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The RPS Advent Calendar 2023, December 5th

It's all in the cards

A close up of Horace the Endless Bear looking at a big pile of presents with his name on, next to a plate of cookies with a glass of milk. It's the 2023 RPS Advent Calendar!
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun

The fifth game in our 2023 Advent Calendar is "future-proof" in a different kind of way.

A big hand, please, for The Cosmic Wheel Sisterhood!

Edwin: There are many things I love about The Cosmic Wheel Sisterhood, not least its charismatically illustrated and written queer cast. But if I had to boil it down to a single strength, it’s that this is a game in which you complete the story by assembling your own storytelling instrument. It's a game in which you collaborate with the developer to build your own sets of richly open-ended symbols - symbols you can use like a set of skeleton keys, to intervene with various characters and shape the wider universe.

A selection of player-created cards from a reading in The Cosmic Wheel Sisterhood.
Image credit: Devolver Digital

In Deconstructeam’s sumptuous, adventurous visual novel, you’re an exiled seer, Fortuna, who is bodging together her very own custom deck of Tarot cards with the assistance of a menacing, yet surprisingly likeable (indeed, sort of romanceable) Behemoth. Over 10 hours or so, you resize and mash together props and backdrops using an MS Paint-style editor, unlocking sets of pre-written associations in response. You then use these cards to scry the futures of the other witches – old friends, old rivals and a smattering of new faces - who come to visit your lonely asteroid refuge. In the course of performing each reading, you play cards in response to each character’s questions and so, steer the plot, without ever setting foot outside your astral home.

The cards you pick during readings all generate certain kinds of elemental energy, which you need to create fresh cards. Naturally, there’s a tension during card readings between the dictates of this resourcing system, and wanting to draw cards that tell specific stories. It’s the right kind of pressure to optimise - not outright forcing you to squeeze the most out of each card or reading, but applying mundane economical considerations that cause you to think harder about who particular cards are for, and to what degree your deck reflects the bitterness, kindness or ruthlessness felt by the game’s protagonist towards her estranged coven.

There’s also, of course, a tension between what the developers tell you the cards mean, and what you intended as their creator within the game. Part of the fun is this feeling of amicable disagreement with Deconstructeam over the correct analysis of, say, a card depicting a host of angels with trumpets sticking out of their bottoms. (Yes, that's one of mine.)

A conversation with a deer-headed old witch in The Cosmic Wheel Sisterhood about events 200 years before.
One of the mini interactive stories you can play in The Cosmic Wheel Sisterhood, recalling a skeleton's encounter with a cranky old necromancer.
Image credit: Devolver Digital

With each card you create, you commit the associations of certain motifs to memory and grow more assured in your recombinations, more confident of the marks they leave on destiny. By the end of The Cosmic Wheel Sisterhood, you're the architect of a collection of resonant, layered designs that might continue to have meaning for you in life beyond the game. There's never been anything quite like this, for my money. I hope there will be in future.

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The all-seeing eye of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, the voice of many-as-one.