Originally posted on my personal blog:
I really like the idea of magic as it's portrayed in most every type of media. Whether it's The Force, The metalurgy based system in the Mistborn series, or Dragon Lance's color/deity based factions. Really, I like them all. Well, that's not entirely true... I like them if they're not in video games. Magic in games is just... boring.
Why do I have such a hard time caring about magic in video games? What is it about magic, as it's portrayed in books or movies, that is so appealing, yet holds no sway in games? Why is it that every time I watch Empire Strikes Back, Yoda can lift a ship out of a swamp and I'm floored by the awesomeness, but when I'm given the controls to run around and throw crates at Stormtrooper's faces in Force Unleashed, I lose interest the minute the shock factor fades? Why do I find myself dragging my feet to muster up the desire to learn a new magic system every time I pop in a new game, yet wish authors of fantasy novels would skip over all that pesky character development so I can read about their magic systems?
Recently, while absorbed in my latest novel fling, a subtlety I hadn't noticed before suddenly seemed obvious! The depth I was experiencing in the static media, but not in games, all boils down to ambiguous mysticism. And what's most interesting is that in this case every other medium inherently does a better job presenting magic than games ever can. Let's break it down to see why.
Because I just recently finished reading it, and therefore its effects are still fresh on my mind, I'll use the Inheritance series by Christopher Paolini for my example. The (not new) concept of magic in Inheritance is based around knowing the "true names" of the surrounding world. When someone knows the word for toaster in the Ancient Language, then they have mastery over the toaster. Yet not just knowing the Ancient Word for toaster is enough to indulge in buttery bready glory from across the room. The magic user must have a deeper understanding of the concept of what makes that toaster exactly what it is before the toaster will relinquish control of its levers. Natural elements such as fire have simple one word names (in the case of fire, the word is Brisingr), while objects as complex as human beings have long names that perfectly describe everything about the person including that person's deepest flaws, desires, looks, and personality traits.
If the true name for an object is spoken incorrectly or out of order, or if their understanding of the object is skewed, the results are often bad. Spells either don't work at all, or they have dramatically different unintended results. Magicians could (and sometimes did) accidentally cripple their allies or unintentionally split their own atoms, essentially becoming a living atom-bomb, leaving a 300 foot crater and radiation poisoning in their wake.
With that explanation, it's no wonder that much of the series' plot revolves around Eragon gaining a mastery of the Ancient Language as he slowly learns how to control his environment by viewing the world in a deeper more meaningful way. Magic systems that are worth reading or watching become symbolic types of how we should personally also view the real world. They are based on an internal struggle (therefore progress), and learning to understand our world through learning to view it in a more meaningful way.
Now let's contrast that feeling to how magic is portrayed in video games. Using any generic magic system as an example, magic is reduced inherently to a set of binary "powers." Generally Hurt, Heal, Buff, De-buff. Fire does 56 damage. Level 2 Fire, or Firaga (notice that the name is simply a differentiator to make it more fancy sounding, and has no importance past that), does the original damage +15%. Simply, your character can do magic or they can't. You have enough mana, or you don't.
We've stripped magic of all its mysticism and deeper purpose, and reduced it to simply being a fantasy setting tweak of what we can produce with our modern day science. The machine gun is replaced with a magic spell, and ammo is replaced with mana or some equivalent. The MedKit is replaced with healing Cure. The Master Chief's MJOLNIR armor is replaced with Defense Plus and Dexterity buffs.
Sadly, as I've become more and more disinclined to care about magic systems in games, the associated visual fireworks have gotten bigger and bigger. We've entirely turned away from the context that makes magic special and important in a fictional setting (that can be applied to our real world in some way), and reduced it to a show of fireworks so that we can pretend it's still something unique. Let's be clear though, I understand the reasons as to why magic works the way that it does in games. Everything must always boil down to some form of math. And the more complex system becomes, the harder it is to balance. I've ruined 99% (<--actual size) of my games by trying to add more complexity than was prudent. What I'm commiserating is the farce that we treat magic as a unified thing, when it's a shadow in comparison to what is offered in other mediums.
What's most interesting I think, is that I'm not so sure there's an easy fix. If the context of magic usage is what matters, we as players must be dis-empowered in some way. Imagine this example: You're raiding with twelve other buddies, and you just learned a new area attack with some crazy DPS... yet when activated (by pressing a single button after checking your mana to see that you had enough), it ends up breaking all of your party's legs, even though the description says that it would do something beneficial. One does not simply walk into Mordor with broken legs.
That just doesn't fly in a video game! Yet, this is exactly what happens in books when a Mage learns a new spell and hasn't mastered it yet. For it to matter in any meaningful way the player must inherently NOT understand it, yet magic must be understood mathematically in video games for the player to effectively use their skills. This is why it's terrifying when Luke goes up against Darth Vader in their epic saber fight. We have no idea how powerful Vader really is, nor do we have any inclination that Luke will be able to use The Force against him. He's had like a month of training under Yoda?! HA!
And here lies the true conflict that keeps games from portraying magic the way other mediums can. While it's okay to struggle along with a character in a static book or movie, it would be miserable to try and do the equivalent as a player in a game. We can't simply start making games where we don't tell our players how the mechanics work, making spells not function as explained. Systems must be defined, or they just wouldn't work otherwise. On the flip side, it's okay to not understand how to use magic in a book when all we need to do is keep reading for the story to progress. Eventually it'll all work itself out, even if it's not defined.
There is a natural tension between mysticism and games. Definition and mysticism are opposites.
Potentially, some respite can be found by taking a look at the arcane tabletop (rolls eyes) world, which has been using defined complex magic systems since before video games were anything more than a dude jumping on heads.
The magic systems in tabletop games are very similar to video games' in that they must be reduced to some form of numbers before the effect can be applied to a character for any tangible effect. However, what tabletop games have always excelled at is flexibility in context. The context in which magic is used adds much more depth. Of course, abstract context is not easy to portray in video games, and has been the work of many developers in the past years. The concept is similar to the Extra Credits episode that talks about Comparables vs. Incomparables.
Go watch on the YouTubes, and return.
But for sake of intellectual stimulation, here are some contextual spells that add variety to a defined game. Essentially, instead of focusing effects that modify a players stats, the spells create entirely new effects. Lots more programming involved for sure, but at least it's something deeper than the traditional Hurt, Heal, Buff, De-buff paradigm. Here are some examples pulled from D&D:
That's just to pull a few, and it by no means solves the problem of a lack of ambiguous mysticism that is so dominated by other forms of media, but at least it's working in the right direction.
I would love to see a system built around the context that the player can expect their magic to not necessarily work. Maybe something where the precision of drawing a rune on a tablet alters it's effectiveness, where maybe two very different spells have very similar looking runes. Who knows, what the answer could be... but I feel like there's a lot more to explore that has never even been looked at.