The inside of Kismet’s caravan is oddly comforting. Books are piled all over, coupled with candles, tea cups, and hobby items. The room reads more like a warm study than a hot wizard’s den. From the windows you can see that it’s midday, not twilight or into the deeper veil of night. Kismet herself, a fortune teller, looks peculiar; porcelain joints, a lower face and neck shrouded (though more likely it’s not even there, as her face appears to be a heart-shaped venetian mask with nothing behind it). But she moves so smoothly and speaks so soft and sincerely that it’s hard to detect any hint of the deceit you’d expect from these occult scenarios. You actually catch her off-guard, she doesn’t notice you slip in with the door already closed behind you, which is an unusually humble thing to happen to a psychic.
David Chontos, Kismet’s creator, wasn’t looking to make something creepy or edgy, just a friendly, interesting demonstration of his crew at Psyop’s VR talents—namely character design and engrossing animation. When considering their first VR project, Chontos fished out an older design he made of the titular medium, and saw things quickly fall into place from there. “She was inspired by a mix of vintage fortune telling machines like Zoltar,” said Chontos, “fortune teller imagery from the turn of the century, with a dash of contemporary gothic fashion.”
Reflection is more revealing than the deck
As your session begins with Kismet you can select one of three activities. You can receive a tarot card reading, picking three from the deck on the table—past, present and future—their illustrations gently animated like the stained glass window in a Disney feature’s prologue. You can hear your horoscope, the room and table mechanically turning the small room into a suddenly nebulous expanse. The third option is to play The Royal Game of Ur, an ancient, patient, and ornate board game of dice and strategy, causing your surroundings to shift into endless Egyptian sands.
Chontos doesn’t seem convinced by the supernatural abilities of card readers and psychics as he talks about his affiliation with a “self-proclaimed pet psychic.” That doesn’t mean that readings have no value. “While I don’t prescribe to the notion that they possess supernatural powers,” said Chontos, “I do believe that the good ones are just incredibly aware, intelligent, intuitive people who are likely to give you good advice regardless.”
For those who aren’t persuaded by the supernatural angle of fortune telling—convinced their mediums aren’t reaching into the unseen to retrieve a message—readings are more a matter of interpretation. Intentionally, the cards portray cryptic broad strokes, and the average, complex human timeline is loaded with enough context that something will seem linked by fate. They are a series of coincidences for the patron’s interpretation. Meaning that, yes, the cards aren’t designed specifically for you, and the horoscope printed in your local paper isn’t destined for you either. It’s chance, as interpersonal as chance naturally is, but you’ll find your meaning within that chance. Fate is its own language, and if mediums know how to communicate with anything, it’s that. Which is why it might be so simple to program software to do the same.
A game is programmed for masses larger than a surname, and games have explored fortune telling before. Look to Rachel Weil’s Electronic Sweet-N-Fun (2013), Kara Stone’s Techno Tarot (2015) and even a 1989 NES game perplexingly named Taboo: The Sixth Sense. Just like the cards, the fact that they weren’t programmed with you in mind doesn’t mean you can’t siphon meaning from the images, from the words, from the code. Reflection is more revealing than the deck. Kismet, simple as it is, takes it a step further and gives the cards an intimate, personable face and a chassis from a transformative Magic Kingdom ride.
These cards, then, present a world that feels all your own, not unlike the fate VR and its purveyors hope to achieve. VR, in many ways, still feels like an illusion, using lights and stage tricks to falsify a world wrapped around your perception—much like that of fortune telling. VR has its own kind of table-tipping seance; something destined for you. Kismet is merely the first to make the connection between the two explicit. There are games that are meant to be played solo, but VR goes a step further into games with the sensation of privacy. These are cards, permutations, and code made to be engaged by anyone, but stepping into the parlour you will receive a reading exclusive for you in an exclusive medium.