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

arcanamanorinterfaceflash.png

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, http://www.designingquests.com.  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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Audience participation in single-player adventures

For the past few years, Mateusz Skutnik has been publishing a series of mini-graphical adventures (in Flash) called "Submachine". (JayIsGames has a good list of links and reviews.)

Submachine Network

The games are spare on storyline, but each game has a little bit. Even if the pieces don't fit together tidily... yet. As you might expect, there's been lots of ongoing forum discussion about the series.

Now the author has put up a new Submachine site: Submachine Network Exploration Experience. This is explicitly not a game; it's a set of interlinked mini-worlds, slices of the other games. The only "puzzles" are exploring and discovering new coordinates to explore. (Earlier games introduced a coordinate-based teleporter system.) But -- this is the cool part -- each mini-world contains some printed notes: forum transcripts, giving different people's theories of what's going on and what various parts of the game mean.

This is a lovely way to include the player community in what is, mechanically, a series of solo adventures. It incorporates player contributions; it acknowledges that player response is part of the story, without throwing "canon" (whatever that means) out the window (whatever that means). The Exploration site is clearly expandable -- the creator can add new mini-worlds whenever he wants. Or add new transcript notes. It's not part of the series (there will be more Submachine games) but it's part of the world.

You know my kinks, Watson, so you know this immediately reminded me of Myst Online. Cyan's project was a hugely ambitious MMO, of course, whereas Submachine is one designer's tightly-scoped project. But with SNEE (do I call it "SNEE"?) Mateusz Skutnik is tackling the same issues: ongoing story and the fan community. And, I must admit, he's now a step farther than Cyan ever managed.

(I don't recommend you start with the SNEE site -- it won't mean much if you haven't played the earlier games. Start with Submachine 1: the basement. The whole series is accessible from the Submachine World web site.)

EDIT-ADD: You should immediately read author Sarah Monette's essay on worldbuilding with 10 gnomes, which is about Mateusz Skutnik's hidden-gnome games, their artwork, and how it embraces different facets of the industrial landscape of Elfland. I mean Poland.

EDIT: Spelling the author's name right!

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My (vicarious) GDC takeaways

bsg and redder.jpgThanks to Twitter, I found myself vicariously attending GDC this year. Allow me to recount some of the more interesting things I heard people talking about.


Anna Anthropy released REDDER, a puzzley explore-and-collect game, free to play on the Newgrounds portal. Unlike When Pigs Fly, her previous effort, the difficultly comes not from its demanding feats of digital dexterity, but rather from the large size of the world, and the things about the world you must learn and remember while you strive to collect the shiny treasures. Give it a try, and block out a couple of hours to play it through if you like it.


One reason why I like Anna's games in particular is the same reason I liked watching the latter-day Battlestar Galactica so much. Ron Moore, BSG's executive producer, took advantage of internet publishing to create and release commentary tracks, in podcast format, almost at the same time the shows aired. They felt less like a producer reminiscing about a past project, and more like lectures about the challenges and strategies of putting an episodic TV show together, spoken by someone who was still in the thick of it.

Similarly, Anna is at least as active in presenting lectures and articles on level design (which we've linked to before) as she is with releasing actual games. Soon after I started When Pigs Fly and saw the grassy turf three screens over from the start, I may have said "heh heh" out loud. I felt that I knew exactly why she put it there, even though it had no explicit in-game effect, and I probably wouldn't have if I hadn't been reading along with her exegetic work.


Ian Bogost gave a presentation at GDC, titled "Play With Us", about how good games connect authors with their audiences in ways also seen in good poetry. He's posted its text and images on his website.


Pound's poem leaves enough room to see the Metro riders as the doleful subjects of labor, or as glistening Venuses amidst the iron.

The reader does not "receive" the message of the poem, but excavates its images and uses those to craft relevance.

Excavation.

The relationship of player to game is like that of the archaeologist to the ruin. A game is a remnant of something fashioned and disposed by its creator.

When we play, we excavate.


Read the whole thing, please.


Jason Roher, best known today for Passage, recently announced his next independently published game, Sleep is Death. This essentially looks like a tool for setting up and game-mastering two-player online storytelling RPGs, with each player sitting at a separate internet-connected computer.


I myself lack the creative muscles to get much out of storytelling games -- that is, light-ruleset role-playing games where the main goal of players and GM (when there is a GM at all) involves telling a story together: more improv theater than dungeon crawl. However, I must treat the timing as quite auspicious, given my recent appeal to the heavens for more experimentation with online multiplayer games. As such, I anticipate the game's release with eager curiosity.

I will be interested to see whether this project appeals to crowds larger than the niche who is already enjoying tabletop storytelling games, including expressly two-player works such as Emily Care Boss's Breaking the Ice. I predict that Sleep is Death won't launch any sort of narrativist-game revolution, but that it will introduce people to that niche who should have been there all along, and just didn't know it yet. To the rest, it will be food for thought. And this will be a net win.

Please do click through the charming and clever demonstration slideshow, which mimics a gameplay session while showing you everything you need to know to get excited about this project (if you're me).

Image credit: Battlestar Galactica publicity still by SyFy; chubby little astronaut art by Anna Anthropy.

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For Andrew: Robot Unicorn Attack


This one is for Andrew and for all the other Canabalt lovers out there. Robot Unicorn Attack is a Canabalt clone by Adult Swim Games.


As you might have guessed, instead of a man, you're a robot unicorn. You also have a few more controls. You can double-jump, and you can do a "rainbow dash" through giant star obstacles.


A lot of nice little touches both visually and aurally, but the thing that will continue to be with me throughout the rest of the day is the soundtrack, "Always" by Erasure.

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Spoiled by GemCraft?

Just a little post to note that I may have been spoiled by GemCraft. I tried out a new tower defense game recommended by Jay is Games, Silver Maze. The problem I have with it is that it's really more like a puzzle game. Each level pretty much has one strategy that you need to use to beat it, and the trick is in finding that strategy. With something like GemCraft, there generally several strategies you can use to beat a level, and you can also level up and get more ability points in order to be a bit more powerful in tackling a level that you can't seem to beat otherwise. In Silver Maze, yes you can combine towers in different ways, but you're basically stuck from moving on until you figure out which kind of towers you need to build and where you should place them. I played through a few of those, doing it over several times until I hit on it. But after my fourth time on yet another level, it just stops being fun, and so I stopped playing it.

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When Pigs Fly

SafariScreenSnapz002.pngGame critic, indie-game auteur, and friend-of-The-Gameshelf Anna Anthropy has just released her latest game, When Pigs Fly, via the Newgrounds game portal.

It's a flash game about a little piggy who falls into an underground labyrinth. The piggy is helped by a pair of wings which let it soar over any obstacle, but which will fail in a burst of feathers and squealing if they brush against anything other than air. And there's your game. You have infinite lives, and "dying" sets you back only a second or two.

Go play it!

Edit: Finished in 32:29, with 241 accidents. I enjoyed it, though it's surprisingly tough. The visual atmosphere reminded me of Knytt, though Pigs' linearity and difficulty put it in a separate class of gameplay.

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Ads in flash games

I play a lot of teeny little Flash games. These games are free and ad-supported. Therefore, they recapitulate the entire history of Web advertising, and we could repeat it right down the line in the comments, and maybe we will. I will try to short-circuit it with the following assertions. (Expletives have been BSGified for public consumption, but really, I wrote this with a lot of swears.)

  • People frakking hate web ads. They hate banner ads, they hate pop-up ads, they hate them all. More people hate them with silent grumbling than by jumping up and down screaming "feldercarb!" but the hate is there.

  • This is because they are noisy, ugly visual pollution which exist to drag your attention away from what you care about.

  • Ad companies politely pretend this hate does not exist. They pretend they are presenting valuable relevant content in parallel with your web-browsing experience. This is a load of bat-dren, but it lets them sleep at night.

  • Some people use ad blockers and such. This makes ad companies weep, and then you get the whole "You're killing the Web 2.0 economy! You are destroying the sites that you visit!" argument. This is right up there with the "Software piracy costs 250 billion dollars a year!" argument: there is a real concern there, but it is comprehensively snowed under by phony hysteria, which is to say, an ocean of decaying dingo's kidneys.

  • The reason this is hysteria is that, even without in-browser ad blockers, people grow ad blockers in their brains very quickly. Ad companies sit around discussing "dwell time" and "optimal ad positioning" as if they weren't staring at the proof that everybody hates them, and discussing their strategies for making everybody suffer more by breaking their brains.

  • Therefore, speaking as a consumer, I avoid lots of ads, and you can't make me feel guilty about it. No, not even if you're the game designer who makes money off the ads. I love game designers, you're awesome, kid, now shut up.

How does this apply to Flash games? Well, we have lived through the following stages of the war:

  • A game appears on a web page
  • A game appears on a web page with ads around it
  • An ad appears on a web page, and then turns into a game
  • ...and then ads appear inside the game itself (between games, or even between levels)

We hit stage 3 a couple of years ago -- managed by ad companies like Mochiads. We are just now hitting the point of stage 4.

Rather than trying to make a moral or aesthetic argument about this progression, I will describe my rules for dealing with it.

  • When I fire up a web page with a game, if I see a splash-page ad, I'm going to bury the window and wait for it to finish loading. I saw your ad, now I'm doing other stuff. I'll be back later. Sorry!

  • If you show a loading progress bar with an ad above it, I understand. I'm not watching it load with glazed consumer eyes, but I get that you're making use of dead space.

  • If you show a falsified loading progress bar, which ticks up for 20 seconds even after the game has finished loading, you're a frakking liar. This is not a moral argument about your ad, this is a moral argument about you. "You" meaning Mochiads. You're dishonest sleazeballs when you do this. Sorry!

  • The only thing that blinks on my screen is the game I'm playing. Animation is an emergency signal. Misuse it and I'll resize the window to cut your ad right the frell off. Sorry!

  • Honestly, a row of brightly-colored, high-contrast ads is pretty damn noisy even if they're not animated. I'll trim them off too. There's a reason that Google Ads are homogenous in style and blend with the overall page: it makes the page suck less.

  • You can put an ad on the "click to start game" screen.

  • Once I click to start the game, ad time is over. I'm playing a game now. The next ad I see is the end of the game. I mean that literally: the next time I see an ad, I shout "game over!" and close the window. No, I am not playing again. You lost fired me.

  • If you can't make a living this way, I'll play other people's games. I'm fine with that. Yes, I do design games for free.

  • Maybe someday ad technology will get so sophisticated that I can't play Flash games at all. Do you want to go there? No, don't worry -- I don't really expect it to happen. Web ad blockers seem to be in fine shape these days.

  • So, if you want to try to go there, you're frakked. One way or the other.

What does all of this boil down to? Seriously, this: web ads are an attention tax levied on the people who don't care about them very much. I care about them a lot, so I block a lot of ads (by various means). You cannot get me to start watching ads by making them more intrusive; you can only make me hate you more.

So back the hezmana off and be happy with the (large majority) of ad-viewers you've got now. Most people aren't juggling windows around to avoid your dren. You don't have to yotz up the game experience itself to make your garbage-spreading cash quota.

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Review: Cursor*10 (Flash)

Don’t be fooled be the simplistic black and white vector shapes. Cursor*10 is a very quick unique and challenging puzzle game that can be played in any web browser as long as it has Adobe Flash installed.cursorx10title.gif

Cursor*10 is a flash game made by Yoshio Ishii, who has made numerous games for Nekogames, using a simple point-and-click control scheme and a simple visual style that reminds me of old DOS and Atari games. Even though the website is Japanese, the game is in English and doesn’t require anyone to learn button combinations or advanced tactics. All the player needs is quick reflexes and a basic understanding of the game’s objectives.

The object of every level in Cursor*10 is to click on the staircase that goes to the floor above, eventually reaching the 16th floor. There is no main character to speak of; however your own mouse cursor could be considered a character in this game. When you start a level, there is a timer at the bottom-right corner that starts at 650 and continues to fall down towards 0 increasingly faster as the player tries to move through each floor. When the timer reaches 0, the first cursor explodes, the message “Cursor No. 2 ready” is showed, and the player restarts the entire game from the beginning. However, this time, Cursor No. 1’s movements and clicks are being replayed as Cursor No. 2 continues to move around, and when No. 3 is ready, its predecessors will be replayed and this continues throughout all 10 cursors. This gameplay mechanic is first used where there is a button on the ground that reveals a set of stairs when the button is pressed and disappears when that same button is released. This forces the player to use Cursor No. 1 to hold that button down until it explodes, then Cursor No. 2 repeats those floors, but this time, Cursor No. 1’s movements are being replayed, which includes holding that button down, giving Cursor No. 2 the chance to go up that flight of stairs and get closer to the 16th floor. The multiplicity strategy is used multiple times, such as another situation where a box needs to be clicked 99 times for the next staircase to be shown but there’s not enough time for 1 cursor to do it, so another cursor must sacrifice its life so the next cursor can make it through.

Out of all the games I’ve ever played in my life, I don’t remember a single one that uses this concept of the player dying and as they use replay the game, their previous actions are replayed in real time in such a way that they help themselves out. It’s a very short game that can be finished in less than 15 minutes once you understand what needs to be done to get to the staircase to the next level.

This makes me wonder if this concept of multiplicity can be implemented in future games; there’s been many interesting puzzle games involving changing your visual perspective of objects (e.g. EchoChrome, Crush, Super Paper Mario), matching specific color blocks (e.g. Audiosurf, Lumines, Dr. Mario) and even blending adventure with puzzles (e.g. Zack & Wiki, Professor Layton). Whatever happens, I’m glad that the puzzle genre is no longer limited to jig-saw puzzles, crosswords and Tetris-clones.

Cursor*10 is a short, fun and original flash puzzle game that is easy on the mind and can be easily played from beginning to end once the player remembers where the stairs are and where the buttons are.

Link: Cursor*10

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