Last year I wrote a series of blog posts about the making of The Emerald Flame, with design diaries about everything from the initial inspiration to the final art, up to the lessons learned from running the Kickstarter campaign. Since completing The Emerald Flame I’ve been working on a new project in collaboration with Jack Fallows, creator of Cryptogram Puzzle Post: a still-untitled narrative puzzle game in the form of a tarot deck. After months of percolating, I decided to start getting down some design diaries for this project as well.
How did this project come to be?
The idea of a puzzly tarot card deck had been in my mind for a long time--after all, there is so much about tarot that can lend itself well to a puzzle game--but more on that shortly. As it turned out, there was someone on the other side of the ocean who long had the idea of illustrating a tarot deck, but didn’t feel there was a good enough reason to put another one out into the world unless it was especially unique.
Jack (they/them) and I started talking a few years ago, back when tabletop escape room style puzzle games were growing in popularity, but there was still a fairly small number of companies around, and nowhere near the number of products available in the genre today. We connected on the basis of, “You do this weird niche thing and I also make this weird niche thing, so hi!” In 2019 we met at the Up The Game conference in the Netherlands, played an escape room, and spent the evening chatting about maybe collaborating one day. Fast forward a few months, the tarot cards became the next-on-deck PostCurious project, and with Jack on board, the plan was to make something that wasn’t just a typical tarot deck--it would be a game, a story, and a piece of art.
Why tarot cards?
Tarot cards seem to carry a built-in air of mystery because of how they’re frequently portrayed in the media, but the truth is that their origins lie in play, not divination. Since the 15th Century and into the present, tarot cards have been used to play games, but unlike a deck of standard playing cards, the symbolism and art of the tarot is brimming with meaning, making them a juicy source of inspiration for a narrative puzzle game.
When tarot is used as a divination tool, it is often to interpret a person’s past, present, and future. This concept was a jumping off point to paint the story of a character whose experiences in the narrative (along with the puzzles in the game) are influenced by the meanings of the cards. While we wanted to keep the cards functional for those who wish to use them outside the game, with completely original illustrations the deck would also just exist as a beautiful item that can be treasured as a keepsake.
The concept (mild spoilers ahead)
When I first started brainstorming for this game I wanted to create a player-centric story that was inspired by fortune-telling and the concept of fate. The first version of the game was designed to be somewhat like a “choose-your-own-path” adventure, with each puzzle presenting a different “fate” for the player, some with multiple options that would force players to make a choice. The idea was that the chosen answers and the order in which the cards were solved would affect the final outcome of the story, but treating the story as a series of vaguely outlined “fates” ultimately resulted in a lot of subtext and not enough substance. It felt more like a journey through flavor text, when what we wanted was to give players a meaningful narrative. After two playtests with similar feedback, we scrapped the original concept and rewrote the entire text.
Instead of swimming around on the surface, we decided to tell a deeper and more intimate story that was focused on character, leaving behind the "choose-your-own-fate" aspect of the game. While the player remains at the center of the action, the main narrative focuses on the life of the player’s friend, telling a coming-of-age story through visions of the past. In typical PostCurious fashion, the gameplay is non-linear, allowing players to piece together a series of memories using clues sprinkled throughout the text and creating variable ways to experience the story depending on the order in which scenes are encountered.
The other element kept from the original concept is having a selection of puzzles with multiple answers, only instead of forcing players to make a choice and potentially be punished for going down a certain path, these offer additional insight into the story for those who choose to experience the game to its fullest and find all the solutions. Puzzle-focused players that are uninterested in story could choose to find just one answer per puzzle, or even ignore the majority of the narrative entirely and play the game more like a puzzle hunt. Needless to say, this would result in a much less meaningful gameplay experience, but it is an option that exists for those who want it. At the end of the day, everyone has their own preferences, and the goal is not to police how players behave, only to make sure they are having fun.
Where are we now?
At this point the puzzles and narrative are mostly complete and are slowly being polished down as we begin the initial phases of creating final art. With 78 cards and several additional illustrations, the art creation will be a lengthy but very exciting process for this project! Keep an eye out for future posts in this series about puzzle design, narrative, and more.
Is there anything you want to know about the project? Comment or reach out with questions or blog post suggestions!