Where does magic come from? Oh, sure, there’s a wizard in your party, but why does he get to shoot fire from his fingertips while you’re left holding a heavy sword? How come the lady mage in a glorified tank top and cloak gets to summon a giant fire elemental while you’re stuck sweating in your armor? What makes them so special?

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The answer varies from game to game. Older games that prioritized action hand-waved magic as simply something wizards do. Modern games, by contrast, usually incorporate a team of writers eager to add substance to their world by inventing explanations for magic’s existence.

Final Fantasy VII channels magic through materia, the planet’s life force crystallized into convenient little jewels. With materia equipped, each character draws on the power of the planet itself to throw fireballs, manipulate time, and summon overweight chocobos. All characters can equip materia to their weapons and armor to immediately gain benefits that would require heavy dedication in other games. Rather than studying for years, a character simply goes to a store and purchases a little orb that gives them the ability to channel planetary power.

The Materia System pulls players directly into the game’s conflict between convenience and sustainability. Outside of a few rare exceptions, most materia is created through an industrial process that literally drains the life of the planet. The main characters in Final Fantasy VII begin the game as a band of eco-terrorists who blow up reactors and fight a guerilla war against the corporation responsible for converting the planet’s life force into quarterly earnings. Both the players and the characters enjoy an easier life as a result of the materia system, so players are more likely to sympathize with the protagonist’s moral dilemma of utilizing the tools that kill the planet in order to save it. This sympathy would be a lot harder to create if players had no personal benefit from the eventual destruction of the planet.

By contrast, Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem crafts a magical system that provides great power at great immediate cost. Alexandra Roivas stumbles across the titular Tome of Eternal Darkness while investigating her murdered grandfather’s mansion. The tome is a charming book of unspeakable horrors bound with human bones and skin, so naturally Alex opens it and begins thumbing through the stories contained within. She discovers a nearly 2000-year conflict between four godlike Lovecraftian horrors. Each chapter of the game takes place in a different setting as Alex reads the adventures of tome’s previous owners.

The magic found in the Tome of Eternal Darkness is inherently alien and requires a lot of work on the players’ part. While materia gave Final Fantasy VII‘s characters convenient access to magical powers, the Tome forces player characters to wander horrifying locales and fight off eldritch horrors in search of runes. Most games utilize spells like “Heal” or “Cure” to recover from injuries. In this game, players get this effect from combining the runes “Santak”, “Narokath”, and “Chattur’gha”. The first two runes align with the concepts of “Self” and “Environment”, which means they draw energy from the environment into the player character. The third rune is the name of one of the Lovecraftian horrors and determines if the spell affects the body, the soul’s capacity for magic, the mind, or some combination or inversion of the three. The rune system ties into the game’s sanity system by forcing players to approach common concepts through the paradigm of an ancient monster.

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Unlike the materia system, the Tome’s magic has immediate negative consequences. The game offers twelve playable characters and nearly all of them encounter the tome and subsequently suffer a horrible fate. Both Alex and the players learn that sanity and survival are the price for using the tome, which creates an uncomfortable sense that Alex is not going to survive the final chapter of the game without a straight jacket. Like the characters, players must learn the alien language of the elder gods, so once again the magic system creates sympathy between the hardships of the characters and the players who control them.

A very different approach to magic is through the lens of advanced technology. Arthur C. Clark’s famous adage that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic perfectly describes Xenosaga‘s Ether system. The Ether system relies on a universe-wide network of computers that make it possible to instantly transfer data and machinery across almost any distance. Characters can use the system to simulate traditional magic effects like fire and ice spells, but they’re also free to call in giant guns and robots with the wave of a hand. Super science also emulates time travel by letting characters revisit destroyed or lost areas through a variation of The Matrix.

Traditional magic explains how a given world works to a player. By contrast, technological magic directly challenges players to believe something is possible. Normal magic has rules beyond our comprehension, but magic that assumes a scientific basis pushes against rules we’re already familiar with. Xenosaga takes things a bit further than this by introducing the enigmatic Testaments, who use even more advanced technology. This technology comes off as outright supernatural to our protagonists; savvy players can identify when something impossible even by Xenosaga standards happens, which lets them piece together clues and solve the mysteries of the game faster than the characters themselves.

Not all spells come from external sources. Psychic powers, chi, and raw emotional energy are all variations on the magical theme. Reaching deep down and finding a supernatural inner strength provides personal satisfaction, as you’re accomplishing something on your own rather than as the pawn of a greater force. But what happens when the power from within is more alien than you think?

The Parasite Eve series revolves around the idea that the mitochondria within human and animal cells have a collective will. The series assumes endosymbiotic theory is true, meaning some organelles within our cells were originally independent organisms that merged with our cells for mutual survival. Parasite Eve‘s mitochondria have greater goals than powering our cells and decide to take over the world. To do this, they possess a human host, known as Mitochondria Eve, and develop a nasty habit of commanding all of the mitochondria in a given human or animal to ignite at once. This control lets Mitochondria Eve trigger spontaneous combustion and monstrous transformations. Aya Brea, protagonist and New York City cop, can utilize her own mitochondria to protect herself from Mitochondria Eve’s influence. As the game progresses her unique mitochondria provide near-magical powers like rapid healing, magical bullets, and even a full angelic transformation.

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Aya’s case is unique because she doesn’t understand what’s going on with her body any more than the players do. She, like most players, is not a biologist and has no idea what any of this mitochondria business means. Parasite Eve takes place over the course of six days, which leaves her little time to study what’s going on. For all of its problems, the Tome of Eternal Darkness at least spelled out the source of magic and provided nearly a dozen unlucky precedents. Likewise, people in the world of Final Fantasy VII grew up with materia and even children know how to use it. Aya’s only resource on her new powers, her enemy, and ultimately her identity is a Japanese scientist working off of what research he could throw together after an event that took place in the game’s source novel.

The spontaneity of the Parasite Energy system’s developing powers lends to the game’s unpredictable atmosphere. The only thing Aya really knows is that she’s similar in many ways to Mitochondria Eve, which the game makes even more evident in the non-canonical ending players get the first time they complete the game. Fortunately, she actually takes comfort in her potential and marches forward on a suicide mission largely reliant on her own unknown power.

Each flavor of magic shapes the relationship between the real world and the game world. The source determines if players are expected to believe in a setting or if that setting is a well-constructed lie. Even the most fanciful forms of magic can help players understand and sympathize with a character’s moral dilemmas, fears, and hope. Magic challenges players, rewards creative efforts, and sometimes even shares a little bit of insanity.

[byline]William Bloodworth always keeps an Elder Sign handy when working with new magic. Hear more of his mana-deprived banter at www.flavortextpodcast.com.[/byline]

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