Broomsticks for Boomsticks

by L.B. Jeffries

18 March 2008


For all the fantasy trappings that dominate video games, it’s kind of surprising that there aren’t many games that push the boundaries of what magic could do in a video game. I’m going to operate on the loose definition of magic as “a supernatural ability to interact with your environment” both for the sake of argument and to illustrate a greater problem with video games & magic. Simply put, a supernatural force that is supposed to give me the ability to do anything does not, in video games, seem to do much except be an elaborate light switch.

Every RPG that comes out, every action game that uses magic, is confined by one simple paradox: it’s only for combat. In Hexen magic was little more than a different kind of gun that the player used. In games like Final Fantasy or Baldur’s Gate, magic mostly served as a different method of attack. In both Diablos, it can’t even be used inside of town, much less for anything besides killing. All that magic really boils down to in games is variations on attacking, healing, shields, flying, fear spells, etc. Okay, flying is cool, but BESIDES that, you start to get the idea that most wizards in video games tend to be very bloody minded people. Bioware’s Knights of the Old Republic comes to mind as an exemption, but it was little more than a dialogue option that tended to kill the conversation in that instance. I’m not shitting on magical combat in video games, mind you. I’m just noting the fact that all elements in combat, whether it be an RPG or a shooter, involve kill or be killed. You’re either hurting someone or enhancing your ability to hurt someone. Again, that’s not a problem, but for something with the interactive potential of magic to be reduced to a boomstick…it kind of leaves you wondering. After all, a gun does not have a lot of variety even in real life. You’re either shooting it or you’re not, leaving it to be little more than the interactive equivalent of a light switch. Why should magic be trapped along the same principles? Would it be possible for someone to feature magic in a game that wasn’t expressly pre-determined to just go boom (or help me go boom) all the time?

Well, fortunately for all of us this has already been done before and to varying degrees of quality in video games. It’s time to blow the dust off the adventure game genre, because as with all aspects of video games that don’t involve incessantly murdering people, they’ve tried it. The first video game to give user input on the use of magic a try was King’s Quest III, not counting the legion of text adventures that existed before my entry into existence. The game allowed you to turn the spells into items in the game, coming off as a sort of alchemy & potions version of magic that usually had a linear function and place in the game. The spells were used creatively and for a variety of purposes: turning into a hawk let you kill a spider, the storm spell got rid of an evil dragon, and the ever memorable cat cookie that you slipped to the evil wizard. As is typical of adventure games, they had to confine the magic into the concept of an item you used rather than any form of real interaction, but you get the idea. The same can be said for the role of magic in subsequent titles, even ones that feature magic wands. The spell becomes an object you click on stuff (or click in reaction to brotherly wizards) to act as a solution to a puzzle. Due to the confines of both linear adventure games and the inherent “To solve this puzzle, use this spell” nature of these moments, it would be unfair to say that much is going on past the modern-day light switch incarnations we see now. What they did do effectively was create the ‘mood’ of magic. You researched the spells in dusty old tomes, you waved a magic wand over them, and they gave you a supernatural authority in the game that your item-combining character generally lacked.

Enter Quest for Glory (QFG). Beyond the fact that it featured multiple solutions to puzzles, integrated RPG elements, and only falls short of being God’s gift to mankind because of buggy programming (in 3 & 4), it used magic as an interactive element. I mean that in the sense that magic was an option in the game that could be used for both killing people AND something else. There was a levitate spell, fetch, reverse magic, and an ever increasing variety of attack spells. In fact, the weakest part about this game was that the designers had to keep thinking up different themes behind glowing balls of death to justify making the player learn them. And the thing is, you actually used these spells CONSTANTLY. They were your best friends. Unlike a game like Bioshock where it just showed you telekinesis, made you use it to blow open a doorway and then kinda hoped it would be relevant later on, the magic in QFG is a consistent part of the game world. The wizard duels in QFG 2 and 3 are some of the best mind duels ever seen in video games. One wizard traps you in a magical pit. You levitate out. You cast a blind spell on them. They cast a light spell. I’m referencing the duel in part 3 but it was still a challenge by testing how much power you had accumulated and your ability to outthink the other wizard. How much more fun is that than just shooting fireballs at each other until one drops dead? What if a game were to free that up into a more competitive, non-linear multi-player experience?

What is quite possibly the gold standard for magic in video games is still Brian Moriarty’s Loom. The entire game’s interface was magic that the player created by playing notes on his distaff and featured a huge variety of spells. Straw into gold, emptying vessels, or even sharpen object were all potential spells. What added another layer to the game was that if you played the tune in reverse, the spell would take the opposite effect. The game was remarkable because it confined you entirely to using magic to interact. You didn’t collect items, you didn’t talk to people beyond clicking on them, it was just you and the magic, which really meant you and your wits to get through all manner of problems. Best of all is the way the game manages to connect the gameplay with the world itself. You learn spells by watching the environment around you and mimicking them. And all of this is actually relevant to the game’s plot. The use of magic is revered in the society you explore and it brings both benefits and consequences. Rival religions and guilds vie for your help through mercy and others through violence. The dismal ending, with you damning half of the world to save yourself, becomes a commentary on the decisions those with great power make despite the consequences.

This rundown is by no means meant to imply that these games are better than their action-packed counterparts. Adventure games have the privilege of linear plots and pre-determined outcomes, game design crutches that make it so the game is simply faking the experience of magic as an interactive device. Ultimately, the purpose of dragging out these adventure game examples is to remind people that magic can be about things besides varying up violence. Magic is about the belief that anything is possible and trying to control that fact. What better place to give it a proper go this time around than video games?

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