A Kind of Magic

Francis Cressotti | 5 Apr 2011 08:30
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For years, developers segregated magic and technology into realms that were palpably different from one another aesthetically and, to a degree, in terms of their respective attempts at justification. "Magic" in games was unknowable by its nature while "technology" liked to cite vague theories to satisfy the engineers. Yet thematically and mechanically they both represented a power of or beyond the characters that could be grasped and manipulated for good or for evil.


But there are places where the boundaries break down. Technology, especially on the far out edge of physics, is becoming increasingly indistinguishable from magic, just as Arthur C. Clarke stated. By the same token, magic systems are - or can be - vastly complex and systematized. It's not always "you can shoot lightning from your hands because you're a freaking wizard;" in some cases, there are elaborate cosmologies and detailed metaphysics that explain magic very carefully according to unique but rigorous logic. Just as Clarke's axiom makes itself manifest in some science fiction games, Niven's converse dictum can define the magic of fantasy games.

Techno-mage protagonist JC Denton's magic mechanic in the classic Deus Ex is his nano-augmentation, a system that gives him the ability to turn invisible, resist damage in a "stone skin" sort of fashion, run faster, and a host of other things. He doesn't cast spells as such, but he can temporarily give himself status buffs by using nanites and the expending of energy rather than mana. He's even part of a cabal of secret, elite cyber-wizards who plan on using their abilities to create a new world order. This is just about as traditional as evil, conspiring mage guild plots get, with nano and mechanical augmentation serving to replace the usual magic hand waving.

A more recent example is Crysis. Crysis doesn't even bother explaining all that much. You are a soldier made super by the fact that you are wearing an ill-defined nanosuit. Why can you turn invisible? Some vague property of the nanosuit permits it. Why can you move at superspeeds? Well, the nanosuit is superfast. The nanosuit allows your character, who is otherwise a fleshy mortal, to utilize technology that acts suspiciously like magic.

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