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So now it's out there: I hate magic. Hate magic spells, magic potions and Magic: The Gathering. I. Hate. Magic.
Well, okay let's back up a bit, I don't hate all magic, just most magic in fantasy games. Sometimes it just offends me on principle because it's a lazy design decision - almost every RPG lets you shoot fire out of your hands - but mostly it's because I majored in religion, and see no connection between fantasy magic and the type humanity has believed in ever since we started smearing our dead with ochre 50,000 years ago. The problem with most magic systems in games is that they try to create their own cosmology, rather than tapping into our primal human beliefs about the nature of the world. Games that manage to touch on these latent memes in human culture just feel more right than the ones that don't, which makes me wonder if the secret to improving magical systems has been in front of us all along.
What is Magic and Why Do Games Suck At It?
Magic, at least in the academic definition, is a belief that the whole world is an ordered, interconnected system and that humans can control the relationships between objects to create a desired result. Sometimes the action is a basic application of symbolism known as "simple sorcery" or "mechanical sorcery" - sticking pins in a doll to create pain, for example, or placing a knotted cord under an enemy's bed to cause impotence. Other forms, referred to as "complex sorcery" by religious scholars, involve invoking a god or compelling a spirit to execute actions the sorcerer is incapable of performing. In old Japan, shamans might afflict their enemies with the inu-gami, or dog spirit possession. To do so, they would bury a dog up to its neck in the ground with a bowl of food just out if its reach. When the dog went mad with hunger, the shaman would behead it and then send the spirit on its mission of revenge in exchange for offerings of food. In both simple and complex sorcery, the magic works through principles of symbolism and power transference, with the action fitting the result.
Games use magic less as a cosmological system to be manipulated and more as an excuse for attacks and stat boosts. Modern gaming is full of magic, but the act itself is basically meaningless. Instead of serving as an extraordinary manipulation of the physical and spiritual world, it becomes just another piece of equipment like a spear or a wheel of cheese. That's wrong, but worse, that's boring. So how can we make it feel more meaningful?
Rare, Mysterious and Magnificent
Magic is way too common in games. There's just something wrong with the feeling of walking into a store and buying a spell book that lets me summon golems. Part of the appeal of magic is that it's secret and unknowable, that it hides deep in the earth, rests at the dangerous corners of the world or can only become known through years of study. Commercializing magic, though an understandable choice for a game designer, cheapens the idea of it the same way midi-chlorians cheapened the Force. Magic loses its mystique if you're just popping 'round to the chemist to pick up some enchanted swords and spiritual Gatorade.
So what's the solution? Make players earn their power. Start the player off with basic spells, but make sure that any advanced hexes come from joining a guild or finding them in the world. And I don't mind finding them in a shop. Bury spell books deep underground, clutched in the hands of dead princes. Put them in mountaintop monasteries like High Hrothgar, or locked in a chest at the bottom of a swamp, guarded by something terrible with a hundred screaming mouths. Make players fight legions to get them, and when they do, give them something that's worth the effort. Let them call the tides to wash away their enemies. Let them bend physics and foresee the future. Let them summon beings so alien and terrible they can barely harness them. Allow them to transform into wild beasts.
Developers should look to pen-and-paper RPGs for inspiration, since they tend to have more creative spells than their computerized brethren. Call of Cthulhu has a spell called Breath of the Deep that fills the target's lungs with water, drowning them on dry land. Dungeons & Dragons has Reverse Gravity. 7th Sea allowed players to catch bullets with portals and crumble enemy weapons to dust. Any one of these things is better than a humdrum fire or summoning spell.
Words and Symbols
As I mentioned above, magic is by definition a symbolic act. Practitioners perform a representative action and cause a corresponding result - but how do you translate that visually?
One easy way would be to use magic words and gestures. Currently when you shoot flame in the Elder Scrolls series, you simply stretch out your fingers and let it rip. It's the same thing your character does to shoot ice or any other substance, and it's not very interesting. That's a shame, since cultures all around the world understand that hand symbols have power, from the evil eye, to the mudras of Hinduism and Buddhism, to the Jewish sign of the Priestly Blessing, which is considered so powerful that congregants are not allowed to see it out of respect for the divine. Harnessing this tradition by giving each magic spell a corresponding hand gesture would not only make sense, it would make powers seem more potent and tangible. Developers could even scale them easily, since a more powerful gesture might take both hands rather than just one, so a player sacrifices carrying a hand weapon or wielding two spells in order to unleash one massive burst. This sort of visual language just makes sense, since even modern people respect and fear hand gestures. Don't believe me? Here's an experiment: Tomorrow, go give your teacher or boss the middle finger. Not behind their back, right in their face. What, no? Why not? What's it going to do, hurt them?
No, it won't, not physically, but that symbol has powerful meaning. It, quite literally, communicates a curse word. Most profanity, in fact, comes from literal cursing - until fairly recently, "fuck you" was considered a milder phrase than "damn you," since the former only asserts sexual dominance, while the latter condemns its target to an eternity of torture. And that brings us to something else: magic words. The fact that words carry weight is also something humans understand intuitively. You don't swear in class or in front of your grandparents, you don't use racial slurs, not because the words themselves are powerful but because they open portals to negative emotions or past oppressions. Games with magic in them don't really understand this, since their spell-casters tend to be silent, possibly to keep from annoying the player. Skyrim, on the other hand, made magic words its most famous mechanic. The Dragon Shout didn't just catch on because it was cool and novel, it became popular because the idea of forbidden words, mighty incantations that can sweep enemies aside or calm the skies, is something that speaks to us on a primal level.
And hey, say what you want about the Harry Potter Kinect games, they had this magic words and gestures thing down pat.
Magic Works Through You, Not In You
Part of the problem is that games seldom contextualize magic as part of the world. For practical purposes, characters either regenerate their spiritual energy or buy it at the store. This tends to beg the question - if magic is a force in the world that a sorcerer channels, wouldn't that mean spellcasting should depend heavily on the environment? In that kind of system, a shamanistic mage that draws her energy from nature might be unstoppable in a forest but only have standard powers at sea, or a flame-caster might replenish his energy more quickly by building a campfire or walking into a lava field. Effects could be negative as well - with sorcerers who rely on the sun becoming gradually weaker when they adventure underground or earth mages finding themselves cut off from casting their most powerful hexes when in a tower. These sorts of boundaries are a staple of pen-and-paper RPGs, and they encourage creative thinking and foster a sense of connection to the source of a caster's power. It emphasizes that the mage isn't a battery of spiritual energy, but merely a conduit for a greater, more beautiful, and more elemental force.