Category Archives: Uncategorized

soundtrack clip and working melee

Today, I implemented two new Arcana Manor features that I’ve been wanting and working toward for a while.

I now have a rudimentary soundtrack in the form of a looping 30-second clip from Danse Macabre by Camille Saint-Saens.  I also managed to fix a melee system that has been broken for a while because of the conflict between ArcaneFX, a melee resource, and shifts between first-person and third-person camera.  This means that the player can now alternate between sigil-drawing, various spell-casting interfaces, and running/jumping.  The player can do some of these things simultaneously, so there is a certain synergy evolving between the various mechanics (though integrating and balancing them is going to be a challenge, which is why the main focus needs to be the magic system).

I also have basic Xbox 360 controller support, which is smoother and faster than the keyboard for movement and combat.  Juggling the various magical interfaces on a controller will be another challenge, but (as I mentioned earlier), this will force me to organize and refine the control scheme in positive ways.

A few theoretical thoughts about magic systems, allegory, programming

I don’t think about theory much these days, focusing more on creative projects. For the last couple of days I’ve been doing some preparation for my classical myth and media class, which sparked a few theoretical thoughts.  Also, I’m continuing to think about magic systems, inspired in part by a podcast ( on which Roger Travis graciously invited me to be a guest) about this subject and its relation to Arcana Manor. Magic systems have become the focus of my creative design work and my research, and I tend to think about them through the lens of interactive or procedural allegory, a system of expressive rules.

This will make more sense to readers (hopefully) when the podcast is posted.

A magic system is a set of core mechanics (spell-casting is one of them, maybe the primary one) for  simulating supernatural powers and abilities rigorously and symbolically.

Quests, because of their relationship to narrative, tend to be scripted within an engine through quest flags and state changes.

Magic systems can be partially scripted within an engine (depending on the engine’s flexibility), but truly innovative mechanics have to be programmed.  New mechanics tend to require, at the very least, modifications to an engine’s source code and may require the development of new engines (or at least sub-systems within an engine).

What matters to me is allegory as system, as organized matrix of rules for generating symbolic meanings. This is distinct from a linear procession of symbols (i.e. narrative) or from free-floating pool of symbols merging into each other (collective unconscious, dream). In linear mediums, allegory manifests itself as narrative (although I wonder if poetry, in its capturing of de-contextualized images, may be allegorical without being solely or even primarily narrative). Rimbaud’s Vowels or Baudelaire’s Correspondences are dense symbols without narratives. Dante’s Divine Comedy does chronicle the adventures of one pilgrim (Dante) through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, but the descriptive focus of the poem is the spatial organization of these realms and their inhabitants. The afterlife is a cosmological system for representing the punishment of sin and the rewarding of virtue.

A mythology (whether real as with the Ancient Greeks or invented as in the Cthulhu Mythos) is a system (a pantheon, a set of places, artifacts, recurrent events, themes). Many narratives can occur within a mythos, but many systems can also be generated by a mythology. When I was thinking about quests, I was trying to connect narrative and system, to explore their generative interplay. As I think about magic systems, I am more and more concerned with dynamic, procedural systems, which can be expressive in interactive, procedural, re-configurable ways.

Ritual is a key middle term.  Ritual is enacted myth, enacted symbolism.

Eric Zimmerman says that there is magic in games but argues that this magic is the thrill of creativity and problem-solving, which are distinct in his mind from a mage’s 8th-level fireball spell or the mystical experiences of organized religion.

I don’t see these three aspects of magic as inevitably distinct.  There are all sorts of connections to be woven between them.

That’s why I have a Clive Barker quotation above my desk, which in condensed form says “magic is the first and last of the world’s religions: a religion whose profoundest ritual is play.”  The quotation is longer but would require a detailed gloss to do it justice, because the idea is too important for me to treat lightly.  But the main point is that in Barker’s mind the three aspects of magic in games are intertwined expressions of one another.  (And he puts his money where his mouth is, since this quotation is from the introduction to his Imajica collectible card game, and he has also discussed the metaphysical implications of the magic system in Undying.  Incidentally, the magic system in Undying may be my second favorite magic system, just beneath Eternal Darkness.)

(A sidenote on Jung: Jung coopts the concept of the symbol for psychoanalytic purposes, but the term comes to prominence in Western thought in Romanticism (English, German, French), which precedes Jung chronologically. (e.g. Coleridge, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Nerval).  In the game Eternal Darkness, the narrator invokes Jung, Freud, and Skinner as possible correspondences to the three Ancients, but then dismisses these psychoanalysts as inadequate to the horror and majesty of the beings represented by the runes. This is a nice way of suggesting that, while Jung is a key figure in understanding symbols, their content and operation eludes his unitarian and trans-historical attempts to explain all symbols as products of a psychoanalytic entity (the collective unconscious) which he invented. A theoretical entity which originates in his own German Romanticist/early modernist context and his Freudian training.)

And allegory precedes Jung also (Plato, Spenser, Dante).

I need to read Angus Fletcher’s Allegory: Theory of a Symbolic Mode.

Question for further research: what are some of the most innovative magic systems, both in terms of mode of spell-casting, effects, and symbolism?

Mage: The Ascension and Mage: The Awakening (tabletop)

Magic: The Gathering (cardgame)

Betrayal at Krondor (crpg)

Arx Fatalis (crpg)

Loom (Adventure Game)

Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem

implementing magic system progress

Finally got the beginnings of an original magic system working.

Customized two afx spells to become Call of Cthulhu and Eye of Ra, then linked them to the 3d tarot gui.

Figured out how to add an alpha channel to a png so as to make the background transparent.  By placing a sigil on a transparent background and building a gui around it, I can approximate the effect of “drawIng” many different grams (pentagrams, heptagrams) of many different colors, which hover in front of the player in first person mode.  Different grams can be brought up by pushing the many-colored gems at the points of a hexagram, which is itself transparent and centered in the middle of the screen, like a spellcasting/targeting HUD.

Screenshots and videos soon.

The aspect of designing a magic system (maybe of designing generally) that I like the best is interface design and special effects programming, when they are closely connected to gameplay.

new features of Arcana Manor build

I’ve added these new Features to the most recent build of Arcana Manor:

Modified the mission selection gui to go directly to the Arcana Manor mission, along with an appropriate introduction in the loading screen

new gui: a hexagram with a colored gem at each point which lights up and makes a sound when the cursor is passed over it

the elven sorceress as the player avatar instead of the generic Torque Orc

This allows me to briefly switch to 3rd person view rather than 1st for spellcasting without embarrassment

22 3d tarot cards, modeled in Softimage and exported (each with one item script, one execution in game.cs, one custom material, one correctly named png texture and one folder)

Each card placed in the proper position on the sephiroth where the amorphous tarot cubes formerly were.

To do this, I finally got Matt Summers’ XSI Beta 2 Exporter working

Tarot cards corrected to not respawn, so that they are unique items, but still to play sounds when they are picked up and before they are deleted from the world.

A Stormbringer-style black runesword (modeled, UV mapped, textured, exported, custom shader applied, added to engine)

A custom sound plays when Stormbringer is picked up

An long wand with an ankh at its top (tribute to Ultima IV), to replace the generic short wand (which looked too much like a bedpost)

Can toggle between default first-person gameplay, with free look camera and cursor targeting, and spell targeting mode for the afx-driven spells (thanks to Gibby’s AfxFPS resource for this)

Return to Joan

I also recently returned to the Joan of Arc tutorial in Softimage, where I finished the modeling portions of the tutorial.  Among other features, I added hair, finished the chest armor, added a skirt, a leather corset, and upper arm armor.  Here is a screenshot.  More will follow displaying the various components of the model.

Joan of Arc model with modeling finished

Joan of Arc model with modeling finished

“The runes on the sword / Are the wyrms that are wise.”

I’ve been learning to model items, unwrap the uv’s of these 3d objects, then texture these uvs and re-apply them to the mesh.  Here is the textured uv mesh of a sword, which readers of Michael Moorcock’s Elric saga as illustrated by Robert Gould will recognize as Stormbringer, the black sword.  Here is the uv mesh after I unwrapped it and textured it.

Stormbringer uv mesh, textured

Here is the textured sword.

textured model of Stormbringer

Magic System, Part III: Implementing specific features


Each tarot card is a spell.

The minor arcana (the suit cards with varying numbers of wands, cups, pentacles, and swords) are low-level alterative, restorative, protective/illusionary, and aggressive spells. Players cast these spells very frequently, and the process of casting them should be quick and addictive.

The major arcana (the 22 pictorial cards with Magician, High Priestess, Tower, etc.) are ultra-powerful spells used to resolve especially tough situations (e.g. apparently undefeatable bosses, seemingly impossible puzzles, totally blocked or inaccessible areas in the manor)


The minor arcana spells are relatively easy to execute.

The minor arcana are less powerful (but still effective) spells, requiring only the collection of items and the tracing of a simple sigil in the air.

To cast a minor arcana spell, the player must have at least one of the objects associated with it (e.g. at least one sword)

The player must trace the correct (simple) sigil in the air with the respective item (e.g. hexagram, pentagram, Saturn astrological symbol, Mercury astrological symbol).

Tracing a hexagram with a sword equipped has a different effect than tracing one with a cup equipped, i.e. the sword hexagram attacks and the cup hexagram heals.

Swords are charged with aggressive magic, representing the power of the analytical mind to destroy demons of illogic and delusion. Collecting a sword object allows the player to fling one flying sword as a projectile at an enemy. Collecting multiple sword objects powers up the spell, allowing the player to fling as many flying swords as he has collected sword objects.

Two options for how the powering up of spells works (I haven’t decided which)

Spells remain powered up (i.e. the player doesn’t lose spell levels when he throws swords). For this reason, power ups should be rare rewards, distributed and hidden sparingly throughout the level.

[OR: Spell levels deplete in power every time the spell is cast, so items must be collected constantly and are distributed plentifully.]

Wands are alterative, representing the power of the will. The player can use the wand to telekinetically raise platforms to form staircases and launching pads. Wands can also form bridges out of pure light and energy so that the player can pass over otherwise impassable chasms.

Pentacles are protective: they can produce a glowing transparent shield that is as powerful as the number of swords or cups that one has currently collected

Cups are restorative: they release a healing flood of soft-colored blue or purple light that raises mana or health.

In traditional occultist thought (Levi, Crowley, Jodorowsky), each of these arcana stands for one virtue of a magician: cups = knowing, swords = daring, wands = willing, and pentacles = keeping silent.

Players enact each of these arcana through a core mechanic, which is a spell power: keeping silent = stealth through invisibility, daring = leaping perilous chasms, knowing = destroying the enemies of delusion and solving puzzles, willing = bending the environment to one’s will by telekinetically moving platforms or causing


The major arcana are powerful spells that can only be unleashed through tracing the right sequence of sigils and pressing the right buttons, registered through color and sound.

They take time and deliberation to cast: the equivalent of a ritual.

They have less time pressure on them than the minor arcana spells, i.e. they are more like puzzle-solving, albeit complex puzzles with multiple solutions.

They are usually not cast while enemies are attacking, unless it is a very slow enemy or a horde of minor enemies banging at the gates.

The Death card can destroy whole levels of enemies (e.g. the enemies banging at the gates above), the Devil card can summon powerful demonic bosses to defeat or powerful demonic allies to aid you, the strength card can conjure into existence powerful magical protection (like a whole suit of armor)


Saturn Symbol + x + Aries Symbol + pentagram + y = the Devil, which summons a powerful demonic ally

A set of colored boxes at the bottom of the screen that light up as sigils and buttons are successfully or unsuccessfully executed

Maybe a musical tone plays also, à la Loom.

New Arcana Manor video

As promised, here is a new video of a small portion of a level in my game-in-progress, Arcana Manor.

I built this level in the Torque Game Engine Advanced, and I made the 3d models of the tarot suits in XSI. I also made many of my own textures in GIMP. I scripted the inventory system using resources from Garagegames, combining Torquescript with my own icons to make a GUI that would keep track of the tarot suits as they are picked up. This level demonstrates some rough platforming action and the tone of the game, as well as the ability, which I scripted, to pick up cubes representing the 22 major arcana.

Arcana Manor under construction . . .

Here are the beginnings of a level in Arcana Manor that I’ve been building in Torque Constructor.

Arcana Manor Screenshot

Arcana Manor Screenshot

This level contains, at the center, a medieval cathedral that I built in Constructor several weeks ago following a tutorial on garagegames.

cathedral made in Constructor

2) I’ve also made 22 cubes with textures from the major arcana of the Marseilles tarot deck and exported them from xsi into Torque.  This took a lot of effort because the XSI exporter is still a bit clunky and requires a lot of manual scene set-up involving dummy nodes, collision meshes, and naming conventions that have to be set exactly right in order to export.

3) I also set up a working inventory system that tracks when a player picks up minor arcana items (wands, swords, pentacles, and cups), then registers these items in an inventory graphical user interface that can be toggled on and off.

Inventory GUI

Inventory GUI

4) I set up a simple spell system using resources provided on the GarageGames site, which allows the player to throw a fireball.

5) Wrote scripts for each of the cubes and items so that players can pick them up and store them in an inventory.  Made a small, rough test level using early versions of the battlements described in the “5 minutes of gameplay” entry to demonstrate that players can pick up cubes and items.  Here is one sample cube, followed by a video of the player picking up many of them, picking up several cups, and toggling the inventory.

6) The goal now is to first make the four minor arcana mountable as weapons so that they can be held by players, so that players can wield a sword or a cup in order to trace sigils in the air, like a hexagram.

Then, I need to set up a melee system that allows the player to swipe with the sword and do damage.

However, for the purposes of this game the motions of the items will have to be more precise, i.e. they will need to follow the movements of the gamepad as a sort of cursor.  Attached to the end of the sword, wand, or cup there will need to be a particle emitter or other special effect producer that leaves a glowing colored trail and recognizes when certain patterns have been traced.

Question: How did the designers of Arx Fatalis (or Molyneux in Black and White) pull of a similar “tracing magic sigil with finger” mechanic?

7) While I’m providing screenshots, here is an arch with some custom alchemical planetary symbols applied to it as textures.

Arch with planetary textures

5 minutes of gameplay and player character

I’ve heard that describing five minutes of gameplay can often help to crystallize the tone and core mechanic of the game.

5 minutes of gameplay:

The player character, Eliza, runs along a crenellated castle battlement and executes a succession of graceful jumps and flips across a massive chasm in the stone, where a glowing red skeleton (death from the tarot deck) blocks her way. She summons up five pentacles that hover around her as protection, then traces a flaming scarlet pentagram in the air with her sword to banish the skeleton, who recoils in pain and disappears. A door in the form of Death from the tarot deck looms up in front of her, but it is locked. She gazes up into the sky and sees the planet Saturn glowing darkly. Consulting her journal [actual player brings up architect’s notebook, which functions as journal and magic interface] and sees that Saturn corresponds to the Death card. Using these clues, she traces a glowing violet hexagram staring at the top point, which is attributed to Saturn. The door booms and creaks open in response to this spell, and ominous darkness looms inside the next room of the manor.

Here’s one shot of what the magic interface could potentially look like, or at least a version of the game’s title screen.


The manor is incomplete because the architect didn’t finish it, which means that there are some outside areas, such as these battlements and broken bridges, allowing for varied environments and more 3d platforming action.

Ron Smith asked an important question about the time period of the game, and I’m going to go with 19th century to hit the neo-Gothic explosion in the Romantic period, which works for a surreal occult mansion. This means that “surreal occult mansion” might be more important tonally than “funhouse,” but funhouse remains the model in terms of trap doors, secret passages, revolving hallways, and other disorienting architectural features. It’s just that there are no demonic clowns or cotton-candy. Though Ron had a good point that the architect must have been building the mansion for a very long time, which means that other earlier architectural styles, including ancient or far eastern, can be present in the earliest levels of the maze.

I’m also thinking about a player character, since as an action-adventure game the player won’t be customizing her own avatar but rather playing the role of a particular person. I guess I wasn’t entirely joking when I thought that the Joan of Arc modeling tutorial could almost provide a player model.

Player character:

The architect’s sister, Eliza Knossos, a 19th-century student of neo-Gothic architecture who shared her brother’s passion for mysterious buildings but not his Faustian hubris. She wears a gray cloak with a hood, slim leather boots, and carries a satchel with surveyor’s equipment and blueprints, which will eventually hold her magical implements.

She is fiery and rebellious, has bright red hair, and is lithe, even acrobatic, in her movements. She has voyaged into the mountains to try to find and rescue her brother after receiving a strange package containing his architectural notebook full of mad sigils, wild blueprints, and with pages torn out. A bloodstained note included in the package, with the words “find me” has led her to believe that her brother is in grave danger.

A hand

Today I modeled Joan of Arc’s glove and hand–one of the armored gauntlets that constitutes her accessories, midway between quest item and character design, I suppose.  This particular object had many complex cuts and folds, and while the end result is stiffer than I would like, it does look like a metal gauntlet.  I’m leaving the model’s mesh visible (with its smoother polymesh hulls underneath) to better display the details of the modeling process.

modeling a hand

Modeling Quest Items for Arcana Manor

For the last few weeks, I’ve been using a 3d modeling program called XSI to model quest items for Arcana Manor. I started with a famous 3d modeling tutorial for building Joan of Arc (who for this game’s purposes I will adapt as the Queen of Swords), and more recently I’ve been making 3d models of the tarot suits. The suits of today’s playing cards are highly abstracted versions of the four tarot suits (swords, cups, wands, and pentacles), which in many tarot decks are concrete items worn or used by allegorical characters. These suits are associated with complex systems of symbolic correspondences, including the elements of air, water, fire, and earth, and in mystical lore they are literal and metaphorical weapons wielded by a magician. We can see these items:

in their symbolic and ritualistic function on the Magician card of the Rider-Waite tarot deck,

The Magician (Tarot Card)

arrayed on the table of Aleister Crowley as he poses with characteristic flamboyance,

Crowley with Weapons

Crowley with Weapons

and brought to life in the moving pictures of Alexander Jodrowksky’s glorious film The Holy Mountain.

Holy Mountain cover

Holy Mountain cover

Given my argument that one of the key principles of meaningful quest design is the use of re-configurable symbolic correspondences expressed through a fusion of gameplay and narrative, what better basis for a magic system than this?

Here are some screenshots of my models so far. The learning curve of 3d modeling is steep, and I’m progressing slowly but surely. These beginning results are rough, but the hard work is compensated by the liberation of being able to design one’s own custom items beginning with only primitive geometric polygons whose edges, faces, and vertices can be shaped in complex ways.

Here are a few first screenshots.


Sword(Stormbringer Style)



Quests at ITU Copenhagen, a podcast, and other news

I was excited to see that Quests is listed as part of the required reading in a class called “Storytelling and Games: Challenges, Theories, Techniques,” which will be supervised by Espen Aarseth at ITU Copenhagen in this coming spring semester.  In fact, Quests is the first book on the required readings, followed by the Cambridge Companion to Narrative.  (The class was originally listed as being taught by the new head of the game department, Gordon Cabellas, and supervised by Aarseth.  At this point, Aarseth himself is listed as teaching.)

This news might be interesting to readers of Quests, since Copenhagen has a Center for Computer Games Research whose past and present faculty (including Aarseth himself, Susana Tosca, Jesper Juul, and Gonzalo Frasca) produce some of the finest academic game scholarship.  Aarseth specifically is famous for popularizing the term ludology to refer to the academic study of games, resulting in Aarseth being identified with an anti-narratological stance that seemed at odds with storytelling in games.  Aarseth’s decision to supervise this class tends to reinforce the notion that the diminishing intensity of the narratology/ludology debate signals a rapprochement between the representatives of both sides.

While visiting Dakota State University, I was pleased to encounter two bright students and game enthusiasts named Daniel Wise and Jim Howard who were kind enough to interview me on their Cherry Chocolate Podcast, which can be downloaded from Itunes here.

Steve Vink at The Game Creators wrote a thoughtful and positive review of Quests in the November edition of The Game Creators Newsletter.  Steve also embedded the quest spaces video in the December edition of the newsletter here.  Steve’s company produces some very exciting game development software, such as FPS Creator, aimed at young game developers.  Microsoft has bundled some of these applications with Visual Studio, suggesting that The Game Creators software could be a low-cost and accesible alternative to XNA for educators and students.

Arcana Manor development continues.  While waiting for Torque X 3.0, which will contain the crucial development software Torque X Builder 3d, I’ve been learning the 3d modeling program XSI.  Specifically, I’ve been working through a tutorial that teaches users how to model Joan of Arc.  Modeling the human form is extremely difficult and time-consuming but also rewarding, and I hope to be acquiring some of the skills that would allow me to make some of Ron and Trent’s sketches into 3d characters.  Screenshots and videos of this work will follow soon, supplementing the chapter in Quests about character design by showing some of the skills associated with creating one’s own NPC’s outside of an RPG toolset.

Arcana Manor Team and Puzzle Ideas from Kris

The Arcana Manor team is beginning to shape up, thanks to friends and colleagues who have generously agreed to contribute concept sketches, models, and possibly music.

Kris Maxwell: audio and some 3d models

Trent Troop: some 3d models and concept sketches

Ron Smith: concept sketches

Thomas Falk: some music

I am moving ahead with Torque X 3d (which includes C#, Microsoft Visual Studio, and XNA), and I’ve just started working through tutorials in the Softimage XSI Mod Tool, a 3d modeling program that is bundled with Torque X 3d. I will be recruiting from the Torque and XNA communities to find other programmers familiar with this engine.

Here is a first screenshot from a very rough, small prototype I made in Unreal2 a while back.

Prototype Screenshot # 1

Prototype Screenshot # 1

Kris Maxwell came up with the following puzzle ideas for Arcana Manor. These ideas are good examples of innovative puzzle design, as advocated in the “challenges” chapter of Quests.

“theres’s a room with an empty picture frame suspended in the middle of the room. It is door-sized. Also in the room are several painted panels with sections of a stairwell painted on them. The player has to arrange the panels in 3D space, so that when they are looked at through the picture frame they complete the stairwell, which becomes real and the player can walk through the frame and into the stairs up to the exit.

alternatively it would be cool if you could put different things behind the frame to make different doors open. like panels that show a small room with a sword in a stone.. put them all in the right place so they look right through the frame, and then you can walk through the frame, into another dimension which contains the actual room with the sword, but that is not “physically” in the room with the frame (like a hypercube).”

“i also had an idea for a section of the funhouse that is not finished yet. This could progress from being unfinished in the gameworld (i.e. panels missing, surfaces half-painted, etc), through conceptual level (the section begins to be made of sketch lines, notes by the creator, and the look of scratch paper), and then onto a more meta-narrative level, where bits of the “engine” start to show through, featuring snippets of C# code and such, just to mess with people’s minds about the multiple layers of reality that are going on, and the peeling back of the layers of fiction that must be accomplished in order to solve the creator’s problem.”

“I think it would be spooky to have a scene in the game where the lights go out, you hear a sound, and then when you get the lights back on, things in the room have changed and there’s some ominous message left for you in the environment. (I just remembered the scene in Via Domus in the hatch cell with the lighter and the dead woman)

On that note, that’s something that Realms of the Haunting did well- using the environment to send messages, not just inventory items like notes (which it also uses). Hand-painted scrawls on walls and such just make things creepier. Maybe some of these could be linked to the blacklight stuff too.

Playing off the cancer theme, I think it would be good to work in references to that fear in some of the level designs or enemies… the idea of self-replicating growths, tumors, and the body turning on itself would make for a nice resonance with the underlying themes. It might also be thematically interesting to make the protagonist into the mythical Theseus, sent to slay the Minotaur, but the minotaur in this case is the creator transformed, and death by the hand of the protagonist is his salvation- he is set free having had someone complete his puzzle and play his game, and he can rest free from the pain of his rotting flesh and the demons of his infernal bargain. Just an idea.”

“some imagery/elements that might be fun/spooky/interesting:

a rickety elevator that descends extremely deep into the bowels of the manor
disembodies footprints that lead the character through a puzzle
statues that turn their heads to follow the hero as he moves through the room
a hallway where the camera does a “vertigo” effect (by moving forward and zooming out)
a hall of mirrors
a carousel with creepy/decaying animals as the seats (maybe one crepy one among all the pretty porcelain horses)
a fortune-teller
creepy cartoony eyes in the darkness
you have to have a room with black and white zig-zag tile floors and red curtains. period.”

Design Document: Arcana Manor

Design Document

Arcana Manor

3D, first-person action-adventure/platforming game about leaping, swinging, and crawling through a surreal funhouse while battling demons

Genre and core mechanic:

  • Action-adventure game from a first-person perspective
  • Environmental obstacles and platforming elements: swaying bridges, tilting rooms, staying alive while negotiating perilous environments
  • Spell-casting in combat and to solve puzzles by altering the environment (e.g. raising platforms, lowering bridges)
  • Combat with demons who have overrun the funhouse (see narrative section below)
  • Magic system based on the symbols of the minor arcane and their elemental correspondences (wands = fire, pentacles = earth, cups = water, swords = air), which are acquired as pick-ups and deployable through combination

(The player finds the spellbook/architectural notebook that belonged to Knossos. This becomes the game’s journal/interface, from which spells are cast. A tarot-based pattern to the layout of the funhouse (22 rooms of the major arcana))

Level design and visual style:

  • A twisted funhouse
  • Surreal
  • Hearkens back to 1950’s funhouses, but twisted and drenched in arcane symbolism
  • Bright, primary colors
  • Surreal, bizarre graphics
  • Artistic Influences:
    1. Giorgio de Chirico
      The Tower by Giorgio de Chirico

    2. M.C. EscherRelativity by M.C. Escher 3. Christopher Manson’s Maze

  • Pervaded with symbolism, like Jodorowsky’s Holy Mountain, which could inspire tarot rooms (walking around inside tarot cards)

Small sample map (a section of a part of a level)

  • Strange marble sculptures
  • Sigils and runes and surreal paintings on the walls, maybe hinting at a way through the maze, or maybe red herrings (as in Manson’s Maze book)
  • Stairways running in every direction (on the walls and ceilings, like Escher)


  • Funhouse built by mad genius who was dying of cancer, evangelizing about the necessity of play for the human spirit
  • He was an architect and engineer, a connoisseur of optical illusions and paradoxes, who entered unwittingly into a Faustian pact in order to bargain for time enough to complete the funhouse and the magic to make it truly wondrous.
  • The funhouse architect’s name was (several possibilities)

Dedalus Knossos, the Hierophant

Maximillian Knossos

Dedalus Minos

Dedalus de Chirico

M.C. Knossos

  • Knossos is sort of like The Alchemist in The Holy Mountain (mysterious figure taking followers on a journey of initiation).
  • He summoned minions to help build the funhouse but did not understand that these servants were actually demons.
  • Now the architect has disappeared and there are demonic enemies in the funhouse, who are taking it over, corrupting it, destroying it. (In metaphorical terms, these demons are all the perils of creativity, the fine line that any eccentric artist must walk: obsession, isolation, madness, addiction).
  • The architect’s beautiful and eccentric granddaughter, Ms. Emily Knossos, has called for the assistance of the player to find out what happened to her father. Did he die of natural causes? Was he abducted by demons? Is he still trapped in the funhouse somewhere?
  • Only by finding out what happened to Knossos can the demons of the funhouse be destroyed.


Prototype in Unreal 2 or Unreal 3 engine

Maya PLE or Blender for 3d models

Photoshop (GIMP temporarily) for concept art

Later, transfer to Torque or Torque X with a $150 dollar indie license (versus 350,000 dollar license per programmer of Unreal 3)

A combination of Torque X and Microsoft XNA would yield a game that could be played on both PC and Xbox Live Arcade

torquex 3d builder + torquex + microsoft xna 2.0 + visual c# + Microsoft XNA = 3D Xbox 360 game, distributable on Xbox Live Arcade

Comparable Titles

Undying (a FPS with spell-casting in a haunted mansion), but Arcana Manor is not a shooter and has more environmental puzzles.

Psychonauts (for surrealism and bizarre level design), but Arcana Manor is contained within a mansion and can be accommodated in a more standard, less resource-heavy engine.

Early graphical adventure games for stark, minimalistic surrealism (The Demon’s Forge, The Labyrinth of Time), but this has more exciting action than a point-and-click adventure game.


Need concept artist(s)

3d modeler(s)

Programmer(s) (UnrealScript, C++, and/or C#)

Vocal talent


Almost none

Use freeware, middleware with indie or semi-commercial licenses


Web for PC

Xbox Live Arcade

Questing in Hyboria

As readers of Quests know, I am not the biggest fan of MMO’s for a variety of reasons, and yet they are the genre of games in which quests feature most prominently. Lately, I’ve enjoyed playing Lord of the Rings Online with Roger Travis, the director of the Video Games and Human Values Initiative, and Michael Abbott, one of the Initative’s senior fellows. These two players are great company, and LOTRO is also enjoyable because of the way in interweaves its epic quest line with Tolkien’s compelling narrative and imaginative world. However, as a loremaster (the game’s mage class, a hybrid of druid and standard magic user) I feel a little underpowered. As a previous post on magic systems indicates, I think this watering down of spellcasting probably has to do with Tolkien’s Catholicism: there is no magic in his world, only divine providence manifested through attunement to the natural world. This stance toward wizardry is philosophically subtle but does not result in the most exciting gameplay.

There is another currently operating MMO that I am deeply excited about playing (though not as excited as the rumored World of Darkness MMO planned to debut in 2011). Until 2011, there is Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures.

Age of Conan Cover

Age of Conan Cover

This MMO fits into a larger franchise of transmedia Conan products, whereby one can be immersed in a world of novels and short stories, art, movies, and games. This world is based on Robert E. Howard’s wild and vivid pulp fiction, which was in turn inspired by the mountainous terrain outside of Fredericksburg, Texas.

Robert E. Howard is a fascinating figure unto himself—a hard-drinking, manic-depressive Texan who was also unexpectedly romantic, vulnerable, and intelligent.

Theatrical Poster of the Whole Wide World

Theatrical Poster of the Whole Wide World

His courtship of schoolteacher Novalyne Price was documented in Price’s memoir, One Who Walked Alone, and tenderly portrayed in the critically acclaimed and excellent The Whole Wide World, starring Vincent D’Onofrio and Renee Zellweger. Howard pioneered the genre of sword and sorcery in Weird Tales¸establishing a long-running correspondence and close friendship with H.P. Lovecraft (and penning tales within the Cthulhu mythos). He also built an imaginative world of Hyboria, tinged with Ancient Egyptian mythology and a pantheon of Lovecraftian demons in addition to the standard trappings of swords and sorcery (which R. Howard himself helped make standard).

I’m drawn to Age of Conan in part because it promises a rich and potent magic system, in which the character class of demonologist commands both powerful flame and shock spells as well as infernal pets. The character Conan distrusts magic because it is evil, and the designers of AoC have embraced this dark vision of sorcery to create a system in which simultaneously weaving too many spells results in a damaging and potentially fatal effect called soul corruption. The demonologist, as far as I can tell, is a fusion of WoW’s mage and warlock, without the generic backstory of the former and the slow-acting poison-based spells of the latter. This is not to mention the Herald of Xlatothl, who excels at both melee combat and magic, as well as the Priest of Set, who can cast powerful electrical spells.

In addition to powerful graphics that make me glad I have 512 megabytes of video ram, the game boasts an engaging combat system, which eschews the point-and-click repetition of WoW and Everquest for a more versatile setup in which number keys can unleash attacks in different directions. If one wants to play Age of Conan, it’s probably better to do so now, since many gamers have balked at the game’s early technical glitches, resulting in a consolidation of the European and North American servers. I hope this particular world lasts for a long time, but it’s best to seize the day, especially given the unfortunate demise of Hellgate: London.

If quests in MMO’s are to improve, then gamers will need to support designers who deviate creatively from the standard model, including the decision to build an elaborate single-player questline through the first twenty levels of AoC. So, if anyone is up for an occasional foray into Hyboria with me, I’d welcome the company. The previously described Funhouse design project is my “main quest” at the moment (actually, finding a job is my main quest, but the Funhouse is my main side quest). Still, let us not lose sight of the good things in life: to crush our enemies, see them driven before us, and hear the lamentation of their women. :)

Castlevania, Legacy of Kain, and the Gothic in Gaming

My mainstream Nintendo game franchise is Castlevania. Some people love The Legend of Zelda, others Metroid, but I’m a Castlevania fan. Which is not to say that I have played a lot of Castlevania: only half of Symphony of the Night and Curse of Darkness, although I have watched a friend play through most of Simon’s Quest.
One reason for my enthusiasm has to do with Castlevania’s haunting music and its classical influences, especially in the tracks “Vampire Killer” and “Bloody Tears,” which are touchstones of my musical tastes. (When I played in a rock band, I often gave “it sounds like Castlevania” as a reason for covering songs by a variety of bands, from Opeth to Iron Maiden. Yngwie Malmsteen’s neoclassical metal, characterized by its use of the melodic minor scale and techniques like pedal point, also strongly resembles Castlevania stylistically). This essay by a musicologist offers excellent, comprehensive analysis of Castlevania music.

Another reason for my love of Castlevania has to do with level design and the spaces of the Belmonts’ quests, which were based in part on actual castles.

The third and most important reason for my love of Castlevania is that it is a classic example of Gothic gaming. Laurie N. Taylor is the authority on survival horror games and their relationship to the Gothic, which was her dissertation topic. My understanding of the Gothic is much less rigorous and detailed than Laurie’s, but my definition does involve a set of criteria.

By a Gothic game, I mean one that is
• Darkly romantic
• Horror influenced
• Sometimes haunted by demonic overtones and/or undertones
• Inclusive of vampires, werewolves, angels, demons, and black magic
• Often set in a castle, dungeon, dark forest
• Brooded over by an atmosphere of mystery and the arcane which lends itself to symbolism.

Of Gothic games, I am currently most interested in the Legacy of Kain series, of which I have played all of Blood Omen: The Legacy of Kain as well as parts of Soul Reaver 2 and Defiance. In terms of the relationship between gaming and literature, I am drawn to the Legacy of Kain series and its Miltonic overtones, as alluded to in the epigraph to Andrew Plotkin (a.k.a. Zarf’s) chronology of this time-bending franchise. Plotkin heads his diagram with the quotation:

“We attempt to trace the history of Raziel, who was cast down, and that ancient device which is lately called the Soul Reaver.”

Plotkin’s eighteenth-century prose style is consciously Miltonic, especially in the phrase “who was cast down.” The parallel is between Raziel and Milton’s Lucifer: both rebels against a divine being whose motives and actions are sinister and suspect, perhaps conferring upon the fallen angels the status of romantic hero or anti-hero.

I’ll have more to say about the Gothic in gaming and its relationship to design as these blog entries continue.