The world of the occult can be an alluring and scary place. In a time where creatures of the night seem to have a show on every television channel and bookstores host ‘Young Adult Supernatural Romance’ sections, it is always interesting to pull back the curtain and learn where myths and legends first took root (at a time when vampires didn’t sparkle). It is no different with video games. Many of the major franchises use classic lore as a basis for new stories to draw an audience (read: customers). One common theme through gaming history is the use of tarot cards, or more specifically, the Major Arcana.
Most people associate tarot cards with fortune telling and divination; tools for gypsies and palm readers to take a glimpse into a person’s future, but their origins are far less mystical than they seem (read: a bit disappointing). Tarot cards date back to the early 15th century, where they were first used as playing cards, similar to decks used for poker or blackjack today. A tarot deck normally consists of 78 cards, which are divided into five suits: swords, staves, cups, coins, and a fifth trump suit, known as the Major Arcana. This trump suit would best be compared to the ‘face’ cards of a modern deck of cards, with the Major Arcana depicting characters and scenes that show up quite often in video games. Let’s take a look back at where these 22 cards have been drawn (HA!) into gaming, shall we?
Let’s start by taking a look back to 1987, where an early computer game used the Major Arcana to craft a rather puzzling tale. The Fool’s Errand tells the story of traveling Fool who seeks his fortunes in the Land of Tarot. This interesting title features all sorts of mental challenges; form word searches to mazes, even ciphers tell the story of the Fool. The game’s creator, Cliff Johnson, is releasing a sequel to this cult classic later this year, if you are seeking a challenge.
Another cult classic (and personal favorite of mine) to utilize the Major Arcana is the rare Super Nintendo game Ogre Battle. In this strategy RPG, the player guides small armies into skirmishes, but cannot directly command the attacks of his troops. He/She can only change unit directives, or affect a battle’s outcome using the magic of the Major Arcana. By playing a card during a fight, the player can benefit his soldiers or weaken his enemies. Another interesting tarot mechanic appears before a new game is started; when a old wizard asks the player questions during a tarot reading. The player’s answers determine what units will start in their army, while the tarot drawings will provide him/her with cards to use in initial battles.
Before developer Rare was making classics like Donkey Kong Country and Perfect Dark, the British company made Taboo: The Sixth Sense for the Nintendo Entertainment System. Taboo might be the best example of a video game that included tarot cards, as the game is an actual tarot card reading simulator. This odd (read: terrible) title has the distinction of being the only NES game to feature not one, but two(!) warnings: Taboo is intended for players ages 14 or older, and it is intended for entertainment purposes only. Thank goodness for that second warning, lest we have people who would fall for a video-game-tarot-card-reading-simulation-fortune-telling scam.
Our good friend Allyson would be very upset if I left out one of her favorite games from this post. Shadow Hearts: Covenant is a rather odd RPG for the PlayStation 2 that takes place during the first World War. One of the playable characters is an Italian fortune teller who has a special ability that features tarot cards. Lucia will draw a tarot card from a deck (which grows in number as the player discovers more cards in the game) which will change the outcome of a battle; sometimes for the better, other times for the worse. This game also features playable characters which include a lecherous old puppet maker (who specializes in making little girl’s dresses), and a 400-year old gay vampire wrestler (known as the “Grand Butterfly”). Like I said, an odd RPG.
Taking a turn down the darker side of the road, we look at a recent PC title, Painkiller. This shooter, while released in 2004 (alongside Halo 2 and Gears of War), is reminiscent of older games like Doom or Quake, where a lone hero fights legions of demons and monsters, moving towards the end of a level where a boss awaits. In each stage, a player can complete a special task (such as only using a certain weapon, or clearing all of the enemies out of a level) to acquire a black tarot card. These cards provide the player with short-term boosts, like beefed-up weapons or slow-motion enemies. Pretty handy tools when you are mowing down hordes of the damned.
Moving to the opposite side of the road (the cute and horribly Japanese side), we find the Magical Drop series. These drop-and-match-three puzzle games feature the Major Arcana as the 24 playable characters available for adorable bubble based battle. Depending on which character a player chooses, that will affect the attack pattern and descent rate for and opponent’s stack. But it doesn’t really matter what character you choose; my brother and I will defeat you anyway. No matter what. Seriously.
Tarot cards have been featured throughout the Shin Megami Tensei: Persona series. While I could take an entire post to cover this excellent RPG series (spoiler alert), let’s focus on the newest in the series: Persona 4. In this game, players take control of a group of high school students in the fictional, rural town of Inaba. Each of the students uses a Persona, a sort of alter-ego summon which can fight evil monsters. The Personas represent the Major Arcana, and new cards/Persona may be obtained through the course of the game. If you are the sort of person who feels that they simply don’t have time to add another 80+ RPG to their belt (read: me and Laura), then be sure to check out the Persona 4 anime! It portrays the game’s story rather well, and it features all the original voice actors. Quite a nice touch.
While we have taken a short tour through the Major Arcana’s role in gaming, there are many other examples in video games that are not covered here. Often, tarot readings show up briefly in cut scenes, providing the main character with a glimpse into events that will come to pass. Where will these supposedly mystical items reveal themselves in the future of gaming? Only the cards can say.