players will be sharing information, so pieces are made to be too complex for a single player to see and solve it all alone. It has become something of a signature for From Software, going all the way back to Demon's Souls.
Together, the two games share a similar DNA as branches in the family tree of classic adventure games like The Legend of Zelda. Tunic is made to be an isolated adventure, to evoke the feeling of delving into caves and forests with nothing but your wits. It scatters the manual pages strategically to make sure you have all the clues you could possibly need at any given time. Elden Ring is a more communal experience. All of the information may exist somewhere in the world, but something you need to know may be hidden in a castle that's miles away, or a key character might have been killed because of other actions you've taken.
To put it another way, the two games take different approaches in who the player is communicating with. One aspect I've always enjoyed about very fine-tuned puzzle games is how discovering the perfect solution feels like an act of communion with the game designer. They created an intricate machine that was meant to spring and trigger in a certain order like clockwork, and the act of solving the puzzle lets you intimately see the machine's innerworkings. It feels like you as a player are reaching an understanding with the designer in a very specific way. A more communal experience like Elden Ring has aspects of that, but the machine is also intentionally too complex to be approached in a single, particular way. The designers are counting on you not only to come to understand its own internal systems, but also to rely on other players. You're communicating with them just as much as, if not more than, the designer.
Neither approach is necessarily better than the other, but which one appeals to you more may say something about how you like to enjoy and process games. For me, playing video games has always been more of a solitary activity. It's why I gravitate towards single-player, story-focused RPGs, platforming challenges like Mario and Mega Man, and expansive open-world adventures like Horizon or Assassin's Creed. Especially as I've grown older and my game time has been more sporadic (and frequently interrupted by children), I've gotten even more deeply invested in games as a private pursuit. The house is quiet and I've settled in for some me-time. In that spirit, Tunic feels fulfilling as a puzzle I'm setting out to solve by myself.
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And to an extent, of course, nostalgia plays a role. I grew up playing video games before the internet existed in any consumer-grade capacity. Delving into a video game was mostly a solo activity because it had to be, not because it chose to be. What makes Tunic feel special is that it acknowledges the unique qualities of that time period and recreates an artificial version of it, where discovery and interaction with retro elements like a paper game manual are part of the game itself. Elden Ring evokes similar memories of the pre-internet, but those of exchanging secrets on the schoolyard and racing home to test them out. These two elements don't have to exist in a vacuum--indeed, many early adventure games thrived on both: the solitary exploration as you sit on the floor in front of your CRT, and the social experience of sharing notes the next day at the lunch table. But these two games place a distinct focus on those disparate aspects to create two very different but individually complete experiences. They're two sides of the same coin.
I've never completed a Soulsborne game before, and so I'm approaching Elden Ring with cautious optimism and enjoying the experience so far. And I've had my eye on Tunic for some time, mostly expecting a cute Zelda throwback and not much more. What I didn't expect is for these two games, coming so close to one another, to illustrate an incredible breadth of possibility within the same design space--to approach mystery and discovery in ways that are both satisfying in themselves and completely unique to each other.
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