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Behold, a Stable Build!: Arcana Progress Summer 2016

Arcana Knowledge Plane

Arcana Knowledge Plane (Background and artifact art by Thomas Vanhuffel)

Jeepers.  After hundreds of hours of summer development, much of it full-time and often more than full-time, I appear to have a stable build of Arcana.  Not perfect by a longshot, but stable.  For those of you interested in the history of the project, I wrote a blog about that.  Tl;dr, I’ve been working on Arcana for 7+ years, with as many iterations of the project in different engines, with different teams and varying angles of attack.

For more detail, check out: my Youtube channel (with gameplay video, some of it narrated), my Twitter feed (with frequent, often daily progress reports), and the game’s Facebook page (an amalgamation of the two).  The game is also a practical manifestation of the theories and concepts in one of my books, Game Magic.

How do I know that this build is stable?  Well, I can now do the two things that I dreamed of doing for the last few years: by performing magic rituals, I can travel to the plane of Carcosa, and I can summon the King in Yellow from his dimension to our own.

The Plane of Carcosa (Art by Thomas Vanhuffel)

Carcosa (Art by  Damian Fox and Thomas Vanhuffel)

But more than that: I can do both of these things emergently, as the result of an underlying spatial logic consisting of an invisible n-dimensional maze of alternate planes of existence, the walls of which form barriers that players must circumvent or break through to perform astral projections and summonings.

There are no pre-scripted rituals in Arcana, but nor are the rituals random or procedurally generated (yet).  Each ritual action (lighting a candle, filling a cup, ringing a bell, placing an object in the temple) has an effect on the state of the ritual and the movement through the metaversal maze.  A ritual is a combination of actions that allows a player to perform a desired operation in the metaverse, and many combinations of actions can lead to similar results, as well as entirely unexpected outcomes.  The workings of magic are, after all, mysterious and hidden (the meaning of the word “occult,” as referenced in Howard’s Law of Occult Game Design, formulated in my 2014 GDC Online talk and published in the book 100 Principles of Game Design).  Players will never see the metaverse, but only learn of its structure through indirect audio and visual feedback.   However, there will be a toolset portion of Arcana (a level editor, akin to a Minecraft of Ritual Magic) that designers can use to create their own rituals and the underlying n-dimensional mazes that give them structure.

So, in the process of reaching Carcosa or summoning the King, players might take an unexpected detour through heavens, hells, and surreal mindscapes that weave in and out of various mythologies and cosmologies.  In the process of summoning the King, players might inadvertently hook and reel in all manner of planar flotsam and jetsam.  I liken the game’s core gameplay modes to astral bungee-jumping, astral bass fishing, and (eventually, in a later build) astral Simon.

Unity Personal (64bit) - ARCANA20June2016Thomasedit.unity - RcanaRestoredJune4 - Web Player _DX11_ 7_11_2016 3_17_38 PM

There is a passage in Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melnibone, in which Elric makes elaborate ritual preparation to navigate an astral maze in order to summon his patron, the Chaos god Arioch, who returns to the mortal plane in the form of a fly.  That’s the core experience of Arcana.  An acid trip astral projection and summoning simulator in which players perform rituals to explore alternate realms of existence, gain otherworldly objects of power, and communicate with spirits and gods.

The progress over this summer would have been impossible without the creativity and diligent work of several team members past and present: Thomas Vanhuffel (lead artist), Damian Fox (who drew Carcosa, the King, and several artifacts), Steve Graham (lead programmer), and Scott Graham (programmer and design consultant).   Gene Semel is hard at work on audio for the game that will take its atmosphere to the next level.  Thanks to all these individuals for their work!

I plan to start a little bit of very focused testing and QA among a small group of friends, family, and those willing to put up with the many rough edges of an early prototype.  If you happen to be at Pacifica University on July 16, or at the Twin Peaks Festival July 22-24th, I’d love for you to try it out.

 

 

Break on Through to the Other Side: N-Dimensional Physics Progress in Arcana

sifadmires
Recent Arcana progress has been slow but steady and significant, with advances both on the front-end (visual interface and feedback for ritual performance) and the back-end (underlying systems and mechanics driving the rituals).

For front-end progress, I am now working with an excellent artist, Thomas Vanhuffel, whose portfolio can be seen here: http://weenog.deviantart.com/ His many atmospheric art assets will be discussed in another blog entry:

For back-end progress, we are now extending physics calculations for n-dimensional metaspace.  Scott Graham, one of the coders on the project, brings to bear his advanced background in theoretical physics on this aspect of the project.  Meanwhile, Steve Graham continues to implement portions of these ideas in code, with help from me in prioritizing, carrying forward, and debugging the code.

The main idea is that for every visible ritual action performed by players, there are behind-the-scenes calculations of movement in a metaspace of infinite dimensions. So, when objects come into view or planes appear, this is because those objects are nearby based on mathematical calculations (specifically, the sum of all the distances across dimensions).
To accomplish a simulation of 6-dimensional physics, we create two 3-dimensional projections, i.e. abstracted representations of part of the metaspace showing only some of its axes (in this case, three at a time).  We call these zones metaprojection zones and have named them, respectively, the Shadow and the Umbra.  These two areas resemble shadowboxes located behind the main 2d interface area in which the player performs rituals.   Here is a screenshot of both views of the game (2d player view and both 3-dimensional projection zones).
Meta Projection Zones
By tapping into Unity’s built-in physics system (and extending it past 3 dimensions), we can potentially implement all sorts of interesting gameplay effects, like rituals that make players move faster in metaspace, or barriers that bar players’ progress while astrally projecting. And working around those barriers (or breaking through them) gives an underlying logic to rituals that is emergent rather than just a sequence of actions.
For example, the player hits a barrier at +50 death, so they take a diversionary route along the pleasure axis: +20 pleasure.  Here, they are confronted with a barrier of infinite extent along the pleasure axis, so they chant repeatedly to build up sufficient ritual force to break through the barrier.  The player doesn’t necessarily know that they are navigating a maze with invisible walls: the player just observes that certain actions result in blockages, whereas others result in progress.
This video gives a glimpse into the interaction of the front end interface for performing rituals and the back end systems governing ritual logic: two meta projection zones (shadow and umbra) containing the two astral doubles of every ritual object.  In this footage, the player performs a ritual to project his shadow body (a cube) outward through metaspace.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mf431VMBtjY

The best visual equivalent I can think of is Steve Ditko’s Dr. Strange illustrations, which suggest a Dali-influenced, wormhole-permeated, non-Euclidean maze of portals and passageways.

Doctor Strange Dimensions
Speaking of visuals, Thomas Vanhuffel has been creating beautiful, atmospheric paintings of the various planes.  Not to be confused with the back-end mathematical dimensions (which represent continuous movement along axes), Vanhuffel’s planar backgrounds show particular realms of existence at the extremes of these axes: pure, Platonic abstractions of extreme Death, Life, Pain, Pleasure, Chaos, Order, Evil, Good, Ignorance, Knowledge, Illusion, and Reality.
The next blog entry will show off many of Thomas’ excellent paintings, but here is a tease of two current images, showing both planar backgrounds (pleasure and knowledge) as well as mockup of the surrounding interface.
knowledgevanhuffel
pleasureplanelayoutvanhufffel

Fire Walk with Me: This Summer’s Arcana Progress

Fire Walk with Me: Summer Progress on Arcana

Over the summer, I have been working with fiery passion on my game project, Arcana and its associated editor, the Arcana Ritual Toolset.  Arcana is a twofold project: a) a game meant to simulate a rich experience of magic by allowing players to perform rituals and b) an editor that allows developers to build their own rituals for players to perform.  Arcana has been in development in various iterations for the last seven years, including two years in which I worked with students.  The game is the practical fulfillment of the theoretical principles about how to make better videogame magic systems described in my book, Game Magic: A Designer’s Guide to Magic Systems in Theory and Practice. This summer, I’ve been carrying forward the work, with the help of three collaborators: Steve Graham, Scott Graham, and Damian Fox.  What follows is a summary of the project’s evolution over the summer.  The Youtube links lead to game footage at the various stages of the project’s development described in the blog.

arcanasprites

I began work on Arcana this summer with a simple task: to cause a card, representing a ritual object, to fade in and out through moving a slider.  (The card was Anubis, the Egyptian god of Death).  The fading of the card was meant to simulate the movement through a multi-dimensional space, i.e. astral projection, as well as summoning extra-planar beings to this world, i.e. invocation/evocation.  I made the card into a GUI image, then accessed the alpha channel of its canvas renderer and tied this variable to a slider.  I then constructed six sliders to represent six major dimensions that could be traveled, increased, or decreased through rituals: life/death, good/evil, order/chaos, pleasure/pain, knowledge/ignorance, and reality/illusion.  By moving each of these sliders, a particular tarot card (drawn by Damian Fox) could fade in and out (e.g. the Anubis card would become clearer and more solid as death increased).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yrucJIHcsVs

At this stage, I also experimented with creating some simple ritual actions, such as chanting and lighting candles, though they did not initially relate to any underlying model of ritual logic.

Once I had these six sliders, Scott Graham (whose background is in physics and computer science) provided me with a mathematical function to calculate “taxi distance” in six-dimensional space, which involved taking the sum of the absolute value of each difference along a given dimension.  I faded the alpha channel of the canvas renderer of each card based on the multi-dimensional distance equation after I had translated it into Unity’s mathematical functions via C#.

Based on an inspiration in a half-waking state one night, I eventually arranged the six sliders, and two more form Time and Space, along the spokes of the eight-pointed star of chaos, in reference both to the arms of the sorcerer-king Elric’s patron chaos deity, as well as to the paradigms or perspectives of sorcery used in chaos magic.   The sliders then ceased to function as sliders per se, but as gauges (analogous to health bars) of the various planar vector variables.  The chaos star is an interdimensional compass rose visually representing the player’s position in multidimensional space.  Because the sliders were now dimensional gauges, buttons on the right-hand side of the screen caused movement along a given vector.  In keeping with chaos magic tradition, I gave each vector on the star a symbolic set of colors.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MfX1-lxegTA

This scene and its associated functions represented the Editor Mode of Arcana, to be used by developers, as implied by the name “Arcana Ritual Toolset.”  I then set to work on a game mode to be experienced by players.  I initially began with six planar background screens that would be loaded if the player pressed a particular button. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PqLjTqq0kwo

I then began to work on basic ritual actions.  At Steve Graham’s suggestion, I wrote up several example rituals of the sort that I would want players to experience.  I noticed that a recurrent pattern in these rituals was placing a ritual object onto a consecrated space (called a ritual location): candles onto a pentagram, skulls onto an altar, coins onto a tombstone.  Accordingly, I worked on basic drag-and-drop functionality using an official Unity example.  Dropping a coin onto a tombstone would then cause a ghost sprite to appear. (The fictional premise is summoning a ghost by offering a coin called an Obolus to Charon the Boatman.  Influence of both Huck Finn and Wraith: The Oblivion are at work here).  At first, the ghost’s appearance was binary (either completely invisible or completely visible).  Using the multi-dimensional distance function, I then tied the ghost’s alpha channel to the underlying death variable, which could be incremented by placing the coin on the tombstone.  To simulate this ritual logic, I wrote a function called DeathShift() that would increment the death variable whenever the player put a coin onto a tombstone.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8aHM1lA1wrM

I then wrote code to retrieve the name of both the dropped item, called the ritual object in the language of our development team, and the consecrated space, called a ritual location.  I slowly elaborated and built upon the tombstone ritual by creating a second ritual location (a tombstone) and a second ritual object (the flower).  By retrieving the names of ritual objects and ritual locations, I could increment different variables.

I then elaborated and generalized this ritual logic by writing functions to increment all of the variables, initially incrementing a given vector variable by 1 at a time.  (Later, I also wrote functions to increment the vector variables by 0.1, since float values map more easily onto an alpha channel that runs from 0 to 1).  I also wrote a more generalized and sophisticated planar distance function that measures the multidimensional distance between the player and ritual cards.  In order to make this function work, I attached a planarlocus script to each card to define its location in metaphysical space (referred to by my team as the metaspace).  I also wrote distance functions manually to calculate the distance between player and every single ritual card individually.  (It was only later that I learned the concept of functional abstraction, allowing me to parameterize the functions DeathShift(), which shifts the player 1 unit on the death vector, and MinorDeathShift(), which shifts the player 0.1 units, into a single function: DeathShift(n).  A further layer of abstraction is planned, in which a PlanarShift(v) function is passed an entire six-dimensional vector.  The advantage of this type of functional abstraction is concision: accomplishing the work of 200 lines of code in 1 line.  At the time I was writing the distance functions, however, I was typing each individual line, which required great care, time, and double-checking when code didn’t compile or do what I expected.

Eventually, I imported all the card art produced by Damian Fox (as well as students Greg Roling and Matt Nelles), allowing me to build several rituals, including a ritual to travel to Carcosa by placing the King in Yellow’s mask, robe, and book onto a black star and an altar.  These details allude to the King in Yellow mythos of Robert W. Chambers, recently popularized by the TV show True Detective.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ljYbk-EvQxk

While expanding the rituals, I also collected six planar backgrounds to represent particular planes, such as a giant chaos star for the Chaos plane and a macabre art nouveau piece called Demiurge by Anastasia Inspiderwiht to represent the plane of Ignorance.  I adapted the multi-dimensional distance function to switch backgrounds using Sorting Order, so that planes become discrete boundaries between dimensions that change abruptly at a given threshold and stay fully opaque while the objects associated with that plane shift in and out.

I also separated all the images from their associated cards in order to be able to use the card images as sprites for ritual objects.

Once mathematical functions were in place to increment and decrement variables, I added greater variety to rituals by developing ritual actions beyond simply placing ritual objects.  Each new ritual action mathematically affects the underlying vector mathematics.  Ringing a bell calls a Purify() function that sets all dimensional vectors to 0 (useful if one has made a mistake in a ritual, or if one changes one’s mind).  Lighting a candle adds 1 to all dimensional variables.  Chanting squares all variables.  Each ritual action also has associated multimodal feedback, including a temple bell sound from Kyoto, Tibetan throat singing, and the sound of a candle being lit and snuffed.  I’m especially proud of the hourglass action.  Pressing the hourglass button temporarily boosts all vectors, fires an animation of the hourglass turning over, starts a sand sound, and then re-sets all vectors when the sand runs out.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dxOFmpikO08

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dxOFmpikO08

I then began work on creating an inventory system in order for the player to be able to carry ritual objects.  I used the Inventory Master asset from the Unity store, and I spent several days re-building my Arcana ritual engine in order to work in conjunction with the new asset.

I also spent several days experimenting with object instantiation in order to be able to drop a 2d object into the scene (something not anticipated by the Inventory Master).  Using several AddComponent() functions to add colliders, pickup scripts, and other needed parts to dropped objects, I can now pick up dropped objects and put them in an inventory.

These features pave the way for a planar scavenger hunt: an astral projection adventure in metaspace searching for ritual objects.  With luck, the planar scavenger hunt will be a small playable demo: a few minutes of rough gameplay designed to convey the overall idea of Arcana in game mode.

The Wars of Illusions: Magic as Sorcery and Chicanery

[Spoiler alerts: Lord of IllusionsFallen London, NBC Constantine]

lordofillusionsswann

In one of the most haunting lines from Clive Barker’s film Lord of Illusions, a high-ranking member of an elite illusionists’ club observes that “we walk a narrow line between trickery and divinity.”  The character is alluding to the two meanings of the word “magician,” which can connote both sorcerer (who commands supernatural forces) and an illusionist (who performs tricks that create a false appearance of the supernatural).   The slipperiness of these two meanings pervades Lord of Illusions, in which a stage magician’s tricks are fueled by actual supernatural magic, culminating in an apocalyptic confrontation between an illusionist with mystical powers and a false god using the supernatural for illusory ends.

fallenlondonhat

This conflict and synergy between illusion and mysticism is explored even more deeply in “The War of Illusion,” a section of the masterful Fallen London, a browser-based branching narrative game about a Gothic Victorian underworld.   In this narrative, the player gradually uncovers a feud between two factions: Shroud and Glass.  On the surface, Shroud consists of mediums engaging in authentic seances with spirits, while Glass is comprised of illusionists who cunningly wield smoke and mirrors.  Except . .  . this divide is gradually revealed to be simplistic, if not utterly backwards.  As the player is initiated into one or both of the factions, she gradually realizes that the two group’s methods and philosophies are actually the reverse of what they initially seemed to be: the Shroud relies on chicanery to create the appearance of communicating with the Beyond, while the apparent specular illusions of Glass actually rely on mirrors as portals into a numinous jungle dimension ruled over by serpentine Fingerkings.  (In an example of Fallen London’s involuted and exquisite connectedness, the mirror realm is linked to other examples of lore experienced in separate storylets: the land of the Fingerkings is the same as the Mirror-Marches, the first place into which an insane player is exiled, which is also intimated to be the origin of the dreams experienced during honey-drenched hallucinations.  The Fingerwork of the Clay Men, glimpsed behind mirrors, is also connected to the Fingerkings.  This type of lateral connection between seemingly discrete lore fragments is the meaning of world-building cohesion, which is a spatial metaphor for the interlocking puzzle pieces that is deeper and richer than the temporal and logical sequentiality of plot).

fallenlondonmirrorfallenlondonmagician

In walking and criss-crossing over the thin line between genuine sorcery and fakery, Fallen London showcases the performative nature of all magic: occultists and prestidigitators alike stage theatrical extravaganzas that create experiences of the supernatural in the minds of an audience.  If spirits are ideas (in the Platonic and/or neurological sense of the word), then the ultimate metaphysical origin of these ideas is irrelevant as long as they are experienced by an audience (bearing in mind that the magician herself can be the foremost member of her own audience).  Sorcery is legerdemain and prestidigitation, both etymologically derived from words for feats of manual dexterity: light hands and quick digits.  The Magician with his ceremonial implements in the nineteenth century mystical Rider-Waite tarot deck is Le Bateleur (the Juggler) in the medieval Marseilles deck: a mountebank whose ritual artifacts are the balls and cups of a shell game.

magiciancardriderwaitejugglercard

Fallen London is, of course, not the only medium to explore the ambiguities and paradoxical slippages of magic.  Christopher Nolan’s Prestige derives its haunting poignancy from the line between illusion and inspired invention.  Similar ideas smoulder behind the most striking image from NBC’s tv show Constantine, in which the eponymous anti-hero douses his hands in lighter fluid and sets them ablaze in order to ward off a gang of voodoo thugs.  Constantine, ironically reprimanded by a demon because his rituals “lack the power of intention,” can perform actual feats of goetic magic and exorcism but stages a trick for the thugs because, under the circumstances, the fakery is quicker and more impactful than the real thing.  Constantine, standing with arms in cruciform posture and a blazing orb of flame on each palm, is a con man cutting the figure of the quintessential sorcerer, but also a genuine sorcerer pretending to be a con man.  What does the distinction between pyrotechnics and pyromancy matter if both can temporarily keep the demons at bay?

constantineflaminghandslarge

 

 

Why I Wear a Chaos Star: Brief Thoughts on Pacts with Contingency

chaosnecklace

About a year ago, I started wearing a chaos star.  While there is a real-life school of occultism that adopted this star as its emblem, and while I am a real-life occult game designer, I don’t consider myself primarily a practitioner of Chaos Magick as defined by Peter Carroll and his followers.

A little historical background is in order.

The chaos star first appears in Jim Cawthorne’s illustration of the Heraldic Arms of Chaos in one of Michael Moorcock’s stories about Elric, a doomed albino sorcerer with a sentient, vampiric sword.  As Moorcock tells the story, he conceived of the Arms of Law as a single arrow to represent a unitary, straight and narrow path.  In contrast, the eight arrows of chaos radiate outward in all directions, representing the multiple possible paths of art.

elricchaosstar

I have long admired Moorcock’s intricate cosmology: a labyrinthine multiverse through which a cursed Eternal Champion reincarnates, reflected and refracted as if through the faces of a shattered prism.  In my book, Game Magic, I argue that the fusion of goetia and astral projection by which Elric summons his patron, the Chaos Lord Arioch, is the finest example of ritual magic upon which a game designer might draw for inspiration.  As my Arcana game progresses, summoning and astral projection are becoming the two central aspects of magic in both the mechanical and narrative senses.

But I truly became enamored with the Chaos star while playing Zangband, a classic roguelike (with ASCII characters and permadeath), set in the fantasy world of Roger Zelazny’s Amber (itself a powerful influence on Moorcock’s multiverse).

zangband

In Zangband, there are many character classes, but the one I found myself irresistibly drawn toward was the Chaos Knight.  The character is a practical starting class with tangible benefits (such as a beginning the game equipped with plate armor, a longsword, and a powerful complement of damage spells), but the class has one powerful quirk that drew me onward.  At character generation, the character is assigned a Chaos Patron (the names of which, such as Pyaray, Chardros, Arioch, and Xiombarg, are taken from Moorcock rather than Zelazny).  Every time the character levels up, the voice of the Chaos Patron booms out, conferring a randomly chosen boon.  These boons run the gamut from mildly useful to lifesaving to downright disastrous.  The Patron might fill the hallway in front of the player with enemies, give the player a hideous and crippling mutation, drop a powerful sword in front of the player, or heal the player of all wounds.  In a genre already built around coping with (and possibly savoring) contingency through randomly generated levels, the leveling up mechanic associated with the Chaos Knight compounds chaos recursively.

And I loved it.  At the time that I was playing Zangband, I was faced with a lot of contingency: myriad uncertainty related to aspects of life I couldn’t control.  Rather than see this chaos as a hindrance, playing a Chaos Knight helped me learn to embrace this chaos as a source of energy.  Because, as occultist Ramsey Dukes and (more recently) TV’s version of John Constantine remind us, we all make deals with forces beyond ourselves just to function on a daily level.

Everything I needed to know about life I learned from Elric.  All Patrons are Chaos Patrons. I wear a Chaos star because I learned to revel in this uncertainty.  Blood and Souls for My Lord Arioch . . .

Of Arcana, Dark Souls, Maiden, and Marketing

ironmaidensomewhereintime

I want to market Arcana like Iron Maiden.

No, let me rephrase that.

I want to market Arcana like motherfucking Iron Maiden.  

A little context is in order here.

As preparations for the Arcana Kickstarter gather steam (especially in terms of art direction), I find myself thinking about the relationship between marketing and world-building in musical-visual settings.  I’ve also been watching Iron Maiden documentaries, especially those that feature interviews with frontman Bruce Dickinson (who also happens to be a professional airline pilot, manning the controls of the band’s touring jet called Flight 666 and Ed Force One).

Iron Maiden paint scheme on the Final Frontier World Tour 2011 B

Iron Maiden is a glorious juggernaut of a marketing machine, starting with a foundation of solid songwriting and musicianship that combines with visually harmonious cover art to create a world.  And this audio-visual world sells concerts, t-shirts, bandanas, posters, and countless other knick-knacks in a way that most bands can only dream of.  It is telling that even Kiss, themselves masters of theatrical marketing, expressed a certain awe of the early Iron Maiden’s capacity for merchandising.

And none of this clever capitalism seems particularly crass to me, since at its heart it is based on a cohesive vision of the imaginative world to which the band gives access.   From the beginning, Maiden recruited cover artist Derek Riggs to paint gorgeous, dystopian settings in which the band’s mascot, Eddie the Head, could wreck his mayhem.  And these covers don’t merely supplement the songs: they are an extension of the world created by these songs, rich with detail that can be pondered lovingly while immersing oneself in the Egyptology of “Powerslave,” the pulp diabolism of “Number of the Beast,” or the cybernetic time travel of “Somewhere in Time.”

ironmaidenpowerslaveironmaidennumberofthebeast

It’s not surprising, then, that Iron Maiden commissioned a video game, wryly titled Ed Hunter, that allowed players to explore the worlds depicted in these album covers as immersive three-dimensional environments.

edhunter

Creativity meets marketing at the same crossroads where audio, visuals, and interactivity intersect.  I’m reminded of the two most beautiful pieces of Dark Souls merchandise: unofficial and unlicensed recreations of boss battles in the rough, retro, Gothic style of 80′s heavy metal t-shirts.   These fan creations seem to speak, saying “This is what it sounds like to live inside of Dark Souls, and this is how that sound looks.”  Such audio-visual echoes are at the heart of what is sometimes called transmedia, but with an authenticity that starts with a core vision and markets *around* this vision (rather than the opposite, exploitative approach often favored by Hollywood, which has sometimes besmirched the concept of transmedia).

darksoulstshirt

darksoulsceaselessdischargetshirt

In a short documentary piece on “Faith and Music,” Bruce Dickinson speaks of his inspiration by the sacred and the demonic, set to the tune of his own musical rendition of William Blake’s “Jersualem” in the background.  And all this spiritual discourse strikes me as perfectly in keeping with the marketing machine that is Maiden, because Blake found himself in an eighteenth-century version of the same conundrum.  In his tiny printer’s cottage in Felpham, Blake sought to give verbal and visual expression to his own unique vision in a way that would be true to his spirit, while attracting enough of an audience to keep his shop running and his body alive.  Blake didn’t own or pilot a jumbo jet, but his imagination soared, and one could easily imagine him launching his own Kickstarter “in the infernal method” if a wrinkle in time allowed him to travel from his era to our own.

blakecottagefelpham

What I want from Arcana is a vision sufficiently striking and appealing to our intended audience of gamers, occultists, and metalheads that our Kickstarter rewards aren’t just supplementary trinkets, but natural extensions of a gorgeous, Gothic world.

I shall not cease from mental fight, nor shall my sword sleep in my hands, till we have built Arcana in South Dakota’s frozen lands.

(Up the Irons!)

Ritual Theater Backgrounds in the Arcana Ritual Toolset

As I refine the design for the Arcana Ritual Toolset in preparation for its crowdfunding effort, the analogy of theater is increasingly useful to me.  The idea of theater as ritual performance (or ritual as theater) has been common in mythological and magical studies for a long time, going at least as far back as the Greek tragedies, which were performed as rituals to the god Dionysus.  More recently, I’ve been reading early material for a dissertation by Susan Savett entitled “Games as Theater for the Soul,” which in turn takes inspiration from Brenda Laurel’s classic work Computers as Theater.

But, for me, the theatrical metaphor is most useful as a guide for practical design decisions.  In every iteration of the toolset, users have consistently asked whether they would be able to perform rituals in different environments.  The answer was usually that we had deliberately restricted the Toolset (and the Simulator that proceeded it) to a one-room temple in order to limit the 3d assets required.  As it turns out, making that one room appear atmospheric and beautiful involved months of work by lead 3d artist  environmental Landon Anker, who labored to create a neo-Gothic cathedral with normal maps that represented rich wood textures and an inlaid kabbalistic tree of life.

3d Arcana environmental art by Landon Anker

3d Arcana environmental art by Landon Anker

But the user desire to have many different ritual backdrops is a valid and understandable one.  Being stuck in a neo-Gothic cathedral, however beautiful, tends to restrict the imagination toward a single kind of magic (such as the Golden Dawn-style magic of the Arcana Ceremonial Magick Simulator).   Patterns of thought are promoted not just by gene or meme, but by the scene.  We perform druidic magic in an oaken grove, summon Bloody Mary in a bathroom mirror, and call Papa Legba at a crossroads.

crossroadsjohnson

But how to allow this switching of environment without dooming oneself to scads of 3d art and associated textures, thereby driving up an already stretched budget to unreasonable levels?

Cue the theater metaphor.  The idea of a theatrical set is to create a sense of place (with associated mood and atmosphere) with the minimum of effort and expense.   Sets are also built to be easily switchable for scene changes.  Set designers have all sorts of tricks for this, but a common one is to use flat, painted backdrops to stand in for three dimensional objects like clouds or trees.  Some clever designers even use a scrim, which refers to a thin curtain that is opaque when lit from one side but translucent when lit from another, so that through a change in lighting new objects will be revealed.  (The background painters of Disney’s original Haunted Mansion used this approach to reveal the silhouette of the Ghost Host hanging from the rafter in the stretching lobby that previously appeared to have a solid ceiling).

Applied to Arcana, the toolset could continue to take place in a one-room temple, but the walls of this temple could be beautifully painted two-dimensional textures representing different ritual environments (graveyards for necromancy, crossroads for voodoo, suburban bathrooms for Bloody Mary).  Realism is not the priority here.  Atmosphere is.

Claude Coats Haunted Mansion background painting

Claude Coats Haunted Mansion background painting

Moreover, switching between these textures/backgrounds/sets could be not just ancillary to the ritual, but a key result of a successful or failed ritual.  If the purpose of ritual is to alter inner and outer reality (which many magicians conceive of as the same thing, or at least two sides of the same coin), then the sign of a successful transformation would be an alteration of one’s environment.  Crowley calls this movement through the inner reaches of outer space “rising on the planes,” and the concept is familiar to shamans the world over.  The shaman, the walker between worlds, moves spiritually and psychologically but stays in the same place physically.

In Arcana, successfully performing a celestial ritual might switch the background scrim to a heavenly landscape, while botching such a ritual would change the set to an inferno.  In film, matte paintings using exploiting perspective are often used to create the illusion of a vast landscape, as in the Labyrinth of Hellraiser II.

hellraisermattepaintings

 

The background set is part of a larger theatrical metaphor in the Arcana Ritual Toolset.  To quote the most recent iteration of the crowdfunding page, “The toolset consists of three parts: a selection of three-dimensional temple environments, a library of ritual artifacts, and a card-based visual programming language that allows you to implement ritual logic without ever typing a line of code.  To use a theatrical analogy, the temple environments are the sets (like a crossroads or a graveyard), the artifacts are the props, and the programming language is the script.   All of these parts come together to form the Ritual Toolset, implemented in the Unity game engine.”

 

Arkadia Retrocade and the Power of the Atmospheric Hack and Slash

retrocadeoverview

I recently spent a week in Northwest Arkansas to visit family.   The region has changed a lot since I grew up there, and with a population of 500,000 it is now referred to as “the Northwest Arkansas Metropolitan Area,” a phrase I never expected to be applied to the isolated and rural region that I remember.

One highlight of my visit was a trip to the Northwest Arkansas Arkadia Retrocade, a vintage video arcade with more than 150 machines from gaming’s bygone days.  Every foot of the relatively small floorspace of the Retrocade (a former Chucky Cheese’s in a strip mall) is packed with games from the early 1980′s through the mid 1990′s.  It’s a scenario that triggers the fervor associated with novels like Lucky Wander Boy and Ready Player One!, both of which are love letters to the virtual and physical enchantments of entertainment that is perilously close to being lost outside of its native environment.

magicsword

The best game that I played was Magic Sword, a side-scrolling, sword-and-sorcery themed beat ‘em up in which a barbarian warrior must ascend a fifty-story tower to defeat an evil wizard.  This scenario is deep, primal stuff: the ludic equivalent of Robert E. Howard’s Conan story “The Tower of the Elephant.”  When explored with sufficient gusto, the hoariest of fantasy cliches glow with enchantment, and these tropes only become cliches after first being represented with energy and originality.  It is this very energy that allow them to become cliches in the first place.

One such adventure cliche, which never loses its power for me, is gathering keys to unlock doors.  By collecting keys and unlocking doors in Magic Sword, the player acquires companions who fight alongside (or just behind) him, flinging missiles and magic in sync with the player’s attacks.  I like many things about the game: its bright, crisp pulp fiction aesthetic, its short but satisfying levels, its roster of fantasy archetype NPC’s, and most of all the forward momentum created by the text snippets that describe the tower.  There is a feeling of addictive discovery here, of exploration that lures despite or because of its linearity.  It’s no surprise that Magic Sword turns out to be the sequel to Black Tiger, the beloved, secret-brimming game of Ready Player One’s protagonist.

astyanax

Magic Sword was part of a row of hack and slash beat ‘em ups that included Golden Axe, Astyanax, Willow, Altered Beast, and (sadly non-operational on the day that I visited) Ghosts and Goblins.   And, while the arcade contained many genres (racing games, shoot ‘em ups, several versions of Pac-Man), the row that contained Magic Sword captivated me.  Pacing up and down between each game a fervor that bordered on mania or sugar-induced ADHD, I jumped between each of these games, delighting the wealth of infinite continues (since the arcade charges only a $5 admission fee for unlimited free play).

ghostsngoblins

And it struck me that these games, with their linear, pulpy premises and their adrenaline-fueled gameplay, have a quality often lacking in many contemporary games: atmosphere.  Unfettered by a need for realism or graphical fidelity or sophistication demanded by either current indie or AAA efforts, these games are unabashedly grim, spooky, and magical, like the cover of a vintage Weird Tales magazine or an Iron Maiden album over.  Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber didn’t have to ironize or apologize for the barbarians, sorcerers, and rogues in their stories, just as Magic Sword happily trots out ninjas, wizards, and lizard men with not an ounce of self-reflective shame.  Why are their ninjas in a fantasy tower?  Doesn’t matter.  What is my relationship to these characters?  Don’t care. Trailing a black-clad shinobi and a hooded sorcerer behind the player’s barbarian is exciting, like dangling a daisy-chain of archetypes.  Completely absent are the elaborate branching dialogues and nuanced intra-party romances with which RPG’s like Dragon Age are festooned.  NPC companions inevitably die after a few minutes, short-lived as goldfish, and one doesn’t have time or reason to mourn them.  Such is the fantastic brutality of a Conan story, in which the Cimmerian king’s companions are ad hoc and ephemeral.

Sanjulian_Conan_Tower_of_the_Elephant

There is a place in this world for ludo-narrative sophistication and complexity, which I strenuously advocate in other genres and contexts.  But there is also a place for rich, pulpy, sword-and-sorcery atmosphere.  And it’s that atmosphere that keeps me hunched over the screens of ancient and clunky handheld devices, playing endless iterations of Castlevania because almost nothing else in the vaguely contemporary gaming market quite scratches this pure, Gothic, medieval itch.   Wandering through the equally clunky, ancient machines of the Retrocade, I felt vindicated.  Each of these games resembles my beloved Castlevania in mood and gameplay, but each is also individual in setting and premise (resurrection in ancient Greece, time-traveling to fantasy Persia, clambering as Warwick Davis over treacherous cliffs). Here, standing six foot tall and glowing, were colossal machines whose entire purpose for existence was to munch quarters and ooze atmosphere.  And, just for today, they didn’t even need quarters.

Summer Games: Metal, Magic, Assassins, and Flaming Chainwhips

castlevaniafirewhip

 

I have played a lot of games this summer.  Here is a list of them along with brief commentary.

First, as an overview, the list:

  • Dark Souls 2 (140 hours, finished)
  • Thief Reboot (finished)
  • Anna: Extended Edition (finished)
  • Knock-Knock (finished)
  • Castlevania: Circle of the Moon (finished)
  • Mountain (finished)
  • Catachresis (finished)
  • Metal Gear Solid (2/3′s complete)
  • Metal Gear Solid 2 (almost finished)
  • Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance (3/4′s complete)
  • Darksiders 2 (3/4′s complete)
  • A Dark Room
  • Frog Fractions
  • Fallen London
  • Ghost Rider (played the first two levels)
  • Assassin’s Creed III (played the Kenway section and started Connor)
  • Hitman 2: Silent Assassin (played two missions or so)
  • Tenchu: Stealth Assassins (played a little bit)
  • Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia (played a few levels)
  • Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin (played a few areas)

Dark Souls 2 (140 hours, finished): The Souls games are my favorite franchise, and I enjoyed Dark Souls 2 deeply, fervently . . . enough to play it for 140 hours, which translates into full-time play for a few weeks.   I think it’s a lesser accomplishment than the previous games, but that’s like saying that pure gold is less valuable than pure platinum. DS2 takes a maximalist approach, with more of everything than previous games spread out over a larger world.   But the metaphysical subtlety, narrative richness, and spatial density that were the hallmarks of the previous games have diminished along with the loss of Hidetaka Miyazaki as lead designer.  I liked Demon’s Souls better.  That said, I was deeply absorbed in Dark Souls 2, and its gorgeous Gothic art style, haunting music, and absorbing gameplay are still second to none.  In particular, I enjoyed the opportunity to be a Hexer: a warlock class that draws its power from the lower of the faith and intelligence stats, requiring the player to level up both values evenly.  This class had the perfect associated convenant: the Pilgrims of the Dark, a PvE covenant that privileges exploration of obscure nooks and crannies in hidden areas.  This sense of the hidden, far more than any clearly defined evil, is the meaning of the Dark in this world, and the simultaneous mechanical reliance on faith and intelligence thematically reflects the driving personality traits of an obsessed loremaster: the faith to be drawn to the metaphysical world of gods and covenants that may not exist, and the intelligence to explore them analytically.

darksouls2

Thief (reboot) (Finished):  I enjoyed Thief despite its mediocre reviews.  The game doesn’t hold a candle to the original series, though.  The games side-quests, called “jobs,” are the best part, since they reveal the densely honeycombed secrets of the City hub (which is otherwise frustratingly designed when its dead ends impede progress through the main mission).

thiefrebootscreenshot

 

Anna: Extended Edition (finished): A striking implementation of ritual magic in a first-person horror adventure game.  Probably the best thing I played this summer (tied with Fallen London), with clear design similarities with Arcana: A Ceremonial Magick Simulator, and much potential inspiration for the Arcana Ritual Toolset.

annascreenshot

 

Knock Knock (finished with a bad ending): A haunting mystery game.  Along with Anna and Year Walk, Knock Knock rounds out what I think of as the holy trinity of inscrutable supernatural mystery games.  The horror genre has, for me, always been poorly named, since being scared isn’t the main appeal of these games for me (or at least the subset of horror games that I enjoy).  Games like Knock Knock allow players to explore the metaphysical mysteries of existence in the full knowledge that they will remain mysteries.  In the case of Knock Knock, the game’s most basic mechanics are cryptic, giving the game a deeply spooky atmosphere.

knockknockscreenshot

Assassin’s Creed: Revelations (finished): For me, the AC franchise is all about setting, and the gold filigree of the Byzantine empire is as rich a world as one could ask for.  The intertwined fates of Altair (my favorite assassin) and Ezio (who is vastly more interesting with the maturity of old age) are communicated through embedded playable flashback sequences that are pleasantly . . . Byzantine.  There is still enough emphasis on stealth here to preserve the fantasy of secret assassins, with not a pirate ship in sight.

assassinscreedrevelationsscreenshot

Castlevania: Circle of the Moon (finished):  Part of my lifelong quest to play all Castlevania games on all platforms, and a justification for my purchase of an ancient Game Boy Advance.  Unique features and traits here include a well-designed card-based magic system that encourages exploration, a high difficulty curve relative to the other handheld Castlevania games, and an overall dark color palette.  Like many Castlevania games, Circle of the Moon also lets the player wield a flaming chain-whip . . . a feature that I’ll return to later in these reviews.  After experiencing deep spontaneous joy while fighting a naked succubus who was riding a giant skull, I started tagging these sorts of gaming experiences as #justmetalthings, realizing that the thrill here was analogous to living inside a heavy metal album cover.

castlevaniacomdsscards

Castlevania: Harmony of the Dissonance (70% finished): In stark contrast to Circle of the Moon, this game is fairly easy and has a bright color palette.  Its one distinguishing feature are two castles that overlap on different planes or layers of existence, so that clearing an obstacle in one castle can open a path in another.  This layered effect is an interesting variation on the inverted castle of Symphony of the Night and requires a bit more subtle thought about the spatial relationships between both castles (which are spatially harmonious and dissonant, in the words of the game’s title).  The architectural superimposition of the castles has narrative metaphysical implications, since one of the characters acquires two souls via vampiric possession and mentally creates the castle out of his spiritual conflict.

castlevaniahodmapab

 

Catachresis (finished): [spoiler alert] Intriguing adventure game that implements the concept of powerlessness in the face of cosmic horror by providing a story in which the player can do nothing to alter a linear storyline.  Rich, evocative writing that exploits negative space effectively but then drops off abruptly.

catachresisscreenshot

Murdered: Soul Suspect (played about 2/3′s of the game): This detective adventure game, which I played on the PS4, has some engaging investigation mechanics that encourage actual thought about how the clues of the case relate to each other.  (In this respect, investigation of crime scenes is superior even to the excellent Deadly Premonition).  There are some irritatingly clunky quasi-stealth mechanics involving demon evasion that break the flow of the otherwise excellent narrative.

murderedsoulsuspectscreenshotrunes

Metal Gear Solid (played about 3/4′s): This classic stealth game in many ways defines the genre, on which I’ll be teaching a class in Fall 2014.  The sneaking aspects of the game are tough but engaging.  The bosses, while sometimes deeply creative, are  often frustrating to me.

psychomantismgs1

Metal Gear Solid 2 (almost finished): The above comments on MGS1 still apply.  [spoiler alert] The sequences toward the end in which the game deconstructs itself are jaw-droppingly, mind-blowingly brilliant in that they are both shocking and thematically dense, eschewing the cuteness that mars so much breakage of the fourth wall in games and other media.

metalgearsolid2screenshot

Darksiders 2 (2/3′s finished): The best Skeletor simulator ever made.   One of the many games I’ve played this summer with an aesthetic heavily influenced by the style and iconography of metal music. #justmetalthings

darksiders2art

A Dark Room:  A text and ASCII-based adventure in the style of Candy Box, but with less quirk and whim.  The gradual unfolding of a mystery over time draws me into these games, but only some of them continue to hold my interest.

adarkroomgamescreenshot

Frog Fractions: A parodic edutainment game with many quirky and gradually emergent features.  The lead designer states that his intent was to make a game that felt as mysterious as every game did in the 1980′s (when, presumably, scarcity of documentation and few conventions of gameplay made it feel like anything was possible).   This design intent fits well with “Howard’s Law of Occult Design,” which I spoke about at GDC Online in 2012 and then wrote up for the book 100 Game Design Principles.  “Secret Significance is directly proportional to Seeming Innocence × Completeness”: the power of secret significance is directly proportional to the apparent innocence and completeness of the surface game.

frogfractionscreenshot

Fallen London: (China) Mieville meets Farmville.  This browser-based story game competes with Anna as the best thing I’ve played this summer.  It delivers on the sense of gradually unfolding mystery over time to which A Dark Room aspires.  Its setting is an infernal London that has fallen both in the literal spatial sense (collapsing due to the weight and/or evil influence of the Grand Bazaar) and in the spiritual sense, selling its soul to invading devils.  The writing is superb, evoking the aesthetics of Mieville without his doom-laden and heavy-handed politics.  The opportunities for story-based role-playing are superb, and small fragments of poetic prose are about the only reward that could not only compensate for Farmville-style appointment mechanics, but actually render them magnificent.  Fallen London has recently expanded into a graphical sea-faring roguelike called Sunless Sea, which is set in the same universe as Fallen London.  A tabletop roleplaying game also appears to be in the works.  Like all great transmedia, this world-building succeeds because I want to spend as much time in this universe as possible, and through as many different gateways.

fallenlondonmap

Ghost Rider: One of my revelations this summer is that I will play and enjoy anything in which Iets me hit things with a flaming chain whip.  Ghost Rider offers this opportunity in spades.  In many ways, it is a God of War clone, but these are far from damning words to me.  The cloning is well-executed and appropriate in this case: true to the infernal violence of the source material.   Equally true to the stunt riding background of Johnny Blaze, Ghost Rider includes exciting motorcycle sequences that allow the player to soar over roller-coaster size stunt jumps, including a stunt-riding sequence in hell.  I am afraid to watch the Ghost Rider movie on which this was based out of fear that it will, despite popular derision, turn out to be my favorite superhero movie.  When Nicolas Cage prepared for the role using his self-proclaimed “nouveau shamanic” approach, painting his face in Baron Samedi skull makeup and sewing tourmaline amulets into hidden pockets in his leather jacket, I think he was onto something, some primal demonic energy at the heart of this uber-cheesy franchise.  Spawn (and its equally terrible and wonderful videogame spinoffs) taps into the same fire.

ghostridervideogame

Mountain: an experimental art game that, like many experimental art games, stretches the boundaries of the word “game.”  Another slowly-unfolding experience that comments metaphorically on the lonely, often absurd, sometimes beautiful progress of a lifespan.  I find that these experiences work best when accepted as they are.  I did.

mountain

Assassin’s Creed III (played the Kenway sequence and a little bit of Connor): Because Assassin’s Creed is all about exploring an exotic, ancient setting for me, I disliked playing in America.   The engine feels polished, glossy, and vacant of most of what made the previous installments absorbing.

assassinscreediiiscreenshot

Tenchu: Stealth Assassins:  I played a little of this PS1 game because it is one of the first examples of the stealth genre.  The controls and interface were difficult compared to a more recent and polished installment of the franchise (Shinobido 2: Way of the Ninja).

tenchustealthassassinsscreenshot

Hitman 2: Silent Assassins: I played a couple stages of this game in preparation for my upcoming stealth class.  I liked the controls and the atmosphere, as well as  Jesper Kyd’s orchestral score and the use of disguise as a game mechanic.

hitman2screenshot

Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia: I played several levels of this game, which has fantastic art direction and an engaging combat and magic system involving glyphs (enemy powers that can be equipped as weapons, mapped to the X and Y buttons, and duel-wielded to create strings of attack combos).

castlevaniaorderofeccelsiascreenshot

Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin: I played a few minutes of this game. The premise of paintings as otherworldly portals in Dracula’s Castle is intriguing, and I will inevitably return to the game as part of my Castlevania quest.  The unique mechanic is the ability to switch between two characters who constantly follow each other as a tag-team.  While this mechanic results in some interesting puzzles, it also detracts from the experience of being a lone hero against overwhelming darkness, which is at the heart of the series’ Gothic thematics for me.

castlevaniaportraitofruin

camillaspritesheet

 

 

Game Magic, Gnosis, and Shattering the Fourth Wall

A Ouija board

A Spirit Stirs . . .

The publication of Game Magic has led to some inspiring and productive conversations with amazing, like-minded designers.   Some of these conversations involve the designers’ awesome  projects, which I won’t talk about online without permission out of respect for the designers’ own publicity prerogatives.

But I can safely share my sides of these conversations, which typically result as replies to questions or comments that someone has about game magic.
One such question boils down to: “What is the role of faith in Game Magic?”

Here’s my reply, published more or less verbatim.

I don’t think I’ve quite given up on transcendent experience in game magic.  I’m not sure I would use the term “faith,” but rather “gnosis” (cleaving both to the Chaote use of the word as well as that of the original Gnostic Christian sect, both of which define gnosis as direct experience of a transcendent reality).  It seems to me that games are rife with potential for gnosis.

I tend to think of magic as that which runs counter to the dominant worldview of a real world (or the baseline simulation of a virtual world).

Imagine a realistic, mundane game setting, in which simulated laws of physics define the extent of reality, and magic is off limits.  (Let’s say, a military shooter like Call of Duty or (more subversively) a realistic character-driven, physics-based adventure game like Gone Home).

And then imagine that our player character finds some candles and a ouija board in a closet somewhere and begins experimenting with them.  Maybe at first the board behaves like a funny Easter egg, with the planchette stirring a bit or spelling a silly message.  (Maybe something about Captain Howdy).  If a player puts the board aside, nothing will happen.

But what if the player keeps experimenting with the board, and gradually, one-by-one, all of the previously taken-for-granted assumptions about how the simulation works are broken.  Maybe in gradual ways, at first, with an object hovering a few inches off the ground.  Maybe the player character’s body starts being able to pass through objects that were solid before.  And then the board begins to communicate things.  True, strategically useful things about how to solve puzzles or evade enemies.  Biting, mordant insights about previously concealed character relationships or subtextual themes.

That would be redefining the impossible, within a virtual world.  Depending on how dramatically paced and with what degree of synaesthetic sensory overload, such a revelation could be shocking, even awe-inspiring.

an image of Psycho Mantis

Metal Gear’s Metaludic Black Magician

Fourth-wall breaking, meta-gameplay effects would be a powerful way to convey ritual success and game magic more generally.  I’ve been playing the original Metal Gear Solid recently, and Psycho Mantis’ reading of the player’s save game files (as well as his “psychokinetic” movement of the controller through haptic vibration) feel eerie to me even though I know that they are artificial and not the result of any real supernatural agency.  But something about the frame-breaking effect of reaching *outside* the previously defined “magic circle” and into the real world is pleasantly unnverving, not unlike what might happen (less pleasantly) if a magician left a gap in the sand of the protective summoning circle.

(I tried to do some of this in my game, Arcana, in which Choronzon (that notoriously chaotic and recalcitrant demon) refuses to obey the game’s previously defined color correspondences of red, yellow, and green, instead appearing in a burst of violet light.  He also refuses to answer questions “yes” or “no” with single or double light blinks, instead making all of the lights in the room flash haywire.  The idea of Arcana is a demonic conversational simulator, in which Choronzon signifies his chaos by flouting the previously established rules of conversational etiquette).

I’d like to see more of this type of rule-breaking, frame-shattering, possibly psychedelic magic in games, as a way of bridging the gap between shamanic/evocational experience and repetitive mechanics.

Brief Thoughts on Bloodborne

fog gate

a fog gate in Bloodborne

Someone recently asked me what I thought of Bloodborne, the new game by From Software, the trailer of which was unveiled at E3 2014.  The Souls franchise is a major touchstone for my ideas about magic systems (and game design more generally).  Here’s a one-paragraph review of my thoughts so far, and a brief extension of that review into some further thoughts on the philosophical implications of From Software’s design practices.

I think this trailer (and the project as a whole, based on leaked screenshots and gameplay footage) looks magnificent. With Miyazaki back at the helm, From has managed to transfer the gorgeous, Gothic heart of the Souls franchise into a new vessel: a dinosaur-haunted, barely industrial 18th century. This shift in setting and IP was necessary to avoid sequelitis and the creation of Dark Souls IX: Electric Boogaloo. From Software excels at spiritual successors, not sequels. King’s Field begat Shadow Tower begat Demon’s Souls begat Dark Souls begats Bloodborne. Some specific thoughts: the room packed densely and inexplicably with far too many candlesticks echoes the most surprising scene in Demon’s Souls. (If you’ve played it, you know the one). The discovery of what appears to be a dinosaur shrine points to another strength of From’s world-building: the suggestion of layers of lore from bygone times, which must be excavated like an archeological dig. I love the little quirky details here: the padded wheelchair, and the way the collar on the protagonist’s jacket turns up to look like the horns of a black knight’s armor. These subtle details and echoes suggest that From knows how to preserve the atmospheric essence of a franchise (its soul) while guiding it into a new body.

King's Field cover

King’s Field cover

While the innovations of Demon’s Souls might tempt us to see it as springing fully formed into existence, it is in fact the self-avowed spiritual successor of the King’s Field franchise, which begins in 1994 and spans several consoles and platforms.  Demon’s Souls exists within the broader context of the overarching mythology created by From Software in their King’s Field franchise and its spin-offs, including Shadow Tower and Eternal Ring. Specifically, the installments of this franchise are iterations of the same core vision, in which the designers at From Software have refined their concept and learned from their mistakes in much the same way that Demon’s Souls requires its players to learn through trial and error in a brutally unforgiving world.  The mysteries of Demon’s Souls, especially the relationship between its innovative gameplay systems and its fictional metaphysics, can be illuminated within the larger context of From Software’s interconnected web of innovative RPG’s. In the process, I explore what it means for a game to be a “spiritual sequel” in a world that is thematically preoccupied with discarnate and reincarnating souls.

Video Trailer for Game Magic

Below is the trailer for my recently-published book, Game Magic: A Designer’s Guide to Magic Systems in Theory and Practice, which can be ordered on Amazon at http://www.tinyurl.com/gamemagic.  Giles Timms created several illustrations for the book, which he then brought to life in a trailer through his fantastic animation skills.  More of Giles work can be seen at http://www.gilestimms.com.

Game Magic Trailer from Giles Timms on Vimeo.

Tomes of Game Magic

While at the East Coast Games Conference to speak about my book Game Magic, I had the privilege of seeing a vast library of occult tomes and esoteric RPG books owned by Steve Burnett, a writer, musician, and Raleigh native who was kind enough to guide many of the conference participants through the city during the week.

My original Facebook post should convey the rapture of the experience and how I see the two parts of this library (the RPG books and the grimoires) as related: “In the most unexpected turn of events at the East Coast Games Conference, I was invited to go see the most extensive occult library *and* the strangest collection of obscure tabletop RPG’s I’ve ever encountered, housed under one roof.  We’re talking a complete run of Scarlet Imprint, rare editions of Kenneth Grant and Austin Osman Spare, and some very rare and seriously weird tomes that I have a hard time describing.  Pictures forthcoming, both of the RPG books and the grimoires.  Though, in the end, is there really in difference?  Performance, imagination, and play . . . the highest forms of magic.”

I took several pictures of the library, focusing on volumes that particularly caught my eye based on my own research and creative interests.  These pictures, though, are only a glimmer of the overall riches.  Soon, I’ll comment on individuals volumes and why I chose to photograph them (as well as some of the volumes that I did not have time to capture).  For now, here are the pictures en masse from my phone.

 

The Force and Fire of Selim Lemouchi: Salute and RIP

Selim Lemouchi, former frontman of Dutch occult rock group The Devil’s Blood, died last week at the age of 34.  I am a great fan of The Devil’s Blood, whose song “The Madness of Serpents” I chose as the music for the upcoming animated trailer for my forthcoming book, Game Magic.  When Selim Lemouchi agreed to let me use the song in the trailer, I was shocked and delighted.  Shocked that a rock star (however cult or niche) would respond to my message, and delighted at how courteous and easy-going he was.  By all outward indications in concerts and interviews, Selim was prone to some extreme behaviors befitting his status as an occult rocker.   (He decorated his apartment walls in sigils drawn in his own blood, and he once assaulted a heckler who disrupted a concert).

Selim Lemouchi

Selim Lemouchi

But for all his outward darkness and the bleak reality of his early death, Selim Lemouchi’s music is filled with joy.  Songs like “The Thousandfold Epicentre” (title track off the album of the same name) and “The Madness of Serpents” course with an infernal passion.  His guitar tone, which he described as “high tone, low gain” rang jubilantly through the simple, driving riffs that he wrote on his acoustic guitar.  Lemouchi’s riffs resemble those of Roky Erickson, whose tuneful melodies and soulful vocals Lemouchi paid tribute to in a cover of The Erickson tune  ”White Faces.”  And, as with Erickson, there is far more joy than despair in Lemouchi’s music.  The joy may be dark or destructive or nihilistic, but it is joy nonetheless.   Aleister Crowley once composed a ritual with the line ”About me Flames my Father’s Face, the Sign of Force and Fire,” and Lemouchi’s songs burn with precisely that Force and exactly that Fire.    Lemouchi and The Devil’s Blood regarded their performances as rituals, and each of their songs is a prayer to a transcendence (or anti-transcendence) that longs to reach beyond this world into another one.  In one particularly rhapsodic moment, Selim’s words (sung by his sister Farida) burst out into a spontaneous lyric cry for liberation through dissolution of the phenomenal world: “Oh Pralaya, let the thousand suns disperse.  Free us, free us, free us from the chains of the universe.”

It would be easy to condemn Lemouchi’s death as a consequence of his beliefs: namely, the Satanism that lead him to worship the forces of Chaos and death.  While John Keats professed himself “half in love with easeful death,” Lemouchi seemed to lust actively and avidly after his own demise and the end of the created universe.   But I believe that the expression of Lemouchi’s beliefs, through his songs and the passion they emanate, were keeping him alive.  Lemouchi explained in an interview that prior to the founding of the Devil’s Blood he contemplated suicide, when an otherworldly voice offered him “another option”–an option whose precise nature he chose not to share because it was, in his own words, “too personal.”  But the gist of the message was clear: an infernal imprimatur to make the Devil’s music in the name of the Miltonic, anti-heroic adversary and the freedom that he represented to Lemouchi.   One wonders if perhaps there was a time limit attached to this bargain . . . if Lemouchi agreed to stick around this world long enough to deliver his message and no longer.

Regardless, Selim Lemouchi was and is a great inspiration to my own discovery of a personal style in every sense of the word.  I mourn his passing and celebrate his life.

Selim Lemouchi, RIP
Selim Lemouchi, RIP

“The Gods of the Nephandi are the Dreams of the Neverborn”: The Power of Secret Connection in Narrative Design

the Wraith logo

the Wraith logo

“The Gods of the Nephandi are the Dreams of the Neverborn” is a phrase that Richard Dansky, game writer and narrative design veteran, said to me over drinks at Nanocon, South Dakota’s premiere gaming convention.  At my request, he also wrote this phrase in the front of my copy of the second edition Wraith rulebook when he autographed it.  The phrase is an important one to me, a magic incantation or mantra, on the order of Abracadabra and, for individual and creative reasons, much more powerful.

a Nephandi warlock

a Nephandi warlock

Let me explain.  Dansky was one of the key writers on a tabletop roleplaying universe called the World of Darkness, consisting of a group of interrelated horror games each focused on one monster or creature (vampires, werewolves, ghosts, fairies, magicians).   All of these separate game systems and worlds were intended to co-exist, allowing for many interconnecting threads that ran between them in terms of cosmology, mechanics, plot, and theme.   When I asked Dansky how the World of Darkness evolved into a world of interlinked settings, he said that the process was organic and, at times, competitive.  The various lead designers working on the separate gamelines at White Wolf would attempt to aggressively co-opt each others’ continuity, like narrative black holes swallowing up adjacent universes.  Phil Brucato, designer of the beautifully esoteric and metaphysically profound Mage: The Awakening, sparked what I will dub (referencing Mage‘s own chronicles of cosmic conflict) the Continuity Wars.  Brucato attempted to surreptitiously subsume the factions and plotlines of other gamelines into the tapestry of the Mage universe, which was already infamously obscure.  (Dansky recounted a joke going around the White Wolf offices that only n people in the world actually understood Mage, and there were n + 1 authors listed on the title page).

cover of Mage: The Ascension

cover of Mage: The Ascension

But Dansky would not let this creative incursion go unanswered.  “Two can play at that game,” he thought to himself, cracking his knuckles for emphasis when he recounted the moment over drinks at a dive bar in Madison, South Dakota.

He then proceeded to quietly absorb the entire Mage universe into  the bleak metaphysical afterworld of Wraith.  Emphasis on quietly: Dansky didn’t tell anyone that he was doing this at the time, and nothing in the Wraith book overtly spells out the relationships and interconnections.   This brings us full circle to our incantation: “The Gods of the Nephandi are the Dreams of the Neverborn.”   In Mage, the Nephandi are black magicians of the darkest ilk: warlocks who forge pacts with foul infernal gods.  In Wraith, the Neverborn are a pantheon of eldritch entities who slumber at the bottom of the Labyrinth, a maze beneath the underworld.  The Neverborn are so powerful that their mere dreams can influence the most maleficent shades and spectres of Wraith to devour their world.  And, at a meta level, they are so mighty that they can reach across competing continuities.

wraithneverborncrypt

the Neverborn beneath the Labyrinth, dreaming

In Dansky’s vision, implied but unstated in the Wraith rulebooks and modules, the Nephandi warlocks, who view themselves as Faustian sorcerers boldly harnessing the power of demons, are actually worshipping the reveries of entities within another universe.   The Nephandi revere not just ghosts, but the dreams of ghosts.

In “Howard’s Law of Occult Design,” one of the principles published in 100 Principles of Game Design based on a talk I gave at the GDC Narrative Summit (“Occult Game Design: An Initiation into Secrets and Mysteries”), I argue that the most powerful connections in narrative design are those that remain hidden, implied as intimations rather than explicitly proclaimed revelations.  Such connections are the narrative equivalent of a secret passage or hidden door in a dungeon.  The poet and interactive fiction author Robert Pinsky and the novelist Richard Powers both rhapsodize about the poetic connotations of secret passages in  early interactive fiction of the Adventure and Zork eras.  Neither Pinsky nor Powers provides a compelling example from games of a hidden revelation that would function both at the spatial and the narrative level, because at the time of Zork the thematic potential of secret passages was still only potential.  One of my favorite examples of a fully-developed hidden passage with secret narrative content is the Painted World in Dark Souls, which is another universe altogether.

Or is it?

This morning, Hidetaka Miyazaki (lead designer of Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls, as well as producer on Dark Souls II), tweeted “What you see is often of far less importance to that which remains veiled.”  Miyazaki is the only game designer whose communication style in-game and out of game has been referred to in the popular gaming press as “gnomic,” referring not to an elfin man with a pointed hat but rather to the cryptic tone that results from deliberately leaving out key information.  Universes like  the Souls franchise and the  World of Darkness gain more of their haunting power from what they omit or imply than from what they state, because omission and implication have the power to spur our imagination toward hidden connections.   After Keats’ negative capability and Lovecraft’s supernatural horror, one might regard such an approach as common sense.

Hidetaka Miyazaki, lead designer of Demon's Souls and Dark Souls

Hidetaka Miyazaki, lead designer of Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls

But it’s not common sense.  Many narrative designers understand the power of negative space, but more than one gamer has approached me with the misunderstanding that “Dark Souls has no story,” when instead it has a world bursting at the seams with narrative clues whose interconnections must be actively sought by players.  The desire for narrative hand-holding caused the designers of Dark Souls II to hock a “more accessible narrative” as a selling point for the newest installment of their franchise.  And, while I’m deeply enjoying aspects of Dark Souls II,  Miyazaki’s relative distance from the sequel is clearly visible in the game’s comparative lack of subtlety.  One might speculate that today’s tweet was (gnomically, by implication) a commentary on the path that Dark Souls II may be taking: not a dark path, but a path of too much light, too much clarity, too much mundane obviousness in the name of accessibility.

So, say it with me, if you will.  Recite the incantation.  “The Gods of the Nephandi are the Dreams of the Neverborn.”  Help us save our secrets from ourselves.

Gnomon

Gnomon

 

Twice the Absinthe, Twice the Flowers: A Nobilis Rallying Cry, Expanded

 

A Nobilis illustration by Martin McKenna

A Nobilis illustration by Martin McKenna

In Nobilis, players take the role of the incarnations of abstract ideas (or sets of concrete objects reified as abstract principles), such as Love, Wine, the color Yellow, and Death.  The immediate inspiration for this concept is Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, an epic comic book series that chronicles the adventures of a pantheon of the Endless who incarnate seven key dimensions of existence.

Nobilis, like the Sandman, is profoundly Platonic: ideas exist as transcendent concepts, independent of human beings.  Moreover, the number of ideas in the universe is near infinite: implying an animistic worldview like ancient Roman belief, yet without the localization of Shinto.  A spirit isn’t tied only to a particular river, but to the essence of all Rivers.   Nobilis is also achingly modern, set firmly in the present day of consensus reality in 2014.

In my favorite illustration from the second edition rulebook, two powers (dressed impeccably in leather trenchcoats and chic, haute couture dresses) phase out of their alternate ethereal dimension into the stark and unaesthetic reality of a Burger King restaurant. The combination of digitally manipulated photographs and delicate pencil drawings juxtaposes the sheer mundane ugliness of fast food menus and trash cans with the baroque filigree of enchanted elegance.  Borgstrom/Moran leaves open the question of whether this encounter degrades the Powers or elevates the Burger King, to comic or tragic effect.  The answer is almost certainly both, and the precise tone of the encounter inevitably depends upon the imagination of the Game Master (known as the Hollyhock god) and her players.

If all magic systems are languages (an argument whose practical consequences I argue at length in my forthcoming book, Game Magic), then Nobilis offers a combination of a universal grammar and a dizzyingly specific vocabulary.  A Power with Domain over a particular Estate can work an infinite number of possible effects upon it.  (One suspects that Borgstrom/Moran’s computer science background as much as The Sandman influences the concept of Domain, which in computing refers to the sum total of logical expressions possible in a given subset of a particular programming language).

In its handling of magical powers, the Nobilis system is closest to Mage: The Ascension, in which magicians wield power to change nine aspects of reality called Spheres.  In the case of Nobilis, the number of these aspects of reality (called Estates) that can be changed is infinite and limited only by the imagination of the players.  Indeed, because the player characters are the incarnations of these aspects of reality, skillful play consists in creative manipulation of the Estate over which a player character has domain.  Players
manipulate these facets of reality through  five basic miracle types, which are the verb sets of the system: divining, preserving, creating, destroying, and changing.  Figures 1 and 2 below depict Realm and Domain miracles respectively.

The culture of Nobilis is rich, varied, and quirky.  The Powers communicate and perform magic rituals through flowers, based on a fusion of the traditional European language of flowers (cf. Ophelia’s “rosemary, that’s for remembrance”) and a mythology that the angels built the world through the building blocks of symbols.  Consequently, the key rules of the Nobilis world, which are both mechanics and fictional laws, are given the names of particular blooms, such as the Monarda Law (the Hollyhock god may never say “no” outright to a player) and the Chamomile Law (there is strength in adversity, so that a player gains Miracle Points whenever fettered by their character’s handicaps).   Figure 3 is a list of the peculiar flower-fueled spells, somewhat archly called Simple Rites, by which the Nobilis work their abstract transactions of spirit and social climbing.

The cultural and historical background of Nobilis fuses ancient Roman concepts of genius loci and household gods (the characters’ fellow Powers are known by the Latin term of Familia, and all Powers wage a Great War with the Latinate title of Valde Bellum), as well as French aristocracy (Powers of various levels bear titles like Marquis and Marchessa).  The lore of the world, delivered through masterfully concise fragments of flash fiction in the second edition’s margins and introductions, bristles with modern versions of Zen paradoxes known as koans as well as Vedic parables that would feel at home in the Upanishads.  Like Emily Short’s Savoir Faire with its ancient Roman and French aristocratic magic system of semantic linkages called the Lavori d’Arachne, Borgstrom-Moran’s world is both mind-bendingly, metaphysically abstract and hauntingly specific.

Nobilis is sometimes a target for hate amongst role-players who favor a more traditional dice-based, epic fantasy affair of the hero’s journey of young stablekeepers’ transformations from zeros to heros.  Charges levelled against Nobilis include the “not a game” accusation that plagues nearly every experiment in ludological innovation (including, ironically, the original Dungeons & Dragons).

Yet, Nobilis does something truly rare: by granting its players almost infinite power, it renders power fantasies null, demanding instead subtlety and imagination.  Players of Nobilis can’t fall back on the staple mechanics of choosing from a pre-defined list of spells to fight with each other, or raising Pokemon with elemental powers to fight with each other, or accumulating stockpiles of weapons to . . . fight with each other.  Direct combat between powers of overwhelming mythic stature is pointless.  As Borgstrom remarks, “By the time two Powers come to blows, both sides have already lost.”  Like all enthralling game mechanics, this is a metaphor for an aspect of life: the uselessness of direct confrontation in a world of mutually assured destruction.

Below are some snapshots of tables taken directly from the second edition Nobilis book, which will serve as a game master’s reference screen in the Nobilis campaign I’m running in my Contemporary Myth and Media class.

Nobilis domain miracles

Nobilis domain miracles

Nobilis Gift Costs

Nobilis Gift Costs

Nobilis Simple Rites

Nobilis Simple Rites

 

 

A rallying cry: Nobilis, absinthe, flowers

Tabletop designer Kenneth Hite once described experimental RPG Nobilis in these words: “Imagine Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and Clive Barker’s Hellraiser on an absinthe bender, with flowers. That’s Nobilis.” I can think of no better description of an imaginative life well lived.

 

Neil Gaiman's Sandman

Neil Gaiman’s Sandman

 

Clive Barker's Hellraiser

Meets Clive Barker’s Hellraiser

On an Absinthe Bender

On an Absinthe Bender

 

The Hollyhock God

with Flowers

These are the kinds of worlds I want to create in all the projects that I undertake, including The Arcana Ritual Toolset and my book, Game Magic, which is forthcoming in April 2014. I am chronicling the progress of both these projects (the toolset and the book) on thisblog, http://designingquests.com/, which will eventually be a hub for users who want to create their own magic systems using the toolset, based on the exercises in the book.

Please feel free to follow if you’re interested in games, magic, the Sandman, absinthe, and/or flowers. Minus the absinthe and double the flowers if need be, each according to her own tastes.

 


Valar Morghulis: The Faceless Men, Magic, and the Logic of Learning (spoiler alert)

The Faceless Men from A Song of Ice and Fire.  [spoiler alerts abound for all the books in the series]They are a haunting set of characters, and the reference point to which I return whenever I think about stealth mechanics and ideas in games and other media.   They conjoin magic and stealth in a way that I’ve written about before in relation to Thief and Assassin’s Creed, both games that feature mystical societies of elusive acolytes.

the Faceless Men's history is intertwined with Valyria

the Faceless Men’s history is intertwined with Valyria

The Faceless Men are at heart a religious society, who serve the Many-Faced God, who is the God of Death.  At one point, we learn that the Many-Faced God is equivalent to the Stranger (the hooded and hideous monster of the Sevenfold Westerosi pantheon spoken of only indirectly, in the way that the Greeks referred to the Furies as the Kindly Ones, or early Christians spoke of the Devil as the Evil One).  In other cultures, he has other names (one of which echoes Lovecraft’s Black Goat of a Thousand Young).

Arya’s induction into the Faceless Men is my favorite dramatization of the process of education, in all its subtlety and slowness and difficulty (which starkly contrasts with Hollywood’s cheesy training montages that teach us to expect visible results in a short time). When [spoiler alert again] Arya becomes initiated into the Faceless Men, the process is slow both in narrative terms and in real time.  Her mentor, the Kindly Man, asks her to go undercover as an oyster monger in Braavos, where she observes everyday life silently and reports back monthly three new things that she has learned.  After Arya delivers each of these apparent trivialities, the Kindly Man responds “This is good to know.”  The Faceless Men are natural polymaths with a universal respect for information and intelligence gathering.

The roots of the Faceless Men are at the most mysterious heart of the series’ mythology: Valyria, the birthplace of the Targaryen dynasty.  Valyria succumbed to the Doom, a cataclysm whose details remain hazy but that seems to have destroyed magic and everything related to it in the series: sorcery, enchanted artifacts, and Dragons.  The motto of the Faceless Men (Valar Morghulis) translates to “All men must die” in High Valyrian, the language of the sorcerers, who use Valyrian glyphs to cast spells.  The first Faceless Man was a slave in the mines of Valyria (a setting which never fails to remind me of the Mines level in Demon’s Souls), who overheard another slave pray for his abusive master’s death.  In keeping with their origins, the Faceless Men seem to choose their targets based on a logic of mythological transaction.  When the Red god is deprived of three deaths by Arya’s saving of some captors from a burning prison cart, the Faceless Man Jaqen seeks to repay the debt to this god by killing three men named by Arya.  The Faceless Men regard their victims as in some way fortuitously or synchronistically marked by the Many-Faced God.

Martin takes joy in allowing Maester Luwin to deny the power of magic in Westeros, asserting that it has attenuated and all but disappeared along with Valyria, the greenseers, the giants, and the Dragons.  Starting with this premise of a low-magic world, Martin then takes an impish joy in bringing back all of the interdicted elements in Luwin’s list.  By the time the Faceless Men appear as something other than rumor, they are walking incarnations of the mystery of magic in Martin’s world: elusive, vague, sometimes seemingly arbitrary, but governed by a deep and poetic logic.

Like Dungeons & Dragons players, fans of Martin’s world often become invested in a particular favorite character, then cry betrayal when that character dies unexpectedly and cruelly.  The Red Wedding is merely the most publicized and televised of these apparent betrayals, which lead some fans to attack Martin as the equivalent of a perverse Dungeon Master in an unwinnable role-playing campaign.  But the wisdom of the Faceless Men (and I do believe that they are the wisest figures in Martin’s world) is the acceptance is that *all* men must die, and that (equally) all men must serve (Valar Dohaeris).  It doesn’t matter whether Arya or Tyrion or the Kindly Man himself dies . . . it matters when and to what end they die.

The magic of the Faceless Men is their subtle transcendence of death, which they achieve by openly courting the elimination of their own egos.  “Who are you?” asks the Kindly Man in a kind of catechism or litany, and the only acceptable answer is “No one.”  Being No One in the world of a Song of Ice and Fire might just allow someone to live long enough to act effectively or even to perform wonders.  But, like the Pygmy in the game Dark Souls, the wisdom of the Stranger is so easily forgotten . . .

Game Magic (Looking for Image Sources, Post # 2)

One of the topics at the heart of my forthcoming book, Game Magic, is the underlying logical flow of a magic system. Developing a magic system requires the designer to be able to express precisely the sequence of processes that a player must perform to cast a spell. Does the player need ingredients to cast a spell? Do they perform gestures or recite incantations? Will the spell draw energy from a mana pool? What happens if the player overspends mana? The answers to all of these questions can often be most effectively represented in a flow chart, which displays visually the branching logic, feedback loops, and input-output relationships of a complex system.

The two images below are excellent examples of flowcharts that clearly communicate the complex, sophisticated, and flexible logic of spellcasting in the tabletop role-playing game Mage: The Awakening (part of White Wolf’s World of Darkness universe).  I would love to reproduce these charts in my book.  The only problem is, I can’t find contact information for the charts’ creators.  True to the mysterious universe of World of Darkness, these authors have disappeared in a labyrinth of dead links and untraceable aliases.

Here are the clues that I have. A credit on the first chart reads, “This chart was created by Angelus Michaels of Morningstar Studios.  It is available on Liber Noctus. and copies found elsewhere are taken without permission. www.geniocracy.net/libernotus.ht”  Liber Noctus appears to have been a fan site for World of Darkness, but its host domain (geniocracy) now directs to a Raelian website.  (The Raelians are a religion based on belief in UFO’s.  While they are right at home in this trail of clues, they have nothing to do with the Mage chart.  These are not the droids I’m looking for).

Searches for Angelus Michaels and Morningstar Studios are equally fruitless, despite the intriguing Luciferian reference in Morningstar.

The plot thickens with a second, remastered version of the chart.  The credit on this version reads “Original Flowchart by Angelica M. of Morningstar Studios.  Flowchart remastered and remade by Dianna. A.V.”  The chart is visually crisper and easier to read, but the trail of its origins is murkier.  Angelus Michaels has become Angelica M.  The mysterious figure Dianna has been introduced, evoking echoes of Agent Dale Cooper’s tape recorder, followed by the abbreviation “A.V.”  Are these the initials of a username or alias?  A Latin abbreviation?  An allusion to the WoD universe?  I’m not sure.

At any rate, I would love to use these flowcharts in my book.  They are great illustrations of rigorously representing the logic of a complex magic system.  But I don’t have contact information for either Angelus Michaels/Angelica M. or Dianna. There are a few forum threads that link to these charts, so I will continue to investigate through those channels, as well as doing more web research.  But, if you are one of the creators of these charts, or you have an idea as to how they could be contacted, please post a comment and let me know. Thanks!

Game Magic (Seeking Info on an Image Source)

As some of you may know, I have been hard at work for a while on a book called Game Magic: A Game Designer’s Guide to Constructing Magic Systems, which will be published by Taylor & Francis/CRC Press within the next year.  My deadline is September 1st, so I’m writing both joyfully and madly every day this summer. The book is a cookbook of sorts: a grimoire of game magic meant to help game designers create more rich, immersive, and meaningful magic systems.  The book triangulates game magic between fictive magic (as represented in the literature of the fantastic) and occult magic (as imagined in the long, cryptic history of human beliefs about sorcery).

The book also will contain 75 illustrations, many of them screenshots and charts.  I am currently seeking permission to reproduce several images, and I sometimes run into the snag of absent or outdated contact information for defunct companies or fan analysis.  In a good-faith effort to hunt down the sources of these images, I’ll be posting some of them from time to time.  If you are the creator of the image or know how the creator can be reached, please post a comment.  (The images will also hint indirectly at some of my own book’s content for those interested, so perhaps these posts could have a little bit of an ARG flavor to them. :)

The first image is this excellent chart of the runes in the 2002 GameCube title Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem.  The author of the chart is Chris Jones, but the email listed on the chart (warbeast2000@hotmail.com) is no longer active.  If you are Chris Jones or know him, please be in touch. It would be very helpful, both to me and my readers.

Handout and slides from GDC Occult Game Design Presentation

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.

Game Magic

A demo of Arcana: A Ceremonial Magick Simulator

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.

Arcana group portrait

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.

panel with Rolston and Chandler

panel with Rolston and Chandler

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.

occult game design

Occult Game Design

I’ll be adding more information on each of these projects in the near future.

Arcana Manor: A Ceremonial Magick Simulator

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.

A Brief Note on Hassan I Sabbah, William S. Burroughs, and Chaos Magick

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).

Surviving and Thriving in the Grim Darkness: More Notes Toward the Daimonic Sublime

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 . . .

Retro Gaming and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

The Tower of Brass

The Tower of Brass

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.

The Knight of the Swords cover art

The Knight of the Swords cover art

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 . . .

]

1st Annual Workshop on Integrated Design in Games

Name/Name of Organization: Dakota State University

Contact Email: jeffrey.howard@dsu.edu

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

· Panels

· 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 jeffrey.howard@dsu.edu.

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)

What profiteth it a man if he gains the world and loses his soul(s)?: Reflections on Demon’s Souls

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.

Mephistopheles

Mephistopheles

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.)

Sage Freke

Sage Freke

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.

Tower of Latria

Tower of Latria

(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.

Arcana Manor elevator pitch

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 listed as a “must read book for aspiring game designers”

Quests was recently included on Sean M. Baity’s amazon.com list, “Must Read Books for Aspiring Game Designers.”

http://www.amazon.com/gp/richpub/listmania/fullview/R1IL3PL3SI0X0U/ref=cm_pdp_lm_title_1

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.

http://www.mobygames.com/developer/sheet/view/developerId,8377/

first-person magical items and projectiles

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.

Moving Platforms

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.

Quests on WorldCat and a kind review

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.