I’ve been thinking about Tarot more than usual these days, in no small part due to Mattie Brice’s recent writings on the subject. I think what is most interesting to me about her recent exploration on Tarot is how it connects to two more “traditional” games I love in an abstract sense but have never really enjoyed playing in a modern, competitive environment.
I don’t believe in divination, but I love doing Tarot. The “fun” is not in being able to detail the future, but in constructing meaning and narrative within the rules and confines the randomly selected cards create. Each combination of cards creates a different series of ideas you must connect, but also slowly creates more and more limits which force you to really examine the narrative you are creating and how it fits together. Once I realized how Tarot actually worked, I was able to “divine” all kinds of interesting ideas and insight into my world and myself. Each card of the deck was carefully illustrated and designed to convey a specific series of emotions. As long as one enters into a Tarot reading with the intent of creating meaning, it is all but impossible not to somehow be pushed towards thinking about larger problems or issues within your life. Because your goal is to connect each card drawn, but to do so within the specific meaning ascribed to each card and image, it is therefore a useful tool for forcing yourself to think about your problems in a new light. It is a kind of play that is inherently creative, forcing you to create stories and link ideas. It is also a kind of play that almost no other card game has.
When I was a young lad, Magic the Gathering was released onto an unsuspecting world. My elementary school received a few decks to give out to the students as a promotional event. It was a pretty clever business move, as the promise of free cards meant that nearly everyone in my class got hooked and soon ran out to buy additional cards of their own. I, being the young ecology nerd I was, was drawn most strongly to the “creature” cards. You had all your standard fantasy tropes, but also intriguing new creatures. As more and more editions came out, you also had more and more variations on the standard tropes. There was never JUST a “goblin” or JUST a “dragon” but always some more specific and intriguing variation. There were yetis and chimera from multiple countries and regions, each with their own attributes and forms. There were endless varieties of dragon, each suited for a different fantasy eco-system. There were dwarves, merfolk and elves of every occupation you could name, not just the standard Dungeons and Dragons classes. Even the made up creatures like the wonderfully alien thallids and thrulls had seemingly countless variations. There were kingdoms of diverse biomes, cultures and food chains, and it was CONSTANTLY growing. Today there is what, several million unique cards across dozens and dozens of expansions? Billions upon billions of card combinations to choose from and therefore worlds to create! So why was it such a bore to actually play?
The backstory for the game is that you are a Planeswalker, a wizard of unimaginable power who travels countless dimensions. When you encounter another Planeswalker, you duel, with the cards representing the spells you cast. Planeswalker spells aren’t any normal kind of magic, but instead involve the Planeswalker remembering the lands they have visited, drawing mana energy from those memories, and bringing pieces of other dimensions to aid them. You’re not merely summoning a monster or casting a spell, you’re bringing part of your home out of your past and into the world you’re battling on. A “deck” is supposed to represent an incredibly personal collection of memories and experiences, unique to each Planeswalker. But in reality, what it is is a collection of cards chosen by the player to be most effective in defeating their opponent and winning the game. The results of each game are binary. You win or you lose. If you choose cards around any theme other than winning, you are more likely to lose. So thematically your deck is supposed to be an incredibly personal and individual collection of experiences, but you end up penalized by the game for treating it as such.
As a kid, this was frustrating. I would spend hours creating decks based on specific worlds I’d dream up. I chose creatures I wanted to see living together over those which could combo well, and I chose spells which could be used to create a sense of narrative rather than ones which allowed complex tactics. But when it came time to then actually play with those decks, it wasn’t fun anymore because there was no way to “win.” So instead I’d go back and try to create “playable” decks that used the right cards in the right combinations and took into account what other players would probably be playing. It was no longer fun, so I stopped playing and collecting pretty quickly.
This is not to say that there is anything WRONG with playing the competitive Magic metagame, or with having fun coming up with unique and unexpected combinations to defeat your opponent. But for me it took some of the magic out of Magic. It even made the cards less fun to just collect and discover outside of the main game. At first it was exciting buying a sealed pack of cards and seeing what new stories or adventures came to mind from the randomly assigned cards within. But when you’re playing only to win tournaments, buying cards at random is pointless. Better to just buy specific cards after you’ve done the research.
This experience is mirrored in the Pokemon games. You have all these monsters, but not all of them are “playable” in the competitive game. You have no choice but to evolve your bulbasaur if you want to win, or to replace your favorite hypno or parasect with a more powerful “tier” of Pokemon. The game is no longer about personal choice or engaging with a fictional world, but in math simulations. Which, again, is perfectly fine but it goes against what the games themselves claim to be about. You’re not discovering a world or creating a relationship with alien creatures, you’re choosing the most powerful weapon for a specific outcome in a game of chance. I think its telling that the online Pokemon battle simulators which strip the games down to JUST competitive battling without any of the world or roleplaying are actually more fun and interesting in regards to the metagame and battles than the real games are themselves. Because the real games are caught between two different goals, without any real desire and understanding how to bridge them.
Tarot came directly out of competitive games of chance, but also from players using games of chance to create art and poetry. What if more players were willing to use existing games in new ways? What if a game of Magic was less about who won, and more about exploring another person’s created world? What if the goal was not about dominating another “planeswalker” but in trying to use both player’s selected “memories” to communicate or gain insight into each other. What if every Pokemon was useful not just in “battle” but in exploring and understanding the world you explore and the game rewarded you for connecting with whoever you felt like?
Obviously there is space for the players to make those changes on their own and create their own games within existing games. But I see myself as someone who is both a developer and a player, and I think we developers all too often get stuck in ideas about what “winning” and “losing” is supposed to be. When we do offer other ways to play, they are usually still tied into those same ideas. Take the various, half-assed attempts to create other ways of playing Pokemon such as the “Pokemon Contests” which resembled talent shows or the movie filming mini-games of Black and White. All these mini-games did was change around which Pokemon were viable, and were still all based around a binary win/lose formula. Even the non competitive mini-games required you to play them “correctly” as opposed to personally. As such they all tended to be significantly less interesting variations on the normal battling, and most players end up ignoring them in the long run.
Of all AAA commercial games, it is surprisingly Smash Brothers which seems to offer the best look at what developers can do to combat this. Smash Brothers offers multiple ways of playing competitively, but even better offers ways of using the same fighting game rules and system to create and play in other ways. Sometimes it involves using the familiar mechanics in another familiar competitive game way, like the Angry Birds-inspired variation of the 3DS version or the “Metroidvania” platformer of Subspace Emissary. But it also lets you use the fighting game system to create photos and movies. How do you communicate, choreograph and create something new using this limited series of animations and models? To me, that is a really interesting question and challenge. While it is not the focus of the series by any means, and it is still a series based almost entirely on a simple win/lose formula, it at least gives its players one way of defining their own play and goals without forcing them to do everything on their own.
In some ways, I’m becoming less interested in “games” and more interested in spaces for play, story, creation and discovery. Games can be a vehicle for these spaces, and as we see in Tarot their use of systems and rules are what helps drive that play and discovery. But when we only allow one outcome for play, we limit the power these spaces can have. It isn’t even a case where we players or developers have to choose between giving space for multiple goals and ideas of “winning” or staying within a familiar definition. The space is already there, no matter what rules we build into the system. All we need to do is think about what we can get out of choosing to use that space. All we need to do is realize that everything is playable.