“Tunic” is already one of the best adventure games of a generation, but the soundtrack makes it unforgettable
Rock The Spacebar is a bimonthly column that investigates the great music that powers your favorite games. This week, Dom Peppiatt talks with the development team behind Tunic about the game’s ambient soundtrack, how memories of past games can form the foundation for unforgettable experiences today, and why music is just as important as any other part of the process of development.
IIf you are of a certain age and you think back to the games of your youth, there is probably a noise in your head; the soaring and heroic motifs of Zelda, the funk and Jackson-designed beats of Sonicthe lugubrious orchestrations of Final Fantasy. But fire up your SNES or Game Boy, and what do you encounter? Not what’s in your head; years of better-than-16-bit game music have altered your memories. You listen to everything through rose-tinted headphones; those bits that emphasized your youth may be eye-catching, but they’re rudimentary.
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Walk in Tunic. A game that launched in 2022, it’s freed from the limitations of those dusty old console sound chips, and it’s got more room to fit in your ears — in your head. Deftly combining organic instrumentation, synths, glitchy digital effects, haunting choral moments and that almost insurmountable sense of dread, Tunic’The soundtrack perfectly complements a game that starts off sounding like a wholesome love letter to the classic “triangle-finding games” he cites as inspiration…but ends up feeling like nothing else you have already played.
“We kind of intentionally wanted the memory of what we liked about retro game soundtracks to guide us when we were making Tunicbut not so much the literal soundtracks themselves,” says Terence Lee – perhaps better known as Alive – co-composer on the OST. “The game also looks like that; what the games from your past look like that you remember. And we thought it would be nice to put that in a modern context by just letting what we had in mind come through.
“We weren’t really listening to a lot of music while we were doing Tunicbut I wanted to somehow leave the memory of Final Fantasy IX – one of the games that influenced me the most – succeeded,” adds Janice Kwan, the other co-composer of the charming adventure title. “Because there’s so much nostalgia in other aspects of Tunicthis was an area where I thought the sound of classic games could contribute to the soundtrack as well.
Perhaps Tunic’s music is so successful (and evocative) because it manages to combine organic and synthetic sounds so intuitively, giving the world that ingrained sense of place – which is immediately analyzable as natural and beautiful – before undermining everything. with ambience and techno Aphex Twin type elements. Tunic is about getting you to explore a place you’re not meant to be, a place you don’t belong, and the music really helps you figure that out. Like Tunicthe level design immerses you in a dark, conspiratorial story, the soundtrack anticipates it; showing you flashes of existential dread long before your eyes catch up.
“If you listen to the soundtrack as a whole, it definitely gets darker and darker, to the point where you’re close [the end game]”, explains Lee. “There’s a lot of dread in the game, in general, as you get into it later, but I think it’s the most intense of the cathedral…and I think it’s It’s because of the choir samples Janice’s dad made.”
“He doesn’t know, but he’s in the soundtrack!” laughs Kwan, before Lee explains, “Janice’s dad is in a choir, and we recorded a snippet of it once, and we modeled a lot. Maybe we should tell him he’s in the game…”
In a game of secrets, it’s no secret to anyone who’s listened to the OST that Lee and Kwan draw inspiration from various electronic genres – house, deep house, techno, ambient – and it really shows in the tone. sound Tunic assume. Where some reviewers called the game’s music “lo-fi beats to explore and explore”, that wasn’t really the duo’s intention.
“I didn’t intend it to be relaxing; it’s not something that I consciously decided to do,” says Lee. “I think actually pursuing the kinds of music that I’m into – something that was more rhythmic and atmospheric, and naturally had more immersion – it draws you more into the world. “
There is no constant tension and intensity in the music of Tunic; it would have been too stressful. The main hook of the game, after all, sees you constantly looking around the same areas – poking at each wall to see if it will give way to something you previously overlooked. Revisit areas to sniff out more treasures, more clues, more secrets.
“I didn’t want it to always sound like there’s something on your face, musically,” Lee says. “But when the rough stuff started, I feel the relaxing nature of the music helps – it’s a balancing act and an effective contrast to what the game does.”
After Lee and Kwan got to grips with the game – and Lee realized that everything in the game revolved around these centrifugal and oblique mysteries – he knew that the music really needed to focus on the environment; it was to be an auditory companion to what you saw with your eyes and felt with your hands.
“You wake up on a beach, you don’t know why you’re there, and you’re in this beautiful, weird world,” he explains. “The music has to focus on that. It has to sustain that mysterious, atmospheric feeling, and it’s more important that it does that than being a really upfront, top-notch adventure tune. You haven’t established who you are, or what you do, so whatever [more upfront] like that would be really irrelevant.
“One thing I really liked about the visual design of the game was that it encompassed so many textures in the world,” Kwan adds. “You had, you know, more organic stuff in the forest, and you had your beach, but then you also went to the quarry, and to the ziggurat area, and then up to the cathedral. And that gave us a whole spectrum and a whole world of sounds that we could incorporate. “
And it’s also not something that level designer Eric Billingsley didn’t miss. “When [Tunic lead] Andrew Shouldice and I were designing the different areas of Tunic, one of the things that was going through my head was that I wanted each area to feel distinct and have a different visual style. So when you go to a new place, you want it to stand out, and you want the player to be like “the fields are really different and interesting and I want to see everything here”.
“And so I worked really hard to get that, and originally – sometimes – it’s like you weren’t sure you got it. But once you add the music and the environmental sounds, it’s amazing. Just…how each location comes to life and has its own identity…it’s a whole other layer on top of all that level design stuff, I think.
Shouldice and Billingsley wanted to elicit different emotional reactions in you as you venture into new areas. That pretty forest you find for the first time, as you search for meaning and purpose in this world? It’s almost cozy, pleasant. Then things start to break down and glitch. You question the reality of this world as you go underground. Quasi-religious iconography takes on a darker meaning, the shadow you – the hero – casts on the world becomes more sinister, and those little patterns you heard earlier in the game resurface. Ever more threatening, ever more disturbing.
The graphics show it to you – what was once colorful becomes almost monochromatic, what was once full of life becomes sterile and skeletal, what was once organic becomes synthetic – but this visual journey alone would not have been enough to Tunic. The music had to match. And that’s the case.
“Moving from organic sounds to more synthetic and digital sounds wasn’t necessarily part of that big story arc. It was more that the dark parts of the game are also more synthetic, and so it naturally fits together that way,” Lee explains. “There’s a darker side to the game, and initially you’re drawn into this cute, colorful world – but there’s always that hint of something under the surface, and going with the more textured sounds we’ve made has given the opportunity to start bringing in some weirder, darker sounds.
In an interview with most of the staff who worked on Tunic, one thing became very clear to me: no one on the team thinks the game would feel the same without Lifeformed and Kwan’s music. Shouldice, Billingsley and audio manager Kevin Regamy all agreed that the nearly three-hour soundtrack is an integral part of Tunic‘s like its charming visuals, airtight combat, or obsession with mystery and intrigue.
“We talk a lot about how visuals influence the sound of music during development, but I think the opposite is also true,” says Billingsley. “If I was trying to define the look in a new area, a work in progress lead would come from Terence or Janice and I would put it on while I was working and it would help me understand what that area should look like, how it should feel.
The result is an adventure game as essential as any Zelda, dark soulsor metroid. By layering the music that has been created, over seven years, over some of the best game designs we’ve seen of this generation, over square isometric graphics that are both fresh and familiar, Tunic made a name for itself as an instant classic: a game whose music will live on alone, outside of the game, as players continue to tear down and tear down its walls years into the future, hoping to find more secrets to investigate.
Or, indeed, to listen.
Tunic is available for PC, Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S. You can listen to – and buy – the Tunic OST on Bandcamp.