A Kind of Magic

Francis Cressotti | 5 Apr 2011 12:30
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In Mass Effect, things like telekinesis, stasis fields, and localized singularities are commonplace. Biotics, both natural and implanted, have the ability to shift reality to their will, bending the very structure of the space-time continuum. In fact, the game relies on Clarke's Law and the narrative similarity of magic and technology to make it so authentic and vibrant. It operates on the principle that the player is willing to accept things like dark energy, mass effect fields and element zero as being "sufficiently advanced technology," thus keeping them firmly rooted in their science fiction environment while allowing for gameplay mechanics more interesting than just shooting the other guy until he's dead.


Now, on the other hand, we have Niven's Law. Niven's "sufficiently rigorously defined" magic mostly finds its way into the serious RPGs, especially those of table-top descent. A little time with a game like Baldur's Gate or Neverwinter Nights can be daunting if you are looking to do some magic using. The system employed by these games is one that has been refined over generations until it has been carefully codified and understood. There are schools of magic, different kinds of incantations, silent spells and verbal spells, different sources of power, and on and on. There is a very rigorous logic to it, a logic that is not only interesting in its own right, but which is partially required of the player. The magic necessary to fight a summoned creature may be different than the magic to fight a revivified creature. At least a basic understanding of the codification - of the science of this magic system - is necessary in order to use it to the best of its ability.

Magic and technology are nothing more than channels of power, like water driving the ponderous mill of the plot. It is a basic human need to alter the environment - we literally cannot survive unless we alter conditions to suit our needs, and we need power to do so. And power is addictive. Once tasted, mankind could not turn back, power became woven into our consciousness and into our stories, both for good and for bad. Games tell the stories of people who use power because those are the stories that are worth telling, for they each ask us, how will you shape your reality?

Francis Cressotti can shape coffee, but cabinets might be beyond him. He styles himself a writer and suffers daily from the fact that he was born in the wrong century.

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