Saturday, June 16, 2012

A Very Brief History of Videogame Magic

This is the first of three essays examining magic as an imagined medium, specifically in relation to videogames and to a lesser extent, speculative literature. If you already know Materia from Magecite, and plasmids from biotics, feel free to skip ahead to the next essay, Mundane Magic & World Building. If not, this quick history lesson should bring you up to speed on how magic has changed in videogames throughout the last 3 decades.

Computer programming and digital media have often employed fantastic and magical metaphors. Early MUDs and virtual worlds were shaped by analog role-playing practices and tropes, most famously those in the Dungeon’s & Dragons series (D&D). Webmasters and forum moderators held titles like ‘Wizard,’ and ‘Warlock,’ and it was a fitting nomenclature. Their abilities to censor and abjure disruptive users, functions that are automated and taken for granted today, often required non-trivial knowledge of computer programming. 

Fig. 1: A small sample of D&D manuals with various rules and spells.

This arcane heritage allowed magic to make a handsome transition to videogames. But the adaptation to consoles and computers has had an ironic effect on the practice of magic: it convenienced what was intentionally arcane. The encyclopedic and procedural affordances of digital media berated players from the tasks of consulting rule and spell books and calculating their effects through convoluted formulas. These tasks share considerable parallels with the occult practices they are intended to portray, and in many ways, their remission undercuts the mysterious nature of the supernatural. In fact, mere spell menus and magic points became so pedestrian that game designers have recently started to bring the mystery and strangeness back into magic by incorporating new mechanics to make the process complex again.

Even relatively simple magic systems require fairly complex conceptual frameworks that boil down to at least three essential parts: Acquisition, Execution and Calculation. Acquiring spells entails how the player first manages to obtain spells. Early installments of the Ultima and Final Fantasy role-playing franchise treated magic as commodities, while more recent games treat them as reusable abilities that are gained automatically as the player advances, or as character customization choices. Execution entails how the player performs magic in games. This can range in complexity from selecting a menu option (Final Fantasy, Ultima) or pulling a trigger (BioShock), to drawing sigils on a touch screen with a stylus (Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow) and mixing different elemental values into complex chains (Magicka). The third category, Calculation, not only describes the nature and extent of a spell’s effect on the gameworld, but also how the player’s use of magic is limited. Unique magic systems have come to define certain gaming franchises, not only by shaping gameplay, but by defining the laws of the game’s diegesis, and in many cases, the game’s narrative arc. Arguably, the most effective magic systems synergize with effective storytelling.

Fig. 2: Buying magic spells as consumable commodities in Ultima 1

Acquisition is the foundation of every magic system because it describes how magic comes into existence the game world. Commodity magic is the simplest magic system to grasp, and it can be described as the consumable reification of the supernatural. Spells must be bought or found. This system is often paired with the execution of text-based menu selection, and a calculation system with fixed values that causes the spell-item to disappear after use.

The Ultima series began using this system (1981), and complicated it in the series’ fourth installment (1985) with an acquisition system I refer to as the Recipe System. The Recipe System is similar to the Commodity System, except that multiple commodities must be combined to create spell effects. Conceptually this decouples the concept of a spell with the concept of resource. Spells become abilities that can be performed with the correct combination of resources.  Practically, spells become verbs rather than nouns.

A similar effect results from the Magic Point (MP) System. The player must acquire the ability to use a spell, and the magical energy (referred to as mana, manna, chi, ki, energy, psi, and hundreds of other things) necessary to perform the spell. Acquisition of spells is typically non-trivial, requiring expensive purchases, ‘leveling up’ by earning experience, or learning magic from magical items, often equipment. In contrast, magical energy can typically be gained and regained fairly easily; often automatically recharging over time, or when the player saves or rests, or through relatively inexpensive consumable items.

The MP System has existed in pen and paper gaming since at least 1980, with the DragonQuest gaming system, though it likely dates back even earlier through D&D variants. The DragonQuest pen and paper game is not to be confused with the similarly named Japanese RPG series, Dragon Quest which was released in the United States as Dragon Warrior in 1986. Incidentally, Dragon Warrior was one of the first console RPGs to leverage the MP system. The rogue-like Moria was one of the first computer games to use the MP System computationally, in its v 1.0 release in 1983. To this day, the MP system remains the most prevalent form of magic system.

Fig. 3: Moria was one of the first computer games to use an MP system.

We are already presented with a wide variety of potential systems based on ‘remixing’ the various systems described here, and we have yet to touch on Execution systems in any detail. Early roleplaying titles mediated combat through text-based menus that allowed players to select which actions to take. These actions would then be carried out in a turn-taking fashion; another legacy practice adopted from D&D. This was partially due to computational constraints, but also for reasons of tone. RPGs were associated with thoughtful, tactical play, similar to chess.

New genres yielded new Execution systems. In the late 80s, magic systems began to spread beyond their native roleplaying genre. The first entry of Konami’s monster-hunting Castlevnia (NES, 1986) franchise allows players to use magical “Sub Weapons” with a single button command, as opposed to a menu. The Acquisition system is also two-fold: players must pick up the sub-weapon item, and then obtain a sufficient number of hearts (MP by yet another name) in order to use the weapon. Zelda II: The Adventures of Link (NES, 1987) features a hybrid system, where magic power had to be obtained by obtaining game objects in action-oriented, platform style gameplay, but cast through a menu-based execution system.

Fig. 4: Konami’s Castlevania; an early example of a magic system in
an action title. Note the heart points on the upper right of the HUD.

Perhaps due to the frenetic influence of these action-oriented titles, tastes began to change within the roleplaying genre as well.  Squaresoft incorporated temporal constraints into their formerly turn-based RPGS, beginning with Final Fantasy IV (SNES, 1991). The feature they used, called the “Active Time Battle” system, restricts player and enemy actions with a timer, as opposed to completely pausing the fight while the players select which action to take. If a player dithers while selecting what spell to cast, enemies can attack them repeatedly. Admittedly, this is not an explicitly magical mechanic (and it can also be switched off), but it resulted in a considerable change in pace in the roleplaying genre that clashed with traditional pen and paper practices. The ATB timer was later represented by a gauge that gradually fills. The recently released Final Fantasy XIII-2 (PS3, 2012) uses a refined version of the ATB system.

Fig. 5: Final Fantasy V featuring a visible ATB Gauge

In addition to the new temporal constraints placed on players, game designers began to incorporate more complex Execution systems. Final Fantasy V (SNES 1992) features a staggering array of character classes, which can be ‘equipped’ to gradually teach characters new spells. Character classes are perhaps the most prevalent form of modern Acquisition systems, where players select a role, such as healer, wizard, warrior or thief, and gradually learn the skills and spells associated with that class.

Final Fantasy VI (1994) hard-codes character classes but gives each character a unique Execution system, in addition to a more traditional magic-learning system. For example, the monk (or martial artist) character, Sabin, can use the special Blitz system to perform attacks based on complex button inputs similar to those used in 2-dimensional fighting games.

Fig. 6: Sabin’s Blitz skill menu in Final Fantasy VI.
 Note the button presses listed beneath each ability.

I have said very little about each game’s Calculation Systems so far, and the reason for this is that there is not much to say. In pen and paper games, calculating spell effects involved the player through dice-rolling and coin-flipping; activities that mirrored ‘actual’ magical practices called auguries which were used to determine future events. Calculation systems are particularly interesting for non-combative “utility” spells, whose effects can vary more drastically than differing amounts of damage (a poorly rolled transformation spell might make enemies more malicious instead of making them harmless).  In videogames, utility spells (if they exist at all) often have binary or hard-coded effects and the majority of the calculation system is devoted to determining damage.  Generally, damage calculation is still semi-randomized, but completely automatic: The computer rolls the dice and doesn’t even bother to read players the results.

One type of Calculation System that does involve players is the Elemental Dominance chart, where specific categories of damage (fire, wind, electricity) are especially effective against specific categories of enemies (plant, rock, water). This system was used through-out the Final Fantasy series, but brought to greater prominence with the Pokemon franchise (Game Boy, 1998). In these systems, the players can proactively affect the calculation system by selecting spells that exploit opponent’s elemental weaknesses. The system is exceedingly prevalent, but ultimately as thought-provoking as a convoluted game of Rock-Paper-Scissors.

In the new millennium, magic has been rendered with increasingly flashy and complex graphics. Magic system mechanics have also become increasingly complex and involving, marking a technological turn back toward arcane knowledge and abilities.

Capcom’s Devil May Cry (PS2, 2001) brought magic even deeper into the action genre by incorporating a magic meter that behaved similarly to the super-move gauges of fighting games. The devil trigger gauge gradually builds up as players vanquish enemies. Once filled, the gauge allows players to initiate a brief demonic transformation with magical powers. New spells can be acquired by collecting items dropped by defeated enemies.

Square Enix’s Kingdom Hearts (PS2, 2002) series featured an interesting hybrid between action games and RPGs, in that it maintains text-based menus to mediate combat, but completely eschews artificial turn-taking mechanics in favor of immediate action. In this case, the text-based menus are employed for primarily aesthetic reasons, invoking the tone of the Final Fantasy series. In fact, the game allows players to circumvent the menu commands by creating button-combination short-cuts to activate abilities.

2K Games’ BioShock (multiplatform, 2007) married a robust, RPG-style magic and character customization system to first-person-shooting gameplay under the thematic guise of fanciful genetic-engineering. While the DOOM-like Heretic franchise feature magically themed first-person shooting gameplay as early as 1994, the magic spells behave identically to firearms with consumable ammunition, as opposed to extra abilities that can be leveraged in combat. In contrast, BioShock features a multifaceted Acquisition System, where players must find or purchase ADAM, Gene Tonics, and Gene Tonic slots to use magic. Once equipped, spells are used with the pull of a trigger, and generally behave as fanciful ordinance, with a meter that gradually depletes.

Fig. 7: A player uses a “plasmid” to freezes an enemy in place in BioShock.

It was also during this time that Blizzard unleashed its MMO juggernaut, World of Warcraft (PC, 2004). Magic had been a substantial part of MMOs and MUDs for nearly a decade and a half, but their magic systems were fairly simplistic MP-based affairs that paled in comparison to the innovations and experiments featured in the single-player titles listed above. Again, this was partially a matter of technological constraints. Lag, collision issues and balance constraints still prohibits anything as immediate or flashy as Devil May Cry’s gameplay in an MMO. World of Warcraft managed to elevate combat above Ultima Online, EverQuest, Dark Age of Camelot and countless others, by drastically increasing the pace of combat, to prioritize timely keyboard presses as opposed to relatively sedate mouse-clicking. Blizzard also did its best to differentiate the spell-casting character classes by providing them with unique game mechanics and distinctive magic spells. For example, Warlocks must drain the souls of their enemies to fuel other spells, while Druids can shapeshift into animal forms to gain new abilities.

 Fig. 8: The Druid Class' "Balance Meter" from World of Warcraft.

At high level play, Blizzard’s system ultimately boils down to triggering each ability in a meticulous ‘rotation’ to maximize damage-dealing or healing efficiency. In an effort to combat player’s waning interest in the system, Blizzard has begun layering new quirks onto the now-familiar systems of old classes, such as bestowing expendable charges of Holy Power to paladins, and implementing an elaborate “balance meter” for Druids.  The latter system causes spells to accumulate power as they are used repeatedly, up to an extent, at which point the cycle resents and starts to swing in the other direction. Optimistically, this system adds an extra element of strategy to spell-casting. Less charitably, it is another hoop to jump through that further constrains a player’s ability rotation. 
The latest installment in Bethesda’s long-running Elder Scrolls series also bears comment, for its partial successes. In addition to a traditional MP based magic system, the designers implemented a new cool-down based Dragon Shout magic system. The most exciting aspect of this new, supplementary magic system is the spell Acquisition method. Players must slay dragons to absorb their souls, which can then be used as currency to unlock words of power that must be discovered in dungeons. These words of power can then be recombined to form Dragon shouts. This is lexical acquisition is suitably adventurous and praise-worthy, and having the option to use another temporally restricted attack does add another much-needed layer to the series’ rather lackluster combat. The effects of the spells however, are a considerable disappointment. Many of the shouts have identical effects to existing spells, undercutting their novelty and significance.

Arrowhead Game Studio’s charmingly humorous and aptly titled Magicka, offers one potential solution with a complex chain of elemental codes. The hackneyed mechanic of rock-paper-scissors elemental dominance rears its ugly head, but the system is redeemed by the inclusion of total incompatibility. If the player mixes two opposite elements, his spell fizzles, requiring complex memorization and genuine dexterity as opposed to merely fast reaction times, as per Warcraft’s rotations.

The changes of the late 90s and 2000s have succeeded at making magic arcane again, but they also represent a repetitious cycle of staid conceptual development. The videogame industry first streamlines complicated practices to draw in a larger audience and then gradually complicates said-practices in order to make magic systems immediately compelling again.

Videogames as a medium, and magic systems in particular, have the potential to engage people in more subtle and thought-provoking ways than increasing reaction times and requiring increasingly complex button inputs. Magic systems persist as a staple of fantasy literature because they allow readers to consider realities that play by different rules. Videogames allow people to experience working simulations of these alternate realities. In order for magic systems to mature, they must reach beyond mere combat and even puzzle-solving. They ought to consider magical politics and magical economies. Magical scullery, drudgery, newspapers, shipping and pets.

In my next essay, I will demonstrate that many videogame titles—some of them decidedly non-magical—are already flirting with these possibilities, though their conceptual potential is marginalized, particularly when weighed against technologically primitive pen and paper games. 

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