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Sun Wukong

On Magic Or, the Transcendent in Video Games

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As my previous thread failed, I have decided that I should focus on the practical, rather than the nebulous, in video games: fantasy and escape from the body intrigue me, so this thread will be about those. How should magic, and perhaps the supernatural, be implemented in video games?

Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel is deliberately nonsensical, and the author makes but a feeble attempt to disguise it. It shares with the Chinese folk tale, Xi You Ji (Journey to the West), a blending of the clearly fantastical and worship of the number. If Monkey can lift a 17,000 pound cudgel, why not say that he can lift a cudgel far beyond what we can? The only justification, I think, is the desire of the Chinese to impose order on the chaos of the unreal. Rabelais uses the mystic to raise his characters to near the status of myths-thus, the constant comparisons of the protagonists to Achilles, to Hercules, and other Classical characters. He is less punctilious, and enjoys the uncanny: his book is a compendium of phallus jokes and lists of scatalogical jokes, which bring down the fantasy to the level of human bodily functions.

Don Quixote is different and, in some ways, far more disturbing. In it, no one is right: the man who goes out to save the world from perdition, intoxicated from reading too many chivalric romances; the sensible, though often stupid, accomplice; and the world that oppresses him, and eventually leads to his death. Should we be unafraid to dream, or, like Hamlet, should we choose not to be-to end suffering, to end hope, to end wonder in favor of cynicism?

Forgive me, for my post has been an esoteric ramble: I hope you can extrapolate from it divers ways the Supernatural can be implemented in video games, based on these examples of choice, excellent books. If you want, you can skip past the way magic is portrayed, and enter into how it is technically implemented.

Edit: Should probably edit this post later.

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How should magic, and perhaps the supernatural, be implemented in video games?
The word "should" is often problematic in this type of discussion. Could you point to one existing game with supernatural and describe in your judgement how its supernatural element should or should not exist for that game?

Example 1: Super Mario
o Can you justify whether Mario should become bigger when he gets a mushroom?

Example 2: World of Warcraft
o If one could justify how magic should be implemented for a game, then you could determine and explain why the magic in WOW is implemented "correctly" or "incorrectly". Is that what you intend to do?

Are you looking for this type of respones:
a) "Magic things in game should just exist with no explanation to the player"
b) "Magic should be like an alternate science in the game world, explainable by rules of the game world."
c) "Magic in a game should be how the audeicen wants it."
d) "Magic in a game should always surprise the player."
e) "Magic in a game should be surprising when the player first encounters it, predictable once the player has observed enough, but not necessarily explainable."
f) "Magic in a game should be just the fantasy or misunderstanding of character(s) in the game world, while the game world has no magic."
g) "Magic in a game should be ..."

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My interpretation of magic is that it is a way to look at and discuss human desires by giving them physical form. Desire of course being central to fiction because it is what motivates both the characters and the readers, and is one of the major ways sympathy is created within a reader for a character.

Desire is at the core of magic, because it's at the core of why people really really wish magic were real, and pretend that it's real, and why if it were real people would drive themselves to learn how to use it, obtain artifacts that would help them use it, increase their powers and abilities.

Everybody wants something (if they didn't they'd be a boring character, because no desire = no conflict). What they desire is probably something they can't get or at least can't get easily (otherwise they'd have gotten it already and would thus not want it any more). When you want something, you fantasize about how you might get it - you never know, you might come up with a workable plan. Or if you are doing something hard or obnoxious to get what you want, you fantasize about easier ways to get it. Magic is THE obvious way to accomplish something which is impossible, or easily accomplish something which is difficult. Thematically, then, magic = condensed desire.

So in practical video game terms I see magic in terms of abilities, generally abilities aimed at attaining whatever the game character is trying to obtain. For example the average game character wants to kill enemies, unlocked locked things and go previously inaccessible places, sneak past annoying or dangerous things, and customize one's appearance, possessions, and social role within the game. That gives you magic in the form of fireballs and many other combat spells, magical keys or unlocking spells, attainment of flight or use of shapeshifting to go places a human body can't, fantasy-flavored clothing and makeup, magical tattoos or addition of animal ears/tail or pink hair or whatever, magic-aided crafting of customized objects or objects which accomplish magical affects within the game world, breeding of customized monsters, and magical transportation by teleportation or riding an animal the player would not be able to own and ride in real life.

I suppose you could sum up my interpretation by saying magic is for wish-fulfillment and at the same time can build the game's theme or express the player's personality because magic is a rich field for using symbolism.

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Numbers are a nice literary tool to convey a particular sense of scale. I find their purpose to be less often for precision and more to better convey a true sense of what they represent; to say the crowd is enormous isn't the same as to say there were a million people watching. And if you break that down more and emphasize it properly you can really evoke the emotional sense of "holy hell that's a lot of people". Sometimes there's also cultural associations with numbers, as you often find in myths, but it's hardly an obsession with numbers.

I enjoy stories like Don Quixote for the fact that there isn't ultimate good. It's much more realistic that way. It's similar to how I like Miyazaki films for never/rarely having true villains, just people with bad intentions for realistic reasons.

Now what do I think of supernaturalism? It's a tool. It can be used to brilliant effect if used properly. For example, the webcomic Digger has an ingenious approach to magic that paints it not as a source of ultimate good but rather as a nuisance that interferes with proper skill and ingenuity. It's a clever twist of roles that is intellectually appealing while still feeling proper.

And then you have sci fi (distinct from proper science fiction) in which science is just a supernatural element with a different name. And of course you have proper fantasy, from which sci fi derives, and magic is anything ranging from McGuffin to deus ex machina (Latin for "Robot Jesus pulling plot devices out his ass").

So since your post is so vague and convoluted, so is mine. Magic just seems to be a way to make scenarios that are illogical but believable. Have fun with it.

EDIT: forgot to close tags.

[Edited by - Portugal Stew on December 4, 2010 12:19:46 AM]

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Is this the question:

"How can one use magic (or other supernatural or fantasic element) to create an Escape for the player?"

A possible relevant question:

"What is the most effective way to create an Escape for the player? Is it through the use of magic, through reality, through a constrast, or something else?"

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My focus is not so much on the escapism of magic as on how it can be perceived. Viz. Is it an unpredictable, irresistible, incomprehensible force or a science? Does it represent our unconscious desires? What image of the supernatural would you prefer in a game? Is it best manifested in abilities of the protagonist, in the world itself, or both?

I don't mind talk about interpretation-limited mana, infinite mana with spells weakening after a while of using them, charging spells, cooldown, etc.-or examples-fireballs, lightning, ice-either.

How does one justify the limitation of the protagonist's power within the confines of the game? Assume that you play a powerful hero and magician. What prevents you, when you reach your peak, from flooding cities, razing castles, slaughtering armies, enslaving a host and conquering the world, becoming a preeminent pirate, besides the desire for balance in the game (and to some extent, technical limitations)? What about games that end with the character gaining a great deal of power, as in the Closed Fist ending of Jade Empire? What about plot events that should reasonably strengthen the protagonist, like the absorption of the Ray Sphere in Infamous? Of course, this extends beyond magic.

Edit: To Portugal Stew, my alternative to the "17,000 pound cudgel" was poor. My point was more about the arbitrariness of numbers in some myths; In the case of Journey to the West, it is a fixation on the mathematical, though.

[Edited by - Sun Wukong on December 4, 2010 10:46:44 AM]

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I like to see magic as an additional natural force present in the world and in the biology of animals including humans - something comparable to magnetism, electricity, weather, plate tectonics, etc. What magic is and how it works within the game world should make a thematic statement which is in agreement with the other thematic statements you want to make with your story about who characters are and what they are doing within their world.

I know that it's also very popular to portray magic as a language of "words of power" or runes/glyphs which are some sort of divine/demonic/primordial language and are used somewhat like a programming language to give commands to the huge mysterious engine which is the world. I can enjoy that kind of system if it's not too dark and melodramatic. For some reason this kind of system is often ruined by adding some horrendous cost to using magic, like that using magic causes insanity, or harms nature by stealing life force, or that using magic otherwise harms or places severe restrictions on the mage.

I do NOT like to see magic which is inconsistent within the world, and I also don't like the religious version of magic where the source of supernatural power is some sort of prayer or contract with a deity.

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I just came to think of the Norse Mythology.

The funny thing about that religion, is that the gods don't actually have super natural powers.
Odin the king of gods got all his wisdom from carving out his eye, and dropping it into Mimers well. Plus he has two ravens that tells him whatever they see.
Thor has his hammer Mjölner - forged by dwarfs, a belt that makes him stronger and a chariot dragged by two flying stags.
Freya is just beautiful as hell, and can therefore use her beauty to make kings fall in love with her, and in that way start wars.

But Jotuns on the other hand have a very wide range of magic abilities (some of them). Loki is the single most powerful jotun (perhaps beside Ymer - the first living creature, and creator of all humans). Primarily he uses his magic to transform himself into other creatures. But his most powerful skill is his knowledge, witch he often uses to fool the gods and humans. He also has some quite special offspring: The Fenrir Wolf, Hel and the Midgard Worm.

So basically magic relics are quite common, while magic abilities is quite rare. And practically only possessed by a few jotuns. And most of them are evil - not all but most.

It all ends with some sort of dependency relationship between the gods and the jotuns, especially between the gods and Loki. Witch is why they allow him to stick around (until he kills Balder).

This doesn't give any concrete example of how to implement any game mechanics, but I think it gives a new way of understanding gods and magic :)

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Is this the main question:

Given that I want to design a game world that has magic:

Part 1: The form of magic
o What are some forms that magic take?
o What are some reasons to pick one form over another?

Part 2: The image of magic
o What are some clues that let the player understand that the world has magic?
o What are some reasons to pick one image over another?

Explanatory example: Harry Potter

Part 1: The form of magic in Harry Potter:
o It is like science, it is something that can be studied.

Reason: This is a familiar form of magic

Part 2: The image of magic in Harry Potter:
o Having characters calling it magic
o Having a contrasting world similar to the audience's reality where "magic" does not exist
o Having wizard hats, characters that look like witches, wizard wands, flying broom, towers, spells, GFX, castle, and misc. familiar wizardry props.
o ...

Reason: This is a familiar image of magic

If the above makes sense, than one could continue with the following:

Variations in the Form of Magic:
o ...

Variations in the Image of Magic:
o ...

It would also be valid to ask this question:
o How far can you deviate from the traditional Form and Image of magic, yet let the player recognize that it is "magical" ?

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