Rock The Spacebar is a twice-monthly column investigating the great music that underpins your favourite games. This week, Dom Peppiatt chats to the development team behind Tunic about the game’s ambient soundtrack, how the memories of games from the past can form the foundations of unforgettable experiences today, and why music is just as important as any other part of the development process.
If you’re of a certain age and you think back to the games of your youth, there’s probably a sound in your head; the soaring, heroic motifs of Zelda, the funk-laced, Jackson-engineered beats of Sonic, the mournful orchestrations of Final Fantasy. But boot up your SNES, or your Game Boy, and what are you met with? Not what’s in your head; years of better-than-16-bit game music has modified your memories. You’re listening to it all via rose-tinted headphones; those tracks that underscored your youth may be catchy, but they’re rudimentary.
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Enter Tunic. A game that launched in 2022, it’s freed from the limitations of those dusty old console soundchips, and it has more space to get into your ears – into your head. Deftly combining organic instrumentation, synths, glitchy digital effects, haunting choral moments, and this almost-unplaceable feeling of dread, Tunic’s soundtrack perfectly complements a game that starts off feeling like a wholesome love letter to the classic ‘triangle-seeking games’ it cites as inspiration… but ends up feeling like nothing else you’ve ever played.
“We kind-of intentionally wanted the memory of what we liked about retro game soundtracks to guide us when we were making Tunic, but not so much the literal soundtracks themselves,” explains Terence Lee – perhaps better known as Lifeformed – co-composer on the OST. “The game kind of feels that way too; what you remember games of your past to be like. And we thought it would be nice to bring that into a modern context by just letting what we had in our minds manifest.”
“We didn’t really listen to much music while we were making Tunic, but I kind of wanted to let the memory of Final Fantasy IX – one of the games that influenced me most – come through,” adds Janice Kwan, the other co-composer on the charming adventure title. “Because there is so much nostalgia in other aspects of Tunic, that was one area I thought the sound of classic games could contribute to on the soundtrack, too.”
Perhaps Tunic’s music is so successful (and evocative) because it manages to combine organic and synthetic sounds so intuitively, giving the world this rooted sense of place – which is immediately parseable as natural and beautiful – before undercutting it all with Aphex Twin-like elements of ambiance and techno. Tunic is all about making you explore a place you’re not meant to be, a place in which you do not belong, and the music really helps you understand that. As Tunic’s level design breadcrumbs you into a dark, conspiratorial story, the soundtrack pre-empts it; showing you flashes of existential terror long before your eyes get to catch up.
“If you listen to the soundtrack as a whole, it definitely gets darker and darker, until the point you’re near [the end game],” explains Lee. “There is a lot of spookiness in the game, generally, as you get later into it, but I think it’s the most intense in the Cathedral… and I think it’s because of the choir samples that Janice’s dad did.”
“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 sample of them once, and we templated a lot. Perhaps we should tell him he’s in the game…”
In a game all about secrets, it’s no secret to anyone that’s listened to the OST that Lee and Kwan are inspired by various electronic genres – house, deep house, techno, ambient – and that really comes across in the aural tone Tunic takes on. Where some commentators have referred to the game’s music as ‘lo-fi beats to explore and adventure to’, that wasn’t really the intent for the duo.
“I didn’t intend it to be relaxing; that’s not something I consciously set out to do,” says Lee. “I think actually by pursuing the types of music I’m into – something that was more like rhythmic and atmospheric, and naturally has more immersiveness to it – that draws you more into the world.”
There’s no constant tension and intensity in the music of Tunic; that would have been too stressful. The core hook of the game, after all, sees you constantly looking around the same areas – poking at every wall to see if it’ll give way to something you’d previously overlooked. Revisiting areas to sniff out more treasure, more clues, more secrets.
“I didn’t want it to always feel there’s like something in your face, musically,” says Lee. “But when the challenging stuff did start, I feel the relaxing nature of the music helps – it’s a balancing act, and an effective contrast to what the game is doing.”
After Lee and Kwan got a feel for the game – and Lee understood that everything in the game revolved around these centrifugal, oblique mysteries – he knew the music needed to really focus on the environment; it needed to be an aural companion for what you were seeing with your eyes, and feeling out with your hands.
“You wake up on a beach, you don’t know why you’re there, and you’re in this beautiful, strange world,” he explains. “The music needs to focus on that. It needs to support this mysterious, atmospheric feeling, and it’s more important that it does that than be a really upfront, foreground adventuring melody. You haven’t established who you are, or what you’re doing, so anything [more upfront] like that would be really out-of-place.”
“One thing I really liked about the visual design in the game was that it just encompassed so many textures in the world,” adds Kwan. “You had, you know, more organic things in the forest, and you had your beach, but then you also went to the quarry, and into the ziggurat area, and then all the way to the cathedral. And that just gave us a whole spectrum and a whole world of sounds we could incorporate. “
And that’s not something that’s lost on level designer, Eric Billingsley, either. “When [Tunic lead] Andrew Shouldice and I were designing the different areas of Tunic, one of the things that was in the back of my mind 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 pop out, and you want the player to be like ‘the fields are really different and interesting and I want to see everything that’s here’.
“And so like I worked really hard at having that, and originally – sometimes – it’s like you’re not sure if you’ve managed to achieve that. But then once you have the music and the environmental sounds all added in, it’s amazing. Just… how much each place comes to life, and has its own identity… it’s a whole other layer on top of all of that level design stuff, I think.”
Shouldice and Billingsley wanted to elicit different emotional responses in you as you ventured into new areas. That cute woodland you first find, as you’re searching for meaning and purpose in this world? It’s almost cosy, pleasant. Then things start to rupture, and glitch. You question the reality of this world as you work your way underground. The quasi-religious iconography takes on a darker meaning, the shadow you – the hero – casts on the world becomes more sinister, and those little motifs you heard from earlier in the game resurface. Always more threatening, always more unsettling.
The graphics show this to you – what once was colourful becomes almost monochromatic, what once was full of life becomes barren and skeletal, what was once organic becomes synthetic – but that visual journey alone wouldn’t have been enough for Tunic. The music needed to match it. And it does.
“Going from organic to more synthetic and digital sounds wasn’t necessarily part of this big narrative arc. It was more that the dark parts of the game are also more synthetic, and so it just naturally fit together that way,” says Lee. “The game does have a darker side to it, and initially you’re drawn into this cute and colourful world – but there’s always this hint of something under the surface, and going with the more textural sounds that we did gave us the opportunity to start bringing in stranger and darker sounds.”
In an interview with most of the staff that worked on Tunic, one thing became abundantly clear to me: no-one in the team thinks the game would feel the same without Lifeformed and Kwan’s music. Shouldice, Billingsley, and audio lead Kevin Regamy all concurred that the nearly three-hour-long soundtrack is as integral to Tunic’s identity as its charming visuals, its watertight combat, or its obsession with mystery and intrigue.
“We talk a lot about how the visuals influence the sound of music during development, but I think the opposite is also true, too,” explains Billingsley. “If I was trying to define look and feel in a new area, a work-in-progress track would come through from Terence or Janice and I would put that on as I was working and it would help me understand how this area should look, how it should feel.”
The result is an adventure game as essential as any Zelda, Dark Souls, or Metroid. By layering music that was made, over seven years, on top of some of the best game design we’ve seen this generation, on top of boxy isometric graphics that are at once fresh and familiar, Tunic has made a name for itself as an instant classic: a game whose music will live alone, outside of the game, as players continue to pluck and pick at its walls years into the future, hoping to find more secrets to look at.
Or, indeed, to listen to.
Tunic is available for PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X|S. You can listen to – and purchase – the Tunic OST on Bandcamp.