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Arisia: IF and gaming panels

I spent this past weekend at Arisia, an SF convention. Like many conventions, it's diversified its topics to SF (and fantasy) in comics, TV, movies, and gaming. So I wound up at a whole series of nifty panel discussions that mentioned interactive fiction.

Okay, it was the deadly trifecta of gaming discussions: Are games literature? Are games art? And what the hell are games anyhow? But the moderators all ditched the cliche questions and got on to interesting stuff.

(I was not on the panels -- just sitting in the audience. I got to throw in some comments, though.)

I do not have transcripts of these. I tried to take notes, but at some point in each panel I got caught up in the discussion and spent my time thinking of comments rather than writing down what people were saying. So you get a rather disjointed view of all of this. Sorry! I think it's worth copying my jottings anyhow.

Quotes are guaranteed not accurate. I attempted to get down what I thought people meant; errors are mine. I've also thrown in some of my responses that I wasn't able to get out loud in the panel. Editor's privilege.

Games as Literature

Emily Lewis, John McDaid, James Meikle, Mark Waks / Justin du Coeur, Alan Wexelblat (mod)

The moderator started off by declaring that the panel was about multi-player and other collaborative game forms. (Single-player games are equally literary, but have been discussed plenty elsewhere.)


  • JMcD: Wrote an old-school hypertext novel: Uncle Buddy's Phantom Funhouse
  • EL: Worked on a group game/educational course, Operation LAPIS.
  • JMk: Designs roguelikes.
  • JdC: Writes LARPs.
  • AW: I missed what he does, other than "gamer".

JdC: When I create a LARP, I am writing the first half of a novel.

JMcD: The notions of character and story arc are baked into traditional literature -- but this is a bug, not a feature. They come from the affordances of written-down story as it evolved out of oral literature. Interactive fiction is not bound to them.

JMk: (Computer) MMOs are not literature; they're history or politics. (Just like history textbooks are not literature.) They're history of a fictional world, but this is not the same as fiction, because all the actors are real people wearing masks. (The goals are fictional, the struggles are not.)

AW: A game has failure conditions, literature does not.

JdC disagrees: LARPs are designed to not have failure conditions. Tragedies in the LARP story should be successes for the players, because the players' goal is to be true to their characters. Also, MMOs mostly don't have failure states, only short- and long-term setbacks.

(I also disagree, for a different reason: I simply think that literature may or may not have failure conditions. That may be a good criterion for deciding what a game is, but it's orthogonal to literature.)

JdC describes a combat system for an Oz LARP: Everybody has a combat strength, represented by a number. In combat, you compare your strength to the opponent, and the stronger takes the weaker captive. This is what combat situations look like in the Oz books, so that's how the game should behave. (Why the abstraction of numbers? Because it determines a result simply, without distracting players from the scene. Once the outcome is known, players can concentrate on role-playing to get there.)

JdC: A work is literary if the author intends it as literature.

JMcD: No, it's about reception. A work is literary if the reader (player) takes it as literature. (Describes a reader who didn't realize that Uncle Buddy was fiction; thought it was notes about an actual science fiction author. Eventually made that leap to reading it as a story rather than history.)

Some discussion of whether reality (real life) is vastly more boring than literature, or whether reality is the biggest, most exciting story possible. (Clearly these are Great Truths, since they're opposite and both true.) MMOs (think Eve Online) have long boring stretches, but interesting moments of story come out of them.

EL: What if you blend reality and game? (Leads to discussion of Ingress, an augmented-reality game.)

AW: Ingress is a terrible game, but a really interesting experiment. (Why terrible? Notes that Ingress has no representation of other players, much less any way to interact with them.) Augmented reality calls into question who the author of a story is.

JMk: The MMOs that seem most story-heavy are the ones where players compete for resources in a meaningful way. (Again, Eve. Players' time is always the base resource.) Competition is necessary for interesting cooperation.

EL: Is a work literary because players can follow a story, or because players can invent their own story, or what?

JMk: "Literature" is not a binary -- a work is literary to some greater or lesser degree. (General agreement.)

JdC, EL: The literary result of a collaborative game is the "war stories" that players tell afterwards. (It's an oral tradition, in the end.) The "literature" of Eve is not the day-by-day play, but the narratives in people's heads after some dramatic event. Therefore, game designers can't just design an experience; they must consider how players will remember the experience.

That's No Game

Izzy Peskowitz, Yitzy Abramowitz, Maddy Myers (mod)

I didn't get detailed notes on this one. It was a spirited discussion on the various kinds of games that get the "not a game" label, which seem to be heavily weighted towards interactive narrative: Gone Home, Dear Esther, The Walking Dead, choice-based IF, parser IF.

Everyone in the room was happy to adopt a broad definition of "game", so the discussion circled around why these things are contentious. Audience mismatch? Bad marketing? What expectation of a gamer is not being satisfied?

Maybe the whole question will subside as IF becomes more mainstream. Once "games like Gone Home" are a familiar category on Steam, players won't be disconcerted by them.

Much talk about when player choice counts as (or feels like) "real" choice. The panelists seemed to be evaluating everything by the ending -- a player choice which does not affect the final scene "doesn't count". I brought up Emily Short's notion of reflective choice (as a player, you can decide what you think of an event even if the game doesn't recognize that).

Also, games like Depression Quest convey meaning by how they offer choice -- meaning from game mechanics. Also, in literature, we commonly agree that how the protagonist gets to the end is more important than what the end is.

A reductio ad absurdum: if you add a non-interactive cut scene to the very end of a game, does it invalidate all the choices the player made up to that point? I say no.

Much discussion on how these categorization questions are political. Gamers like a particular kind of game, and when an unfamiliar category shows up, they push back: this new thing might drive out the stuff I like! (I didn't have a chance to mention how this exact political reaction has been playing out in the IF community.)

Does it matter whether these things get labelled "games"? It sure does if you want to make money on Steam. But on the other hand, Maddy Myers talked about failing to describe Gone Home to non-gamers. Maybe she should have been trying to describe it as literature rather than as a game?

Games as Art

Christopher K. Davis (mod), Maddy Myers, Izzy Peskowitz, Brianna Wu, Frank Wu


  • BW: Producing Revolution 60, a choice-based graphical adventure (upcoming).
  • FW: Doing artwork for Revolution 60.
  • MM: Videogame critic and journalist.
  • IP: Gamer.
  • CKD: Gamer.

Again, I didn't get specific notes.

Everyone agrees that games are art, sure, no problem. BW says that everyone on her team is an artist -- the art people, the sound people, the programmers, it's all high-level creative work. (I think programming is "design" rather than "art", but so what, really.)

The spectre of Roger Ebert still hovers above us. (After his widely-reported "games are not art" post, Ebert tried some games, and declared that Flower was art. Interesting that his criterion seems to be the opposite of what we got from the previous panel; hardcore gamers might say that Flower is "not a game". Is Ebert just stuck in a games-vs-art dichotomy?)

Games and game-related art are big in the New York gallery scene. Pixel art, interactive installations, etc. The Museum of the Moving Image has an indie-game exhibition; even MoMA has fastidiously stepped over the line.

Tangential comment by MM on how Boston indie game devs are spooked by journalists. Promote yourself dammit! Talk to the media! (I am terrible at this. I got her business card.)

Interactivity in Fiction

Heather Albano, Erik Amundsen (mod), Max Gladstone, Forest Handford, Carolyn VanEseltine


  • HA: Author of Choice of Romance and other choice-based games. Lead writer on Codename Cygnus. Two self-published novels.
  • FH: Director of Firefly Arts Collective (local Burning-Man-style hacker/art group).
  • MG: Published two fantasy novels, then wrote Choice of the Deathless (choice-based game in the same setting).
  • CVE: Working on Revolution 60. Several parser IF games.
  • EA: Gamer, writer, poet.

MG: Second person is exciting to work in. It's unusual in written fiction (though not unknown, Stross etc). It adds a storyteller or narrator voice. (I humbly add my lecture on this subject from a few years back.)

FH: Interested in stories that bleed over into real life -- books with in-character web sites, etc. (I tend to call this "alternate reality fiction", which is not necessarily a game. Although interactivity bleeds in whenever the reader starts exploring and engaging.)

CVE: Planescape Torment had a powerful moment when the game turns and asks you what you think about the game events. (Again, "reflective choice".) Interested in player investment -- a game doesn't move forward without some player commitment.

HA: There's a big psychological need to be the narrator, particularly in kids, but to some extent for everybody.

EA: Look all those online "which foo are you" tests.

MG: The fun of constructing a character -- defining the narrator through accumulated choices.

CVE: But there's also IF where you have to commit to a character without knowing who it is. (Mentioned Spider&Web, unreliable narrator.)

MG: Interactive stories about redemption. You have no choice about doing something awful; your choices are about how you deal with it.

MG: I'm a fast writer, so I've been able to do novels "by the seat of my pants". But building Choice of the Deathless required a lot more planning. Had to learn to outline. (Not to map out events -- the sequence of events is fixed -- but to map out the various ways a player can approach them. Which NPCs are allies, rivals, friends, enemies, etc.)

CVE: IF can place the storytelling "camera" at a large distance (cut scenes) or close-up (moment-by-moment interactivity). There's no middle range. This is different from traditional fiction. Also, in IF you usually stick to one viewpoint (or maybe two), to keep the sense of engagement strong.

MG: Right -- in novels I like to jump between character viewpoints, because they see things (and each other) differently. CotD didn't do that.

HA: Constructing a story arc in a game and in a novel are the same technique. But static fiction has more techniques available. The "Choice of" game model doesn't have cut scenes at all; the camera is always close in, making immediate choices.

MG: All types of IF have inherent illusions. Myst has the illusion that you can travel anywhere, without barriers. ChoiceOf games have the illusion that any life course the player can imagine is available. (Of course in both cases there are strict boundaries, and the game designer works hard to draw the player's attention to targets inside them.)

EA: This is very different from table-top roleplaying, where the GM is expected to let the players go off on any crazy tangent, and improvise to keep up.

Much discussion on "railroading" in game design. Audience comment: Railroading in games is like exposition (infodumps) in novels. You have to do some. It gets a bad rap, but it's not per se evil -- it's just really noticeable when it's done badly.

I made my standard point about multi-level game design: unless you're writing a tiny/experimental art piece, your game is doing more than one thing at a time. It's not a tradeoff between railroading and agency, it's a tradeoff between short-term, medium-term, and long-term agency. As long as the player's attention is on the level with plenty of choice, the player won't feel railroaded at other levels.

HA: Yes, that's why the ChoiceOf model is a series of episodes.

CVE: Similarly, that's how Fallen London works -- if you're focussed on long-term stat goals, you're okay with the simplistic short-term grinding structure. (Well, up to a point.)

HA: Shared-world anthologies (Thieves' World, Bordertown, some of the Darkover canon) are interactive in a sense -- interactive among authors, rather than between audience and author. (Mention of Alternity, a collaborative journal fanfic game.)

MG: Fantasy Powers League, a collaborative/competitive online story game that he got into as a teenager.

Game Developer Women (Carolyn VanEseltine, Brianna Wu, Maddy Myers): I didn't attend this, but it apparently got into Twine and indie narrative games. Hopefully someone will report on that one.

Not a panel, but worth noting: A friend turned me on to Torchbearer, a recently-Kickstarted tabletop RPG. It describes itself as a "love letter to Basic D&D", but I'm seeing a link to old-school IF as well.

Why do I say this? Because, as my friend described it, Torchbearer's three core mechanics are:

  • The light timer (your torch burns down quickly)
  • The hunger timer (you have to eat regularly)
  • The inventory limit (you can only carry so much)

These are the three Zork/Adventure-era tropes that modern IF has comprehensively dumped. (Everyone bitches about mazes, but we acknowledge that a creative twist on the maze can be cool.) I'm keen to see a game constructed around them.

And those are my gaming notes from Arisia. I will be at Boskone next month, but Boskone tends to be more book-focussed. We'll see.

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Apollo 18+20: The IF Tribute Album (now playing)

A very quick note, as Kevin has gone to bed:

The Apollo 18+20 IF album is now live. Most of the games are playable in your web browser; they can all be downloaded and played in your IF interpreter tool of choice.

This after ten minutes of work by me and three months by Kevin. So benificence upon him and all the album contributors. Also thanks to Ryan Veeder for the cover artwork.

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Apollo 18+20: The IF Tribute Album

Twenty years ago this March, They Might Be Giants released the album Apollo 18. I'd like to create a kind of interactive fiction tribute album, i.e., a set of games, each inspired by a track on the album. And I'd like your help!

The games are now available for online and offline playing.

Short Version
Sign up for a game. Make a short (or extremely short) game. Betatest others' games. Release the games.

Long Version

December 31, 2011: Deadline to sign up for a game.
February 12, 2012: Deadline to submit your game to me. Betatesting begins.
February 26, 2012: Betatesting ends.
March 23, 2012: Deadline for submitting your final game to me.
March 24, 2012: I release the games.


  • Email me ( to sign up for a game. Especially early in the sign-up period, email me your top choice and one or two alternates. I will try to update the sign-up list below as often as possible. Update: All entries have been claimed.

  • If the sign-up period is winding down and not all of the songs are claimed, I will email everyone who has signed up and give you the opportunity to claim an additional song (likely an additional "Fingertips" song).

  • The name of your game should be the name of the song (and, yes, start the "Fingertips" ones with "Fingertips:"). Anything else is up to you. You can incorporate the lyrics or just use the song for inspiration. Note that "Space Suit" has no lyrics.

  • Games should be short (except for the "Fingertips" games, which should be even shorter; see below). Ideally the maximum play time would be around 15 minutes, and 5 or 10 minutes is just fine.

  • To keep things simple, the "Fingertips" games should be a single move. That is, there is some introductory text, the player types a single command, and then there is some concluding text. You can, of course, implement as many single commands as you'd like, but a playthrough of the game should be one single command (as in Aisle).

  • Games can be made in whatever IF format you'd like as long as they are playable both online and offline. I guess it's easiest if everything were in Z-code or Glulx format, but let me know if you'd like to do something else.

  • If you don't feel up to making a game but would like to contribute cover art for the album, let me know (see status below). If you'd like to offer to make cover art for any track or for a particular track, let me know, and I will put you in touch with the contributor for that track.

  • If you don't feel up to making a game but would like to betatest, let me know. I will be sending the games out for betatesting to all the contributors and to anyone who volunteers. Note that you are not required to betatest in order to be a contributor.

Track List
All Crossed-out entries have been claimed. Cover art: claimed.

  1. "Dig My Grave" - 1:08
  2. "I Palindrome I" - 2:25
  3. "She's Actual Size" - 2:05
  4. "My Evil Twin" - 2:37
  5. "Mammal" - 2:14
  6. "The Statue Got Me High" - 3:06
  7. "Spider" - 0:50
  8. "The Guitar (The Lion Sleeps Tonight)" (They Might Be Giants/Solomon Linda) - 3:49
  9. "Dinner Bell" - 2:11
  10. "Narrow Your Eyes" - 2:46
  11. "Hall of Heads" - 2:53
  12. "Which Describes How You're Feeling" - 1:13
  13. "See the Constellation" - 3:27
  14. "If I Wasn't Shy" - 1:43
  15. "Turn Around" - 2:53
  16. "Hypnotist of Ladies" - 1:42
  17. "Fingertips: Everything Is Catching on Fire" - 0:12
  18. "Fingertips: Fingertips" - 0:06
  19. "Fingertips: I Hear the Wind Blow" - 0:10
  20. "Fingertips: Hey Now, Everybody" - 0:05
  21. "Fingertips: Who's That Standing Out the Window?" - 0:06
  22. "Fingertips: I Found a New Friend" - 0:07
  23. "Fingertips: Come On and Wreck My Car" - 0:12
  24. "Fingertips: Aren't You the Guy Who Hit Me in the Eye?" - 0:07
  25. "Fingertips: Please Pass the Milk Please" - 0:08
  26. "Fingertips: Leave Me Alone" - 0:05
  27. "Fingertips: Who's Knockin' on the Wall?" - 0:
  28. "Fingertips: All Alone" - 0:05
  29. "Fingertips: What's That Blue Thing Doing Here?" - 0:08
  30. "Fingertips: Something Grabbed Ahold of My Hand" - 0:12
  31. "Fingertips: I Don't Understand You" - 0:27
  32. "Fingertips: I Heard a Sound" - 0:04
  33. "Fingertips: Mysterious Whisper" - 0:28
  34. "Fingertips: The Day That Love Came to Play" - 0:08
  35. "Fingertips: I'm Having a Heart Attack" - 0:22
  36. "Fingertips: Fingertips (Reprise)" - 0:10
  37. "Fingertips: I Walk Along Darkened Corridors" - 1:01
  38. "Space Suit" - 1:36

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Inevitably I am drawn into the games-and-art thing

The question "Are games art?" is thoroughly boring, because the answer is obvious. It's obvious to me; it's obvious to you. I don't know if our obvious answers are the same, but whatever -- either way there's nothing to discuss.

This doesn't mean I'm tired of discussing why videogames are or aren't art. A couple of days ago Tablesaw posted a quick manifesto-ation, which I thought was terrific:

The player of a game is not the audience of a game, just as an actor is not the audience of a playscript, and a musician is not the audience of a score.

Games lack an audience not in the traditionally understood manner (nobody is desires to or is able to observe the art), but in a profound and fundamental way, in that they cannot be understood except through entering collaboration.

(--from Shorter Games and Art, April 5)

Of course it's easy to pick at rough edges here (this is the Internet!) -- a game of Rock Band can have an audience. Adventure games (text and graphical) play very well in groups, with one player "driving" and the rest involved at a lower level, if at all. But these cases only make the question more interesting.

Comparison: Ritual

A group of monks singing a service, daily or weekly or whatever the ritual entails -- or Tibetan sand mandalas, or etc. The song, or the visual design, may certainly be recorded and reproduced as art. People may perform (sing, construct) works in the traditional artistic sense, for an audience. But this is not the goal or experience of the ritual practitioners -- not primarily. They are doing, not presenting.

But then, where did the song come from? Someone composed it for the monks, and we accept that as an artistic activity (even if the sung service itself might be something else).

Perhaps it is improvisatory. (I don't know where mandala designs come from.) The conventions, elements, and boundaries of improvisation might themselves have been composed by someone. More likely -- in such improvisatory traditions -- they evolved, in a thousand unattributed acts of creativity over years or centuries.

Where is a videogame against that backdrop? Not at the purely compositional end; the player is doing more than interpreting a score. Not at the purely improvisatory end; there is always a game designer composing the boundaries, affordances, and elements of choice. But this looks like a range along which various games can comfortably sit.

Comparison: Sports

A group of basketball players on the court are not there to perform -- not primarily. They're there to find out who is better at getting a ball through a hoop. They are observed, but a sports audience is not a performance audience.

But then, where did the rules of basketball come from? I bet someone knows... yes, from a Dr. Naismith in 1891 (followed by years of community evolution). Well. Here we have a game designer. For all the discussion of sports in our culture, little light falls on the designers. There's plenty of light (and heat) on the rules of the game, mind you -- particularly as they evolve and change. But the terms are the fitness and functionality of the rules, and how they shape play today. The history and context of the creators are only of marginal interest; nor is how they may influence sports of the future. This is discussion of day-to-day craft and function, not a discussion about art.

That is: the question of whether the game of basketball is art is not a question that sports people care about -- and maybe the videogame world should take that as a cue. ...But if you said that some change to the rules made the game ugly, or more beautiful, I suspect that most sports people would know just what you mean.

The domain of practice that requires fitness, functionality, and beauty is design, not art. No one blinks at calling videogames a field of design. I'm a game designer -- objections? No. And of course we accept that design can be studied at art schools, discussed in art journals, and displayed in art museums. So perhaps that's all the reframing we need.

(Art museums love exhibits of chairs. I love 'em too. If I weren't into games, I'd design chairs.)

And so: Design

What nerves get tweaked if we say that games are design rather than art? Three of mine:

  • The origin of sports are few and distant in history. Videogames are made by people striving before our eyes. I want to dignify that struggle as artistic effort. (I note that while basketball and baseball feel like permanent features of life, Catan and Dominion are current. Board games, like videogames, are a live topic. Plus, of course, the best-known ab initio creation of a sport, these past few years, took place in a novel.)

  • Games have text and story. We have a strong bias that text -- the text of fiction and narrative, if not necessarily the text of description or argument -- is art. Design is often for text, but only occasionally includes it. (If a writer illustrates and inscribes her own text, we think of that as art upon art. The magazine layout designer gets no such generosity.)

  • Design has function. Art, in some angle of my terminology, does not. (I think of the song and the painting, which exist to convey an experience and impinge upon no worldly concern. Of course I know this is an idealization and is bunk. The monks would say the same.)

If the upshot of all our argument is that videogames are too functional to be art, and that art is supposed to just "sit there and do nothing", then I am going to laugh and laugh and laugh.

Posted in Zarf on Games | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Playing co-op with Zach

Agent Morgan02I had to put down Deadly Premonition last week, after an all-day binge. Happily, the problem wasn’t the marathon session itself; far away from running a cynical, lizardbrain-exploiting reward-treadmill, my drive to keep playing had more in common with my occasional internet-enabled activity of gulping down a whole season of an excellent TV series all at once. There’s just too much to do before PAX weekend (which is to say, the 2011 IF summit), though. I’ll return to it later this month.

What a strange, time-delayed sleeper hit this game feels like. Wikipedia tells me that the US saw its release a whole year ago, but I hadn’t heard about it before quite recently, when several friends started writing about it at the same time. First, Darius shared an intriguing vignette of gameplay experienceA full-budget console game about FBI agents who are also peeping toms? — and then Matt found himself unable to say much about it other than that it was his favorite videogame of 2010. After I mentioned on Twitter that I had picked up a new copy for less than $20 on Amazon, Courtney responded by writing an Agent York / Molly Bloom microslashfic, and I knew I was in for something unusual.

I’ll be frank: I love this game. Much as last year’s Amnesia used the sub-medium of the FPS to present a tense and interesting game where you can’t actually attack anything, Deadly Premonition may be the closest I’ve seen to applying the sandbox paradigm to tell a worthwhile story that isn’t yet another chronicle of a kill-happy psychopath (be it Grand Theft Auto or Oblivion).

Once through the somewhat shaky prologue and able to drive freely around the town of Greenvale, I found myself fully engaged with the story — rather, with the investigation, my internalized voice of protagonist Agent York corrects me. In drawing me in for hour after hour of exploration, Deadly Premonition offered the most wonderfully solid proof possible that you don’t need to make every game-verb a different act of violence in order to create a compelling story-driven experience in an open-world game environment.

And maybe more than any title outside of pure-text IF I’ve played in recent memory, the major driving force is the player character. The eccentric Agent York, an overt homage to Agent Cooper from Twin Peaks, has a personality perfect for this role (and implemented superbly by voice actor Jeff Kramer). If he’s more than a little off-kilter in his approach, whether in solving murder cases or just in talking with other people, he’s just unbalanced enough to counterweight the often stilted writing which is perhaps inevitable from a cross-cultural product (in this case, a Lynchesque crime drama produced in Japan and then acted in American English).

Somehow, it all balances out into a world whose conversations are at least as fun to explore as its locations. I found myself repeatedly striving to find the next plot-advancing encounters or side missions specifically because I wanted to hear more dialogue involving York. How often does that happen in a console game? Given the choice between listening to an info-dump on Asari mating rituals while standing around in a space station or hearing an FBI agent hold forth on the commentary tracks found in Roger Corman DVDs while driving down a spooky forest road, I know where I’d rather be.

And just to seal the bargain, York’s most identifiable dialogue quirk is as irresistibly quotable as it is deliriously meta-gamey (no spoilers here). I quickly discovered, on Twitter and elsewhere, that suffixing one’s utterances with “Right, Zach?” has become a cake-is-a-lie-style watchword for smartypants videogame snobs (hello!) to identify one another.

And all this despite the fact that the game appears to be built on a survival horror engine, or at least has the air of a survival-horror project that had a mid-life career change. Interface elements and tropes specific to that sub-genre occurring throughout the whole experience, even when you’re miles away from any zombie-popping action.

Zombies do require popping from time to time, and I don’t yet know quite what to make of it. Their appearance seems to act as a pacing mechanic so that you don’t rush through the peaceful portions of the game too quickly, such as with the shadow creatures in Ico. But unlike that masterpiece, the combat scenarios in Deadly Premonition seem entirely modal — the game lurches into a level of Resident Evil 4, more or less, and you must clear it before continuing the investigation. With a handful of exceptions, these are the only times in the whole game York uses his weapons. As Matt notes in his review, this is among the weakest parts of the experience, even though it’s apparently where the game allows its survival-horror roots to assert themselves.

The game does at least drop some hints that there’s some meta-narrative winking afoot with the shooty parts as well; we’ll see. Maybe it’ll all become clear by the end. I very much look forward to completing this title and writing more about it from that perspective.

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The Warbler's Nest, and some IFComp thoughts

I am pleased to announce the release of my new game, The Warbler’s Nest. It’s a very short work of interactive fiction, a mood piece more than a puzzle-filled adventure. An experienced IF player might take 15 minutes to traverse it once, and around half an hour to explore more thoroughly. Less experienced players may wish to budget a little more time, and keep a friendly quick-reference card handy.

The game is sufficiently brief that I really can’t say anything else about it here, except to mention that you can play it in your browser, thanks to the happy modern-IF technologies I celebrated in my recent video. (And to remind you that works of pure text like this are about as safe-for-work as a videogame can possibly get, ahem.) Naturally, you can also download a copy to play on an interpreter, if that’s your thing, and a visit to the game’s homepage will satisfy any further curiosity you may have about the work.

With that done, I’d like to share some thoughts about the Interactive Fiction Competition. A less polished version of Warbler eked out a tie for ninth place (of 26 entrants) in the 16th annual IFComp, which wrapped up last month. This was a very strong year, so I’m pleased that the game even made it that high; I played and quite enjoyed most of the other contestant works. First prize went to Aotearoa, Matt Wigdahl’s masterfully constructed take on the “modern kid visits an island full of totally awesome dinosaurs” style of young-adult adventure story.

The annual community-wide metagame of creative and intelligent reviews of IFComp entrants seemed stronger than ever this year, as well. Among my favorite review collections of 2010 are those of Christopher Huang, Sarah Morayati, Brooks Reeves, and Emily Short.

And yet: even though I look forward to writing and releasing my own next work of interactive fiction, I do not plan on doing so as part of the IFComp.

My experiences as a contestant were quite mixed, mainly because of how the competition’s rules prohibit authors from modifying (or publicly discussing) their entry for the entire six-week-long judging period. I did not foresee the real pain I felt when the first reviews came in, soon after the comp began.

Every reviewer, whether or not they liked the game, ran without fail into the same handful of bugs and stylistic flaws that had managed to elude me and my initial playtesters, writing about them in their reviews. (The reasons they were invisible to us make for an interesting design lesson and story unto itself, and one I hope to write about in another post.) By the end of the first week, I’d catalogued all these problems, and planned fixes for each. But there’s the thing: the reviews kept coming, naming the same problems, and I couldn’t do a thing about it. With the comp rules binding my hands, I could do nothing but silently allow people to continue playing my flawed game for another entire month, even though I could fix it with a single file upload.

In all my work, both professional and creative, I’m used to — perhaps spoiled by — digital tools that let me work quickly and iteratively, attacking errors as soon as they’re identified. But in this case, I found myself fixedly and weirdly misrepresented by my past self’s flawed vision, when my present self had something better to offer but was unable to share. I found it a deeply uncomfortable exeprience.

Now, please don’t misunderstand me: I found all the feedback and criticism I received during those six weeks, both in public reviews and private communication, immensely valuable. I worked hard to synthesize it all into the game’s current release, and Warbler as it stands now is so much more polished and playable as a result of all this free labor from smart people. This is brilliant, and I can’t thank everyone enough.

But, for me, that damned rule did its best to outweigh my happiness about the good stuff. As the days after the October 1 starting gun stretched into weeks, the torture I initially felt at being unable to leap in with bugfixes and improvements boiled away into simple frustration, stress, and heartbreak. While I continued to promote the comp online, I found myself conversationally advising people not to play my game until December, when I planned on publishing and promoting the “real” version. (Unless they wanted to run the whole comp gantlet as a judge, of course, but that’s not really a feasible suggestion for new or casual IF players.)

You’ll note, however, that at no point in the article do I suggest that the rules themselves are flawed. They didn’t end up working out so well for me, but that’s OK because — thankfully — it’s not about me. The rules of the interactive fiction competition are not put into place to make Jason McIntosh happy. The rules are there to make sure that the comp functions as a stable engine that rotates once per year, burping out dozens of fantastic new IF games unto the world. And I argue that, by god, it’s done it again, meeting a high watermark entirely appropriate to a 2010 that’s seen more exciting news and advances in the art of IF than anyone last year could have predicted.

I am pleased and proud that I participated in the 16th IFComp, regardless of how well my work scored. But now that it’s over, I intend to promote Warbler as an independently produced videogame in its own right — and will skip directly to this step with all my future IF works. While the comp helped give me the confidence that my work is worth promoting, the salient point is that I do have that confidence now, and intend to make full use of it from now on, all under my own power.

And I will release bugfixes in a goddamn timely fashion!

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Weekend links: two on chess

Lewischess2-popup.jpgVia the New York Times’ “Gambit” chess blog, we learn of a new controversy surrounding… well, not so much a very old game as a set of very old game pieces, with new evidence causing some to question the national origin of the celebrated Lewis Chessmen.

But really, I just wanted to take the opportunity to mention these extraordinary game pieces on this blog. Even though they’ve been known to the modern world since the 19th century, I first learned about them only some months ago while kicking around Wikipedia. While they like look like the whimsical work of a modern sculptor — at least to my unschooled eye — they were actually carved some 800 years ago.

I showed pictures of these little guys to a friend this morning, one who actually does know something about art history. She tried to add a little perspective to my astonishment, noting how a lot of medieval artwork looks comically cartoony by modern standards. But while she spoke, all I could think was: boy, I’d love to just reach over and pick one of these pieces up. I recognize intention in their squat, chunky shapes: they were made to thunk down on the board, decisively. I bet they make a really satisfying sound when that happens.

Heading away from the past and into an uncertain future, we discover quantum chess, a computer game by Queen’s University student Alice Wismath, based on a concept by Selim Akl, a computer science proessor at Queen’s. It appears to be an academic work in progress, though one fun enough to have gained a bit of media traction. Certainly, it’s an intriguing idea, using the notion of quantum superposition to add a (perhaps rather thick) layer of tactical surprise to an otherwise pure strategy game:

A piece that should be a knight could simultaneously also be a queen, a pawn or something else. The player doesn’t know what the second state might be or which of the two states the piece will choose when it is moved.

“It was very weird,” said Ernesto Posse, a Queen’s postdoctoral researcher who took part in a recent “quantum chess” tournament at the university in Kingston, Ont. “You only know what a piece really is once you touch the piece. Basically, planning ahead is impossible.”

Like a lot of geeks, I’m enamored with the twisty little passages that represent quantum physics (or at least the closest representation a layman like me can grasp). But even moreso, any science that can plug itself into a cultural foundation of gaming to produce wacky chess variants is my kind of science.

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Friday links: Race and Dominion online

RFTGScreenSnapz001.pngTurns out that both of the card games I wrote about Monday have officially sanctioned online versions. Dominion’s had an internet-playable implementation on the beloved BrettspielWelt for some time, but I only today got around to trying Race for the Galaxy’s computerized counterpart (pictured here). Both games are perfectly functional and free to play, but have a cost in… well, let us say that a polished user interface is not the top priority of either effort.

The brazenly unstyled HTML of Keldon Jones’ Race for the Galaxy page lets you know from the start that he isn’t out to impress you with a razor-sharp UI. But if it’s Race practice you’re after, I find his solution far more satisfying than the solitaire variant that comes packaged with the card game’s first expansion set. Keldon has been developing this AI in the sunshine for nearly a year, updating it frequently, and it’s very good. It consistently kicks my butt, anyway, whether with the base deck or any of the expansions — every one of which the programmer has implemented, and which you can mix in or out before each game.

In the tradition of one-hacker game-adaptation projects, obsessive focus on the rules and AI leaves the UI a secondary concern. Even with the simplest setup, it’s hard to tell with this Race board when anyone draws cards, for example, or which turn-phase is active. However, it quickly earned my trust that it wasn’t skipping any of the growing pile of interacting rules-exceptions that build up over the course over a single game. The requirement for every player to perform their own bookkeeping represents the weakest part of the physical game’s UI — one that I mess up all the time, to the annoyance of my friends, who grudgingly allow me to draw the bonus card I forgot to draw two phases ago. But this computer game quietly makes a non-issue of it, and I like that.

I was personally interested to discover that, all told, the interface Keldon designed shares several similarities to the UI I came up with for a digital version of Andy Looney’s Fluxx in 2005 [1]. We both chose, for example, the same solution to the puzzle of representing cards both as teensy icons that all fit on the screen, while allowing all the text on the cards to be readable: when you roll over any small card, a full-sized version appears in the window’s upper-left corner. I suspect that this is simply a result of drawing from the same deep well; I have been enjoying fan-digitizations of board games since I owned my first personal computer, and in almost every case found them as full of heart as they were of somewhat dubious interface practices. There are worse models to follow.

I must mention that, according its homepage, this adaptation exists with the full knowledge and blessing of Rio Grande Games, the boxed Race game’s publishers. We scratch our heads over the fact that they still print an email address on brand-new game boxes in 2010, but this shows that they know a thing or two about the benefits of not holding onto an IP with a death grip, especially when your product has creative superfans willing to do your internet-based marketing for you.

Take, for example, BrettspielWelt, which houses the digital Dominion. The user interface for BSW’s downloadable Java client is a deplorable mess, a nightmarish melange of tiny, overtiled panes with candy-colored buttons whose unclear purpose has nothing to do with the fact that the application is natively in German (appropriate to der Vaterland of many of its supported games, and of course only a problem to monoglots like me).

BrettspielWeltScreenSnapz001.pngAnd yet, it’s become the one place you go to play many popular tabletop games online, because that’s where everyone else goes. If you cross your eyes and look at this screenshot (click to enlarge), you’ll note that churning mass of colored bars in the background all say “Dominion” in them. Each of those is a game of Dominion in progress, and that horizontally(?!)-scrollable pane contains many more, stretching far off-screen. It’s like this all day long, filled with players from around the world and its many time zones. It doesn’t seem possible to play a game against bots, alas, but if you can convince friends to join you — or if you don’t mind practicing with strangers (and the risk of their ragequitting) — then this is the venue for online Dominion that the world has embraced.

The actual game does an acceptable job with its interface, given the constraints. Wisely, its designer chose to render the cards as space-saving squares or minimized rows of text (depending on context), rather than copy the physical cards’ oblong shape. This means that the cards’ various powers are expressed only as mouse-hovering tooltips, but really, you should use them only for reminders anyway; I can’t recommend coming anywhere near the BSW version of Dominion if you don’t already know how to play. Fortunately, the rules are available online, if you need a refresher — or if you’re feeling brave enough to try the game for the first time there.

Keldon Jones’ Race game also features an internet-play mode, which — as of Friday evening — houses a healthy handful of active players. So I do believe I’ll wrap this up, wish you a nice weekend, and go knock over some planets.

[1] And, yes, you can actually play this Fluxx adaptation, made by myself and Andrew Plotkin, via, our misbegotten internet-game thingy that we haven’t developed further in years, but continue to keep propped up because why not. But this link goes into a footnote because it requires you to download a Java-based game client, the very sort of thing I go on to slag two paragraphs later. Look, I started designing it in 2003, and it seemed like the right idea at the time.

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The Race to Expand your Dominion

expanding colony028.jpgThe only thing worse than a flawed expansion to a good tabletop game is listening to some know-it-all groan about it. Complaints about expansions, after all, suggest their own unbeatable counterargument: So, don’t play with the expansions, then! It’s not like eschewing an expansion makes the basic vanilla game suddenly stop working, right? Perhaps we don’t enjoy Knightmare Chess, but we don’t therefore conclude that the original game is forever spoiled.

So, in an attempt to turn such grumbling into an essay worth reading, let me turn it around: I hereby declare that it is not just desirable but possible to design an expansion set for a good game in such a way that actually improves the game as a whole, rather than simply making it larger. So this fact makes it that much more disappointing when a solid game releases an expansion that adds stuff, but fails to add an equal-or-greater amount of fun. Fair enough?

As it happens, I can find one example of each between two often-compared games of recent vintage. Dominion (Donald X. Vaccarino) and Race for the Galaxy (Tom Lehmann) are both quick-playing card games that have earned tremendous cachet from tabletop gamers in the last two or three years. (The Gameshelf has itself ruminated about both games, via Kevin and Zarf, respectively.) Both proved successful enough to spawn several expansions apiece; Race got its third such set into print earlier this year, and Dominion — despite being a slightly younger game — will see its fourth in stores by the holidays.

Let’s look at Race for the Galaxy’s general expansion philosophy. What comes in each of its little boxes?

First and foremost, new cards, which (after a requisite period of drooling admiration over the new goodies) get shuffled into one’s existing Race card deck, and then stay there forever, permanently expanding the size of your draw pile. Let us set aside the fact that, after two such boosts, a Race deck starts becoming rather unweildy, requiring a multi-stage effort to shuffle, and forming a teetering skyscraper on the table. I’m more interested in the implications of increasing your deck size in a shared-draw game like Race.

Optimal play requires familiarity with all the cards in the deck and the ways they can work together, a feat any attentive player can manage after several plays with the game’s basic set. When you double or triple the size of that deck, though, this becomes much harder, and — at least for players with fallible memory, like me — familiarity transforms into mystery, having a much murkier idea of the all ways the growing stew of cards can interact. No doubt, having to change one’s focus away from strategic foresight and more towards tactical improvisation brings its own flavor of fun. But I do see it as a one-for-one trade-off, permanently sacrificing one style of play for another.

Beyond the cards, each expansion brings a bevy of new rules to the game, and a handful of pretty props to help you track and enact them. The first set is the gentlest, adding only some tokens representing of new ways to score points via the established in-game actions. When it was brand new, and I was still a young and idealistic would-be galactic conqueror, this welcome first expansion felt like a patch. It gave players more things to aim at, but didn’t fundamentally alter play strategies — and those new cards sure did smell good. Mm-mm.

The next two expansions, though, proved much hairier. Between them, Race sees a new, complex game mechanic (Takeovers), an entirely new kind of resource to gain and manage (Prestige), a more complicated way of starting the game (red versus blue Homeworld cards), and rules regarding a “super-action” that each player can fire off once during a game. So it’s not just the card stack that grows; the game’s own rulebook gets fatter as well.

Here the game climbs into one of its own Terraforming Robots and digs straight down, adding depth to the rules via the rather direct method of adding more rules. (And, yes, adding height to the game as well, piling up more and more cards to draw from.) Somewhere within all these new levels, I got lost. I found the game possessing a just-right complexity level when I first learned it, a delightful mental juggling act that felt appropriate to theme of managing an upstart star-spanning empire. Now, even when playing with only some of the new rules in place, all that complexity tips over into becoming a burden. It’s so much to keep in mind, all at once.

But if Race for the Galaxy has used the depth strategy for its expansions, then Dominion has gone for breadth, and I think it works better. The three Dominion expansions published so far introduce only new “kingdom cards”, the short stacks of cards carrying unique play effects, that players vie over to build the best personal decks. The second expansion also introduces a few props and tokens, but they are each tied specifically to the effects of certain cards, rather than adding new rules global to the entire game.

That’s the key difference between Dominion’s expansions and Race’s, actually. Even if you start a game with all four available Dominion boxes as well as the various promo cards primed and ready, the core rules of the game do not change. And one of those rules is: pick ten kingdom cards somehow — randomly is just fine — and lay their stacks out. Leave your umpteen other sets of kingdom cards back in their boxes and think on them no more, because they’re not in this game. Everything relevant to the game now in session is now in the middle of the table, shared among all the players, and face-up. From here on out it’s just a question of competing strategies.

In effect, all the Dominion expansions do is broaden the pool that the game’s (usually random) initial layout comes from, making it more likely that you’ll run into delightfully novel power combinations and force-multipliers among them. The rules overhead, the amount of things you’ve got to keep in mind while you play, doesn’t significantly increase. No matter how many add-ons you pile up, you need concern yourself with only a small slice of your whole card collection in any given game. At worst, you’ll encounter new classes of cards, such as the Seaside expansion’s Duration cards or Alchemy’s Potions. But so far these have felt like natural extensions to the core rules, rather than the bolted-on mechanics of, say, Race’s Takeovers.

Clearly, I find much more satisfaction in Dominion’s approach to widening its gameplay through expansion sets than Race’s efforts to deepen itself. But these sets are so tied to their respective games’ designs that I certainly can’t say that I’d always prefer an expansion set that took the breadth-first route. I just find it interesting that two games with similar appeal took up their shovels at around the same time and dug their expansions along different axes, with the result of a startling magnification of the games’ diverging qualities.

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On shorter games

Quite by accident, my last post reflecting on the trend away from difficult slogs in all kinds of games fell on the same day that several indie game developers banded together to blog in support of intentionally short videogames. My post and theirs drew inspiration from the same well, though; many of these posts pointed to the brilliant Limbo, which I wrote about on Monday, and the sniping it received from the enthusiast press for having a total play-length of less than ten hours.

As expected, Jon Blow writes a compelling (and short!) entry, after which he (like all the other writers in this exercise) compiles a list of links to the other participating game developers’ short-game essays (a list which, to my delight, includes Boston-based developers and Gameshelf friends Eitan Glinert and Scott MacMillan). Jamie Fristrom also caught my attention with a look back, with some regret, on decisions he took part in producing Schizoid and Spider Man 2, both long and difficult games which very few of their fans have played to completion. (In fact, I count myself among this impressed but unfulfilled majority in both games’ cases.)

My spur to finally write this acknowledgement came via Sean Murray’s “The Long Game”, in which he stands with the short-game fans, but then flips the argument onto its head in a defense of longer games (such as the one that his own studio develops). While I do appreciate the perspective, I can’t quite cross the bridge he builds there.

Arcade-style skill contests like Geometry Wars to one side, I’m very skeptical of any single-player videogame’s ability to “amaze and delight over weeks of play”, at least not with the unremitting intensity of novelty that defines the games on the Braid/Portal axis. Members of this family are short because they end when they’re empty, when they have no new things to show the player within their intentionally narrow play-domains. The tightest examples of the form establish their rules and spaces quickly, and then proceed to explore every interesting permutation of it, avoiding repetition in either game presentation or player activity. When the whole space is explored, the curtain closes (perhaps after a finale that ties up the frame story, if necessary).

At no point does the game suggest that it might be worth the player’s time to go tromp through a fifth procedurally generated dungeon, or scan an eighteenth planet for random-number “rare ores”, or what have you. They are not about escape, of spending as much time as you can away from reality before the game comes to a close (or becomes too boring to bear any further). Escape will always have a role in the world of videogames, but there is no good reason why new games should be judged in light of how expansive an escape they provide. Some games would rather try to enhance your life with brief and brilliant new patterns that will leave a mark on your mind than deliver a slow-drip soporific.

(Yes, there are always exceptions. Most multi-player games I hold almost entirely exempt from this line of reckoning, since I find them such fundamentally different experiences. Then again, I suppose I might want to label treadmill-based MMOs as exempt from my exemption. And where do half-breed board-gamey timesinks like Sid Meier’s Civilization fit into this? Well, perhaps that’s a column for another time.)

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More thoughts on the passing of cruelty

I find it interesting, as an aside to yesterday’s column, to examine how applied cruelty has fallen from favor across multiple game media over time.

I chose the word “cruelty” quite intentionally, referencing Andrew Plotkin’s famous Cruelty Scale for interactive fiction and adventure games in general, even though that particular yardstick actually hasn’t seen much use lately. Today, adventure games worth playing rarely require players to keep more than one save file. Gone, largely, are the days where players must save early and often, managing an entire tableful of carefully named save-positions for easy — and inevitably frequent — access.

(In fact, the main reason the concept came to mind at all was Sarah Morayati’s excellent but unforgiving Broken Legs, a game that overtly classifies itself as belonging to the thorniest rung of Zarf’s scale, the one where games merrily — and silently — allow you put them into an unwinnable state. The game is an intentional stylistic throwback to certain knotted puzzlefests of yore, leaning against the modern trend that favors narrative over puzzles.[1] The game (which took second place in last year’s IFComp) succeeds because the player character — the irascible, scheming drama princess Lottie Plum — is an acerbic joy to play, and she tells a rollicking story, even if she herself is more interested in sabotaging all her peers than actually performing on-stage. But it’s a story you’ll need to patiently play though several times, if you want to give Lottie the best ending.)

Board games, too, have largely become a stranger to cruelty. When we filmed Diplomacy last year, I initially felt disappointed that no players got eliminated from our game — an ever-present possibility in this game from the 1950s. Not only would that have added easy drama to our unscripted, televised narrative, but we could have capitalized on the very concept of a board game that can “kill” players, forcing them to stop playing while their friends keep going — something that seems flatly outrageous by today’s tabletop design standards. Never mind certain shambling zombie-games that still manage to keep up this pretense…

And when’s the last time any of you with a tabletop RPG bent have ever had a character die — or, at at any rate, die without your full consent as a player? A few years ago, some local friends decided to play a game of first edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, taking the circa-1975 rules literally as written, with the GM making no exceptions. This was back when phrases like the character must make a saving throw versus poison or die could be found dozens of times in any given rulebook or adventure description.

The result, of course, was a massacre, with individual players sometimes ripping through several character sheets within a single session, as their powered-up superheroes succumbed in a heartbeat to unlucky die rolls around falling-rock traps or venomous spiders. Nobody tried terribly hard to develop their doomed characters’ abilities, nor was there much call for inventing a completely new persona for each of their mayfly alter-egos. Clearly, these rules fit much better to a time when the game still had one foot in the category of miniatures-based wargaming.

So, the next time you’re playing a game of any sort that recognizably punishes failure without diminishing your level of fun, thank all those before you who have gave their in-game lives — over and over and over again — for the sake of inspiring better game design.

[1] Sarah reminds me about Jon Ingold’s delectably evil Make it Good, another capital-C Cruel game of recent vintage that is far larger and more difficult than her own work. The key point for me, though, is that I played Broken Legs more recently, and my memory is weak. So there’s that!

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Take thy sting and shove it

thpsx-castlevania-death.pngI really enjoyed Limbo (Arnt Jensen et al), holder of this year’s Portal-Braid Memorial Award[1]. Beyond being a densely packed and very clever puzzle-platformer of exactly the right length, it has some interesting things to say about the concept of “death” in videogames, and how this concept has evolved over the last quarter-century.

From its title (and unnervingly flyblown title screen) through its murky shadow-puppet audiovisual aesthetic, Limbo makes death a thematic focus long before it actually shows up as a gameplay element. And death, in the traditional videogame sense, will visit its player many, many times: your on-screen character succumbs to an obstacle, you get a little “oopsie” animation, and you must try again to overcome it.

However, over the course of a single Limbo playthrough you will die far less often than you’ll send Mario, the unironically happy little bouncyman, gurgling down into his game-over grave while learning to play his own candy-colored signature game — even though we don’t see Super Mario Bros. as a particularly macabre title. What’s going on here, exactly, beyond the obvious differences in visual design?

Among the first things Limbo teaches the new player is the peculiar nature of death in its world. As you have the hero take his first steps through its enshrouded landscape of black-on-black objects, you don’t initially realize that the lugubrious depressions in the ground will make him instantly drown on contact, or that the jagged patterns in the shrubbery are actually bear traps that will snip his head clean off in an eyeblink. But you learn quickly, because the game merrily lets you trip into each one, and bam-you’re-dead.

That sounds horrible, and it rather is, at least in one sense. But in the same stroke (ho ho), the game teaches you something else: death in Limbo might be swift and shocking, but it is never cruel. After displaying a very short animation appropriate to how the hapless protagonist met his “end”, the game immediately — without so much as “PLAYER ONE GET READY!” intertitle screen — resets itself just a tiny bit. The hero, knit back into one piece, stands a single play-moment before the point he succumbed, and the player resumes control mere seconds after losing it.

In a blog post about Super Meat Boy, another modern platform game, designer Edmund McMillen calls this the “No time for tears” principle: if the game is remorseless about killing the player-character, it should keep the player equally remorseless by never stopping the action. But Limbo puts its own interesting spin on this. Super Meat Boy, and other indie platformers of recent vintage including When Pigs Fly and VVVVVV, apply the fast-restart philosophy to making sequences of challengingly merciless mazes to navigate repeatedly and rapidly until you succeed. “Death”, here, is as clear-cut as the holes that the ball bearing drops through in classic wooden labyrinth toys.

In the particular case of Limbo, these first few deaths are less “no time for tears” as they are “no time to quit the game in disgust”. It lets you hold the outrage of your character’s swift and apparently unclued demise for exactly the length of time it takes for your jaw to drop and brows to knit, and then hurls down the other shoe a split second before you can pick your jaw back up to assist in the formation of a few choice words.

What you learn, in the first minutes of play, is that while death is everywhere in Limbo, it is neither capricious nor unkind. Even as it “kills” you, it also demonstrates that it’ll pick you back up whenever you fall, and — crucially — will never expect you to redo any feats you’ve already passed[2]. Emboldened, you carry on, and the first time you anticipate a trap just by the suspicious shape of the land, leaping over the hidden swinging blade on your first try, it feels like an especially thrilling triumph. Despite the buckets of blood and guts you spill over the course of play, you soon end up feeling indestructible. In pace with the player’s lessened worry over failing its various digital-dexterity challenges, the game gradually mixes in puzzles of increasing complexity. By the time you get to the most intricately interlocked deathtraps housing malevolent lurking horrors, it somehow seems like a laid-back experience, something to explore at your own pace, and never mind the three fatalities per minute.

Combine this with the fact that the game hides glowing extra-credit candies in non-obvious places, and you’ll quickly make your character gleefully leap off ledges or crawl into the mouths of horrible grinding machines just to see what’s there. At worst, you’ll get to watch another briefly gory death animation, which by that point appears as nothing more than a playful finger-wag, and then you’re placed right back in control, ready to see what this button does…

Of equal importance to this instant-recovery mechanic is the fact that the game, also in the mode of recent indie platformers, keeps no tally your character’s stumbles. Videogames used to have “lives” as a rule. They were de rigueur in single-player coin-operated games, borrowing a handy design element from their non-digital neighbors in the arcades. Pac-Man rolls three Pac-Men into your queue in exchange for a quarter, challenging you to get the highest score you can with each one, for the very same reason you get nine chances to peg that center ring in the Skee-Ball lane right behind you. It made sense at the time, enough that the concept carried into Super Mario Bros. and its innumerable home-console colleagues.

The world’s palate for videogame difficulty has become refined since then. When games involve lives today, they often do so out of a misplaced sense of nostalgia, usually because they’re the latest iteration of a long-lived “franchise” that mistakenly sees limited lives as an intractable part of its core definition. One of my most unpleasant videogame experiences of the last couple of years involved Bionic Commando: Rearmed, which had the misfortune to be released on Xbox Live Arcade exactly one week after Braid. I enjoyed it right up until the first time the game responded to a fumbled maneuver by showing me a “GAME OVER” screen, inviting me to try again from the beginning. “This is not treating my time and attention as precious,” I said out loud, paraphrasing Braid’s compelling tagline. And I never played that game again.

Then there is Super Mario Galaxy. While I found it fun enough to play through to the end, it insists on tracking “lives” that moderately skilled players will never deplete, apparently to give the brand-defining 1UP Mushrooms something to do. While Mario and his handlers have embraced the gentler difficulty of modern platform games, they cannot let go of this atavistic holdover from their own glory days, or invent a more fitting risk-reward system.

Like the middle-ground level of afterlife from which the game takes its name, Limbo reduces death to less of a punishment than a judgment-free consequence, and even an opportunity for learning, as the player explores the space of each subsequent puzzle. How far we have risen, says this game and its indie contemporaries, from the scalding Inferno that platform videogames once didn’t scruple to plumb — even while certain of its plumbers still struggle to rise above it.

[1] This is a name I made up just now for short, clever, beautiful console games which, once I complete them, compel me to schedule evening-long group-playthroughs at my house with my friends.

[2] Well, almost never. My least favorite part of Limbo was the one violation I encountered of this trust. It added 15 rather unfun minutes to my otherwise pure play experience, and it would have been so obviously fixed by placing the respawn checkpoint at a different location that I have to regard it as a bug in the level-design data. (Rot13 spoiler: Vg jnf gur whzc qbja gur fybcr, evtug nsgre gur pneg ba gur mvcyvar.)

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Magick Systems in Theory and Practice, Installment 8: Conclusion

First, I'd like to say thanks to Jason McIntosh, Kevin Jackson-Mead, and Andrew Plotkin for the opportunity to write this series; it's been extremely useful to have a forum for clarifying my own ideas on magic systems. I'd also like to thank everyone who read and commented on each blog entry. Your feedback has been very helpful, often bringing new games to my attention as well as offering helpful insights into existing games and concepts. When Jason and Kevin first mentioned the idea of guest-blogging on the Gameshelf, we agreed that a limited duration of a couple months made the most sense, in part so that other guest bloggers can carry forward the mission of the Gameshelf in many exciting ways.


And, while in one sense I'm wrapping up this particular series, I feel more like radiating outward in many directions, because the opportunity to write here has inspired so many ideas for further exploration. Magic is an explosive nexus that doesn't react well to being contained or bottled up. It's best to answer the question: where next? And the inevitable answer is: many directions. This installment is written under the aspect of the sign of chaos (as invented by fantasy writer Michael Moorcock and adopted equally in games like Warhammer 40k and Peter Carroll's occultist movement Chaos Magick). In its positive sense, chaos is a signpost pointing toward a multitude of possible paths, liberating creative energy rather than confining it.

As far as my own creative work goes, I'll be posting a new video of my Arcana Manor interface on Youtube soon, since I now have working code in the form of drag and drop elements of spell grammar feed into array, as well as a function for matching the changing contents of this array with a database of spells. Using GlovePie, I now have keyboard input controlled by voice, as well as drawing input via the Grafitti bitmap drawing library in Actionscript 3.0. I'm currently working with mouse gesture recognition libraries in order to allow drawing gestures to be fed to the array, thereby making drawing a fully integrated aspect of the interface. 

My work at this point focuses primarily on gui development and control schemes because a magic system is an interface--a symbolic construct laid over the world in order to make something happen. Magic is applied symbology, directed outward as well as inward. It is for this reason that occult practice is more useful to me as a designer than the psychotherapy or comparative mythology of Jung, Eliade, and Campbell. Magic is a practice as well as a theory, a system of symbols whose purpose is the alteration of rule-based reality rather than self-analysis or anthropological speculation. 

One of the places that I'm applying my ideas about magic systems is in teaching within the game development and design major at Dakota State University. In Fall 2010, I'm teaching a class called Game 492: Magic and Combat Systems, in which these blog entries will be part of the suggested reading. Students will design systems of spell-casting and fighting in a variety of different game genres and using an array of tools, with the aim of breaking out of the "tray of icons with cooldown period" approach as well as the "depthless button-mashing" paradigm. In addition, I'm teaching a class on Classical Myth and Media (with emphasis on magic-related topics such as Orpheus, Dionysus, and the mystery religions), as well as a course on level design. Finally, I'm team-teaching the junior-level projects course, in which one team is developing a puzzle adventure game about alchemy. 

In addition to my own creative production and teaching, I'm continuing my research into magic systems, with an extension into magic across media, while keeping my center firmly in games. Some of this research involves looking forward to new magic systems on the horizon, such as the Sorcery game, with its elaborate gestural casting system designed for the PS3 Move, as well as the MMO The Secret World, with its designers' promise of new schools of magic and methods for acquiring magical abilities. I'm interested in any platform with alternate control systems: Kinect, 3DS, Playstation Move, Ipad, Iphone, and Android.

I'm also fascinated by the often-neglected realms of non-digital gaming and gaming history--including CCG's, board games, and miniatures--where games can be stripped down to the bones of their mechanics (and possibly also their metaphysics). My investigation of magic systems is as much an exercise in game archeology as game prognosis, since I'm looking back to the early and middle eras of game design for lost gems that occurred before magic became homogenized and standardized into a single template. 

Just as simulations of magic in non-digital games can help to expose the skeletal structure of digital magic systems, so magic in other media--such as graphic novels, music, and film--can inspire and illuminate magic systems in games. A case in point would be magic in music, especially the genres of black metal and death metal. The occult-themed song "The Grand Conjuration" by Opeth has a down-tuned, double guitar and eerily keyboard-driven melody that almost cries out for a game adaptation: a cry partially answered by an "8-bit Opeth" tune posted on Youtube, to a chorus of comments asking for the accompanying retro NES game. (Part of me wonders if the SNES game Demon's Crest might have been the appropriate game, but 15 years too early.) 

Particular metal songs aside, there could have easily been a blog entry on magic and audio, with emphasis on songs as magical spells in games like Loom and Ocarina of Time. Audio magic extends naturally into cinematic magic systems, such as Mother of Tears, the third installment in Dario Argento's Three Mothers trilogy, which finally grants its protagonist supernatural powers to fight off her witch adversaries. All of these media offer an alternative to the crass popularization of magic in Hogwarts and its ilk, in which the metaphysical imagination degenerates into juvenile fantasy. 

As I've been thinking about how to wrap up this blog series, I've had in my head the motto that Irish poet W.B. Yeats took in the Order of the Golden Dawn: "daemon est deus inversus" (a demon is a god inverted). The possibility of the demonic implies intimations of the sacred, the demonic in the original Greek sense of "daimon" as a guardian spirit. Even the darkest of games gains power not from evil but the spiritual, the awe-inspiring, the energy-charged. The Dark Heresy of Warhammer 40k, the rebellion of Raziel against Kain, or the battle against demons in Demon's Souls are all manifestations of a struggle against the prosaic, the dull, the authority of this world. At their deepest levels, all aspects of magic systems--their grammars, words, gestures, graphics, audio, and metaphysics--speak to the ritual purpose of reaching inward and outward into the furthest planes of our imaginations.  And that's a banner that I'll gladly wave, with the happy assistance of kindred souls like the readers of the Gameshelf.

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Magick Systems in Theory and Practice, Installment 7: Arcana Manor


Since this blog series is called "Magick Systems in Theory and Practice," I feel that I should talk about my own practice in terms of concrete design of magic systems. For the past year and a half or so, I've been working on a project tentatively (and perhaps temporarily) titled Arcana Manor

For the sake of consistency, I'll reproduce some of the most recent design document, starting with the game's 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 an elaborate system of gestural sigils, incantations, colors, and sounds that makes players feel like true adepts, not mere button-pushers. 

The magic system has these overall goals:

• to let players feel like they are the ones casting the spells rather than watching a character cast them

• to allow players to express and re-configure symbolic ideas differently in order to warp and alter reality, i.e. the system changes and adapts to different players' behaviors and personalities
• to be learnable, in part, through experimentation and trial-and-error so that there will be mystery surrounding the system; while the system is rigorously rule-based, a part of magic should remain magical in the sense of unpredictable, hidden, and knowable only through direct experience.

The conceptual framework of the magic system is based on ideas derived from authentic mystical and occult lore, in which magic is a metaphor for the power of the creative imagination.

• Players cast spells through their mastery of arcane knowledge and the symbolic correspondences of ritual
Aleister Crowley, Liber 777: 'There is a certain natural connexion between certain letters, words, numbers, gestures, shapes, perfumes and so on, so that any idea or (as we might call it) "spirit", may be composed or called forth by the use of those things which are harmonious with it, and express particular parts of its nature.'"

When I first started thinking, working on, and blogging about Arcana Manor, Kevin graciously posted on the Gameshelf a quick synopsis from my home blog,  Early in the process of development and team formation, I also set up a wiki with the game's design documents and concept art.  Much of this information is now outdated as the game's concept has shifted, but some of it still applies.

Arcana Manor started out as a prototype in the Unreal 2 engine, which consisted solely of a small labyrinth of rooms meant to convey a Gothic funhouse of strange winding staircases, treacherous platforms, and walls textured with backwards Tarot cards. The idea was to convey the experience of moving through an architecturally instantiated tarot deck in an action-adventure game with a unique magic system.

As I worked, it soon became apparent that creating a magic system from scratch within the Unreal editor would be extremely difficult. (The designers of Clive Barker's Undying actually did so, but only through a large team of artists, as well as programmers with expensive source code access--which costs hundreds of thousands of dollars per seat on the project).

So I decided to move to a less expensive and more flexible indie engine: the Torque Game Engine Advanced, a relatively cheap non-commercial license of which gives access to source code. The Torque Game Engine Advanced allowed me to create more customized levels with my own textures and 3d models, culminating in a 3d version of the kabbalistic tree of life, with the branches or sephiroth marked by appropriate Hebrew letters and Golden Dawn attributions of hovering major arcana tarot cards. 

Arcana Manor didn't fully hit its development swing until I started using the gui editor to create my own custom interface for spellcasting. The interface that I developed reflected all of the theories that I've described in earlier blog posts about spell grammars and symbolic correspondences, and creating the interface actually refined these theories considerably. The player dials in a spell through a complex set of revolving tarot wheels derived from an Iphone interface, as well as a radial set of buttons distributed along a hexagram.

I like the look and feel of this interface because it conveys the feeling of the magic system that I'm going for, but there is little backend code to make the system work consistently as a method of spellcasting. Furthermore, the Torque gui editor is not very flexible, so writing such code was a maze of C++ modification and scripting, the cost of which far outweighed its benefits. (I also began an academic year of teaching four classes a semester, which brought my own game development to a temporary halt.)

Halfway through the following summer (i.e. this one), I switched to Flash because of its flexibility of interface development, and I starting learning GlovePie (a program for alternative input methods, such as WiiMotes, P5 Virtual Reality gloves, the Novint Falcon force feedback controller, and the Emotiv EEG reader). Flash development entailed study of Actionscript 3.0 using Gary Rosenzweig's excellent book Actionscript 3.0 Game Programming University. Anybody interested in a blow-by-blow account of my slow migration to Flash and GlovePie, as well as the current progress of Arcana Manor, can check out my twitter feed: @arcanamanor. I ended up separating the interface of the magic system from the background game, enabling me to focus on two-dimensional art assets and a gui with a working back end.

The current interface consists of a drag-and-drop set of tarot cards, gems, and Enochian letters that can be placed on three targets in order to form three-element combinations that constitute various spells. Most of my Actionscript 3.0 programming has focused on enabling the drag-and-drop functionality and developing a set of arrays that track spell input, store it in an array, and then matching each element of the array as well as the completed array against a database of spells. To make this work, I had to write a function to match individual elements as well as a function to compare arrays against a multidimensional array. My colleague in the DSU game design program, Steven Graham, generously helped me tweak and edit this code to make it fully functional tonight.

There is still a lot of work to be done to match up with the vision of multimodal input and corresponding multimodal feedback at the heart of this project. I've summed that vision up in a long series of design documents, which I will post in a subsequent blog entry, along with more videos, links, images, and descriptions. But I hope that this entry gives a taste of what I'm up to and how I'm putting the theory of magic systems into practice, one step at a time.

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Magick Systems in Theory and Practice, Installment 6: Metaphysics and Mechanics

A magic system is the sum total of its mechanics, interface, visual art, audio, narrative, and mythology, because a game is defined by its experience and experience consists in all of these components. Since a magic system simulates the alteration of reality by the will through the agency of metaphysical forces, all of the components of a magic system (such as visuals and audio) should ideally be pervaded by the metaphysics that the system is designed to simulate. Yet, a magic system that pushes its metaphysics to the peripheries of its art style and narrative is taking the easy way out, with the result that hardcore players will tend to ignore what they regard as mere flavor and fluff in favor of the mechanics through which they can gain concrete strategic advantage. A designer who aims to enrich her magic system through the introduction of metaphysical profundity will want to unify metaphysics and mechanics so that the understanding of esoteric concepts will improve a given player's ability to succeed in the game. Then, the hardcore gamers will tend to have the greatest, deepest grasp of the game's metaphysics because they stand to benefit most from such a comprehension.


How, then, could mechanics and metaphysics be intertwined? The conjunction between the rules and affordance of a game with its philosophical implications can sometimes best be observed in non-digital games, in which the skeleton of mechanics tend to be unobscured by moving graphics and sound. One example of intertwined metaphysics and mechanics is *Nephilim*, the French game of "occult roleplaying" alluded to in last week's blog entry.

Among *Nephilim*'s many interesting mechanics is a modifier that changes the effect of a given spell according to the astrological signs associated with hours and days of the week as they interact with various elemental correspondences. The system is sufficiently complex that a Game Master's Veil (i.e. screen) includes a pentagram-shaped dial with windows that can be placed over a complex astrological table in order to calculate the modifier every time that a spell is cast. The astrological modifier and its expression through a concrete tool of turn-by-turn gameplay is one example of a metaphysical system of celestial influence and its conjunction with a game mechanic.

The word "conjunction" is not coincidental, since one of the most concrete ways to express a cosmology as a game mechanic is through the simulation of heavenly bodies and their mystical influences. Ever since the moongates of the Ultima series, in which the phase of the moon determined the destination of a teleport spell, the magic systems of some games have incorporated a calculation of celestial influence. One notable example are the games in the Dragonlance *campaign setting, which features three moons (white, black, and red) associated with three gods (Nuitari, Solinari, and Lunitari) and three alignments (good, evil, neutral). 


Mages of a given alignment have access to a specific set of schools of magic (black mages, for example, are the only magic users able to cast necromancy spells) and receive positive and negative modifiers depending on the phase of the three moons. The moon-based system of phases and modifiers is implemented in both the tabletop rules for the Dragonlance setting as well as some of the CRPG's based on this setting, such as Champions of Krynn.  The cosmology has been deemed of sufficient interest to at least one writer, Darren Bellisle, that he took it upon himself to calculate the exact trajectories of the moons using scientifically accurate astronomical formulas.  The moons of Krynn and their associated magic systems take place within a larger astronomical and cosmological context in which the constellations represent a genealogy of gods, visualized as a family tree that closely resembles the Greek and Roman theogonies. By now, the association of gods with colors and schools of magic resonates with accumulated examples of the deities, runes, and colors of Eternal Darkness and Warhammer. The specific use of moons to provide magical modifiers also appears in the richly complex and mythologically-infused Shin Megamei Tensei meta-franchise.

A further example of the relationship between mechanics and metaphysics is Enochian chess, an esoterically-charged, four-handed chess variant practiced in the upper levels of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a ritual magic group in Victorian England. Enochian chess takes its name from Elizabethan astrologer and mathematician John Dee's system of magic based on communication with angels through an angelic alphabet and associated language. The gameplay of Enochian chess is patterned off Chatturanga, a four-player Indian precursor to chess, but the four sets of pieces in Enochian chess are four groups of Egyptian gods associated with each of the classical elements. Enochian chess is designed to be a summation and synthesis of the entire Golden Dawn esoteric teachings, which involved the adept's balancing of the four elements in her own personality and the outside world. Consequently, capturing a piece in Enochian chess requires a player to maneuver all four elemental incarnations of a given piece, such as a bishop, into a single square--after which all four versions of the piece disappear.

Thus far, metaphysics and mechanics are closely aligned: the capturing mechanic simulates the balancing and sublimation of the elemental forces. When the four Enochian chess boards are examined, however, an unsatisfying rift opens between mechanic and metaphysics. The Enochian chess boards are masterpieces of compressed symbolic correspondences, in which each square displays corresponding tarot, alchemical, geomantic, astrological, and Enochian attributions.


These boards are patterned on the four Enochian Watchtowers: matrices of Enochian symbols, English letters, and elemental attributions arranged through intricate configurations of pyramids. But whereas the Enochian tablets constitute a generative matrix designed to produce sacred names of power, the Enochian chess boards have no direct affect on play. (Arguably, the boards serve a secondary and tertiary function as cosmological teaching tools and divinatory aids--functions which might be considered as levels of gameplay. The attributions on the boards matter because the spaces over which the pieces move indicate an answer to a question about the future posed prior to the game. I'm also currently unable to test to what extent strategy in Enochian chess correlates with metaphysical propositions about strategically useful esoteric conjunctions, i.e. whether capturing pieces becomes more feasible from a gameplay perspective in particularly charged nexi. The relevant documents about the rules of Enochian chess can be read in a late chapter of Israel Regardie's Golden Dawn as well as Chris Zalewski's book, Enochian Chess of the Golden Dawn).

Nephilim, the moons of Krynn, and Enochian chess all represent varying levels of integration between the metaphysics and the mechanics of magic systems. The movement from esoteric system to game rules is a two-way street, in which the inherently systemic structure of occultist practice organically evolves into gameplay even while games aspire to the characteristics of spiritual practice. However, each of these games is still only an approximation, a stab in the dark at the Platonic ideal of metaphysically resonant games, which might be represented by Herman Hesse's imaginary Glass Bead Game in his novel of the same title. Though the book is rife with complexities and ironies about the nature of Hesse's metaphor for intellectual inquiry, the narrator rhapsodizes about the metaphysical ramifications of this encyclopedic game, which weaves together all fields of knowledge according to principles of musical counterpoint. As Hesse's narrator explains, 

 I suddenly realized that in the language, or at any rate in the spirit of the Glass Bead Game, everything actually was all-meaningful, that every symbol and combination of symbols led not hither and yon, not to single examples, experiments, and proofs, but into the center, the mystery and innermost heart of the world, into primal knowledge. Every transition from major to minor in a sonata, every transformation of a myth or a religious cult, every classical or artistic formulation was, I realized in that flashing moment, if seen with truly a meditative mind, nothing but a direct route into the interior of the cosmic mystery, where in the alternation between inhaling and exhaling, between heaven and earth, between Yin and Yang, holiness is forever being created.

As designers of magic systems, we may not be able to create the Glass Bead Game (though some designers have tried), but we can reach toward some approximation of its sublime richness if we strive toward the "chemical marriage" of metaphysics and mechanics.  In next week's entry, I'll demonstrate one small step that I'm making toward these goals in my own design work.  

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Magick Systems in Theory and Practice, Installment 4: Horror and Magic

The relationship between magic systems and horror is hidden and unexplored territory, as secret as the black arts that lurk within the games themselves. Horror as used here refers not strictly to the genre of survival horror, which is a marketing construct invented in association with the first Resident Evil. Rather, horror-themed games include any game whose purpose is to evoke a sense of fear, dread, and the sublimity of unknown dark forces. Horror-themed games can be first person shooters, action-adventure games, and side-scrolling beat 'em ups. Magic is rarely the core mechanic of horror-themed games, often because players are put in the position of fighting magic through firearms and melee, or using magic only indirectly through artifacts. Magic and horror are intimately wedded in terms of themes but not in terms of direct player interaction.

realmsofthehaunting.pngYet, horror games often have the most original and memorable simulations of magic in terms of atmosphere and mood. What horror games have to teach us is their atmospheric simulation of magic, the Gothic mood that they associate with magic through a combination of art style, audio, and (sometimes) haptics. If more closely melded with the core mechanics of games, magic systems in horror games can be superb examples of design and provide inspiration for other hybrid genres.

Magic appears prominently in horror games because of an endemic thematic preoccupation with the supernatural, with emphasis on its dark side as the infernal and the demonic. With this supernatural element in mind, the definition of magic systems can be further refined and extended from last week's blog entry. A magic system is a set of rules and symbols for rigorously simulating the alteration of reality through the will by the agency of a supernatural force, whether conceived of as a genuine metaphysical presence, a symbolic construct, or an energizing psychological reality. In keeping with Crowley's axiom from Magick and Theory and Practice that "any intentional act is a magical act," any act of gameplay requires the operation of the will to achieve a desired result in altering a symbolic reality; therefore, any game mechanic can potentially be looked at as magic. This definition could theoretically be extended to include snowboarding and guitar playing if the experience of these activities approached the transcendent (which according to some Rock Band devotees, it certainly does). However, those genres that most embrace the representation and simulation of the supernatural will tend to exhibit interrelated mechanics that can most rigorously be defined as magic systems.

 Next to fantasy, horror is the narrative genre that most readily takes the supernatural as a fictional premise, rather than rationalizing or dismissing it. Hence, horror games will often but not always include some supernatural element but will also sometimes struggle to integrate it with the game's core mechanics, perhaps in part because magic in horror is frequently represented in Lovecraftian terms as eldritch and unknowable. The need to obscure the workings of the supernatural within a cloak of mystery can conflict with the goal of making mechanics rational and accessible to players. Approached clumsily, this fictional premise leads to the conclusion that the enemy has magic and the player does not, so she must shoot the enemy or hit him with a stick. Approached with subtlety, a horror-themed magic system can be as consummately rational as the black arts themselves, with their dread economy of souls bartered for power, and at the same time dense with mystery that emerges from unexpected combinations and effects.

From Doom to Demon's Souls, games abound in demonic manifestations and exorcisms, and while the first response of players and designers may be to fire a shotgun in the direction of the approaching devil, sooner or later it makes more sense to fight fire with fire. Hence, the protagonists of horror-themed first-person shooters and action-adventure games become scholars of the occult, wielding not just a gun but the arcane knowledge needed to defeat their enemies.

Magic haunts the fringes of Doom in the form of burning pentagrams and demonic enemies, highlighting an element of gameplay that may have deep archetypal resonance. Indeed, the highest function of gameplay in horror games may be to allow players to face their demons, both literally and figuratively: a trope as old as the first mythic attempts to grapple with the problem of evil. Despite the presence of demonic elements in Doom, the players' abilities remain primarily physical. As the prototypical first-person shooter (though not the first one, which was Wolfenstein 3D), Doom keeps its gameplay grounded in the obliteration of demons with ballistic firepower. Nonetheless, the player's use of teleporters etched with occult symbols (both pentagrams and sigils), allows him access to infernal realms, forcing him "knee deep in hell" in the game's own words. Doom is a game about accidentally opening a rift from Hell onto Mars, and the demons that spill out of this schism mirror the spillage of the supernatural into the otherwise physical activity of shooting.

The Heretic and Hexen series, a line of fantasy-themed Doom clones published by Ravensoft within Id's hexen2.jpgDoom engine, moved the mechanic of magic from periphery to the center of the first-person shooter, albeit in the form of re-skinned shooting mechanics. Because the series is heavily influenced by Doom, it also carries over some of Doom's dark aesthetic, resulting in magic that is both darkly themed and wielded against demonic enemies. Hexen is German for "witches" (and, more literally, "casting a spell"), and its gameplay delivers on the experience of spell-casting from a first-person perspective through the use of magical staffs and other items that fling spells when swung. First-person games with magic tend to represent spells as projectiles that release their magical effects on impact with either a character or an environmental object. Spells are often also accompanied by an animation file that represents either the swinging of a melee object or spell gestures such as hand-waving.

The appearance of magic within first-person shooters is an outgrowth of the action-RPG, a hybrid of real-time combat, first-person perspective, and role-playing elements like stat-based character advancement. Ultima Underworld helps solidify this sub-genre, but it comes most strongly into its own in the Elder Scrolls series, particularly the celebrated late installments Morrowind and Oblivion. Action-RPG's are exercises in immersion, eschewing turn-based combat and mouse-driven auto-targeting in favor of aiming melee attacks and spells in real time. Third-person perspective and turn-based combat have tended to dominate RPG's of the last five years, especially MMO's, in part because these games place emphasis on the display of avatars for performance-oriented identity and socialization. Yet, this distancing of player from avatar, in which players peer down over the shoulder of a character rather than seeing through her eyes and gesturing with her hands, puts a gap between spellcaster and spellcasting that can be detrimental to the immersive experience of magic.

In the first-person perspective, players can feel as if they are the ones casting the spells rather than watching someone else cast them. The Elder Scrolls, in addition to its diverse range of spell effects, lets players run, swing swords, and fling fireballs simultaneously. Because this process requires quick thinking and quicker reflexes, it increases the degree of immersion associated with magic, rather than permitting players to simply select a target and then click a row of icons. The Elder Scrolls universe is not predominantly horror-themed, though it does incorporate Lovecraftian elements (such as the mythos-named Daedra Mehrunes Dagon and the R'lyeh-influenced architecture of the Daedric shrines) within a somewhat Gothic world. However, first-person action-RPG's lay the groundwork for full integration of magic systems within a horror-themed FPS, which occurs in the cult classic Realms of the Haunting and Clive Barker's Undying.

Undying is a classic example of a player character whose gameplay abilities entail using the powers of the dark against itself. In Undying, the player takes the role of Patrick Galloway, a scholar of the occult who wields both spells and guns. In terms of gameplay, this story premise allows the player to shoot weapons with one hand and cast spells with the other. Many of the spells in Undying are traditional first-person shooter projectiles with magical particle effects attached, yet even these spells have a Gothic flair. In casting a Skullstorm spell, the player as Galloway pulls shrieking skulls out of graveyard soil and flings them at enemies, with the restriction that the spell can only be cast while standing on soil. Another spell summons and strengthens demons but can be used to cause a human enemy to turn his gun on himself. The Scry spell reveals hidden apparitions and messages. Because Undying's spells actually function as casting effects rather than being dependent on items like magical staffs, they feel less like disguised shooter mechanics and more like a hybrid genre, such as the awkwardly hyphenated horror-themed action-adventure-shooter.

undyingspells.jpgWhile Undying successfully adapts magic to the first-person action-shooter, two other third-person action-adventure examples feature a less graceful integration: Nightmare Creatures and Shadow Man, both of which games are distinctly within the vein of the Soul Reaver series. In Nightmare Creatures, the player can take the role of a priest and scholar of the occult fighting off a cult led by a mad scientist with the suspicious name of Adam Crowley. Magic in this game appears as a metaphor for combat (much as in the later Bayonetta), specifically in the form of staff techniques unleashed through button-based combos, as well as magical effects created by power-ups. In Shadow Man, magic takes the form of voodoo abilities powered through dark souls and artifacts called cadeaux, reinforcing a French and Caribbean-influenced take on the horror-themed action-adventure game. One review wryly refers to Shadow Man as "Resident Mario" in reference to the importance of collecting the gameplay equivalent of coins and stars in order to unlock new areas and powers. As with Hexen, magic in these games plays a heavy part in world, art, and narrative design but is kept at a distance from the game's core mechanics--with a greater distance between world and mechanics in Nightmare Creatures than in Shadow Man.

When the magic system of a horror game does manage to mesh the atmosphere of audio and visuals with an equally rich core mechanic, the results tend to be superb. In Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem, magic (or magick, as the in-game text calls it) constitutes one of the core mechanics of this tremendous cult game, explored through a combinatorial language of runes whose multimodal richness and mythological depth far outstrip most magic systems. Eternal Darkness demonstrates that horror games can teach as much about the atmosphere of magic systems as their mechanics. The runic language of Eternal Darkness owes a debt to Dungeon Master and Ultima Underworld, but the audio of demonic chanting and visual explosions of symbolically-charged color of Eternal Darkness takes the game's magic system to an entirely new level.

Another superb example of magic in a game with horror elements is the masterful Vagrant Story, an RPG with strong survival horror elements, in which magic is the manifestation of a mysterious force called "the dark." Vagrant Story resonates with occult authenticity, since the player acquires spells from grimoires and doors are locked by sigils, both of which terms derive from ceremonial magic. Eschewing the Vancian system of Dungeons and Dragons, each grimoire is a spellbook with one spell which the player acquires permanently as his memories of abilities from a former life return. In a display of shockingly extensive research into kabbalistic and occult thought, several doors in the keep of Lea Monde are labeled with Hebrew letters glowing in symbolic colors.

vagrantstorysymbol.jpgWhile Vagrant Story and Eternal Darkness may eschew the Vancian systems of Dungeons and Dragons, another classic horror writer casts his sublime shadow over both games and horror gaming in general: H.P. Lovecraft. The energizing influence of horror games on magic systems is analogous to the influence exerted by H.P. Lovecraft on Robert E. Howard, resulting in an infusion of Conan's low fantasy with a black dose of the Cthulhu mythos.

To contextualize this analogous influence, it is important to see that the predominant literary source of high fantasy in games is J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. J.R.R. Tolkien's Catholicism led him to downplay the use of magic by his protagonists, resulting in a predominately weak and diluted use of enchantments to harmoniously influence nature. (Gandalf's defiance of the Balrog is an exception, and Sauron's power is an exception that proves the rule by condemning magic as powerful but devastatingly wicked and destructive to self and other). The undeniable influence of Tolkien on fantasy RPG's has perhaps marred the seriousness and atmosphere of these games' magic systems, such that Gary Gygax classified magic in Tolkien's fiction as "generally weak and ineffectual." True to form, the magic system in Lord of the Rings Online can sometimes be a little less than thrilling, since the main casting class of Loremasters are a relatively lukewarm druid/mage hybrid with elemental magic powers and beast pets. (The addition of Runekeepers with electrical shock magic is slightly more intriguing but of dubious relationship to Tolkien's fiction).

In contrast, Robert E. Howard's vision of magic is sufficiently influenced by the Cthulhu mythos to become both darker and more rich than standard high fantasy, suggesting an analogous inspirational power for horror to influence magic systems in games. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard corresponded extensively because of their mutual tendency to publish in Weird Tales. Magic in Howard's stories has a distinctly Lovecraftian eldritch quality, merged with a fascination with Egyptology to produce a vision of sorcery as evil and founded upon dangerous ties with demons. It is this vision of magic that works its way into the black decks of Magic: The Gathering, with their Demonic Tutors who convey knowledge at a price and the Overeager Apprentices whose presumption ends with splatters of their own blood on the walls.

overeagerapprentice.jpgThe magic system in Age of Conan literalizes the analogy between game genre and game fiction through a magic system that is dark and deep in both mechanics and atmosphere. As explained in an interview and confirmed on the Age of Conan site, magic in this MMO is:

1) Dark

2) Dangerous

3) Difficult

As Gaute Godager, the director of the game, explains:

we try to make the visual look and feel of magic in Conan different from what you have seen in other games and the more traditional fantasy settings. The clownlike, fireball-tossing magic users in pointy hats, with puffs and multicolored robes, are not part of the Hyborian universe. In Conan's age, magic is dangerous, hidden, and dark. Men who meddle with magic inevitably fall to its temptation and powers. Magic uses you as much as you use it.

In terms of mechanics, magic in Age of Conan includes a high-level skill called spellweaving, demonologistspellweaving.jpgin which players can combine spells rhythmically in order to produce a meta-spell of devastating proportions. In an E3 demo of this feature, spellweaving was explained as representing the risky aspect of magic "where the magician summons a demon, does something wrong in the spell, and is pulled down into hell." This approach to magic is an attempt to represent within gameplay and audiovisual feedback the skill required to cast spells and the risk in misusing one's skills. Age of Conan drove many players away through a buggy launch and an initial lack of endgame content, but the vision behind this magic system and its larger place with a coherent and stirringly brutal world are unique. They entail a horror-influenced rejection of the cute and superficial approach to magic adopted by many mainstream RPG's and popular fantasy fiction, in favor of a vision of the arcane that is darker and deeper. As Godager explains: we have tried to make magic more "real," in a sense. Manipulation of the natural forces of the world, the summoning of "real" demons from a dark, untold hell, and touch-based shamanistic powers are major parts of our magic system. Yes, there will be magic in many forms, but you should feel the difference when playing this game. You should feel the age of darkness, the weight of history, and the fear of being corrupted when you walk the path of arcane magic. Funcom's upcoming release of The Secret World, a paranormal-conspiracy themed MMO with Lovecraftian elements and a mysterious magic system suggests that they could be on the verge of carrying forward the vision behind Age of Conan with the benefits of a first attempt and a refined Age of Conan engine.

Game genres are convenient categories for talking about features of mechanics and worlds that certain games share. Up to a point, these categories can be useful in refining mechanics, because they allow designers to contrast the varying virtues of the targeting functions in Doom, Call of Duty 4, and Gears of War. When a mechanic becomes wedded in the public consciousness to a particular genre, there is a potential problem of homogeneity, of cookie-cutter conformity. It is then that we as designers need to break up the mold a little bit, to invoke the forces of darkness not out of any ultimate love of evil but a desire to shake our systems out of their complacency. To create an atmosphere of the infernal is to court controversy, to step close to the boundary between occultism and gaming which created such bitter controversy in the 1980's. But this boundary is precisely the fertile ground from which new ideas can emerge. To take one of Godager's statements out of its original gameplay context in Age of Conan and into the realm of design: "the ultimate power comes when you are able to walk the fine line--the one between destruction and creation."

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Magick Systems in Theory and Practice, Installment 3: Schools of Magic

The definition of a magic system introduced in installment one could be sharpened from "any set of rules designed to simulate supernatural powers and abilities" to "any set of rules and symbols designed to simulate the alteration of reality through the will." This definition echoes Crowley's first axiom from Magick in Theory and Practice ("magic is the science and art of causing change to occur in conformity with will"), though it can apply to games without requiring designers to buy into any particular philosophical scheme.  Rather, an appreciation of magic requires only a little reflection on the profound mystery of the will: by deciding to do something, we can make it happen. For example, we focus our will to pick up a glass of water at lunch, and we do pick it up. Magic is an extension of similar taken-for-granted acts of will into a more profound longing: to control not just our immediate surroundings through the direct use of our body, but to shape nature, technology, other human beings, and the spirit world through the force of the will.

hereirule.jpgPerhaps most specifically, the fascination with magic stems from a desire to guide and shape the forces that govern the course of our individual human lives. The exercise of will to create change in life is murky and difficult, thwarted as it often is by forces both internal and external beyond our control. But in games, there is the potential of mastery, of understanding rules and then manipulating them through strategy in order to achieve a desired outcome. "Here I rule" is the marketing slogan of Magic: The Gathering, a declaration often accompanied by depictions of a skinny adolescent smirking confidently while surrounded by the fearsome monsters. As gamers, many of us identify with that sentiment.

As magic systems in games evolve, various forms of alteration of reality become formalized into types or "schools" of magic to categorize the ways in which players can alter a simulated reality. 


As early as 1976, Gary Gygax reflected on the varied possible effects of spells in his article "The D & D Magic System":

Spells do various things, and just what they do is an important consideration, for some order of effect in regard to the game would have to be determined. Magic purports to have these sorts of effects: 1) the alteration of existing substance (including its transposition or dissolution); 2) the creation of new substance; 3) the changing of normal functions of mind and/or body; 4) the addition of new functions to mind and/or body; 5) summon and/or command existing entities; and 6) create new entities. In considering these functions, comparatively weak and strong spells could be devised from any one of the six. Knowing the parameters within which the work was to be done then enabled the creation of the system.

Schools of magic evolve through the history of first-generation CRPG's such as The Bard's Tale and Wizardry until they solidify into a fairly uniform set of spell effects, with variations in individual spell possibilities from game to game. For example, the classic Bard's Tale (1985) divides magic into four schools: conjuring (damage and production of magical items), sorcery (illusion), magic (lingering spell effects), and wizardry (summoning creatures). As a relatively recent culmination of basic RPG magic schools (and of the single-player Western RPG generally), The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (2006) offers a strong contemporary baseline for the possibilties of spell effects. Like Oblivion as a whole, the magic system is smoothly implemented and richly complex, if firmly grounded in the history of RPG's and not particularly original.

Oblivion features six schools: Destruction (damage), Alteration (buffing), Illusion (sensory deceptions like invisibility and silence), Conjuration (summoning creatures, especially daedra), Restoration (healing), and Mysticism (harnessing unusual telekinetic effects and the ability to detect life by lighting up all living creatures on the map). The fascination of the school of mysticism in Oblivion suggests that magic systems can be most interesting from a gameplay perspective when they incorporate as many of the game's mechanics and systems as possible, rather than restricting themselves to combat or character statistics. This extension of magic beyond combat and healing (or its enmeshment with more sophisticated combat systems) requires clever programming to implement.

Based on a historical consideration of magic systems, common schools of magic, present in almost any RPG, include:

• Damage;

• Healing;

• Buffing (raising stats of character or item);

• Summoning;

Less common schools include:

 • Telekinesis;

 • Architecture (opening, closing, moving, building);

 • Sight (or insight);

 • Teleportation (especially interdimensional);

 • Mapping and navigation;

 • Illusion and dispelling illusion;

One problem with magic systems, especially those focused on damage and healing, is a tendency to rely on a simplistic cosmology based on the four classical elements of the ancient Greeks (earth, air, water, and fire). MMO's abound in fire and ice mages, as well as an endless parade of wizards, druids, and shamans who manipulate the powers of the four elements. Even obscure cult classics lauded by their devotees for innovative customizable spell systems (such as Magic and Mayhem: The Art of Magic [2001] and The Dawn of Magic [2005]) end up falling back on combinations of the four elements, sometimes with light and darkness or chaos and order thrown in for good measure. While this cosmology can result in many flashy damage spells with stunning particle effects and explosions, it is a reduction of human experience that soon seems routine rather than enchanted. The experience of fire and water are certainly primal and compelling, as anyone who has witnessed a forest blaze or an ocean tempest can attest. Yet, both in day to day life and the furthest flights of our imaginations, we do more than admire campfires and swim; consequently, in simulated magic we should do more than throw fireballs and iceblasts.

In contrast to this simplification of reality down to four physical elements, schools of magic eventually evolve into or intersect with a larger cosmological ambition of mapping out reality. Pragmatic considerations of how to simulate alterations of reality leads to philosophical reflection on what aspects of reality can be altered, resulting in a kind of metaphysical taxonomy.

To display these abstract concepts in ways that are easily graspable for use in gameplay, designers often assign symbolic colors to schools of magic.
Examples include:

• The color pie in Magic: The Gathering (1993);



magiccolorpie.jpg• The eight winds of magic in Warhammer (both tabletop[1987] and online[2008]);


warhammerwindsofmagic.jpg • In Eternal Darkness (2002), the colors associated with the runic magick of the three Ancients (as well as a hidden purple rune, and an implied yellow school of magick discussed by Denis Dyack in The Escapist)


 • The colors of magic corresponding to the spheres of magic in Mage: The Ascension (1993) 1. Correspondence: Purple 2. Life: Red 3. Prime: White 4. Entropy: Indigo 5. Matter: Brown 6. Spirit: Gold 7. Forces: Orange 8. Mind: Blue 9. Time: Green


• The nine colored pillars of Nosgoth in Blood Omen: The Legacy of Kain (1996) and their associated spheres of "Death, Conflict, States, Energy, Time, Dimension, Nature, Mind, and Balance"


pillarsofnosgoth3.jpgIn all of these examples, the cosmology simulated or implied by the schools of magic substantially richer and more complex than the four elements or the opposition of law and chaos. Symbolic color also resonates with a deep-seated human association between mood and color (which results in entire design classes on color theory), as well as occultist tendency to assign esoteric meaning to color (as in the King and Queen scales of the Golden Dawn and their display in tarot as well as the Rosicrucian-inspired Vault of the Adepti).

vaultoftheadepti.jpgThe metaphysical taxonomy of reality in magic systems occurs to varying degrees of depth, ranging from flavor text in small or large amounts [the backs of Magic: The Gathering cards exemplify short flavor text, while the codexes/codices in Dragon Age contain more elaborate philosophical ruminations] to deep integration with gameplay. As such, these metaphysical mappings of reality tend resemble both tarot and kabbalistic mappings of the universe in the tree of life, which in the Golden Dawn system has many associated attributions of colors, tarot cards, and other elements.

At this point, magic begins to intersect with planar lore: specifically, the idea of a multiverse with many different dimensions or planes, a notion derived from many realms of mysticism, including the Theosophic lore of Madam Blavatsky (in which the particular term "plane" gains popularity). (As for multiverse, the word shows up in the philosophical writings of Henry James and is later popularized in the Eternal Champion saga of Michael Moorcock). The first meeting of the planes and magic appear in Dungeons and Dragons supplements, such as The Manual of the Planes (1987) and the Planescape campaign. The principle of planar magic is that "belief and imagination rule the multiverse," so that one's philosophical outlook can directly shape physical reality if those beliefs are held with sufficient strength. The planar cosmology results in a radial diagram called the Great Wheel, whose dimensions do correlate with the various alignment possibilities of the D & D moral universe. While the permutations of "lawful," "chaotic," "good," "evil," and "neutral" are in their own way as limited as the four elements, the factions of Planescape are philosophically nuanced and sophisticated, representing the dense concepts of solipsism (the Sign of One) and anarchism (the Xaosects).

great-wheel.jpgSimilarly, in Magic: The Gathering, dueling magicians called Planeswalkers gain their different colors of mana from multiple planes of existence in the multiverse. Magic's colors bear a superficial relation to three out of the four elements (red = fire, green = earth, blue = water). Yet, the five colors of mana represent a more abstract and nuanced set of human experiences. According to the official released color pie and the official site of Magic, the following color correspondences apply:

 • Red = chaos and impulse

• Green = life and growth

• Blue = deception, calculation, and illusion

• Black = ambition and power

• White = order and justice

Magic: The Gathering is relatively unique in that its multi-colored schools of magic manifest primarily through gameplay and are only reinforced through flavor text and images.  For example, as the school of ambition and control, black magic entails seeking mastery of the game at any cost, resulting in a mechanic of sacrifice in which black strategically gives up any resource (creatures, mana, life points, graveyard cards) in order to gain an advantage. As the school of freedom and impulse, red magic involves a mechanic of quickly doing damage that either gains a decisive advantage early or loses within a few rounds.

Passing beyond the colored schools of magic is the dark, often forbidden school of blood kaedesmithbloodmagic.pngmagic, which appears in many games as one example of how to push outside the constraints of elemental damage and law versus chaos cosmology. Blood Magic often shows up in horror-themed games, sometimes vampiric and at other times simply Gothic. All of the magic in Vampire the Masquerade: Redemption (2000) involves ghoulish varieties of blood magic, as does the similarly-themed Gothic vampire game Blood Omen: The Legacy of Kain (1996). Blood Magic also shows up as a hidden school in Dragon Age. In each case, blood magic involves especially gory and disturbing varieties of RPG gameplay, ranging from gory damage and restoration spells to mental manipulation powered by human sacrifice.

However, the two most striking implementations of blood magic appear in the cult Killer7 and the horror-themed squad-based shooter, Jericho (2007). In Killer7, Kaede Smith, a svelte and ferocious beauty with a Gothic pallor, slits her own arms to release a spray of blood, which is then channeled by a phantom bondage queen in order to dissolve barriers. Kaede Smith's blood magic opens barriers, both literal and metaphorical, by using her trauma to see beyond the apparently solid limitations of the physical world as experienced by the other six assassin personalities. The metaphorical element of breaking through barriers is more strongly highlighted in a game that foregrounds its own preoccupation with transcendent insight through imagery of a third eye, including a health meter on the HUD which is itself a gradually opening and closing eye.  (In Killer7, blood magic is part of a larger (and highly taboo) thematic preoccupation with disability and sadomasochism. Harman Smith, an assassin whose participation in a game of cosmic chess borders on godlike, is also a wheelchair-bound masochist who alternates dispensation of Zen-like wisdom with dominatrix sessions at the hands of young woman doubling as his maid.)

A similar character appears in Clive Barker's Jericho in the form of Billie Church, a Blood Mage. Jericho is an enjoyably horrific game whose squad-based AI is somewhat broken, but this one element of magic in its paranormal squad-based arsenal is powerfully successful. Billie is a lapsed Southern Baptist, abused by her father and institutionalized in an insane asylum, where demons carved biblical verses into her flesh. In gameplay, she uses her katana to carve glyphs in her arms, which then explode into tendrils and bulbs of blood, enwrapping and immobilizing enemies, who can then be sliced to ribbons or blown to bits. Like Kaede Smith, Billie makes a sacrifice of her most precious life fluid for insight, in a maneuver that Barker calls (in other contexts) "using the wound"--a deliberate exploitation of debilitation and trauma as paradoxical means of shamanic enlightenment.

billiechurchbloodmagic.jpgBarker's use of blood magic parallels his own attempts as a designer to expand and deepen the variety of spell effects, seen perhaps more effectively in the cult horror classic FPS Undying (2001). Undying features a scry spell that allows players to see beyond the veil into hidden sights, such as apparitions and messages scrawled in blood. As Barker memorably and humorously explains:

Undying is about being smarter, faster, cleverer, and a better magician than a gunslinger. It's about magic. The idea of scrying--seeing things you normally can't see--is very interesting. Much more interesting than a f_g big gun. We've seen that stuff before. I think that's had its day. I think as the new millennium has dawned, we are in a different kind of space. We think more spiritually, we think more about magic and transformation. We think more about the self rather than how many guns we can muster. I'm not saying that Undying is a metaphysical treatise, but its heart is not in the big gun territory.

The presence of innovative spells in games like Undying and Killer7 suggests that in order to expand the diversity of useful spell effects and schools of magic, we need to look outside of the RPG genre into other genres that sometimes simulate magic, like survival horror, first-person shooters, strategy games, and action-adventure games.

Game genre shapes game world, which dictates the affordances and limitations of spellcasting, i.e. what is possible in magic and what is useful. In next week's installment, I will examine some of these game genres, with particular attention to magic and horror, and what they have to teach us as designers of magic systems.

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Magick Systems in Theory and Practice, Installment 2: Word and Gesture as Input Methods in Gaming History

Gestural input is to some extent inherent in the language of magic, as seen in the phrases to "cast a spell" and to "weave an enchantment." The fantasy of weaving magic can be vividly seen on the cover of LucasArt's Loom (1990), in which two hands weave a glowing cat's cradle out of multi-colored light. (While Loom lacked any kind of gestural interface, its unique mode of musical spellcasting and melodic feedback will figure heavily into a later blog entry on multimodal feedback and audio magic.) Gesture is also an integral part of occultist approaches to magic, ranging from the pentagrams and hexagrams traced in the rituals of the Golden Dawn and Thelemic magick, the sigils drawn by Austin Osman Spare and Buddhist kuji-in mudras later adapted in the ninja-themed anime series Naruto.


Closely related to the idea of gestural magic is the verbal component of spell-casting, which appears in colloquial speech as a magic word. From David Copperfield to Harry Potter and the 2010 Sorcerer's Apprentice remake, the image of a wizard waving a wand and intoning a word in order to release a powerful magic spell pervades public consciousness of enchantment. Magic words are a direct extension of the arcane grammars that govern ritual and the combinatorial systems of runic languages discussed in the first installment of this blog series. Voice recognition software, now a standard part of Windows and readily available in more precise programs such as Dragon NaturallySpeaking, could heighten the immersive possibilities of incantation as a spellcasting method.

abracadabra.gifGestural input, in which players use a variety of input devices to trace symbols or fashion other secret signs with hands and body, is also especially relevant from a technological perspective after the 2010 E3 unveiling of Microsoft's Kinect (formerly project Natal) and the Playstation Move. These devices offer new levels of motion sensing technology, in addition to existing alternative input methods in the Wiimote and Wiimotion Plus, the Playstation Eye, and the force-feedback controls offered by the Novint Falcon. Each technology could be leveraged for new methods of casting spells, provided that designers can break out of the prevailing tray-of-icons approach to magic represented in many popular RPG's.

Envisioning the most creative use of new gestural and verbal technologies requires, paradoxically, an enterprise of game archeology, looking back into the history of games with magic in a search for hidden gems of unusual interfaces and input methods. Retro gaming and scholarship of retro games can offer a perspective on magic systems before they hardened into a single mold and became homogenized by marketing and ease of use or implementation.

Magic systems in modern gaming begin with early tabletop role-playing. Gary Gygax, in the "The Dungeons and Dragons Magic System," explains that there are four components to spells in his system: somatic, verbal, material, and psychological (which he reduces to mnemonic). In this article and another entitled "Jack Vance and the D&D Game," Gygax also refers to this system as "Vancian" because of Jack Vance's "Dying Earth" fantasy book series, in which magicians memorize a limited number of spells and trigger them through a gesture and word, after which the spells are promptly forgotten and must be re-memorized. The verbal component takes predominance in D & D because tabletop role-playing games are played verbally, through conversational exchange between players and DM. Other elements seem to be thought of by Gygax as present for the purpose of game balance, as when he implies that the gestural system ensures that a magician couldn't cast a spell if he were wrapped in webs or that a magic mouth couldn't be used to cast spells by proxy.

dungeonmaster.jpgThe verbal component of magic is a powerful fantasy and a metaphor for the way that language can shape the human understanding of reality. When a stage magician speaks "abracadabra" and waves a wand in order to conjure a rabbit from a hat, the magician is tapping into a primal fantasy of ultimate power: we have only to speak, and our words will have an immediate physical effect. This belief in the mystical power of language is also the impulse behind the elaborate meditations on letter and word that constitute the esoteric system of the kabbalah.

The problem with the verbal component of magic as enacted within tabletop role-playing is that this component is not performative, or rather it is performative only one step removed from gameplay. The player says "I am casting a spell," and it is understood that the player-character is reciting a complex incantation that was memorized from a spellbook. However, the player never utters the incantation (or makes the gesture or handles the ingredients). He only declares that he is going to do so: a speech act that is accepted or rejected by the Dungeon Master and other players if it conforms to the game's rules. (A later tabletop role-playing game, Ars Magica (1987), actually does require players to master a Latinate grammar in order to cast spells, though this magical grammar appears in tabletop games only after similar systems appear in computer RPG's like Dungeon Master).

Missing from tabletop RPG's is the element of simulation provided by computers, the feeling of performing magic within a multimedia environment designed to reinforce that fantasy rather than merely announcing that one is casting a spell and relying on the shared imagination of one's comrades. Early attempts at simulating magic in computer games relied heavily on a verbal component, but of a different kind derived from player interaction with a text parser.

256px-Enchanter_game_box_cover.jpgBy introducing the text parser with its underlying grammar, game designers begin to address another problem with the Vancian system, in which magic is rote: a litany, a pre-memorized recitation or a single word. If magicians study for years, and if their magic is an arcane art known only by a few, then where is the skill or art of memorizing a pre-defined speech? Those who have mastered an art or a science understand its underlying principles well enough to be able to apply them spontaneously. Fluency in a language entails a mastery of its vocabulary and underlying grammar such that the speaker can produce new utterances rather than merely copying those heard before. Indeed, the generative nature of grammar allows speakers to express ideas never envisioned by those who originally developed and codified the language. If magic is a grammar, then mastery of that grammar is displayed through the ability to adapt its structures to novel situations. The text parsers of interactive fiction were in some ways well adapted toward inviting such grammatical interactions; indeed, an interactive fiction is in part an object-oriented simulation explorable through exchanges governed by the rules of grammar. The text parser of Colossal Cave Adventure accepts the famed magic word XYZZY, thereby allowing players to experience the verbal component of magic as a simulation, albeit a simple one.

 Infocom's Spellbreaker trilogy, consisting of Enchanter, Sorcerer, and Spellbreaker, entails a magical grammar, in which spells are verbs that take direct objects, allowing players to type "frotz stone" to make a stone glow or "blorb chest" to open this locked container. Frotz and Blorb are names for, respectively, an interactive fiction interpreter and a wrapper for multimedia elements. While amusing, this application of the names of in-game spells to the programming and technology outside of and supporting the game also suggests a powerful relationship between programming and the verbal grammars of magic. Simply put, programmers and magicians both master a grammar in order to make things happen. Both hackers and wizards achieve this alteration of reality, whether simulated or real, through an arcane set of words and phrases known as programs or spells. When properly configured, a program causes amazing events to occur (calculates our taxes, launches an anti-missile defense system, summons a longed-for package from to our doorstep), just as magicians can throw fireballs and (when very powerful) grant wishes. However, when the programmer makes the slightest error in the placement of a semicolon or case sensitivity, the program won't compile, much as a spell fizzles.

In the case of the Spellbreaker trilogy, the games' designers consciously drew upon these parallels between magic and programming As Wikipedia explains "There are references scattered throughout Enchanter's documentation and gameplay comparing the use of spells by mages to the use of command line interfaces by programmers, and comparing mages to hackers in general. Many of the spell names, such as FROTZ and GNUSTO, are taken from MIT hacker slang of the time" (Wikipedia "Enchanter" ). There is a strong element of meta-magic and self-referentiality in this spell system, since the magic used to attain supernatural result within the game is patterned on the very methods used to create the game itself. Other text-based magic systems include the early Ultima games, such as Ultima IV , in which players type the names of spells into text parsers. Players also control a text-based inventory of spell elements, called reagents, which they mix in the correction proportion in order to alchemically prepare a spell.

Though these text-based magic systems are fascinating, they leave out a sense of visual interaction and movement.  When we imagine a magician casting a spell, we see him waving his hands in complex patterns while bolts of electricity arc from his hands. It is here that the intersection of grammar and gesture occurs. While Black and White (2001) may be the first gestural interface used for magic, the designers of The Summoning (1993) attempted to simulate gestural spellcasting through a set of hand gestures that could be combined to store spells. These hand gestures resemble the finger alphabet of American Sign Language, as well as the magical gestures made by Aleister Crowley or the kuji-in.

aleister-crowleygestures.jpg This form of spell-casting involves an implicit pun on the two meanings of "spell" as in "incantation with magical force" and "to form a word out of letters." If a grimoire is etymologically and conceptually linked to a magical grammar, then it makes sense that spells themselves consist of an alphabet, rendered gesturally to emphasize its performativity and multi-modality. Players of The Summoning arrange graphical representations of hand gestures onto a tray, much as players of Ultima Underworld concatenate runes. Indeed, The Summoning combines a system of hand gestures with a set of collectable rune stones, partially in acknowledgement that the possibility of actual physical hand-gestures on the part of the user was technologically out of reach in 1993 (in part due to the imprecision of alternative controllers like Nintendo's 1989 Powerglove).

summoninggestures2.jpg summoninggestures.jpgThe first true gestural interfaces for spell-casting are mouse-driven and operate around the metaphors of painting and drawing. Such elements are common to occultist practice, as in the rituals of the pentagram and hexagram in the Golden Dawn and Thelemic magic. In these rituals, magicians use ritual implements like wands and daggers to trace five and six-pointed stars whose points have elemental or planetary correspondences. The starting and ending points of the geometrical figures determine whether the sign banishes or invokes, as well as what elements are specifically called up or driven away.

pentagramritual.gifSimilarly, players trace such geometric forms, including pentagrams, using the hand that constitutes the HUD-less interface of Black and White (2001), in order to perform miracles. Black and White featured a patch allowing use of the P5 Virtual Reality glove, which can be used to control the computer's mouse as well many games through GlovePie, freeware created by Carl Kenner. The use of a hand to control a hand-shaped cursor in a game without a HUD added to the sense of immersion in spell-casting by removing any barrier between player and game.

blackandwhitepentagram.jpgDrawing as a spellcasting mechanic can also potentially be used in any game with sigils, although this element is often removed from gameplay and used as mere decoration. Sigils, illustrated in grimoires such as The Lesser Key of Solomon the King, are elaborate signs or seals, often inscribed with cryptic geometric designs and the names of angels and demons. Grimoires teach aspiring magicians to draw sigils on the ground in order to ward off or contain spirits. Conjurers could also inscribe sigils on amulets in order to create talismans consecrated to spirits and elemental forces.

solomonsigil.jpgSigils and the grimoires containing them have played a role in the story and art design of many magic systems, including Vagrant Story (2000) and World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King. Common artistic practice involves arcane symbols that glow and spin beneath the caster during spell-casting, as seen in Neverwinter Nights and World of Warcraft. Voices chanting ominous symbols often appear during this casting phase, but players are rarely able to interact with them. Chanting and sigil-drawing are cosmetic features designed to reinforce an enchantment mood but divorced from player interaction; in all too many RPG's, voice and drawing are neither input methods affecting the spell that is cast nor feedback mechanisms to reinforce how it is cast. The removal of sigils from input or feedback squanders their potential as gameplay mechanicisms and runs directly contrary to their role in magical lore, in which magicians learn to draw sigils for direct practical ends.

For example, the process of "sigilization" formulated by visual artist and magician Austin Osman Spare entailed an "alphabet of desire" designed to encode and give magical force to the magician's deepest longings. Spare's dual identity as a painter and a magician highlights a potential relationship between magic and the visual arts that could be capitalized on with any PC or console that has drawing capabilities, including tablet PC's, the Nintendo DS or 3DS, and the Wii. For example, drawing and painting become a game mechanic and visual trope in the magnificent Okami, in which the player uses a magical calligraphy brush to alter reality within a world that constitutes a living Japanese painting. okamipen.jpgUsing one's magic pen to fill in the gaps in a bridge can mend the wood to allow passage, just as painting the barren branches of a tree can cause it to blossom with fruit. Dawn of Sorrow, an iteration of Castlevania for the Nintendo DS, also requires players to inscribe seals using the DS stylus in order to defeat bosses, which otherwise regain strength and resurrect themselves. dawnofsorrowseal.jpg

Magic as a hybrid of writing and painting opens many possibilities of multimodal input and feedback with cosmological significance, seen most vividly in the use of symbolic color to represent schools and varieties of magic. These subjects and others will be discussed in the third installment of this blog series next Wednesday.

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The New Cocktails

110157805_18f3ad9067_o.jpgThough I myself have yet to buy into tablet technology, I have had the pleasure playing Days of Wonder’s Small World on Zarf’s iPad a couple of times. I can objectively tell you that I like it a lot, based on the fact that he’s clobbered me at it both times and I still want to play it again. Since then, I’ve watched my Twitter circle get really excited about The Coding Monkeys’ excellent iPhone adaptation of Carcassone — due for an iPad update this summer — and I’ve also been turned onto Luigi Castiglione’s loving iPhone/iPad implementation of the Italian folk game Scopa, worth seeing just for the beautiful Neapolitan card deck it uses. I see more than mere coincidence in my discovering all these at once.

The iPhone is no stranger to board and card game adaptations, but something new seems to be afoot, driven by the little phone’s newer, corpulent cousin. Even with relatively few datapoints, I feel confident that tablet computing (and do note my careful non-namebrand specificity here) is destined to significantly boost public exposure to good, modern board games. Tablet-based games aren’t simply a digital adaptation of tabletop games; they are tabletop games, though of an entirely new sort.

Playing Small World on the iPad, I sit across the table from my opponent, facing them, and we take turns sliding our armies around the colorful little map with our hands. Between turns, we analyze the situation together, talking face to face and gesturing naturally at the table before us. And so, it’s like any strategy board game I’ve ever played. But it’s also digital: tapping certain labels on the “board” changes the view entirely, unfolding a display of your requested game-relevant information, and that seems entirely natural too, if along a different angle. And there are the more subtle effects stemming from the presence of a software-based referee: it resolves all in-game conflicts for us, and quietly prevents either of us from doing anything illegal, without anyone feeling the need to double-check the rules.

Thinking about what defines a particular game medium, one doesn’t always consider elements like the player’s physical posture, and where they sit relative to their fellow players. But the experience of playing a digital game with a friend on the iPad proves quite different than that of sitting side-by-side on a couch with Xbox controllers in hand, or sitting alone with a mic strapped to your head. Your sense of posture and presence is part of the game’s medium, as much as the material of the game’s manufacture. Playing Small World gave me a frisson of novel confusion, marrying the player-interactivity of a board game with the board-interactivity of a computer game. I felt the seam that joined them, but it felt right. This was something new, comfortable, and fun.

On reflection, I realize this isn’t the very first time I’ve encountered this peculiar recombination, though I must cast my memory back decades to make the connection. During the height of video games’ golden age in the early 1980s, so-called “cocktail” game cabinets were a common sight. These machines eschewed game machines’ familiar stand-up shape, instead taking the form of small, square tables, around the size and shape you might encounter at a bar or coffee house; just large enough to seat two people — and their drinks — comfortably. Two identical sets of game controls sat tucked under either end of the screen, which itself was embedded under the thick plexiglass of the table’s surface.

Cocktail games were an attempt to take the familiar, cozy setting of two friends or family sitting at a table to both play a game and enjoy a lovely beverage together, and applied it to the then-new entertainment of video games. And, for a brief time, they succeeded. Back when coin-operated games were marketed as social amusements as much as they were attractions for children or game-hobbyists, cocktail games could be found in many spaces outside of arcades or game rooms. As a child traveling with my parents on their many business trips, I would frequently encounter cocktail versions of my favorite video games in hotel lounges. While I delighted in discovering them, I was far too young to really appreciate them as they were intended — in fact, I remember the frustration I felt at seeing two grown-ups sitting at the Pac-Man table and just talking and not even playing it.

Alas, cocktail games did not survive coin-ops’ decline in the latter 1980s, long before my own adulthood. But sliding my little orcish army-tokens around on Zarf’s iPad, I think that I start to see what I missed. Whether or not the new games’ deveolopers consciously realize it, the very form of tablet gaming tips its hat to the cocktail games of yore, and then strides confidently where the old games wanted to be, 30 years ago.

This is going to be great.

Image credit: Photo of a “Dig Dug” cocktail unit by Chris Kirkman; CC BY-NC-ND.

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Torchlight, Lost, and Blow's Treadmill

4.jpgIn terms of popular culture, May 2010 goes into the annals under the headline “The month that Lost ended.” For some of us, another fact about the month is at least as significant: Valve released its Steam content-delivery service — and corresponding a passel of new games — for Mac people. And for me in particular, this meant that I could immediately start playing Torchlight on my Mac.

While one of these things is a game and the other a television show, both represent implementations of the thing I’ll call Blow’s Treadmill, that diabolical device eloquently deconstructed by Jon Blow in a talk we’ve linked to before. Blow’s Treadmill, in a nutshell, describes any system of game mechanics that give a game player a sense of accomplishment and advancement when, for all practical in-game purposes, they remain right where they started.

While the Treadmill criticism is most frequently levied against CRPGs (Blow’s archetypical example is World of Warcraft), Matthew “DefectiveYeti” Baldwin applied it admiringly to Lost in an excellent essay from a couple of years ago:

During each show you gain a little experience in the form of new information: about the island, the characters, or both; every four episodes or so you level up, as some (allegedly) major piece of the overall puzzle falls into place. After leveling up in a CRPG, you typically head to Ye Olde Flail ‘N’ Scented Candle Emporium, sell all your current equipment, and buy the improved weapons that your enhanced abilities now allow you to wield; likewise, after a revelatory LOST episode, fans chuck all their old theories into the dustbin and cook up new ones consistent with the revised facts. Then, having done so, each-the player of a CRPG, or the viewer of LOST-is handed a brand new quest, or puzzle, or plot plot. The ephemeral thrill of leveling vanishes, replaced by a longing to hit the next milestone. You never disembark from the treadmill, it just goes faster.

This may sound like criticism, but it’s not. It’s admiration. Like the creators of World of Warcraft, the writers of LOST have managed to throw a saddle on the addictive lure of leveling and ride it to success. And bully for them. Like I said, I love this genre, even if I can visualize the levers they are pulling.

Like Matthew, I must sheepishly admit that I rather enjoyed Lost, despite myself. Unlike Matthew, I never really liked that I liked it. I, too, felt that I could see the levers, and felt both hopeful that I wasn’t merely being played by the show’s producers, and resentful knowing that I probably was anyway. But the show offered moments of stand-up-and-applaud brilliance — tasty meatballs in a soup of bland TV clichés — exactly often enough to keep me eating, in spite of it all.

Just as Lost ended, Torchlight appeared — already in my possession from a Steam shopping spree I engaged in last Christmas, but now easily playable on my Mac. And lo, once again I find myself gobbling some media down in hours-long gulps. As before, I’m not terribly happy with my diet, but something about it is different this time. In fact, I lately start to perceive Torchlight as far less valuable to me, to the point of self-harm. If Lost is food possessing a dangerously addictive quality, then Torchlight is a mere drug, a narcotic with little nutritional value.

A key difference lay in the stories that these different works generate. Lost itself is a story, of course, but it was unusual among television shows in the striking amount of passionate audience participation it engendered and encouraged, even while it aired. As Baldwin noted, fans collaborated online to knit and share ten thousand variants of the show’s mysterious background and projected future over the course of the series. I myself even did this. (And I’ll make no muttering here as to how many of these fan-theories proved more objectively satisfying than the canonical wrapup, ahem).

But what is Torchlight’s story? On the surface, it is exactly the same as many other roguelikes, from Diablo, its direct ancestor, to grandfather Angband. You live in a town sitting on top of a multilevel, monster-infested dungeon, which houses a Big Bad at its deepest level. Kill it! Also, kill everything in between, which will make you grow in strength from a fragile weakling to an unstoppable superhero by the time you get to the bottom, just in time for the final battle.

No, not a very good story. Fortunately, at least in games like Angband, the stories that matter are the ones that you generate as you play. Much as with Lost, the internet is full of people telling Angband stories, sharing tales of their greatest triumphs, their closest shaves, and their glorious game-ending deaths. 1 Angband’s very small creative team leaves the graphics abstract to focus instead on a super-rich internal ruleset, developed and refined over many years. Make no mistake, the game’s focus remains entirely on exploring a dungeon and killing everything you find there. The vast variety of the beasties, however, and the unique ways that they interact with the player and the environment, means that novel battles — requiring the player to stop, analyze the tactical situation, and calculate relative risks — happen rather frequently.

In Torchlight, though, all the levels are the same but for the graphics used to paint them, and the same goes with the monsters, who come in many shapes and sizes and yet are all fighters, archers, or flingers of Glowy Balls of Ouch. As such, all the fights are the same, too: when you see a monster, you click on it until it dies. If you see a lot of monsters, right-click to nuke them with your magical attack, and then resume left-clicking to mop up any stragglers. When your health-tank drops past quarter-full, top it back up by pressing your “1” key, applying one of your dozens of healing potions. (You’ll find at least one more before you’ll need another.) That’s as deep as the tactics go. The only Torchlight battles I’ll remember in a year’s time are the boss fights, perhaps, and then only because the bosses are really big and look cool; fighting them involves no need to adjust your click-pattern. No stories can come of this.

There’s my attitude laid bare. So why, according to Steam, have I invested 16 hours into this activity since MacSteam’s premiere?

Torchlight presents a shockingly raw implementation of Blow’s Treadmill, expertly exploiting the concept so that it utterly hooks people like me, and hours have passed before I start to smell something truly fishy. And then I play for another ten hours anyway, because I can say without sarcasm that watching numbers attached to your in-game persona tick ever upwards in exchange for your real-life time and attention can make for some really compelling stuff.

Only now, after the equivalent of two full-time work-days playing the game, do I see the depths of Treadmill-enabling baked into its design. I see it summed up most handily in the info-boxes that hover over the weapons in your inventory screen. The weapons have interesting appearances, descriptive names, and lists of effects, but the only thing you need to notice with each one is the big, white Damage Per Second number floating at the top of the pane. Correct play means ignoring any narrative implied by all the other stuff, there to make it feel like you’re not playing the part of an extremely inefficient sorting algorithm. And do note the name Damage Per Second: a prominent in-game statistic acknowledges that one of the game’s chief goals involves your voluntarily burning up measures of your lifetime in exchange for the ability to “damage” hordes of identical monsters via mouse-clicks. This, in the end, represents game design bordering on the cynical, and more offensive to me than Lost at its lamest ever was.

Kicking a drug habit is hard work, whether the drug is a chemical you ingest or an activity that stimulates your brain to squirt tasty hormones at regular intervals. First, as they say, comes admitting you have a problem, and I write this column in part to shock myself out of the habit, since — again, unlike nobler cousins like Angband — the game lacks a permadeath feature to slap me back into sobriety when I’ve played long enough. And so, having bought myself a window of introspective clarity, I have deleted Torchlight from my Steam library.

And if I made sure that my 20th-level Vanquisher’s save-file was properly secured in the Steam Cloud before I deleted the program? Well. Let us agree that I am simply being a responsible game researcher and archivist.

[1] More recently, this has been done one better by _Dwarf Fortress_, which produces more interesting stories via itself giving you a more interesting story to start with.
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