Games

Broomsticks for Boomsticks

L.B. Jeffries

Banana Pepper Martinis is L.B. Jeffries' weekly in-depth look at video gaming. This week, a study of the role of magic in games.

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?

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image