A Kind of Magic


“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” – Clarke’s Law
“Any sufficiently rigorously defined magic is indistinguishable from technology.” – Niven’s Law


Magic has had its place in games since the early days. Mario gobbled magic mushrooms to double his size and to shoot fireballs. There was no explanation of the mechanic or the reasoning, it is simply obvious that sometimes if you eat some mushrooms you might suddenly turn into a giant. In The Legend of Zelda, Link eventually gets a magic sword with which he defeats Ganon, the Prince of Darkness, who throws fireballs in properly evil sorcerer fashion and is also seeking a magic artifact that will allow him to rule the world. In other games, there are devoted magic user classes, solving problems that can only be solved by magic, killing monsters that can only be killed by magic, fighting forces that are using magic to bend the world to their will.

But altering reality isn’t a purely magical conceit. It is one of the explicit functions of technology as well. Humans have always used tools – technology – to make the world suit their needs. From using a sharp stick to hunt for meat all the way up to using your iPhone to tell you what song is currently playing on the radio or using some steel and concrete to dam up an entire river, people use technology to change the world, sometimes in dramatic ways.

Technology as a narrative and gameplay element has a history every bit as distinguished as magic in videogames. In the original Metroid, Samus Aran ran around blasting things into oblivion using her power beam, then collapsed into a little sphere and rolled away. The player didn’t need to ask what kind of strange science it was that turned their heroine into a sentient bocce ball, all that mattered was that she could lay the bombs necessary to open new passages and roll though narrow spaces. The explanation, such as it was, was utterly simple and all-encompassing – she’s a space bounty hunter with really sweet gear.

For all intents and purposes, magic and technology serve exactly the same narrative function in games: power. They both are tools that either the writers use to magnify the urgency of the plot or the characters use to interact with the world around them and alter it to suit their needs. Yet despite their narrative parallels, magic and technology have occupied different places in our minds thanks to genre distinctions: fantasy and science fiction. Link would look just as funny wandering around in a powered exoskeleton as Samus would look swinging a wooden sword.

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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.

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?

[byline]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.[/byline]

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