A few people have asked me for the handout that accompanied my GDC Online 2012 Presentation, “Occult Game Design: An Initiation into Secrets and Mysteries,” so I thought I’d provide a link to it here. The handout contains the names, dates, and brief synopses for the media referenced in the talk, including many games.
In addition, the slides for this talk are also available online for free at the GDC Online website, though a subscription is required to access the video recording of the talk.
There is a lot going on right now, so I though I’d update my blog.
A team of students and I are working on a game called Arcana: A Ceremonial Magick Simulator. The game hits alpha release on December 6, 2012. The beta release will occur on March 1st, 2012. Here’s a picture of the team.
In addition, I’m hard at work on a book called Game Magic: A Game Designer’s Guide to Constructing Magic Systems, which will be published by CRC/Taylor and Francis in 2013.
I spoke on a panel with Ken Rolston, lead designer of Oblivion and Morrowind, and game writer Rafael Chandler at George Mason University.
I also gave a presentation at GDC Online 2012 called “Occult Game Design: An Initiation into Secrets and Mysteries,” which was featured on the front page of the Game Narrative Summit site.
I’ll be adding more information on each of these projects in the near future.
My friend and collaborator Kris Maxwell just finished editing a video on quest spaces in which I summarize and expand on the content of Quests, chapter one. I’m very grateful to Kris, whose work can be seen at evilcyborg.com, for his help with this video and hope that it is useful to the readers of this blog.
Below is a list of reviews and mentions of Quests: Design, Theory, and History in Games and Narratives. They were graciously collected and excerpted in this format by my publisher, AK Peters.
Slashdot (External Link)
Jeff Howard’s Quests: Design, Theory, and History in Games and Narrative is an exploration of … quests in both literary and gaming contexts, comparing and contrasting their appearances in each medium and striving to bring the two worlds closer together by imbuing game quests with more meaning. … I look forward to the dialog his book will inspire. He would have us re-examine the game quest in terms of the narrative quest, and apply those lessons to gaming. The book is well worth a read, both as a lesson plan for making the activity of questing more meaningful, as well as a first step towards giving games that rely heavily on quests—especially MMOS—more meaningful goals.
A reader at GoodReads.com:
“A must-have for every game designer or anyone who wants to understand questing in a more sophisticated way. This book has it all - mythology, Joseph Campbell, Carl Gustav Jung, some tutorials and a lot of wisdom Another shining piece in my bookshelf.”
Included on the amazon.com list “Must Read Books for Aspiring Game Designers” by Sean M. Baity, Senior Designer at Electronic Arts
Jill Walker Rettberg at jill/txt (External Link)
If you’re doing work on role-playing games of any kind, or planning to teach a course [on RPGs] of your own, this is a great resource.
Clay Spinuzzi (External Link)
“It’s an unusual book, but an illuminating one within these areas.”
Andrew Dobbs at Design(ish) (External Link)
“According to Jeff Howard …, “a quest is a journey across a symbolic, fantastic landscape in which a protagonist or player collects objects and talks to characters in order to overcome challenges and achieve a meaningful goal.” The most important part of this definition comes at the end, as I believe the foundation of the quest journey is “to overcome challenges and achieve a meaningful goal.” Developing a successful quest means creating a meaningful interaction for the player.”
Michael Abbott at the Brainy Gamer (External Link)
“Certain scholars like Jeff Howard … and Matt Barton … have written rich, analytical, and well-annotated books on the subject, and I will use both in my course.”
Games Across Media (External Link)
“This unique take on quests, incorporating literary and digital theory, provides an excellent resource for game developers. Focused on both the theory and practice of the four main aspects of quests (spaces, objects, actors, and challenges) each theoretical section is followed by a practical section that contains exercises using the Neverwinter Nights Aurora Toolset.” (Barnes & Noble)
Gameology (External Link)
“Quests is an excellent tool for teachers … for teaching games, media, writing, or other areas that include theory and application. Many other books exist that are excellent for game studies classes and for game creation classes …, but Quests fills the particular niche of classes that often have titles like ”introduction to media studies,“ ”writing for new media,“ ”first (or second, or later) semester writing across the curriculum.“ Quests would also be an excellent choice as a supplemental text for more advanced classes, helping graduate students or faculty connect their research areas to new ways to represent, research, and teach using games.”
grand TEXT auto (External Link)
“Jeff Howard’s Quests is an incisive and highly accessible book that leads the reader on an exploration of literature, computer games, and a connection between them.”
Daniel Erickson, Principal Lead Writer, BioWare Austin
“Howard impressively handles bridging the gap between interactive fiction and classical literature with a thoroughly researched and well-argued treatise that focuses itself squarely on the two mediums’ connections and similarities.”
Nick Montfort, Assistant Professor of Digital Media, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
“Jeff Howard’s Quests is an incisive and highly accessible book that leads the reader on an exploration of literature, computer games, and a connection between them. Howard includes valuable tutorials and exercises which draw on literary works, including Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, while also dealing with the specifics of how to use tools to create computer RPG modules. The book offers useful discussion of the history of adventure games and detailed analysis of quest elements using concepts from narrative theory, poetics, game studies, and other fields. Quests equips students and scholars as they journey onward to read, play, and fashion games and narratives.”
Dr. Susana Tosca, Associate Professor, IT University of Copenhagen
Howard is a true Renaissance man in these electronic times. He merges his knowledge and love of literature with his enthusiasm for computer games and the unexplored possibilities of the new medium. Human intellectual activity has a common base, be it expressed in the form of poems or computer games, and Howard shows us some of the most stunning connections between the old form of quest literature and the new challenges of games.“
Hi. I’m Jeff Howard, author of Quests: Design, Theory, and History in Games and Narratives. I received my Ph.D. in English from the University of Texas at Austin in 2007. My dissertation was about Gnosticism, postmodern fiction, and computer-assisted teaching. Then, I wrote Quests, a book about strategies for designing meaningful quests in games.
This unique take on quests, incorporating literary and digital theory, provides an excellent resource for game developers. Focused on both the theory and practice of the four main aspects of quests (spaces, objects, actors, and challenges) each theoretical section is followed by a practical section that contains exercises using the Neverwinter Nights Aurora Toolset.
Arcana Manor: A Ceremonial Magick Simulator
Arcana Manor is a game-in-progress that features a magic system in which players cast spells through a symbolic language of syllables, gems, and cards. Players control Arcana Manor through input processed by various alternative controllers, including the Kinect and the Emotiv EEG headset. My goal in Arcana Manor is to create an immersive magic system that lets players feel like they are casting spells through their mastery of arcane correspondences, expressed with ritual authenticity through gesture, word, color, and thought itself.
This footage showcases the following features
1) Two flash-based interfaces, consisting of
a) An interactive kabbalistic tree of life with ten sephiroth and twenty-two paths on which players can place tarot cards, gems, and letters from the Enochian angelic alphabet of John Dee. Placing elements according to a matrix of correspondences yields multimodal feedback as paths light up with appropriate colors and emanate musical tones derived from traditional occultist attributions.
b) An interface for recognizing magical gestures or sigils, based on Didier Brun’s Actionscript 3.0 gesture recognition library.
2) A 3d environment built in the Unity game engine, representing a magician’s temple viewed from immersive first-person perspective. The temple contains ritual implements—including an altar, a skull, swords, and pantacles— that can be used to help cast spells.
3) A Kinect interface that allows players (who have prepared themselves with rituals through the other interfaces) to summon and control the movements of a demon within his summoning triangle.
Arcana Manor is a work in progress that I have been developing interatively over the past three years through several prototypes in various engines and tools, including the Torque Game Engine Advanced, Flash, and UDK. The current build consists of a combination of Unity 3d, Flash, and the Kinect. More footage and details will follow soon.
One of the reasons that I adore the Assassin’s Creed franchise comes from the paradox of the title’s creed, “Nothing is true, everything is permitted,” which is quoted several times in the games. A creed is defined as a profession of belief, but the assassin’s creed is a profession of belief in nothing except pure freedom. The games explore the paradox of an anti-creed in their mechanics and narrative design, which would deserve many pages to unfold analytically.
But what I’m especially interested in is a further wrinkle in the paradox: the mystical and magickal background of this statement as derived from its roots in history. The author of “Nothing is true, everything is permitted” was Hassan I Sabbah, an Islamic mystic belonging to the Ismaili sect. Ismaili mysticism is not the same as nihilism: rather, it entails (like many schools of mysticism) the idea that the visible, physical world is unreal in comparison to a higher, divine reality of ideas. Because the physical and social world is not true in comparison to the higher reality of Allah, an Ismaili initiate is freed from all laws. This notion of a liberating transcendent reality that renders null the laws of the world is an antinomian religious notion (from “anti” and “nomos,” against the law) contrary to the nihilism advocated by thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche, who saw in Hassan I Sabbah and the assassins a rejection of all transcendent values. Hakim Bey, a pseudonym of scholar and Sufi mystic Peter Lamborn Wilson, is responsible for analyzing and popularizing Hassan I Sabbah’s Islamic mysticism in the book Scandalous: Essays on Islamic Heresy, with the chapter on the assassins reproduced here.
But the figure most responsible for promulgating the phrase “nothing is true, everything is permitted” is actually the beat writer William S. Burroughs, who acknowledges Hakim Bey as one of his primary sources. The novel Cities of the Red Night contains a large section that consists of permutations of the phrase, along with copious references to Hassan I Sabbah. Burroughs also quotes Hassan I Sabbah at the end of a long “invocation” before the novel: an invocation which is overtly magickal in the tradition of Western esotericism. After paying tribute to a pantheon of savagely violent and lascivious gods, goddesses, and demons, Burroughs wraps up with the following dedication and call to arms “to Hassan I sabbah, Master of the Assassins. To all the scribes and artists and practitioners of magic through whom these spirits have been manifested… NOTHING IS TRUE. EVERYTHING IS PERMITTED” (italics in original).
This use of a magical invocation is not merely formal. Burroughs was an initiate of the Illuminates of Thanateros (IOT), a group dedicated to “chaos magick,” a form of ceremonial magick developed by Peter Carroll and descended from figures like Aleister Crowley and Austin Osman Spare. Burroughs’ former literary executor James Grauerholz states that Burroughs “was very serious about his studies in, and initiation into the I.O.T.”
Retired IOT official Douglas Grant elaborates:
“Through a mutual interest in Hassan Ibn Sabbah, contact was made with William S. Burroughs. William expressed interest in the IOT and was subsequently initiated into the IOT, by myself and another Frater and Soror. William did not receive a honorary degree, he was put through an evening of ritual, that included a Retro Spell Casting Rite, a Invocation of Chaos, a Santeria Rite as well as the Neophyte Ritual inducting William into the IOT as a full member. Though it is not included in the list of items buried with William… James Grauerholz assured me that William was buried with his IOT Initiate ring.”
All of this led up to Burroughs’ statement that “Magic is dangerous or it is nothing,” quoted in his introduction to Between Spaces: Selected Rituals and Essays from the Archives of Templum Nigri Solis.
This statement implies that magick is at its heart both counterfactual and countercultural: it resists the status quo, both metaphysically and culturally. And that’s why there’s more productive inspiration for magic in systems in occultists like Aleister Crowley than in any recent series of popular children’s books: in order to live up to its claim of metaphysical otherworldliness, magick ought to be subversive, out at the fringes of worldviews and consciousness. I’d like to see more of this sense of danger in magic systems within games, and that’s why I tend to be interested in the meeting of horror and magic in what I call the daimonic sublime. A previous post on Thief’s Garrett as magician suggests that magic can exist in game contexts other than RPG magic systems, and Altair’s social stealth is closely modeled after the Ismaili concept of “concealment” (hiding in plain sight by seeming to accept the norms of social behavior as a means of accomplishing one’s secondary agenda). The consequences of this mystical and historical background in how we play and read Assassin’s Creed, and how we design magic systems and stealth games, belongs in another post.
But first, the next post blog post will be about the King’s Field series, followed by Hungry Ghosts (which, two hours in, is clearly the best game I’ve played this summer).
For a while now, I’ve been thinking about a concept in game design called the daimonic sublime: an experience of elation in response to infernal grandeur, derived equal parts from the fusion of Miltonic demonic defiance (“better to reign in hell than serve in heaven”) and heavy metal rebellion (heard in this 8-bit version of Opeth’s Grand Conjuration). The daimonic sublime increasingly draws together many threads of design for me, so where to begin in this network is necessarily somewhat arbitrary. I’ll start with two games at the top of my playlist and proceed backward to their roots in an ancient and unique CRPG, then move forward again in time to more recent concerns.
A particular thread in the tapestry of this concept relates to the games Demon’s Crest and Hungry Ghosts produced by Tokuro Fuwara. Fuwara is most famous for his work on Ghosts and Goblins, a series of side-scrolling platformers featuring an armored knight battling supernatural creatures through levels notorious for their brutally unforgiving difficulty. Demon’s Crest is a reboot of a sidestory or gaiden of the Ghosts and Goblins series featuring a red demon named Firebrand. Demon’s Crest is famous for its dark, melancholy atmosphere and intense difficulty, as signified by plunging the player in media res into a difficult and unskippable boss fight in the first moments of the game. Hardcoregaming101 features an excellent review of Demon’s Crest that concludes by describing Demon’s Crest as “a combination of all the best elements from Mega Man X, Super Metroid, and Castlevania.” In addition to Demon’s Crest, Fuwara also produced a Japan-only horror adventure game for the PS2 called Hungry Ghosts (a.k.a. The Lair of the Hungry Ghosts), which exhibits several features key to my own ambitions as a player and designer. Specifically, Hungry Ghosts uses first person perspective for gameplay mechanics other than shooting—namely, interaction with a surreal and treacherous underworld using a hand that can be extended and retracted using the right analog stick. This immersive perspective and control scheme used to heighten involvement in a dark world evokes the earlier Thief: The Dark Project (a first-person sneaker) as well as the later Amnesia and Penumbra series made by Frictional Games. Yet, what little I’ve played of Hungry Ghosts suggests that it is much stranger than any of these games because, in part, of the alternate cultural background of Tibetan Buddhism and its peculiar vision of an ambiguous limbo between afterlife and reincarnation. Demon’s Crest and Hungry Ghosts are near the top of my own personal backlog, perhaps below the extended King’s Field series that I’m currently working through. Hungry Ghosts is an obscure Japanese PS2 game that taps into a deeper vein of the daimonic sublime, a nexus where mechanical difficulty meets evocative narrative and aesthetic darkness to produce an experience that is greater than the sum of its parts.
While I’m talking about the daimonic sublime and first-person perspective, I would like to mention a much older game at the heart of my own design philosophy: Wizardry IV: The Return of Werdna. The first two Wizardry games pioneered the Western CRPG, with its wireframe dungeons and first-person exploration. The Wizardry series is roughly contemporaneous with The Bard’s Tale series and Ultima, all of which are in some sense direct computer ports of the core mechanics of tabletop RPG’s like Dungeons and Dragons. Early Wizardry is in some ways starker and more minimalistic than Ultima or The Bard’s Tale because of the absence of a top-down overworld and the strict adherence to wireframe dungeon graphics in black and white.
Wizardry IV intensifies these darker tendencies dormant in Wizardry and turns the mechanics of a dungeon crawler on its head in order to produce what several players, including CRPG historian Matt Barton, have called the most difficult CRPG of all time. Specifically, the game reverses the scenario of the first game, in which a single player controls a party of adventurers who descend through a ten-level dungeon to recover an amulet from the evil wizard Werdna. In The Return of Werdna, a single player takes the role of Werdna himself, who must ascend through the same ten-level dungeon in order to recover the amulet stolen by the part in the first game. Stripped of his powers, Werdna fights his way through a dungeon prison that has morphed into something exponentially more difficult than what he first faced. Whereas the dungeon of Proving Grounds was a standard orthogonal maze that could be fairly easily mapped on graph paper, Werdna’s prison culminated in a vast and ever-changing three-dimensional Rubik’s cube of corridors, chutes, staircases, and teleporters. (The director of the excellent film Cube was either deliberately inspired by this concept or unintentionally evoking it; either way, the Werdna concept has the same existential resonances of the film, in which a perpetually changing maze serves as a metaphor for pure disorientation and a desperate struggle to survive by only one’s wits). Werdna also featured save points in the form of pentagrams which re-set all the enemies on every level and served as the game’s only opportunities to gain back Werdna’s library of spells. The game actually featured a keystroke logger that invisibly recorded player’s every typed character and then penalized them for wasted strokes by only granting the Grandmaster ending to those who finished below a number of keystrokes. Werdna rewards caution and cunning, eking out every possible advantage from a system of RPG mechanics that have been exploited to produce complex and subtle puzzles. Unlike many CRPG series, Werdna does not simply extend or expand the world and mechanics of the previous games in a way that would be accessible to a newcomer. Rather, the game assumes and demands knowledge of the series’ gameplay systems (“for expert players only,” said the box cover) because it uses these systems to twist and subvert the conventions of the dungeon crawler, turning an RPG into a twisted puzzle adventure game.
And this shift in difficulty accompanies and resonates with an accompanying inversion of the storyline to become darker and more evil. Evil is as evil does, and a diabolical narrative and art style should naturally be accompanied by equally insidious difficulty in mechanics. This is one lesson at the heart of Demon’s Souls and its upcoming sequel, Dark Souls. The difficulty level of the game is inseparable from the grim darkness of its world as reflected in its narrative, art style, and audio. Moreover, part of the difficulty of the game stems from determining exactly what is evil. When players are deliberately prompted to identify with the evil nemesis they themselves defeated in the first game, the world has become topsy-turvy and ambiguous. Who ultimately is more cruel: an evil wizard quietly lurking in the bottom of a dungeon, or the opportunistic adventurers who blithely stole his amulet and left him imprisoned in a torturous prison? Which is worse, a demon king Allant, the demon-possessed Maiden in Black who spurs countless souls to struggle against him (for reasons never entirely explained), or the players who harvest the souls of monsters and other player to fuel their own doomed quests? “Evil be thou my good,” says Milton’s Satan, just as Clive Barker’s puzzle-wielding cenobites dub themselves “demons to some, angels to others.” To succeed in the world of the daimonic sublime, we must either become demons or develop a sympathy for the devil. It’s a hard lesson to forget.
When I first read an interview with lead designer Andrew Greenberg (whose reversed name is encoded in Werdna), Wizardry IV became my second archetypal game, the Platonic Idea that has governed virtually everything I’ve read, played, or designed for many years. (The first archetypal game was Brian Fargo’s adventure game, The Demon’s Forge, which has recently been rebooted as the modern dungeon crawler Hunted: The Demon’s Forge. Hints of the daimonic sublime were already in the original Demon’s Forge, in which a player must escape from a surreal dungeon ruled by a demon by solving a serious of difficult and twisted puzzles. The game must have sparked much of my early feeling that the universe was a prison that could only be escaped by solving its puzzles and mysteries).
Cue the King’s Field franchise, a series of notoriously difficult first-person RPG’s for the Playstation, of which Demon’s Souls is the avowed spiritual successor. King’s Field privileges exploration and caution over blind monster-slaying. Reading through the reviews of the series from its fans, the devotees of King’s Field consistently stress that the draw of these games is their darkness and genuine mystery, the way that players slowly solve puzzles to move forward through cryptic labyrinths, meticulously mastering relatively small levels in order to make incremental but exquisitely satisfying progress. The King’s Field series sows all the seeds of Demon’s Souls, and I’ll observe that King’s Field II (King’s Field III in Japan) may do the most to sow these seeds more successfully. I would argue (and will argue in a later blog) that the King’s Field and Shadow Tower series are crucial and iterative approaches toward Demon’s Souls, so close that they together almost constitute a shared world or set of parallel universes across which the soul of the franchise has been transmigrating.
Yet, the cunning struggle for survival of Werdna , King’s Field, or Demon’s Souls isn’t necessarily morally evil, although options abound to pursue that Faustian path of greedy destruction. Rather, the games thrive on players who face the grim darkness in which they are thrown and then thrive on it through caution and cunning. There is a place where difficult mechanics, diabolic puzzles, a gorgeously dark color palette, an infernally twisted storyline, neoclassical heavy metal, and an immersive first-person perspective all meet. That’s the place that I perpetually strive for as a player and a designer. It’s a place that subverts and transcends genre, turning RPG’s into adventure games, adventure games into survival horror, and survival horror back into into RPG’s. These games teach us that when we are are thrown into a grim and cruel world, our best response is to fall back on our wits, becoming cunning and methodical. The eponymous Dark Project of the first Thief is literally the Trickster’s attempt to give free rein over the world, but it is also the dark project in which Garrett and, by extension, the player engages in order to survive in this world of shadows and deception. If you can’t beat them, join them.
Nothing is true, everything is permitted.
Stay tuned for Chaos magick, Hassan i Sabbah, William S. Burroughs, and Assassin’s Creed . . .
Despite the title of the game Thief, Garrett is more a magician than a rogue, or rather his thievery is a form of magic when successfully enacted by the player. Garret’s training in the monastic order of the Keepers involves abilities to become invisible that border on the supernatural, as well as the acquisition of arcane knowledge, including glyphs of power. The classification of Thief and the associated image of a dimunitive, cowled figure hiding in the shadows derives in part from the thief character class that originates in Dungeons and Dragons as well as the fantasy characters that inspired it, including rogues like Fritz Leiber’s Grey Mouser. Yet, Garrett’s abilities and actions are not constrained to hiding in shadows or backstabbing; he is a quintessential opportunist who does whatever he needs to get the job done. An extra objective available at higher difficulty level in the prison level of Dark Project involves retrieving Garret’s favorite “Hand of Glory.” The Hand is an infamous black magical artifact described in the Petit Albert grimoire as the severed hand of a hanged corpse taken from the gallows and used by cat burglars to evade detection by otherworldy means. As the Petit Albert explains, “The hand of glory [ . . . ] is used by villains thieves to enter houses at night without hindrance.”
In addition to this talismanic magic, Garret plunders magical artifacts and even engages in complex acts of counter-magic as he disrupts the extra-dimensional ritual of the Trickster in the Maw of Chaos or activates the glyphs in Deadly Shadows. It’s not surprising that Garret’s cowl and long flowing robes are equal parts monastic garb and magician’s robe. He is a Master of hiding and the hidden: literally, the occult.
When skillfully guided by a player, Garrett’s magic consists in his ability to “keep silent,” one of the four powers of the sphinx extolled by French occultist Eliphas Levi in The Dogma and Ritual of High Magic. Levi argued that magicians must learn “to know, to dare, to will, and to keep silent,” powers that he attributed to the four elements of classical antiquity (air, water, fire, and earth). To keep silent means literally to maintain the secrecy of the mysteries of initiation, but it can be extended as a metaphorical principle of efficiency and noiseless grace: in other words, stealth. As British occultist Aleister Crowley explains in his Confessions, “to dare must be backed by to will and to know, all three being ruled by to keep silence. Which last means many things, but most of all so to control oneself that every act is done noiselessly; all disturbance means clumsiness or blundering.” A stance of self-controlled noiselessness is the strategic condition of success in Thief and a style of gameplay that activates Garret’s full abilities as an avatar. “Disturbance,” “clumsiness,” and “blundering” are the fail conditions of the Thief series which assure detection and death.
Garret’s apparent physical weakness, signified by hit points sufficient only for a few sword blows from a guard, is counterbalanced by preternatural abilities of stealth. Ordinary mortals risk detection when they hide in shadows, because only the deepest darkness can reliably block out peering eyes. But when a player guides Garrett into shadow and reduces his light gem to pure black, Garrett can vanish, even as a guard walks a few inches beside him. These abilities are built into the game systems of Thief, which rewards ritualistic behaviors of stealth: always tread in the shadows, walk rather than running when possible, extinguish light strategically, and close doors behind you. While we never learn the ultimate essence of Keeper training (which is itself shrouded within the game systems of Thief), our success in Thief depends on our identification with Garrett and his training, which forces us to ask “What Would Garrett Do.”
The merging of stealth and mysticism gives rise to the arcane discipline of the Hassassins in Assassin’s Creed, whose credo “nothing is true, everything is permitted” conceals a mystical insight under the veil of anarchic nihilism: a Neoplatonic belief in the irreality of the sensible world. Altair, like Garrett, “works in shadows to serve the light,” or rather to unwittingly maintain the balance of the Keepers against which he rebelled. Thief teaches the gamers and game designers inspired by it that direct confrontation is often counter-productive, and that the ability to judiciously “keep silent” and move quietly is a higher magic than a carelessly tossed fireball or a poorly chosen word.
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a group of nineteenth-century English artists who chose to emulate the style of painters before Raphael. This stylistic choice was a deliberate, countercultural move that involved eschewing the muddied, realistic style of painting taught in contemporary art schools in favor of an ideal of perfection derived from early Renaissance, neo-medieval, and Byzantine painting. Art schools of the time encouraged their students to use a dull palette of grays and browns, even going so far as to prescribe the use of a wash or “gravy” to create a uniform and supposedly “realistic” appearance in landscape and portraiture. The Pre-Rapahelites rebelled, favoring a palette of rich reds, golds, blues, and greens reminiscent of Byzantine mosaics, as well as a set of lighting effects often involving an otherworldly golden glow.
Above is a painting by one of my favorite painters, Edward Burne-Jones, which exemplifies that color and lighting. Rather than attempting to render nuances of shading in the folds of the red cloth, Burne-Jones uses a pure glowing red that pops against the golden background: a trick used to great effect in the art direction of Demon’s Souls and its precursor, Shadow Tower: Abyss.
The Pre-Raphaelites exerted a powerful influence on some twentieth-century fantasy artists, such as Robert Gould. Gould, one famed illustrator of Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion saga, formally organized a circle of artists who would emulate the Pre-Raphaelites. The influence of the Pre-Raphaelites is readily apparent in this cover art from The Knight of the Swords, right down to color palette, lighting, and the crisp rendering of cloth in a neo-medieval scene.
There are many connections between videogames and the Pre-Raphaelites, including Irrational Game’s recent declaration of gray as the “color of girly-men” in their E3 manifesto on the art style of Bioshock: Infinite. A videogame with a deliberately Pre-Raphaelite art style would be an interesting alternative to much of the gray murk found in RPG’s and shooters, and careful use of cel-shading and lighting could no doubt create a haunting, otherworldly experience in a fantasy RPG.
That said, the Pre-Raphaelites are ultimately less interesting for their specific stylistic features than for their deliberate decision to emulate a past style for a particular aesthetic effect.
Matthew Weise, the lead designer at M.I.T. Gambit whose insights I never cease to quote, has observed that indie game designers often see the art styles of games from the 8-bit, 16-bit, and 32-bit era as valid stylistic choices rather than limitations. (Think Cave Story, Braid, or symphonically stirring chiptunes).
It’s because of the extended stylistic palette afforded by retro-gaming that I’m often more excited about discovering strange, obscure, or otherwise unique PS1 or Dos games than I am about playing recent current-gen games, and I find my backlog from 10 or 20 years ago much more urgent than the one from 1 or 2 years. I’d rather be playing Thief: The Dark Project than Dragon Age 1 or 2, and a refrigerator box full of unopened Dos adventure games holds more wonders than most of IGN (as does the Japanese-only PS1 remake of Wizardy IV: The Return of Werdna and Wizardry V: Heart of the Maelstrom that I accidentally discovered while researching this post).
It’s not that older games are “better,” whatever that might mean, but that some of them have powerful design lessons to teach. The first lesson I’d like to look at in a future blog post is that first-person perspective can be used effectively to increase immersion when players are allowed to do something other than shoot. From first-person dungeon crawlers like Wizardry blossoms a lineage that leads to Thief, the extended King’s Field franchise (including Demon’s Souls), and Amnesia: The Dark Descent. And that’s why I temporarily rolled my nVidia drivers back more than a hundred releases this morning, because such a hardware nuisance is worth it to play a gem like Thief, even though I know I’ll have to roll them forward again everytime I want to work with 3ds Max or Unity.
More soon . . .
Name/Name of Organization: Dakota State University
Contact Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
1st Annual Workshop on Integrated Design in Games
2011 Theme: Horror
Conference Dates: November 3-6, 2011
Deadline for Abstracts: extended to *July 15th, 2011*
Call for Presentations, Workshops, and Activities
The Workshop on Integrated Design in Games is offered in conjunction with Nanocon IX, the ninth installment of the game convention sponsored by Dakota State University’s Gaming Club. The Workshop will be an annual event, and every year’s workshop will feature a different theme. This year, the theme is horror. Integrated design means that all aspects of design come together to create a single experience, unified by a common theme. In relationship to horror games, integrated design means that mechanics, visual art, audio, and narrative converge to allow players to confront and perhaps overcome fear.
This year’s keynote speakers are Chris Pruett, architect of famed website Chris’ Survival Horror Quest and Senior Games Advocate at Google, and Dr. Bernard Perron, acclaimed scholar of horror games from the University of Montreal.
The category of horror games is intended to include survival horror videogames, more recent action horror videogames like Dead Space 2, indie horror games like Amnesia, as well as tabletop RPG’s, LARPs, and board games. This theme is an opportunity for anyone who designs, develops, or studies horror games to give a presentation on any relevant topic of his or her choosing. The proceedings of the conference will be published electronically, so submissions should include a written component. At the same time, we strongly encourage presentations with a participatory and hands-on component involving exercises in game design. Submissions will be selected by a program committee with expertise in game design and horror, including members who have worked in the M.I.T. Gambit Lab, White Wolf, Red Storm Entertainment/Ubisoft, Irrational Games, Fantasy Flight Games, and Wizards of the Coast.
Acceptable formats for submissions include:
· Traditional academic presentations
· Short design workshops
· Presentations with an accompanying hands-on activity or exercise
Please submit abstracts of no more than 500 words to the Program Committee Chair, Jeff Howard, by no later than July 15. The contact email is email@example.com.
Topics include but are not limited to:
· Designing the mechanics of horror
· Narrative design and horror
· Concept art
· 3d modeling/animation/character design
· Audio (voice acting, music, sound effects, interactive sound design)
· Classic survival horror franchises like Resident Evil and Silent Hill
· Action horror (Dead Space 2)
· Particular horror themes or monsters (the Gothic, haunting, exorcism, ghosts, zombies, vampires)
· Indie horror games (Eversion, The Path, Amnesia)
· Transmedia horror (game design in relation to film, comic books, and literature)
Demon’s Souls is a dark, mysterious opera whose theme, expressed through gameplay and the unfolding of a powerful narrative, is the lure and peril of Faustian bargains. By opera I refer not just to the game’s occasional bursts of swelling sound, or even to solely to its understated yet epic narrative. Rather, I use the term in the same way that Richard Wagner envisioned an ideal future form of opera as “gesamkundstwerk” or “total artwork,” in which every aspect of music, libretto, costuming, and set design fused together to create an interactive, participatory mythology.
Demon’s Souls strikes me as operatic both in its overarching structure and its minute details; I first noticed this aspect of the game when looking at the loading screens between the game’s areas. These screens are a joy to pore over, as they provide larger-than-life full portraits of the game’s various characters, each dressed in some variation of black and gold. The characters’ costumes, lovingly rendered with the lush visual textures made possible by the PS3’s high-end graphics capabilities, look more like opera costumes than the typical orcs-and-elves garb. And, as in the best opera, these details contribute to a larger aesthetic and thematic end that manifests partially in the game’s black and gold color scheme. From the first moment in the Nexus, the game’s central quest hub, the shining obsidian walls glow with overlapping layers of golden sigils right out of some arcane grimoire. As we discover through the game’s hard-won fragments of narrative reward, gold is the color of demonic magic or “soul arts” in the fallen kingdom of Boletaria. This visual symbolism lends a dark edge to one character’s reminder to the player: “you have a heart of gold . . . don’t let them take it from you.”
Many aspects of the game resonate to the tune of an overriding aesthetic principle, expressed in disparate parts working together. This principle takes the form of a question, which might be formulated with the Biblical question “what profiteth it a man if he gains the world and loses his soul?” In the case of this game, the “soul” of the verse might be better modified to “souls,” since the demon’s souls of the title are the currency of exchange in Boletaria and the only way of increasing stats, leveling up, buying items, and acquiring spells. Demon’s Souls is an arduously, unrelentingly difficult dungeon crawl in which success is possible only through the tireless trial-and-error of multiple deaths and the careful cultivation of community knowledge and cooperation. Other reviews, such as those of Michael Abbott (a.ka. the Brain Gamer) and Gamasutra, have offered excellent analyses of the game’s innovative online features and their close relationship to game’s educational element. I’ve also briefly written about some of these features in comparison and contrast to other online games in an interview with Randolph Carter at grindingtovalhalla.com.
In this entry, I’m less concerned with these features and more with a resulting experience of gameplay: the experience of temptation. While Demon’s Souls is unquestionably a game that challenges, it is also a game that tempts. Because each new corridor and secret passage bristles with difficult-to-reach exotic treasures and haunting encounters, the game constantly teases the player with the dilemma of continuing onward to fresh challenges, or retreating while one still can with one’s stock of souls. One misstep sends an unwary player back to the very beginning of a level and strips her of all unspent souls, creating a very powerful and excruciating form of negative reinforcement. One often knows, naggingly, in the back of one’s brain, that discretion is the better part of valor, that one should stop while one is ahead and cut one’s losses by returning to the Nexus after accumulating any sizable chunk of souls. Yet, the game quietly whispers in one’s ear: “come on, go just a little further, there are untold wonders around that corner.” More often than not, listening to that voice, to the suave devil on one’s shoulder, leads to the disaster of losing one’s souls.
And that is the classic Faustian bargain: recklessly seeking power and knowledge at the price of the most precious spiritual essence. The game quietly but insistently reminds players that such bargains are by their very nature losing games in which even apparent success can be as damning as failure. When one does efficiently spend souls, one can gain tangible power—power in some cases so great, as in the high-level spells earned through defeating a Greater Demon, that it intoxicates. Yet, the wisdom of this method of gaining power through the harvesting of souls (sometimes of demons and sometimes of their wretched, addled victims), seems dubious at best. Soul exchange is especially risky given the backstory element that Boletaria was corrupted, and the archdemonic Old One awakened, through the use of Soul Arts. There doesn’t seem to be much escape from Soul Arts for, while a pious priest condemns the use of magic as demonic, and his magician counterpart preaches the glories of humanistic progress over binding superstitions, both magical and priestly arts involve trading in souls. As Matthew Weise has pointed out, there are subtle but strong metaphysical implications in the game systems, through dialogue and other clues, that magic and orthodox religion are both highly similar in their methods and moral (or immoral) valuation. They are also both equally useful from a gameplay standpoint: priestly miracles serve the standard healing and protective functions, while magic provides a variety of offensive and defensive effects.
(On a sidenote, the priest’s self-righteous, monotheistic glorification of the “God of this world” at the expense of other spiritual traditions evokes a mistrust in me that no doubt comes from many places, including a background in some Gnostic traditions, in which the apparent god of the visible world turns out to be synonymous with the demonic Archon. I’m anticipating a Lovecraftian switcheroo in which the priest turns out to be worshipping the Old One. I also notice slight implications that religion and solipsism may be mildly intertwined with each other, since the most costly Banish “miracle” allows players to negate the PvP aspect of the game, driving off the Black Phantoms of other players.)
However, I’m also fairly sure that, despite my class decision to be primarily a magician who totes a miracle talisman in his left hand as a healing insurance policy, the more esoteric and humanistic ambitions of Sage Freke the Visionary are just as dangerous and reckless; the exchange of souls for magical power is, after all, the classic Faustian bargain. Even if a fighter-class player managed to avoid the lure of both talisman and wand, religion and magic, he would still have to level up. And every attempt to level is accompanied by a haunting question from the Maiden in Black, the game’s central quest-giver: “Dost thou seek Soul Power? Then touch the Demon inside me.” Based on observations of other characters, major and minor, who have had congress with demons, the results don’t seem pretty. The presence of a character named Mephistopheles in a loading screen (I haven’t encountered him yet) suggests that these Faustian parallels are quite intentional and self-aware on the part of the developers at From Software. How deep or sophisticated these intentions ultimately go is less important to me than the way that insinuations and implications emerge from the synergistic fusion of the game’s mechanics, aesthetics, and narrative, from the single-player and social interactions that develop from the game’s intricate and beautifully, if somewhat sadistically, balanced systems.
I haven’t finished Demon’s Souls (I’m 59 hours in, not counting 10 hours spent on an abortive character), but I’m going to go ahead and make a statement that I’ve been mulling over for a while now, reluctant to seem rash or fanboyish. Demon’s Souls may be the best game I have ever played. (There is still a bit of a running competition with my other favorite game, Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, which remains an example of top-notch design that may even bear some aesthetic and gameplay resemblance to Demon’s Souls.) Each (comparatively rare) time I progress in Demon’s Souls, new mysteries open up, and these narrative discoveries are buoyed up by the inherent pleasures of persistent challenge, intermittent reward, and aesthetic gorgeousness.
(Possible spoiler alert): Last week, at the gloriously and disturbingly nightmarish second portion of the Tower of Latria, I suspected that Demon’s Souls may have finally reached the threshold of my expectations for inspired level design. Last night, during an unexpected sequence that resulted from a mysterious narrative backfiring of the now-routine attempt to summon a co-op player or Blue Phantom, I became pretty sure that this is a game like no other. I can’t describe the sequence without entering full spoilerdom, but I will say it involved a room full of chairs and a large orange turban.
It is a testament to the design of this game that it can both inspire enthusiastic accolades and a cautious reluctance—the feeling of falling into a trap, a metaphysical and moral conundrum that insidiously creeps up on unwitting players and then pounces, to a soundtrack of blaring brass and sweeping strings. Like the voice of a demon. Like the sound of an opera.
In Arcana Manor, the player wields a uniquely immersive and symbolic magic system to defeat the demons of a surreal Gothic mansion and unlock its secrets. Arcana Manor is a ceremonial magick simulator with a meticulously-researched system of gestural sigils, incantations, colors, and sounds that makes players feel like true adepts, not mere button-pushers.
Quests was recently included on Sean M. Baity’s amazon.com list, “Must Read Books for Aspiring Game Designers.”
I’m very appreciative of this listing, and it’s cool to see Mr. Baity’s credentials in terms of the many games which he has worked on as senior designer at electronic arts.
I just posted two new videos of gameplay footage from the most recent build of Arcana Manor (7-27-09).
The video has two parts.
The first part demonstrates several new features, including:
musical tones that correspond to colors and planets in the magic system,
mountable weapons based on the tarot suits,
elemental projectiles flung from melee weapons,
guard bots with basic AI,
an invisibility spell,
a demon model with flame effects from a procedural shader
The second part showcases these features:
a spell interface based on tarot cards
A telekinesis spell
Collectible orbs whose colors and associated musical tones correspond to the seven planets of the ancients
A color-based and tonal magical interface corresponding to the orbs
I added two AI bots to my game prototype, and the process took a long time and a lot of work. I ended up learning how to use echo statements to track the loading of the many files that I had changed and to determine where a particular file was erroring out. This was useful debugging experience.
The way that I incorporated the AI bots initially resulted in my player character being chased by mirror versions of herself, which was eerie and reminiscent of similar Alucard versus Alucard doppleganger battles in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. But I soon switched the AIGuard model out so that I was fighting two demonic space orcs.
I also changed the projectile scripts on my first-person spells so that the projectiles would do damage, as well as creating various other effects such as invisibility and healing.
Then, while working on loading the animations for the ai bots, my mission stopped loading and started crashing in the middle of phase 2 loading. I can’t figure out why, so I’m building a debug version of the app with the hope that I can find the specific line where the mission load is crashing.
I’ve been working on several features of Arcana Manor which are starting to add to the magic system. The first is that I re-sized all of my tarot objects (the suits like cups and swords) and placed mount nodes on them so that they can be equipped as weapons in first-person view. I worked for a couple of days to get weapon cycling operational so that players can switch between these weapons with a button press. Then, I modified the melee scripts so that swinging the weapons would cast spells that fire projectiles in first-person mode, targeting with the crosshairs rather than selecting with selectrons. Next, I made a set of geometrical projectiles fired by the various tarot suits, starting with a sphere textured in a wave image that emits water droplets through particle emitters. Equipping the cup allows the player to fling this watery sphere, and each of the other tarot suits can hurl similar projectiles that correlate with their traditional ancient elemental attributions as well as the appropriate Platonic solids defined that the Greek philosopher Empedocles associated with the four elements. The wand throws a flaming pyramid, the sword shoots an airy octahedron, and the pentacle fires a purple sphere (technically, this should be an earthy cube, but I like the glowing purple plasma texture better). In fact, I like the plasma filter in Gimp 2.0 so much that I made seven plasma textures for each of the seven colors of the visible spectrum and then applied these textures to seven geometrical primitives that can also be projectiles (including the delightfully obscure rhombicosahedron). When I export these, I think they can be 3d jewels as well as projectiles, so they may end up playing into a 3d magic interface of the kind that I described in
I need to implement a power-up system that strengthens spells according to what objects and cards have been collected.In terms of level design, I also want to make a really twisted, surreal, evil sorcerous tower for the player to explore, inspired in part by Castlevania 64 and an obscure Elder Scrolls game called Battlespire, in which the developers made the ballsy move of including platforming elements in a first-person game with magic. (I can’t turn these italics off, but they don’t mean anything.) And also more directly inspired by the Alchemist’s Tower in The Holy Mountain, as well as the Dark Tower (Browning and King). Because I like upward movement and vertiginous heights and the symbolism of ascent.
To do: put a mount node on each of the four tarot objects so that they can be wielded as weapons
Set up a different projectile effect for each object when it is swung/fired as a magical melee weapon
Perhaps also a different particle effect that is activated for each item
A room with four walls, each with one of the tarot suits and a Latin word (scire, audere, velle, tacere)
Maybe also murals representing a man/woman doing each
Bridges and hallways lead out from this room to four trials/levels of knowledge, courage, will, and silence
A Gothic platformer, but trying to strive for Psychonauts or Ico more than American McGee’s Alice
Well, I finished the polygon modeling portions of the ogre model and embarked on the uv mapping portions. Unfortunately, I’ve discovered that Softimage Mod Tool 7.5 has some quirks that make this process a little more difficult. First, the export as .obj file option has been removed from Mod Tool 7.5, which means that I can no longer export scenes into a form that could be opened by Roadkill, a uv unwrapping application. Mod Tool 6.0, which still had the export as .obj option, can’t open scenes from Mod Tool 7.5. The pelt unwrapping method, which is a smoother and cleaner way of uv unwrapping organic, curvy shapes, is not present in Mod Tool and maybe not in Softimage at all. This is unfortunate, since Ward’s book relies heavily on pelt mapping. I probably just need to learn to do basic cylindrical and cubic sub-projections using Mod Tool’s texture editor.
Here is the complete ogre model, which I finished last night, with all of the polygon modeling steps done. Next comes UV mapping, followed by sculpting, normal map generation, and texturing.
For the last two days, I’ve been working on the ogre tutorial from Antony Ward’s Game Character Development. I went through two iterations of the main modeling portions of the tutorial, which entail building a torso, arms, legs, feet, and a head. The second iteration looks better than the first.
Here is today’s update on Arcana Manor, in the form of a post I made to the ArcaneFX section of the Garagegames forum. The only addendum I have is that after this post I managed to fix most of the object selection problems, thanks to the help of the user named Gibby. They were in the playgui.gui file. Next up is the more challenging problem of selecting objects in first-person shooter mode.
In the process of making many script and code changes to implement several different features, I seem to have interfered with the game’s ability to select objects with the mouse rollover raycast. I can select the orc AI player, but only from certain angles (specifically from a slight angle while he is running toward the player, and sometimes from behind if the player is standing close to him). I can’t select the orc corpse at all, even though “corpsehiddenfromraycast” is set to “0″ and “$TypeMasks::CorpseObjectType” is enabled in “AFX::targetSelectionMask.” If I run the AFXDemo from a fresh install of AFX 1.7.1, it is much easier to select the orc and the orc corpse from almost any angle and distance, which suggests to me that I’ve done something to mess up the rolloverraycast function or another piece of code or script related to object selection.
I’ve used WinDiff to check afxtsctrl.cp against the same file in the fresh install of AFXDemo, but restoring this file to its original state doesn’t solve the problem. Could anybody suggest where else I might look for changes to try to fix this problem? I also checked in GameConnection.cpp because I think some of the object selection code is in that file, but I’m wondering where else the problem might be coming from.
To provide a little context, I am working on a game in which the player can cast spells from first-person mode, like in Oblivion. So, one of the ultimate goals here is to be able to select objects in first-person shooter mode by toggling the cursor or using the crosshairs. Gibby’s AFXFps mod and tutorial has been extremely helpful with this, though his solution is to cast spells from a 3rd person “psionics” mode. For some reason, I can select objects in Gibby’s 3rd-person mode but not in his first-person mode, even when I toggle the cursor on. I’ve studied the commands.cs script that Gibby uses to switch modes (which involve showing the reticle and the shapenamehud in first-person mode), but I’m not sure which part of this script would be causing the conflict between first-person mode and object selection.
So, a second question once I fix the raycast problem would be: how can I select objects while staying in first-person mode?
It’s been a few days since I’ve updated progress on Arcana Manor because I’ve been intently involved in implementing an important feature: moving platforms. These are moving planes or scaled cubes that players can stand on top of, moving along with the platforms as on an elevator. These moving platforms are important, by definition, to a game in which platforming a key part of gameplay.
Torque Game Engine Advanced doesn’t have out-of-the box support for moving platforms, which means that they have to be added as C++ code, preferably by the addition of one of the downloadable resources on Garagegames.com. To integrate such a resource with a codebase that I’ve already heavily modified, I had to use WinDiff, a program for comparing files and isolating their differences. Once I isolated these conflicting code fragments, I had to choose how to merge them by incorporating relevant new lines of code from the resource and discarding irrelevant lines of code. This process was complicated by the porting of the resource from TGE 1.5.2 to TGEA 1.7.1, especially since the resource itself was actually for TGEA 1.8.1 but had been compiled from multiple TGE versions. In practical terms, these multiple versions and resources meant that I had to spend several days reading through C++ source code, puzzling out its logic and structure until I could figure out which lines of code were needed and which were not. I re-compiled the engine dozens of time, de-bugging code changes to preserve the resource’s functionality while updating it and slotting it in with ArcaneFX, melee, and other code changes I’ve already implemented.
I now have moving platforms. The key is making the player object a child of the platform, which is a pathshape moving along the nodes of a path.
Unfortunately, I have to use a rectangular dts shape that came packaged with an early version of the resource, because the player falls through any dts that I make myself in Softimage. I think this has to do with the way that collision meshes are set up in the process of exporting the model from Softimage to dts format, but after spending a day on collision meshes I haven’t been able to isolate the problem.
I’m now trying to trigger the moving platforms with a spell so that I can incorporate telekinesis into my magic system. Since the magic system is the focus of the game and the surreal mansion is the secondary focus, it would be best if these two aspects of gameplay could be tied together. I have a telekinesis spell that can move an interior instance with the settransform() function, but the interior leaps all at once rather than animating smoothly and carrying the player with it. If I can trigger a pathshape with a spell, the player could raise and lower bridges with the alterative school of magic, corresponding to the wands.
I was happy to discover that WorldCat, a database of online library card catalogs, lists 64 libraries that currently list Quests as part of their collections. The list primarily includes university libraries, with a few community and public libraries for good measure.
I’m excited to see that the book is available to an audience of students in many emerging game design programs.
I was even more excited to find this review, from a user named Veronika on weread.com. She writes,
“A must-have for every game designer or anyone who wants to understand questing in a more sophisticated way. This book has it all - mythology, Joseph Campbell, Carl Gustav Jung, some tutorials and a lot of wisdom Another shining piece in my bookshelf.”
That is a really kind review. Reaching an individual reader like that might be the best part of writing a book.
Over the last few days, I’ve been implementing some first-person spells in Arcana Manor, i.e. spells that look good from a first-person perspective, which is not really the format for which ArcaneFX is designed. Gareth Fouche (a Garagegames community member and Torque designer) made a good spell-casting resource that uses projectiles to cast spells–an approach that resembles Oblivion (or Undying) instead of a third-person MMO. Fouche’s approach is the one I want, but it will take some tweaking to get this going with ArcaneFX.
I also have been working through an excellent book by Anthony S. Ward called Game Character Development. The book gives a very detailed overview of the processes involved in current-gen character development (i.e. Xbox 360 and PS3), which entails several more steps than the previous-gen workfolow.
In previous-gen character development, the game artist would use a modeling application like 3dsmax or Maya to build the character out of polygons, then UV map the character and texture it in Photoshop.
The main difference between the previous-gen and current-gen approach is the current-gen use of sculpting programs like Mudbox or Z-Brush to paint details onto a model which would have been too time-consuming and memory-intensive to be accomodated on previous-gen hardware. The artist then converts these details into a normal map, which is an RGB image whose pixel colors indicate the directions in which the model’s normals should be transformed. (Previous-gen character art tended to include bump maps, which were grayscale images that could indicate only elevation, rather than normal maps. Current-gen development includes both bump maps and normal maps, as well as other shader-based modifiers such as parallax maps and ambient occlusion maps.)
All of which suggests one thing: I need to recruit a modeler so that I can focus on scripting and programing the game’s magic system rather than building its models.
Actually, it’s more a matter of emphasis. It’s still good to work on 3d models (which could represent characters summoned by the player or custom aspects of the player, such as hands for first-person casting), but the production of art assets is so time-consuming that it would be best to recruit someone whose main talent and experience is in models.
That said, I’ve been working on an ogre tutorial in Ward’s book, and here are a few screenshots.
Today, I implemented two new Arcana Manor features that I’ve been wanting and working toward for a while.
I now have a rudimentary soundtrack in the form of a looping 30-second clip from Danse Macabre by Camille Saint-Saens. I also managed to fix a melee system that has been broken for a while because of the conflict between ArcaneFX, a melee resource, and shifts between first-person and third-person camera. This means that the player can now alternate between sigil-drawing, various spell-casting interfaces, and running/jumping. The player can do some of these things simultaneously, so there is a certain synergy evolving between the various mechanics (though integrating and balancing them is going to be a challenge, which is why the main focus needs to be the magic system).
I also have basic Xbox 360 controller support, which is smoother and faster than the keyboard for movement and combat. Juggling the various magical interfaces on a controller will be another challenge, but (as I mentioned earlier), this will force me to organize and refine the control scheme in positive ways.
Next Arcana Manor goals for features:
Set up a control scheme using the 360 controller
This will keep the magic system from becoming too unruly (a collection of chaotic key-presses) and more focused around a set of core mechanics
Fix melee system so that the sword can swing more than one time
Implement “platforms that move” for TGEA 1.7.1 using Windiff
Correlate spell-casting with platform movements via settransform function or applyimpulse
Finish modeling demon
Begin to script more spells
Script power-up mechanic for tarot items
Work on first-person spell-casting (such as casting animations for hands, effects that don’t require selectrons to target but work as projectiles as in Oblivion, effects that don’t depend on a zodiac
or make the zodiac vertical
or displace it in front of the player
Put more enemies into the game, make them customizable
Put music in background (e.g. Danse Macabre)
Finally, after six months, succeeded in attaching a particle emitter to the cursor.
This is the beginning of a gestural magic system, since the player can now trace sigils in the air because the cursor leaves behind a trail of glowing particles (in this case, fire) which look like a will o’ the wisp.
Here’s a video of the feature out of context
And here’s a longer video of the complete build, with the particle emitter feature in context
Interested readers might want to watch these videos in conjunction with this previous video of a recent build, which lacks the sigil drawing feature but also showcases the game’s spellcasting interfaces as they’re evolving.
I don’t think about theory much these days, focusing more on creative projects. For the last couple of days I’ve been doing some preparation for my classical myth and media class, which sparked a few theoretical thoughts. Also, I’m continuing to think about magic systems, inspired in part by a podcast ( on which Roger Travis graciously invited me to be a guest) about this subject and its relation to Arcana Manor. Magic systems have become the focus of my creative design work and my research, and I tend to think about them through the lens of interactive or procedural allegory, a system of expressive rules.
This will make more sense to readers (hopefully) when the podcast is posted.
A magic system is a set of core mechanics (spell-casting is one of them, maybe the primary one) for simulating supernatural powers and abilities rigorously and symbolically.
Quests, because of their relationship to narrative, tend to be scripted within an engine through quest flags and state changes.
Magic systems can be partially scripted within an engine (depending on the engine’s flexibility), but truly innovative mechanics have to be programmed. New mechanics tend to require, at the very least, modifications to an engine’s source code and may require the development of new engines (or at least sub-systems within an engine).
What matters to me is allegory as system, as organized matrix of rules for generating symbolic meanings. This is distinct from a linear procession of symbols (i.e. narrative) or from free-floating pool of symbols merging into each other (collective unconscious, dream). In linear mediums, allegory manifests itself as narrative (although I wonder if poetry, in its capturing of de-contextualized images, may be allegorical without being solely or even primarily narrative). Rimbaud’s Vowels or Baudelaire’s Correspondences are dense symbols without narratives. Dante’s Divine Comedy does chronicle the adventures of one pilgrim (Dante) through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, but the descriptive focus of the poem is the spatial organization of these realms and their inhabitants. The afterlife is a cosmological system for representing the punishment of sin and the rewarding of virtue.
A mythology (whether real as with the Ancient Greeks or invented as in the Cthulhu Mythos) is a system (a pantheon, a set of places, artifacts, recurrent events, themes). Many narratives can occur within a mythos, but many systems can also be generated by a mythology. When I was thinking about quests, I was trying to connect narrative and system, to explore their generative interplay. As I think about magic systems, I am more and more concerned with dynamic, procedural systems, which can be expressive in interactive, procedural, re-configurable ways.
Ritual is a key middle term. Ritual is enacted myth, enacted symbolism.
Eric Zimmerman says that there is magic in games but argues that this magic is the thrill of creativity and problem-solving, which are distinct in his mind from a mage’s 8th-level fireball spell or the mystical experiences of organized religion.
I don’t see these three aspects of magic as inevitably distinct. There are all sorts of connections to be woven between them.
That’s why I have a Clive Barker quotation above my desk, which in condensed form says “magic is the first and last of the world’s religions: a religion whose profoundest ritual is play.” The quotation is longer but would require a detailed gloss to do it justice, because the idea is too important for me to treat lightly. But the main point is that in Barker’s mind the three aspects of magic in games are intertwined expressions of one another. (And he puts his money where his mouth is, since this quotation is from the introduction to his Imajica collectible card game, and he has also discussed the metaphysical implications of the magic system in Undying. Incidentally, the magic system in Undying may be my second favorite magic system, just beneath Eternal Darkness.)
(A sidenote on Jung: Jung coopts the concept of the symbol for psychoanalytic purposes, but the term comes to prominence in Western thought in Romanticism (English, German, French), which precedes Jung chronologically. (e.g. Coleridge, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Nerval). In the game Eternal Darkness, the narrator invokes Jung, Freud, and Skinner as possible correspondences to the three Ancients, but then dismisses these psychoanalysts as inadequate to the horror and majesty of the beings represented by the runes. This is a nice way of suggesting that, while Jung is a key figure in understanding symbols, their content and operation eludes his unitarian and trans-historical attempts to explain all symbols as products of a psychoanalytic entity (the collective unconscious) which he invented. A theoretical entity which originates in his own German Romanticist/early modernist context and his Freudian training.)
And allegory precedes Jung also (Plato, Spenser, Dante).
I need to read Angus Fletcher’s Allegory: Theory of a Symbolic Mode.
Question for further research: what are some of the most innovative magic systems, both in terms of mode of spell-casting, effects, and symbolism?
Mage: The Ascension and Mage: The Awakening (tabletop)
Magic: The Gathering (cardgame)
Betrayal at Krondor (crpg)
Arx Fatalis (crpg)
Loom (Adventure Game)
Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem
Castlevania: Lords of Shadows (Xbox 360)
The Lost Guardian (PS3)
Assassin’s Creed 2 (Xbox 360)
Dragon Age: Origins (Xbox 360)
As promised, here is a short video of the newest build of Arcana Manor.
This build features some experiments with a new spell interface, including a rotating 3d tarot deck and a hexagram gui with jewel buttons that summon magical sigils with spellcasting powers. The player can also shift between first person shooter mode for melee and third-person mode for cursor-based spell-casting in the interfaces. I’m using Jeff Faust’s ArcaneFX in conjunction with these interfaces to implement spell-casting effects, including a custom attack spell with my own zodiacs and rune rings and a modified levitation spell using physical zones. The build also features some custom items representing the minor arcana of the tarot deck, including an ankh wand, a glowing black sword, a cup, and a pentacle.
Finally got the beginnings of an original magic system working.
Customized two afx spells to become Call of Cthulhu and Eye of Ra, then linked them to the 3d tarot gui.
Figured out how to add an alpha channel to a png so as to make the background transparent. By placing a sigil on a transparent background and building a gui around it, I can approximate the effect of “drawIng” many different grams (pentagrams, heptagrams) of many different colors, which hover in front of the player in first person mode. Different grams can be brought up by pushing the many-colored gems at the points of a hexagram, which is itself transparent and centered in the middle of the screen, like a spellcasting/targeting HUD.
Screenshots and videos soon.
The aspect of designing a magic system (maybe of designing generally) that I like the best is interface design and special effects programming, when they are closely connected to gameplay.