This is the third post in a series of design diaries about PostCurious' next game, The Light in the Mist, a tarot-card-based narrative puzzle adventure created in collaboration with Jack Fallows. You can find the previous posts here.
Disclaimer: These posts contain some (very slightly spoilery) details about the game--if you want to play it without knowing anything beforehand, it’s probably best not to read this!
My philosophy when designing a game is to allow the main subject matter to inspire the puzzles and story. Laying down this foundation helps create resonance between the player’s actions, the narrative, and the general aesthetic of the game. Since reading tarot is all about interpreting the cards, designing these puzzles was essentially my way of interpreting their meanings.
Before starting the actual design process I researched and wrote detailed notes about what makes each Major Arcana card significant, as each represents a puzzle in the game. Then, I considered how those meanings can be conveyed through metaphor or translated to a player action. For example, The Hermit card addresses self-reflection, and consequently the puzzle is inspired by the idea of reflection. Also, unlike most of the puzzles in the game, it doesn’t use any additional cards because it seemed more conceptually suitable for The Hermit to exist alone.
Another aspect of tarot reading that I found inspiring was the idea of “spreads.” A spread is a way of laying down the cards in a unique configuration, which can vary depending on the goal of the reading. A successful game should take advantage of its medium, and with such limited materials it seemed only logical to try and make the most of the cards as a unit of play. This led to creating some puzzles that require placing the cards in various arrays, not just to thematically match the cards (for example, the Wheel of Fortune has to do with circles--surprised?) but also to build more tactility into the gameplay. It’s hard enough to invent objects and come up with interesting ways to manipulate them, but working entirely with flat cards of a set size that cannot be altered or destroyed was a brand new challenge for someone who normally places a high degree of emphasis on physical items.
In a way, it was also the best sort of challenge. I had to ask myself: “What kind of player interactions can I create with the given materials and how can they be designed to best reflect the subject matter?” Needless to say, there were times where the constraints felt very limiting, and were the components different, it would be an entirely changed game, but it was a creatively satisfying endeavor, and I think the result is strong. Sometimes constraints of this sort force you to think further outside the box and actually serve as a useful design exercise.
One of our main goals with the overall project was to create links between the cards, puzzles, solutions, and story passages, weaving their meanings together and avoiding arbitrary answers or narrative beats. As a result, every aspect of the gameplay is designed with the source material in mind but twisted to create connections that are unique to the game.
Although it is easy to see that this tarot deck is aesthetically far removed from the (most commonly regarded as) "standard" Rider-Waite deck, existing decks and tarot imagery did serve as a jumping off point for many of the puzzles and illustrations. For example, the stained glass window in the background of the 3 of Pentacles partially inspired one of the puzzles, and our version of The Moon card contains some common symbols but integrates them into a different design. Meanwhile, cards like The Chariot may look nothing like their “standard” counterparts, but the associated puzzle, solution, and narrative still echo the traditional meaning behind The Chariot card.
Although these associations will not be immediately obvious to players who aren’t familiar with tarot, the subtle connections woven into the various game elements still create a sense of cohesion and continuity that would not be there without precise intention. Our hope is that these integrations may even spark some curiosity in those who previously may have had no interest in exploring the tarot.
What games have you played that successfully create resonance between the gameplay, narrative, and source material?