Thursday, November 18, 2010

Towards an Occultism of Video Games, Part II (Defender of the Crown)

Tarot cards are most associated with divination, which has given them both a cachet (as divination is among the most desired magical skills) and a disreputability. Rational Wiki, for instance, has numerous snide remarks to be made about Tarot, to say nothing of its massive takedown of astrology, but is relatively silent on the Kabbalah. The basic reason for this is simple - the ratio of people who have tried to predict the future, through any means, to those who have done a remotely good job of it is, basically, most people in the world to just about nobody.

Defender of the Crown, as it happens, is a 23 year old video game, and that's just in its NES port. Its future is minimal. Most of what is known about it exists in oral lore and is already getting towards fragmentary. That isn't to say we don't know a lot about it. It's just to say that not a lot of people know a lot about it, and not a lot of people are to make an effort to preserve that knowledge, and so the knowledge is rapidly evaporating. This is, for my purposes, fine - I have no desire to do the Doomsday Book of NES Games, interviewing developers and code-mining to understand algorithm. Such a text, although staggeringly valuable, is also staggeringly difficult and staggeringly boring to construct.

My point here is merely that the future of Defender of the Crown is minimal anyway, which poses an immediate challenge to the proposed task of applying the idea of tarot to it. Let us then make a slight modification to traditional understanding of the tarot, then, and suggest that the most effective divinations are ones that concern wholly what is, with the knowledge that the future is merely a projection from the present. Here we can minimize hypothesis and reduce the potential impact of projection. The question is then twofold - whether this approach provides a stabler foundation for Tarot (though I would suggest it is an approach that is profoundly non-radical to a significant swath of Tarot enthusiasts) and whether this approach allows Defender of the Crown to serve its appointed metaphoric role.

Some specifics that will be of interest primarily to people familiar with the Tarot (the rest can honestly skip this paragraph). I used the Touchstone Tarot and a more or less traditional Celtic Cross spread, although I have somewhat idiosyncratically adapted that spread over time. The Touchstone deck follows the Rider-Waite-Smith tradition of decks with minimal but significant departures (all more or less justifiable to my mind given the already illusory authenticity of the Rider-Waite deck). References will abound, however to Aleister Crowley's Thoth Tarot, which remains the culminating deck in the Golden Dawn tradition and is more explicitly tied to the Kabbalah than the Rider-Waite-Smith tradition.

1: Five of Cups.

This card, on its most basic level, represents loss and mourning. Traditional approaches to the card note first that although the image is one of despair, with three cups tried and discarded, two cups remain untouched.

This is a card of living death. Mourning is itself an act of profound narcissism in which one inhabits imagined presents untouched by death. Its central insanity is that it is only the possibility of death that creates the possibility of communication. In other words, if the mourned-for person were restored or restorable, not only would the mourning disappear, so would the reason for loving the person enough to mourn. Only through the existence of death do we have the ability to desire.

As a living death, the card exemplifies well the phenomenological position of the vast majority of 1980s video games. As I already said, Defender of the Crown is in a position of living death - being forgotten about at a rate faster than it is being understood. Here the balance of cups - that most have been discarded but some are untried - is profoundly significant, in that the act of mourning is being carried out after the peak of the experience. It is a memento mori within the card - a reminder of the fact that death is inevitably approaching, and that this fact is, in the end, what you are mourning for.

2: The Magician

Where the previous card describes Defender of the Crown's internal understanding of its situation, this card represents that which opposes it - that which it understands as the external. Here a brief digression on the basic structure of the Tarot is necessary. The deck is divided into 22 Major Arcana and 56 Minor Arcana. The Minor Arcana are subdivided into four suits, Wands, Cups, Swords, and Discs/Coins/Pentacles (depending on the deck), representing the classical elements of Fire, Water, Air, and Earth respectively. These suits consist of ten numbered cards (which are understood in most occult traditions as corresponding to the sephiroth) and four court cards (which we'll deal with later).

So the Five of Cups was the watery portion of Geburah. The Magician, on the other hand, is of the Major Arcana, and exists not as a partial representation of a sephira, but rather as a complete representation of the link between two sephira. Thus on the whole, in Tarot, the Minor Arcana are more important than the Majors, but any given Major is more important than any given Minor.

The Magician balances Binah and Kether, and is in one sense a proxy for Chokmah. The Magician is that which acts - the decisive transmutation of will into event or action. But whereas Chokmah is the absolute and primal idea of action, the Magician is its embodiment - it is not action, but that which acts - the actor, if you will. In terms of video games, and the current situation, the message seems straightforward - Defender of the Crown's position of terminal mourning is created by the actor - in this context, the player. Which makes sense. The central issue of Defender of the Crown's slow slide into mystery is that its players are by and large moving on, and without players there is nothing.

But tellingly, it is not the lack of players that opposes the Five of Cups - it is the archetypal player. In other words, this process of moving on and abandoning the old is central to what a video game player is. This is the death drive within video games - the fact that pleasure in video games is pleasure in beating them and abandoning them - artistic pleasure is the pleasure in destroying the pleasure-giving object. (This is true for most art - a voracious reader is nothing but someone who destroys the ability of as many books to give the initial pleasure of understanding and comprehension as possible)

3: Queen of Cups

And now we are forced to confront the court cards. There are two basic understandings of these cards. The first is the Rider-Waite-Smith understanding, in which they represent categories of people defined by stages of interaction with their elemental concepts. The lowest level, the Page, is the initiate. Then comes the Knight, the active, perhaps overly unrestrained force. Then the Queen, who has internal mastery of the element, and finally the King, who has dominion over the element. The Queen of Cups is, in this understanding, one with an internal mastery of water.

The second is Crowley's understanding, in which the Page is renamed the Princess and assigned the Earthly part of the element. The Knight is renamed the Prince and is the Airy part. The Queen remains the Queen and is the Watery part, and the King is renamed the Knight and is the Fiery part. Thus the Queen of Cups is, in this understanding, the Watery part of Water, which is to say, really, really wet.

Water, in the Tarot, is associated with emotion. We already established last entry that the emotional component of video games is most associated with personal memory. That the past of Defender of the Crown (which is what the third position indicates) is represented by internal mastery of this is thus straightforward - Defender of the Crown is in fact a game I played as a child.

My memories of it are not particularly fond. Although not out and out a turn-based strategy game, it is a heavily strategy-centric game with an aggressive complexity that makes it a bit of a heavy lift for a nine-year-old. The dueling and combat mechanisms were as fascinating as they were sloppy, the purpose of the game was obscure, and most attempts at empire building came to a crashing halt early on. It was never a game I played for long for the simple reason that I got slaughtered with wondrous rapidity whenever I tried.

And so the game was filed away as part of my past - one of many speedbumps on my road to not really liking massive strategy games that aren't called Civilization II. And I'm really pretty down the line insistent on that. I recognize that people say that the new versions of Civ are just as good if not better. I don't care. I know how to play Civ II, and I haven't gotten good enough that I can beat the computer on advanced difficulty levels, so why would I move on from it? After, you know, a decade.

This, then, is internal mastery of the game in my personal mythology (which is where water intersects with the magic of video games). But it is not external mastery. I never became the ideal Magician for this game. This is my role in its death and mourning.

4. Nine of Wands

This card represents an apex of power, with the fiery nature of wands making itself, among other things, a natural metaphor for power. (Swords, which may on the surface seem like the more natural metaphor for power, are less so, for reasons we will discuss shortly) As the peak of power, the Nine of Wands offers one major concern - from here one can only go down, and thus must be tremendously vigilant.

In this position, the card refers to emerging factors. This seems strange on the surface - after all, everything we have seen so far points to the declining nature of Defender of the Crown. How can its zenith be emerging if it is already declining? But this is merely a trick of equivalency. Defender of the Crown is becoming less popular, and knowledge about it is being lost. But wands are neither about popularity (if anything that would be Cups or Coins) nor knowledge (that'd be Swords). Wands are about will - about force and power. Here we reach one of the paradoxes of the decline of the NES that underlies and motivates this project - the fact that in the steady decline of the NES from its massive heights of fame, we have the makings of myth. The fact that the NES was once so prevalent that "Nintendo" and "Video Games" were synonyms, but that now knowledge of this era is rapidly dissipating is why our collective past can turn to myth.

The idea of caution and of a decline into chaos is further echoed in the plot and theme of the game, the Norman conquest of Britain and the messy wars that ensued. The game opens with news that the crown has been stolen - i.e. that the stability of the peak has been shattered. The Nine warns of potential future conflict. For a strategy game, this is to be expected.

5. Nine of Swords

The figure on this card wakes up, as though from a bad dream, the peaceful night impaled upon this rain of swords. A black dog stalks the shadows. Oh dear. The swords suit represents reason, traditionally. This card, then, is the infringement of reason upon dreams - the harsh light of day, if you will. The gold associated with the Swords suit (and with the sun) here takes its most negative aspect.

This card is in the position of the foundation - the basic strengths that Defender of the Crown possesses. It is a strange card to see here, though in Tarot, by the nature of randomness, these things do happen. In this case it is intelligible - as I noted in the Queen of Cups (a card whose position is linked to this one - the past and base strengths are, if you will, allied, and both cards form starting points of the two lines that cross the first two cards in the Celtic Cross spread) this game has a very rough learning curve. The harsh awakening of the Nine of Swords and the frequent total destruction of your armies for little to no reason reveal more than a slight resemblance.

Traditionally one notices when multiple numbers of the same suit arrive in a reading. In this case, 9 is associated with Yesod, and so there is not much mystery to its prevalence.

6. The Chariot

I confess, I winced when this card came down, because I initially thought it was going to completely screw up the line of thought I was figuring out over the first five cards. The Chariot, on the surface, seems an intensely simple card. It is forward-driven energy, a sort of ultimate expression of wands, will moving forward in conquest. And that surface reading seems deeply contradictory here - although wands are an emerging factor for Defender of the Crown, the Nine of Wands expresses a far more tempered and cautious vision than the Chariot seems to.

Furthermore, this card has to be understood primarily in relationship with the previous - somehow the harsh difficulty of Defender of the Crown is what enables this conquest. That makes little to no sense. Let's return to the superficial nature of the Chariot. This is a card where it is easy, in learning about the Tarot, to sum up quickly and move on. The card almost seems to blaze past - it arrives, it is recognized, and one moves on. But what if that superficiality is understood as part of the meaning of the card?

In this case, The Chariot can be understood as a sort of early modern electron - that which moves so fast as to make viewing it completely not only difficult, but impossible. The Chariot is the exertion of power, yes, but it is more accurately described as that part of power that is overwhelming, that causes us to get swept up in the current and dragged along. An intense and primal swiftness.

This is an integral part of spinning the detritus of the NES into myth. I stress, again, probably too far in the entry to help for some people, I do not write the Nintendo Project to be completely and thoroughly understood by any given reader. I write the Nintendo Project so as to be extremely difficult to read, though, ideally, not because I'm being a pompous and irritating git, but because in that difficulty comes depth. These new myths are very, very hard to catch - dense with information. They are like suns - a point that will bear fruit in a few cards. This is the nature of what remains of Defender of the Crown as knowledge about it falters. It seems to me relatively unlikely that the actual ROM for Defender of the Crown is going to be lost. Instead it will become an artifact - an oddity in a folder of ROMs.

Here we can tie in the Nine of Swords. Imagine, in ten years, someone poking at a folder of NES ROMs. They come to Defender of the Crown. The game is going to kick their asses. Is it intriguing? Yes, but so are a hundred other games in the folder. The truth of the matter is that most NES games are bad. That's part of why the Nintendo Project has had to adapt to its current esoteric form - as a reaction against the tedious numbness described in the earliest entries. And so, through its difficulty, Defender of the Crown is quickly set aside in favor of other games.

But this decision is rarely one of complete rejection. There are a handful of games that are actually just truly, unbearably awful. There are many more games tat are interesting, but not quite interesting enough to be classics. Games like Defender of the Crown that gesture towards some higher glory, but not with enough force to make us pursue them. They streak by, like a chariot, off to someplace glorious that we do not get to follow.

7. Queen of Wands

Here we move into the second portion of the reading. The first six cards form a set of three two-card oppositions. Situation/Opposition, Past/Emerging, Base/Height. These next four cards provide an alternate narrative of the themes in the first six. The first of these four symbolizes the subject of the reading - not, as the first card does, their situation, but they themselves.

The Queen of Wands, an internal mastery of fire, is easy enough to explain here - on the verge of turning to myth, Defender of the Crown, even as it loses its external force, finds a certain mythic power within. This is a stable situation. In many ways, it is the resolution of the mourning marked in the first two cards - yes, Defender of the Crown is dead, but in death it has found a certain measure of power.

8. Ten of Coins Reversed

I see, somewhat grudgingly, that it is time to deal with card reversals. Honestly, I'm lucky to have made it seven cards without dealing with this damnable pit of a concept. It is entirely possible that reversals are the single most contentiously muddled issue within the Tarot - moreso than the position of Strength and Justice, moreso than Crowley's renamings, or the placement of the Fool, this is something that everyone seems to have some position on, usually one unique from everyone else. For the most part, opinions on reversals can be lumped into three categories.

1) Reversals are an oddity of shuffling. Turn the card rightside up. Problem solved.

2) Every card has two meanings, so the deck is better understood, really, as a 156 card deck that is helpfully condensed into 78 for ease of shuffling.

3) Reversed cards are not different meanings, but rather exactly what they appear - inverted or blocked meanings. The normal meaning of the card is still in play, but so is some complication or issue that clouds it.

I am of the third school.

The Ten of Coins is, on one level, a card of material fulfillment. The figures on it are well-off, but not opulent - there is no gaudy and ostentatious finery here. An old man writes, seemingly happy, as his family surrounds him. This position represents family and friends normally - an odd concept for a video game.

It may be more instructive to turn towards the more esoteric Tarot, and particularly Crowley's Thoth Tarot. In that deck, the Ten of Coins is the final card, and represents the lowest, material form of spiritual energy. Through it, and particularly through the mediation of Mercury, there is the potential for the recapture of spiritual energy - the possibility for the bottom to reach back up towards the top and change the descent of spiritual energy into the ascent of man.

That is a fair enough description of the Nintendo Project, certainly, but why is it inverted, and why does it link to family and friends? This brings back into focus some of the difficulties posed by The Chariot. If the mythic nature of the NES is dependent on its hyper-density and on the necessary obscurity of individual games, then the two meanings of the Ten of Coins are seemingly in conflict. Although the recapture of spiritual energy through the NES is certainly possible, doing so puts individual games in an uneasy position. What gods shall be atop this 8-Bit Olympus? What gods shall be relegated to obscurity and mystery cults? For all the spiritual strength we have found throughout this reading, the inversion of this card is a stark reminder - we are still dealing with marginal cultural detritus here.

9. The Star

There is a paradox to this card wrapped up in an intense beauty. The paradox is its singularity - The Star. There are few enough stories in which a single star plays in. Stars are rarely individual. Instead we usually understand them as part of a tableau of sky. They do not provide meaningful light - indeed, they are essentially defined by the ease with which the light of the sun blocks them out.

And yet, this card tells us, they are beautiful. And we know this - the colloquial meaning of "star" in the context of "rock star" or "movie star" tells us that, for all the faint flicker that the concept entails, there is a true glory in it.

We know, intellectually, that every star is in fact a sun. A dense nuclear fusion reactor compressing gas into heavier and heavier elements. But we have no room for more than one of these titans. The rest must be reduce to stars. Or, perhaps more accurately, become stars - who is to say whether this is reduction or ascension.

The position here, hopes and fears, captures this nicely, as becoming a star is both a moment of profound hope and profound fear. It is also worth commenting that Chokmah, the ultimate and primal form of action and energy, is astrologically represented by the whole of the zodiac - i.e. stars.

10. The Lovers Reversed

This is a many-faceted card. The facet that springs most clearly to mind, however, is its representation of the Garden of Eden, and specifically the Fall of Man. Alan Moore makes a series of staggeringly brilliant leaps on this subject, noting that the fall of man and the genetic descent of man from primordial life share an intensive similarity. The Fall of Man is the knowledge of sex and death - the acceptance of mortality and desire in exchange for the possibility of progress. We return here, then, to the theme of mourning set up in the first two cards. Defender of the Crown is dying. Death is a form of progress.

But the card is reversed. If the Ten of Coins is the final material form - the end of the fall of man, and we are now entering the recapture - the ascent of man to the heavens, then this makes sense. The Ten of Coins's reversal and then this card, in the position of the final outcome of this problem. Our fall is complete. Now, in our mourning, we ascend.


  1. Philip - Tarot, Kabbalah and Astrology all derive from the same root and synthesis of the three aspects of the esoteric tradition is possible if only the student can grasp the inherent and shared structure. There are clues to this synthesis in the works of Jacob Bohme, though the student needs to be careful to read carefully. The only book which I could ever recommend on the subject of the Kabbalah is - The Universal Meaning of the Kabbalah by Leo Schaya - difficult but the only authoritive text I have ever encountered aside from the Sepher Yetzira etc. The Tarot cards you have featured above in this article are beautifully crafted, but sadly, seem to be devoid of any of the essential symbolism which is the very basis of their function.

  2. I've seen very few sources of any academic credibility that suggest that the Tarot/Kabbalah link is anything other than a roughly 18th century occult invention. Astrology is arguably more tied in, but treating any of them as coherent lines of thought that have developed from their historical origins to now, little yet as one single line of thought, is a historical fiction.

    It is, however, a very interesting historical fiction, and one that, despite its ludicrously sketchy origins, is actually useful and has been highly influential at various points in history. Aleister Crowley may have made a lot of what he said up, but that didn't make him any less historically important.

    But as a result, I find the authenticity of the material considerably less interesting than its productivity. The Touchstone Deck is not a Kabbalistic deck - it's derived from Rider-Waite-Smith symbolism, which is already a dicey take on the Tarot, having mostly been a deliberately bastardized Golden Dawn Tarot, i.e. a loose copy of Macgregor Mathers's deck, a deck that isn't even in the historical record. That does not make it any less useful as a Tarot Deck. I've got nine of the things around the house - ranging from fanciful modern decks to a copy of the Tarot of Marseilles, the Rider-Waite-Smith, and the Crowley-Harris decks. I picked that one for the entry because, as you noted, they're particularly pretty. Which seemed the most desirable feature in a blog post.