| Arts & Culture
Video Games Playing ‘Tunic’ Reminds Me How to Approach Sickness and Recovery
Like the Fox in the video game ‘Tunic,’ remembering the past helped me face my struggles in the present with Covid.
Many stories start with a stranger arriving in a strange land. Narratives in which a protagonist falls asleep beneath new stars are almost too many to count. And yet, as it often goes in fictional worlds, there’s usually a sign of welcome for protagonist and reader alike, a reminder of the world left behind. Yet, when the Fox—the protagonist of Tunic , a beautiful and engaging action-adventure video game from the game studio Finji —washes ashore onto a verdant and mysterious landscape, no such familiarity exists.
There’s language, but you, as the Fox, don’t know it. You learn you need to recover something called the Holy Cross and help someone called the Heir, but no one tells you why or even how. There are creatures fair and foul, but you don’t know why some plead with you and why some fight you. And, you learn very quickly, one of the things you’re tasked with collecting—in addition to weapons, potions, and god-gems—is the literal instruction manual to the game.
Two developers at Finji said that this is on purpose : “This world, it’s not made for you . . . it’s why you can’t read the language, it’s why things seem too strong for you.” That is to say: Disorientation is baked into Tunic from the start.
When I finally got Covid-19 after two and a half years of avoiding it, I felt like the Fox: disoriented and terrified. Despite my best efforts, I’d washed ashore to a world that wasn’t made for me and was trying its best to not only harm me but maybe even end me entirely.
In my youth, it always felt like my body was letting me down. I couldn’t go six months without some new issue arising, my body differing again from that of my siblings, my peers. I went from sitting in the back of the class to the front, because I couldn’t see; I’ve had glasses since I was seven years old. It hurt to run because my calves would burn from shooting pain; I had special orthotics for years to even out flat feet. Once I could run again, I found my chest would tighten, unable to get enough air. My asthma was severe; I became one of those kids who hung out with a nebulizer, plastic mask and tubes wrapped around my head every few days as a faintly medicinal-tasting mist eased my lungs. After poking and prodding, a source of my lungs’ discomfort was discovered to be, of course, all my allergies. I received four allergy shots a week for close to ten years.
It didn’t matter what I did. My body had plans of its own. Every time I adjusted to a new reality, something else took its place. And this was all before the fourth-grade weight spike, when I learned just how cruel kids can be. I’d always been a little overweight, had always found comfort in food; when you suddenly find yourself at the bottom of the social ladder, friends turning on you to be acceptable in the eyes of others, you seek the comfort you know. With steady traumatic weight gain, poor lungs, bad eyesight, flat feet, a body that didn’t do well outside, few friends, and stress from navigating it all and trying to fit in, it was no wonder I was sick all the time, lungs filling with fluid, body sore and exhausted. You know that cough—thick, desperate for release. You do. You know it, because the body remembers the pain, the fear when breathing becomes difficult. That was me at least twice a year, from middle school to college.
You can imagine my terror when Covid arrived. I’m not as high-risk as some, but an illness that, in its original strain, targeted the lungs with all the force of a naval armada unleashing its rockets? My anxiety flared often in those first few months of lockdown. The very thought of catching the novel coronavirus made me nauseous. A world in a pandemic was a world not made for me—for any of us, really. Since early 2020, a thought wormed its way inside me: If I got sick with Covid, I would be a goner.
Even as vaccines and boosters became available, my anxiety didn’t lessen. I masked everywhere (still do), seldomly took public transit, tested all the time while practically begging others to do the same. And as anyone in the high-risk category knows, trying to convince others to do the same became increasingly harder as restrictions all over the country were lifted. Everyone was desperate to return to some shade of normalcy, while the vulnerable and high-risk kept pleading that to do so would only prolong sickness. While many did test and mask for our sake, I could see the writing on the wall as numbers continued to increase nationwide. As Covid variants developed and spread, infecting more and more people, I knew it was only a matter of time before it got me.
Sure enough, despite tests, despite masks, despite trust, the dice came up with our number: My wife and I got Covid this autumn, in September 2022. There is no moral failing in falling to an infectious disease—I cannot stress that enough. And yet we couldn’t help but beat ourselves up over getting sick. So easy to fall down that rabbit hole of what if .
There is no moral failing in falling to an infectious disease—I cannot stress that enough.
That first night, as my sinuses began to solidify, as my throat ached and my head got warm, with those two lines of a positive test bright in my mind, I couldn’t help but feel terrified at the truth I’d convinced myself of: This was not a world built for me. My days were numbered. I’d washed ashore to a land of which I’d been terrified for years.
But I remembered: Memory lives in the body. And hadn’t I been sick like this before? Weren’t these shores familiar?
Playing Tunic while Covid-positive, knowing that, like the Fox, I was someplace strange and dangerous that would do its best to hurt me as I worked to survive it, well . . . it turned out to be exactly the mental health boon I needed.
If you’ve played any Legend of Zelda game or anything similar, you’ll know the standards of the action-adventure genre. Whether an elfin youth or a Fox, you must wander a landscape equal parts beautiful and hostile. You collect useful items for your quest. That quest gains depth as you explore, and you unlock narrative hinge points at the ends of dungeons, jungles, coastlines, and more. The story becomes more apparent to your protagonist as they come to know their role in it. For Link, our usual Zelda protagonist, his role is pretty standard: Save the world and usually Princess Zelda in the process.
But the Fox’s role in Tunic never really becomes clear, not even to him. You and he both learn quite a lot by gathering the instruction manual to this world and by intuiting some facts. Like, if this world wasn’t made for him, then why does an exact replica of him appear in local murals and iconography, facing the Heir? How can this Fox swing an ancient, magic sword with such skill—and how does he even know magic?
These touchstones inform both the protagonist and the player of a deeper story afoot, while challenging the Finji developers’ statement. If this world really wasn’t made for us, then why does the Fox come back when he dies? When your first encounter with the Heir, the keeper of Death, ends in failure, why is the Fox’s spirit torn from his body? Why not let him perish, if there is no reason to keep going? And further, what’s the point in reclaiming that very body—his mind and his might—if there is no way to win?
The Fox’s narrative in Tunic transmutes as it enters the very endgame: You survive by helping others. You reclaim your body and your strength, in pursuit of not just your own freedom but also the freedom of the Heir. And as it becomes clear through the end of the game, this is not the first time such a thing has happened, but rather, it has always been. You are part of a cycle of sickness and health, survival and freedom.
While sick, I found courage in that little Fox. In the game, he doesn’t know much, but he does know two things: He has to survive, and he has to help others. To do that requires letting go of the why and focusing on the how. How to puzzle out the solutions to the dangers before him and avoid the worst of corruption or conflict. How to create healthy meals and strong potions. How to maintain diligence about stamina, knowing when to run and rest before attempting something difficult. And even when the worst has happened, when his body lets him down and all that remains is his spirit, he has to remember he is resilient, that even when his body succumbs, he still has the drive to take what this strange world has given him and, in it, find a chance to succeed despite his failings. That I also was taking care of my wife through this all only made the game more poignant: To reach a true ending was to see that all along, the reason you do all of this is to free a being trapped in the same cycle as you.
Playing Tunic made me reflect on my body and my health. This body, though it has let me down, has always been precious to me. It’s no one’s fault for what it lacked from the start. I had certainly made my own choices throughout my life, often from trauma, that didn’t make its job any easier, that’s for sure. And in the first forty-eight hours of being sick with Covid, I could feel my body becoming overwhelmed with a world that was new and terrifying. At the end of those forty-eight hours, shivering from chills, chest aching, lungs struggling, I wondered what could come next. Could this body, with the help of vaccines and boosters, the help of my wife’s care, withstand this illness?
Playing Tunic made me reflect on my body and my health. This body, though it has let me down, has always been precious to me.
But on some level, didn’t my body know how to fight something like this? Hadn’t it spent years and years of my youth shoring defenses against chest infections, learning how to keep lungs from filling with fluid? Memory lives in the body. I’m no doctor, and I don’t speak with expert medical knowledge other than what I know about my body, but the way it responded to Covid, defended with vaccinations and boosters, has only made me grateful. For a body that learned how to fight after weathering illness after illness. For a strict regimen of over-the-counter medicine, vitamins, rest, and daily care that I developed as a kid for when illness would strike. And equally grateful to a world where vaccines and boosters were made widely available, as well as friends and family and doctors who were there to ease and inform and see my wife and me through this moment.
Some part of me will never know why my body reacted as it did to Covid. We’ve all heard the stories; Covid can affect everyone differently. I know some people like myself who had a bad few days, then turned a corner. And there are others like my wife, who got hit with every symptom under the sun, taking weeks to test negative, as the illness was desperate to stay and keep its claws in her. I know that the action we took in those weeks is directly responsible, no matter the history my body carries inside it. Some things are unknowable. And like our Fox, all I can do is make peace with that unknown, with the place I found myself, washed ashore into a world not made for me and yet there all the same.
This body of mine may have let me down at times in my youth, but more than ever, I know now it has been fighting for me every day, whether I’ve realized it or not. So I hope not to wash up on these particular shores again, but if I do, I will remember that I know them now. That memory lives in the body. That my body, precious to me and reclaimed, is stronger than it was in my past. We will fight as we have, finding meaning in moving from one day to the next, together.