300: The Source

The Source

William Bloodworth investigates how the source of ultimate cosmic power reflects the mood of four very different games.

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William Bloodworth:
The Source

William Bloodworth investigates how the source of ultimate cosmic power reflects the mood of five very different games.

Read Full Article

A very good comparison of different schools of magic, and hopefully one that will encourage people to put even more thought into it. The dichotomy that always interested me is the one between systems that have "intuitive rules" (like those based loosely on science) and "arbitrary rules" (the more oddball rules, like "Witches melt in water").

On the one hand, intuitive rules provide the player/reader/audience an instant familiarity with how things work. The magic can be understood, and it can be tied to existing knowledge. This lends a credibility to the magic that can be beneficial. The downside is that things can seem too technical, or the magic too predictable. Disney's recent Sorceror's Apprentice crossed this line a bit in trying to link magic to physics a bit too tightly.

On the other hand, arbitrary rules ignite the player/reader/audience's sense of wonder. It gives the magic a sense of the sublime... there is this mysterious, unknowable author behind it all that penned these rules when it gave the universe it's name (or somesuch). It sacrifices a bit of familiarity and credibility for wonder and discovery, as these rules are revealed to the audience on-the-fly. The downside is that things can seem too random, giving the rules a deus ex machina feel. The Harry Potter series occasionally found itself guilty of this sin (I'm looking at you, Fawkes).

As with most situations, the better stories probably find themselves somewhere between the two extremes. The specific ratio of one to the other can and should vary greatly depending on the setting and the audience, but the mixture always seems to please. Intuitive rules provide an anchor, arbitrary rules provide a sail.

I don't know if the Materia in FFVII really tuned me in to the underlying environmental dilemma of the storyline any more than if it had been something completely unrelated. The characters pretty much never talked about it, especially not in that context. I think it would of been a lot cooler if they had, actually. Maybe if it impacted the game in some way (choose the easier route and use Materia to win, but suffer the moral consequences... or something). As it was, it was just another FF game mechanic that quickly became something you don't even think about while playing.

You remind me of a point I always want to see addressed in a game--imagine the mana or energy or implement that supplies magic becomes inaccessible for a short time, through some kind of interference. But imagine that it happens on an irregular basis, that it could happen at random times, even in the middle of a battle. You're casting a powerful spell, and the connective conduit between the caster and the source suddenly becomes less distinct, and the spell is reduced to either minor or negated effects. Maybe the presence of some kind of sonic disruption, or gravitational effect that messes with the flow of energy causes the magic to suddenly cease functioning for a given time. Picture someone used to wielding the flow of the energy, and now has to supplement his previous methods with something new, or a very dangerous way of accessing the energy that could leave them dead, or accidentally allowing more than what one wanted through, risking the chance of some sort of catastrophe. Could very well be in terms of some kind of cataclysmic event.

Dastardly:
and "arbitrary rules" (the more oddball rules, like "Witches melt in water").

That one's not arbitrary is it? Unless literary references are considered bad form. (It's from "The Wizard of Oz".)

Dom Camus:

Dastardly:
and "arbitrary rules" (the more oddball rules, like "Witches melt in water").

That one's not arbitrary is it? Unless literary references are considered bad form. (It's from "The Wizard of Oz".)

I think you're misunderstanding what's meant by "arbitrary."

I mean that there is no practical or even quasi-scientific reason for witches to melt in water. It's a rule purely invented by the author, not one based in any real life rules. To contrast the two with something else, like vampires:

1. Intuitive rule: "Vampires drink blood because they are dead, and blood provides life." This one makes sense, because we all know that blood is what keeps oxygen moving to our brains and body tissues. Being dead, it makes sense they'd need to sustain themselves somehow. Because of that practical connection, this one makes a certain kind of sense even to someone completely unfamiliar to vampires. Intuitive rules can usually have relatively simple scientific "explanations," despite being fictional.

2. Arbitrary rule: "Vampires have no reflection," or "Vampires can turn into bats." There is nothing in the natural world that would lead someone to automatically make this kind of connection. If Vampires are visible, they should clearly have reflections. And why can they shapeshift, and why bats in particular? These rules exist purely because an author said so. Arbitrary rules usually come down to magical or spiritual explanations, or even a "just because."

Both types of rules are important and useful, and effective in their own ways. But they are very different in origin and effect.

This reminds me of Sanderson's First Law of Magics:
"An author's ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic."

There is a whole essay about it on his page, but the basic idea is, if you want your characters to be able to solve problems with magic, the audience needs to undestand the magic, otherwise it's just deus ex machina.

Look at LOTR: the reader doesn't really understand the magic at all, but no problems are actually solved with it, either.

On the other hand in superhero stories, for example, it is usually made quite clear what the hero can do, so the author can use those powers to solve problems with no sense of arbitraryness.

Games understandably tend towards the latter form.
I wonder how one could use a mysterious magic well in a game...
besides only letting NPC:s use it, of course.

beema:
I don't know if the Materia in FFVII really tuned me in to the underlying environmental dilemma of the storyline any more than if it had been something completely unrelated. The characters pretty much never talked about it, especially not in that context. I think it would of been a lot cooler if they had, actually. Maybe if it impacted the game in some way (choose the easier route and use Materia to win, but suffer the moral consequences... or something). As it was, it was just another FF game mechanic that quickly became something you don't even think about while playing.

I recall a few occasions where they tried to look sad or guilty about it, but yes, it would have made for a much more compelling story if they'd focused on it a bit more. I imagine if morality systems were more common at the time it could have been implemented, but they sadly used their decision tracker to determine who Cloud dates at the Golden Saucer...

Dastardly:
1. Intuitive rule: "Vampires drink blood because they are dead, and blood provides life."...
2. Arbitrary rule: "Vampires have no reflection,"... Arbitrary rules usually come down to magical or spiritual explanations, or even a "just because."

Both types of rules are important and useful, and effective in their own ways. But they are very different in origin and effect.

I see your point, but it isn't that clean an association, especially because people tend to forget why things used to be intuitive - such as the lack of reflection. Western vampires don't have reflections because they don't have souls, which was an entirely sensible, logical explanation at one point. And "witches melt in water" seems an extension of the infamous trial by water, which goes back in one form or another over 1,500 years, and while Baum was certainly just having fun with his bucket the thousands of people who participated in executions via the trial certainly believed it to be sensible and reliable.

So: Choosing whether something is Intuitive or Arbitrary isn't really that intuitive. :)

talkstogod:

Dastardly:
1. Intuitive rule: "Vampires drink blood because they are dead, and blood provides life."...
2. Arbitrary rule: "Vampires have no reflection,"... Arbitrary rules usually come down to magical or spiritual explanations, or even a "just because."

Both types of rules are important and useful, and effective in their own ways. But they are very different in origin and effect.

I see your point, but it isn't that clean an association, especially because people tend to forget why things used to be intuitive - such as the lack of reflection. Western vampires don't have reflections because they don't have souls, which was an entirely sensible, logical explanation at one point. And "witches melt in water" seems an extension of the infamous trial by water, which goes back in one form or another over 1,500 years, and while Baum was certainly just having fun with his bucket the thousands of people who participated in executions via the trial certainly believed it to be sensible and reliable.

So: Choosing whether something is Intuitive or Arbitrary isn't really that intuitive. :)

Actually, the whole Wizard of Oz book was representational of American farmers' plights in the late 1800s. The Wicked Witch of the West symbolized the harsh environment (drought, etc) of the Great Plains (hence the West). Therefore, drenching her in water symbolized rain/irrigation etc. coming to the farmers, which effectively kills the witch. The whole book is full of symbolism, though that's the only point that really matters to this conversation. In the end, though, without that background knowledge, it still looks pretty arbitrary. And for purposes of a game, that's the most important part: whether it looks arbitrary or not.

Anyway, good article. We need to see more creative ideas about magic.

I'm a little late to the discussion, but talking about magic systems with a lot of reference to the FF series, I've always wondered what the hell they were thinking when they created Lulu for FFX. Not only did she look out of place but she seemed to be the only wizard in the game and there's zero explanation as to where her magic comes from.

As for the overall topic of different magic and it's different types, personally I've always enjoyed it when the author (games or books) puts some effort into outlining the effect the existence of magic has on the development of society. For example if your army can have a squadron of fireball mages then the early efforts in gunpowder development would seem rather pointless and further development likely discarded.

 

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