The Tarot’s History
Games are meant to illicit certain sensations, an emotional and thoughtful response from those who engage with its rules. The tarot is no different.
It’s existed since the 15th century with some occultists claiming that it is far older, dating back to the Old Kingdom of Egypt. But before it was used to tell the fortunes of the participants, it was a game; similar to the playing cards we know today. Like common playing cards, the tarot has four suits. These have variants per region; the French suits in Northern Europe, Latin suits in Southern Europe, and German suits in Central Europe. Each suit has 14 cards, 10 pip cards numbering from 1 (or Ace) to 10 and 4 face cards (King, Queen, Knight, and Jack/Knave). In addition, the tarot has a separate 21-card trump suit and a single card known as the Fool. Depending on the game, the Fool may act as the top trump or may be played to avoid following suit.
Yet, what the tarot is most famous for is its use in cartomancy; the art of divining through cards. But there is another school of thought, called tarotology, a practice of using cards to gain insight into the past, present or future through posing questions. This idea is focused entirely on the tarot. There’s plenty of reasons someone takes on the practice; from believing the result is guided by a spiritual force, to belief that the cards are instruments used to tap either into a collective unconscious or into the subject’s own creative, brainstorming subconscious. This comes from the far more Jungian belief structure common in Occult theory.
Tarotology has several key figures in its develop and flagrant abuse. Antoine Court de Gébelin in the late 18th century, who was obsessed with the mysteries of Isis and included a good deal of then thought esoteric ideas regarding Egyptian belief. This involved claiming that the tarot was a distillation of the Book of Thoth. The god of wisdom. Antoine believed that the tarot was the continuation of that lost tome. In his own words:
“It is unbelievably true; this Egyptian book, the last remains of their superb libraries, exists in our time; it is even so commonplace that no scholar has bothered to notice it; no one before us has ever suspected its prominent origin. This book is composed of 77 sheets or compositions, practically 78, divided in 5 classes which each representing objects as disparate as they are amusing and instructive: in a word, this book is the Game of Tarots, admittedly unknown in Paris, but very well known in Italy, Germany and even Provence. [The Tarot] is bizarre not only for the figures represented in its trumps but also because it has such an extensive volume of them.”
He wholeheartedly believed that the secrets of Egyptian mysticism were hiding within the tarot. In his book, Primitive World analyzed and compared against the modern world considering various subjects of history, heraldry, money, games, circumnavigating voyages of the Phoenicians, American languages and more (the fully translated title, most Occultists were long-winded). He said, “The Egyptian game [Tarot], on the other hand, is well suited for [divination] as it somehow represents the entire universe and the various matters affecting the human condition. [Ancient Egyptians] were so unique and profound that they imprinted within the least of their works their timeless trademark while others could barely manage follow in their footsteps.”
Later researchers and authorities on the subject would, of course, explain that Antonie was misguided in his understanding; yet the spell this mythic game had cast upon the world was only just beginning. It lived on, far past Antoine’s time and his contemporaries, such as “Etteilla”, the pseudonym of Jean-Baptiste Alliette; one of the most famous French occultist of the late 18th Century. He too believed in the connection to the Book of Thoth.
When Antonie published his work, Le Monde primitif (shortened), there was a great stir in the occult community. One which allowed Etteilla to respond with another book, Manière de se récréer avec le jeu de cartes nommées Tarots (“How to Entertain Yourself With the Deck of Cards Called Tarot”) in 1785. It was the first book of methods of divination by tarot. In it Etteilla claimed that he had been introduced into the art of cartomancy in 1751, which predates Antoine’s work. This was the equivalent of an 18th Century burn. These debates and practices mirror a lot of modern game enthusiasts you see on reddit, arguing the validity of their take.
In 1788 he formed ‘Société des Interprètes du Livre de Thot‘, a group of French-speaking correspondents through which he continued to disseminate his teachings until 1790, when he was took it upon himself to translate the hermetic wisdom of the Egyptian Book of Thoth: Cour théorique et pratique du Livre du Thot, that included his reworkings of what would later be called the “Major” and “Minor Arcana.” Towards the end of his life Etteilla produced a special deck for divination that synchronized his ideas with older forms of French cartomancy, this was one of the first decks of the tarot specifically designed for use in the occult tradition.
In the mid-19th Century the tarot was used by Eliphas Levi in connection with his beliefs. By then it had entered the lexicon of the scholarly occult world. It was also used, like the Ouija board, as a means of entertainment in parlors across Europe. This was the beginning of the Spiritualism fad which would dominate the later-half of the 19th Century. It was during this time that Arthur Edward Waite, known commonly as A.E. Waite, a New York born mystic who attended school in London, found Levi’s teachings and began to indulge in the occult, even becoming a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.
A.E. Waite’s significance to our understanding and the popularity of the tarot cannot be understated. He quite literally wrote the book on it; The Pictorial Key to the tarot which was included in every Rider-Waite deck of tarot cards. The Rider Company was a division of Penguin Random House most famous for this specific deck and the publishing of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. They knew how to take chances, thanks to the wild eyed editorial director; Ralph Shirley.
It should be noted, however, that the deck goes by another name as well; the Waite-Smith deck. The famous art of the tarot can be attributed to Pamela Colman Smith, nicknamed Pixie by her close friends. A writer herself and an occultist, but also an immensely talented artist. She did work for the Women’s Suffrage Movement, creating posters and eye-catching signs to contribute to the cause. Smith knew the tarot as well as Waite and, working through correspondence with one another, she designed all 78 cards in only 6 months during 1909. Since then the famous deck has been our standard for tarot.
Later on, Aleister Crowley would create his own concept; the Thoth Deck. This hankered back to Antonie and Etteilla’s Egyptian connection. The art for these were designed by Marguerite Frieda Harris, known as Lady Frieda Harris.
Crowley said of her designs, “She devoted her genius to the Work. With incredible rapidity she picked up the rhythm, and with inexhaustible patience submitted to the correction of the fanatical slave-driver that she had invoked, often painting the same card as many as eight times until it measured up to his Vanadium Steel yardstick!”
Neither of them would live to see the deck printed but the art and the Book of Thoth, which Crowley wrote to explain his ideas of the tarot, was published as a 200 copy limited run series.
As the tarot lives on to this day, it’s important to observe it in the context of which its viewed. That’s why for this article we’ll be examining how video game media approaches the ideas and the mystery of the tarot and its tradition; using it as a function, an aesthetic, and a backdrop to help tell the story of the game.
Tarot 8-bit Mysteries
Three games from the late 80s to early 90s will be the focus of our examination. Tarot Mystery for the Super Famicom, Taboo: The Sixth Sense for the NES, and the House of Tarot for the Sega Game Gear. Each of these three titles attempts to capture the mood and the premise of tarotology, presenting the players with a chance to experience their own tarot reading tailored to their fortune. These are pure aesthetic, referred to commonly in the genre of non-games.
Developed by Ukiyotei (a now defunct game company) and released in 1995, Tarot Mystery uses the deck in its most traditional way; as a means of fortune-telling. One notable fact about the development is that the music was composed by Yasuaki Fujita who worked on such titles as Final Fight, Mega Man 3, and Breath of Fire.
The music adds to the mood with its low and eerie chiptunes, accompanied by a backdrop of what I can only describe as bizarre Windows ‘95 screensaver motifs shifting behind the cards as they come down, forming the basic Celtic Cross pattern of the tarot, as seen below:
The cards are laid in a cross shape, 5 total, with the 6th laid across the middle card. Along the side are placed 4 additional cards. This spread is more detailed than others, popularized by the Golden Dawn.
Unfortunately this game was never released in the European markets. It stayed predominantly in Japan, who showed a less squeamish interest in the occult than Americans at the time. No ‘Satanic Panic’ to contend with regarding common occult iconography.
The game was moderate in its success. Later on a Neo-Geo version was released which received a low score from Japanese game magazine; Famicom Tsūshin. This particular genre of non-games would never become tremendously popular, falling into a niche category.
A few years before Tarot Mystery, Nintendo of America licensed Taboo: The Sixth Sense, developed by Rare for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in 1989. This was a relatively fully functioning tarot simulation, marketed as an adult party game. It came with two warnings for its European and American audiences; that it is intended for players ages fourteen and older and the game is intended for entertainment purposes only. Though we see a dip in quality as far as music goes, (which is unfortunately composed of inelegant beeps and boops), the presentation is a bit cleaner.
After pressing Start, it opens with this epigraph:
All that has been,
And all that will be,
Is here for you to know,
Dare you glimpse the future,
Dare you even ask…?
Afterward the name of the game is displayed along with ‘the time machine on Nintendo’ which perhaps might be something lost in translation.
You begin by writing your name, birth-date, and sex. Then the game prompts you to ask it a question. We’re treated to another hideous screensaver and a shuffling animation as the tarot cards are sorted. They’re dealt out in the same Celtic Spread, however unlike Tarot Mystery, each card is focused on and includes a graphic of the image on the card. It also gives a brief, two line explanation of what the card could possibly mean.
The whole process runs close to 5-mins. Rare attempted to recreate the parlor room feel of the tarot by marketing it as a party game, encouraging people to start it up and take turns asking the machine questions. It also included an instruction booklet which gave the brief history of “Tarot” both the word and the concept. It listed the Arcana as well, allowing players to understand what they were seeing.
It’s important to note, as well, that the game contained nudity and religious images which was unacceptable under Nintendo of America’s content guidelines. How this game managed to slip through the cracks remains a mystery.
The final game we’ll explore in this era is House of Tarot. Released in 1991 for the Sega Game Gear, developed by Japan System Supply (another defunct company) operating out of Osaka. They not only worked on House of Tarot (Tarot no Yakata) but, for those Nintendo 64 degenerates, they also developed BOTH Chameleon Twist games.
What makes House of Tarot worth talking about is the way in which it frames the experience of having the tarot read. It becomes almost a mini-narrative where the player must select from three distinct fortune-tellers and approach their mysterious abode to have their fates revealed. It’s all presented in a light-hearted, cartoonish appearance, lacking the grim aesthetic of the previous entries. This leans into what makes the tarot so appealing, that its occultism is accessible to anyone.
It’s use of the devil and angel imagery adds to that mysticism. There were considerably less restrictions in the use of religious icons when it came to Japanese game development, as previously seen with Taboo. And though it lacks the stellar music of Tarot Mystery, it’s pleasant but alluring presentation makes it more engaging. The three fortune-tellers each fit a certain kind of stereotype associated with the practice, charming in their own way.
When the actual reading begins, this is where the game caught my interest. Instead of using the standard Celtic Cross Spread, House of Tarot goes in for the Hexagram method which has the tarot cards placed on the various points of the geometric star. Some believe that the Hexagram is a glyph of the Tree of Life and so tapping into that belief with the placement of the cards shows us our place within the Tree, within creation. Keeping that in mind, it’s important to remember that these different spreads are used for different means and aren’t actually styles. They’re more like scope.
The Hexagram, for example, is used to answer specific questions, deliver daily readings, give us a snapshot of a situation, provide general advice, and dispense guidance about an issue. It’s flexible in this way, whereas the Celtic Cross spread is most often used to give guidance on a particular issue, the cards can be read one by one, but the beauty of the Celtic Cross is that it can tell a story from beginning to end.
The tarot gives us a narrative to our chaotic lives. It provides a rich meditative experience, self-reflection through visual representation. Magic, fortune-telling, rituals, are all methods of control that we exert to give it some semblance of order. And that’s perfectly alright. It’s healthy for the mind, so long as it isn’t held as gospel.
Chaos is everywhere. Sometimes we’re too caught up in our own lives to stop and evaluate our choices. Tarot, like many games, provides that space in which we can focus on the question and find the answer. It’s crucial to remember that the answer needn’t and shouldn’t always be something we want to hear, but something we’re trying to tell ourselves.
These games and the tarot as a whole represent that vast and historic human endeavor to make sense of our reality and to have a little fun in the process.
The Tarot would find different ways of expressing itself, however, as games evolved.
For example the Tactics Ogre series uses tarot as dressing for its pitch of being a game about choice. The very first thing that occurs in March of the Black Queen is a seer giving the player a tarot reading and using this to determine what kind of leader they’ll become in the revolution. In the follow-up games, the tarot always makes an appearance. Including Let Us Cling Together where its used as a deck of power-ups, and the World System; which allows you to turn back time when you make a bad decision. The idea being that you’re forewarned about it before the choice is made.
This use of tarot as a power-up can be found in other titles, such as The Binding of Issac which deals in many occult themes overlaid on its biblical references.
In the series Shin Megami Tensei: Persona the tarot is a means in which the protagonists control and summon demons as well as alter their fortune in dungeons. It also surrounds social links, their connection to others. The tarot is a large part of what makes Persona work, utilizing the connections that we find with others when we examine our lives as represented by the deck. The games deal heavily with changing your fortune and the fortune of the world through human will, a fundamental part of the occult tradition.
Other games use the tarot is unique ways. The obscure Sega Saturn game Mansion of Hidden Souls used tarot cards as a compass, in the sense that each room would be associated with a tarot card and when you used the deck in the blank-slated main hall, the revealed card would guide you to which room you had to visit next; if you remembered which room had which card associated to it, that is.
The popular Magical Drop series features 24 main characters each based off one of the Major Arcana (except one). And in Sa Ga Frontier there’s a whole school of magic based off the tarot, called Arcane Magic. It uses four basic spells based on the Minor Arcana (with Shields instead of Wands), and a handful of Major Arcana including The Tower as the most powerful direct damage spell in the game.
A.E. Waite had a quote about his view of the cards, which brings this all around, “The true Tarot is symbolism; it speaks no other language and offers no other signs.” In the visually heavy medium of games, such language is key to the art of modern story-telling. It’s no surprise to see the legacy of what was once a simple card game, to an occult staple, find itself ingratiated in the narrative of interactive media considering its evocative images and the mystique of its history.
In the end we’re still looking for the same thing, whether its in seeing ourselves as The Fool in the center of a Hexagram, trying to forecast the direction of our lives, or jumping over digital blocks in pursuit of a distinct goal. The tarot provides answers and that’s all we ever really crave.