'Tower of Fortune' Reminds Us That RPGs Are About Gambling

Tower of Fortune has been an enlightening reminder of what “random chance” really means.

Tower of Fortune is an iOS RPG that has you climbing the titular tower to rescue your daughter. It’s a stripped down experience, perfect for mobile platforms: You only have to manage a few stats, and you only have one attack. You eventually earn new swords and equipment that make you stronger, but in truth, there’s very little tactical depth to the game. Everything from combat to fun times at the pub -- actually, that’s kind of all you can do. That’s the totality of Tower of Fortune, fighting and drinking -- all of which is determined by random chance. And this is not a bad thing.

Role-playing games have always been based around statistics and probability -- the roll of the dice. The only way that Tower of Fortune differs is that it doesn’t roll dice. It spins slots, and for someone like me who has grown up playing digital RPGs that hide their dice rolling, Tower of Fortune has been an enlightening reminder of what “random chance” really means.

It’s worth noting how ToF puts its randomness front and center. Most modern RPGs hide their dice rolling as much as possible. They’ll give a percentage of success here or there, but they won’t show the actual computation of that percentage. Even if they did, it would be pointless. The computation happens too fast to be meaningful to us. In Borderlands, every bullet has a range of probable damage, and we see the result of that probability pop off an enemy as soon as the bullet makes contact with them. The game calculates this so fast that we can see numbers spewing from baddies like water from a fountain. Our success in battle is still based on statistics and probability, but when you remove the physical action that represents that calculation (the rolling of dice, the spinning of slots), it’s frighteningly easy to forget that randomness is involved at all.

In ToF, you spin a basic three part slot machine to determine actions in battle. There are only four possible actions. A book icon gives you bonus experience, a coin icon gives you extra money, a sword icon lets you attack, and a skull icon lets the enemy attack. What's interesting about this slot machine is that only the first icon matters. For example, if I spin a book and two skulls I get the bonus experience points, but the enemy doesn’t attack. Conversely, if I spin a skull, a sword, and a coin, the enemy attacks for that turn, and I have to spin again. However, lining up multiples of the same icon does increase that icon's power. Two books means more experience, three swords is the strongest attack, and so on.

It’s a surprisingly well-designed slot machine RPG. But as a well-designed slot machine RPG, it's important to remember that success is based on probability not strategy.

When I first started playing, I naturally approached it as I would any other RPG -- with plans of strategy. I kept planning out actions in my head as if I had control over them: "I want to get a couple books since I'm so close to leveling up, then attack, but of course some coin would be good too." Naturally, nothing ever went according to plan. It’s a god damn slot machine. I had to keep consciously reminding myself that actions were random, that when the monsters attack me four times in a row that’s not the result of poor planning, it’s just bad luck, and I’m just as likely to hit them four times in row.

In this way, Tower of Fortune speaks to the deceptiveness of games. Tons of virtual ink has been spilled about how games offer players an illusion of control, that we’re not really the masters that we think we are, but nowhere has this been made clearer for me than in my constant, instinctive attempts to rationalize this slot machine. I naturally assume a measure of control over my games, and when control isn't obvious, I seek it out.

When not in combat, you're at the pub, playing another set of slots. These slots cost money (In-game money, I should specify. There are no slot-based microtransactions in the game, just your typical real-money-for-game-money transactions), but you also can't really lose at these pub slots. You'll drink beer to heal, eat meat to raise your maximum HP, get in a bar fight at the cost of a single HP, or get kissed by the barmaid for good luck. That latter one is important.

The game doesn't explain what the LUCK stat changes. At first, I thought it applied to the slots, and as my LUCK increased I began looking for patterns in my spins. It did seem to change things. I wasn’t attacking more often, but I did seem to be getting helpful icons more often, more books and coins. The enemies were getting fewer opportunities to attack.

Except that wasn’t true at all. The slot machine only has four icons, and three of them are helpful. The odds are already stacked in my favor. I'll naturally have more helpful spins than hurtful spins. That's just probability. The LUCK stat didn’t change a thing about the slots, but for a while there, I was convinced it had because I couldn’t wrap my mind around the idea of genuine randomness. In truth, LUCK applies to your chances of getting a critical attack (which is still quite helpful).

If games are about the illusion of control, then an important step in supporting that illusion is removing the things that imply a lack of control. A dice is a powerful image and a rolling dice even more so, so it's no wonder games shy away from such images. When we can't see the objects that create the architecture of randomness we naturally assume a pattern instead. I don’t know if this is natural for all folks or if games have just taught me to think in patterns, but what I do know is that Tower of Fortune is a game based on probability, not patterns. It's fun because it's probabilities are always skewed in the player's favor, so you're guaranteed more wins than losses, and you'll inevitably reach the top of the tower and save your daughter. The house always loses, not because I'm lucky or smart or skilled, but because that's how the house was built.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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