Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Magic Shop

Magic in Games vs. Magic in Fantasy Novels

For a bit here, I'd like to discuss magic systems in fantasy media with a focus on games, novels and comics. The concept of magic is something that makes a person something greater than normal. It allows for the impossible to happen. But when it allows for the impossible, it becomes improbable and in some cases unbelievable. I mentioned this in my geography entry that I don't like cheesy magic in my fantasy novels. There are times when it can feel like an excuse or a plot hole ready to happen.

However, on the other hand, in visual stories such as video games and comics, I can be more forgiving about cheap magic. Because magic as well as being an empowerment to the character is a spectacle to be seen. Unless a book is illustrated you don't get that same awe (or at least I don't, since I'm visually stimulated) that you get from watching a fire ball consume something.

I'm especially, especially forgiving to games because magic IS A SYSTEM. And when something is systematic, it does not feel like an excuse, it feels like it's part of the world. It feels normal.

So let's get into some examples shall we?

Novel Magic: Harry Potter
Harry Potter novels sort of have a system, but not a very tangible one. There is something about magic being a natural talent like art or music, yet everyone who has the talent is taught. (Thus bloodlines etc). That makes magic seem more human.
There is also magic with certain limitations that are clear such as brewing a potion or handling a magic beast. That's because these things were considered a science really and supposedly even non-wizard types could do it if they could find hen's teeth. :)
Almost all other magic relies on the use of a wand and knowing the right incantations or motions.
However, if you have all these things, you were practically invincible.
(You know I'm suddenly reminded of that movie Merlin with Sam Niels and the three types of wizards: word, hand and thought. Being able to cast a spell by speaking, by hand motions and then by sheer will power. Never got beyond being a hand wizard.)

Enough side notes then. While the Harry Potter series is still an enjoyable read and delightful story because of the characters, the magic feels cheap. This may be in part because the setting is the modern world and the modern world follows a system of nature which this magic is not related to. The wands were an endless source of power (which was not used to stop global warming or our energy crisis...I mean seriously people.). There was no need to rely on a backup plan because the magic would ALWAYS work...wouldn't always work correctly but it worked.

Something about magic being the infinite power makes the story cheap, although in this case it was used tactfully enough.

Novel Magic: The Obsidian Trilogy

In the three novels by Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory, we are introduced to a fantasy world of magic that is very different from the previous example. The difference was that magic was not very infinite and was not always successful. That was because magic was the realm of the gods that was imparted onto the people and that had limits. In fact, it would drain life away if you didn't do things right. Not everyone could do magic, so it was special in a way. There was a limited supply of magic which made moments when magic was used uncertain and exciting. The character was left wondering if the spell they cast would even work or if their exchange was acceptable to the gods. (Power was exchanged for doing something for the gods. The bigger the spell the higher the price).

Magic was a system in this case, but a very fluid and manipulative one that could easily fall into the trap of "convenient" magic tricks (and sometimes it did do that, but that's what writing is all about. Control!)

Visual Magic: Full Metal Alchemist
You can call it comic or anime series, both the same thing in regards to the "magic" or alchemy.
They bring in the idea of equivalent exchange similar to the previous example. It was also a science in a way where accuracy of material to be changed, symbols to write and so on had an effect on the result. It also was physically demanding on a person. Except for the main character for reasons of bloodline apparently. Like in Harry Potter, some genetics were just better at it than others. Or rather gave a predisposition to be better.

The series also takes interesting terms to make alchemy less of a science and more of a faith in certain points which makes the story better and calls into question things about alchemy.
I won't spoil storylines...plus I have a hard time keeping things straight in my head but how true equivalent exchange actually is comes into question. Then the whole system itself is called into question.
This is GOOD magic and entertaining, although, it is just as abused as most because the main character is special. (They have to be...they're a fugging main character. They're always special.) But his powers were not UNIQUE. There were other people who could clap their hands and not need a circle.

Game Magic: Tales of Symphonia

I could pick any game in the RPG genre, but this one I've at least played all the way through...although it's been awhile. The system of magic in games is never cheap. Really. I mean because it's not the author abusing it, it's the player using it. (Whether properly or not).
Magic in the world is usually stronger with one character over the other, but then special abilities of any kind are limited by the 'point system'. Every spell costs points (equivalent exchange B***!) the stronger the spell the more it costs. You have to recharge points in special ways if you want to continue to use magic in your fights.

The capacity to cast magic increases with practice (leveling). So in the beginning your "magic points" (MP) capacity is set to 10 points. Casting simple spells like a fire ball may cost 3 points. You can only cast 3 fire ball spells at full capacity and still have 1 point left over. That may work well for small monsters early in the game but later on things get harder and 3 won't be enough.
So as the character gains experience and so on the capacity grows say to 15. Then you can cast 5 fire ball spells at full capacity.

In the Tales example everyone uses "magic", it's just sometimes called a skill because really they don't cast anything. There are two specific magic casters in the group, Genis and his sister Raine. They both cast offensive spells like fire ball or healing or lighting. The more MP they have the more spells they can cast and stronger spells too. As they grow they learn new ones. The time it takes to cast lessens as they grow as well (which is important since this is a real time battle system).

There is also a summoner, which uses cards to summon monsters to fight for her.

Then there are 2 magic fighters, Zelos and Colette. They have mix of both "special moves" (which take MP) and magic spells to cast. Actually, everyone can cast one or two spells of some sort. (If I remember correctly).

Relating all this to Game Design

So this entry is both thoughts about magic as a system and magic as a story element. In some cases preference of the author is the deciding factor but I think it is good for authors to look to the magic used in games. Magic as a system works better (in my opinion) than magic as a plot device.

However, a game system that also considers things such as "talent" or "experience" like in stories makes it much richer. In some symbolic ways they already do this.
Mages are magic casters specifically. That is their talent and predisposition and experience. This is all reflected in their "statistics". (Although I prefer graphs to assigning numbers. It's more biological and less mechanical).

Game magic is my favorite because it can't abuse the system. It's a computer program. And having those parameters makes it feel more REAL. Because it has limits just like everything in life. How you limit it in your game system or story is important to how things play out in the long run.

Let me go over some of the systems pointed out in this entry:
Equivalent Exchange - the output is equal to input
Experience - the more you practice the better you get, especially if you are made for magic (mage)
Ambivalent Exchange - the output is greater than the supposed input or visa versa.
Physical Limits - the power is limited by a person's strength or a specific object or both.
Infinite Well of Power - wait...this system is broken
Rune Drawing - especially with those new-fangled touch screen games. Drawing runes and remembering shapes is a great system too! (The harry potter video games use this).

All of these are really useful systems to mix and match in your game's magic system. Remember that magic is defined by its limits not by it's ability. Take this consideration when you write too.

As I mentioned in my other entry about my feelings towards magic in storybooks, the less it's used the better. It can cheapen the experience if magic is just used common place. I prefer it to happen in the shadows and be a supernatural phenomenon. (Like in Chronicles of Narnia, only Aslan could do "magic" and that was because he was God. Okay...the White Witch too...but she was the Devil. Gods can do whatever they damn well please.)

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