Saturday, July 14, 2012

Mundane Magic as a Method for World-Building

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
-Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law

“Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology.”
-Larry Niven being a smart-ass

This is the second in three essays examining magic as an imagined medium, specifically in relation to videogames. In the previous essay, I provided readers with a brief overview of video game magic systems and how they have changed throughout the past three decades. In this essay I will explore what else magic is capable of, and why video games are especially well-suited to exploring the concept.

I concluded my last essay by saying that magic systems must move beyond combat and puzzle solving, but I believe it would be useful to briefly address the conceptual causes that perpetuate these practices.

The very notion of magical combat supports the Campbellian mono-mythical structure that characterizes the overwhelming majority of fantasy fiction. If a person is armed with magic, it is easier for audiences to believe he can act as a one man army, that he can survive injuries that would kill mere mortals, and that he can change the world in a dramatic and profound way. More importantly, the fantasy of magical violence satisfies a fundamental escapist desire: the physically weak can overcome the physically strong through intellect and creativity; which is why mages are so often portrayed as very young, or very old, and described with adjectives like ‘frail’ and ‘bookish.’ Videogames are especially well-suited for this type of fantasy, because they allow players to experience this fantasy through direct simulation, rather than vicariously imagining themselves as a movie or novel’s protagonist.

Magical problem-solving is a step in the direction of subtlety, but the types of problems videogames ask players to solve with magic are generally very blunt and uninspired. How can I move this boulder? How can I cross that gap? How do I get all the way up there? The reason videogames pose these very physical questions to players is that most game-design is predicated on creating a believable sense of physicality. Conundrums leveraging collision detection and physics engines effectively force players to acknowledge and succumb to the consistency of their world. In order for magic systems to “grow up,” game designers must move beyond physical means to establish cohesive realities.

Admittedly, some very creative things have been done with the “magical solutions to physical problems” premise. Valve’s Half-Life and Portal franchises feature extremely innovative puzzles and physical simulations. Now, I’m sure some genre purists are objecting on the grounds that both of those titles are “science fiction” whereas “magic” is a juvenile notion that belongs to children and fairy tales. Dear petulant smartasses: there is as much ‘hard science’ behind a gun that spits out portals—sans ammunition no less!—as there is to a kiss turning a frog into a prince. The difference between the two primarily boils down to thematic presentation (namely frame narrative and graphical style) rather than conceptual integrity.

See this? It's fucking magic.

I will concede that magic can be invoked as a capricious force that exists in opposition to technology and logic. That is the subject of the final essay in this series, in fact.

Generally speaking though, videogames use magic systems and magical technologies for a similar purpose: conceptual frameworks for structuring fictional worlds. When rendered with sufficient detail, magic becomes indistinguishable from technology like Mr. Niven said up top.

There are many more ways to make things “real” than through creating a facsimile of physical reality, however. In speculative fiction, an author’s world building skills are measured by her ability to create a comprehensive, inhabitable world with unique social customs, and value systems as well as foreign physical technologies. One institution that shapes these cultural values is an economy.

Video game economies are often employed as a means of controlling the rate of character progress. Players must collect currency or some other valuable resource in order to purchase beneficial game objects, or to pay for training to use new abilities. The acquisition of wealth is very to balance, and in most single player games, the player ends up being ludicrously wealthy by the final phase of the game, and money has very little meaning. The cultural implications of wealth rarely have narrative consequences; NPCs rarely treat players differently. Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs) are different however, because multiple players inhabit the same world and share the same economy, introducing in a genuine social value to game currencies. Players learn to recognize other wealthier players by their virtual garb, or the items they try to sell in barter economies (which are the norm in most fantasy games). The frame stories of most MMOGs rarely examine or describe the inherently magical mechanics that drive these economies however.

In World of Warcraft, money is obtained by killing and looting enemy corpses, harvesting and selling “natural” resources or by completing quests (which almost always entails some combination of the prior two activities). This is a standard model for most MMOGs and single player games, but I am using Warcraft an archetypal example. The magical aspect of this economy is that natural resources, and value-laden monsters, are infinitely renewable. Given the social scope of MMOG’s if the resources did not constantly renew all of the game’s enemies would be dead in a matter of hours and the world’s resources would be similarly depleted. Consequently, this mechanic is a necessity of game design rather than an intentional thought experiment. I would argue that it can function as the latter, however.

A world with infinitely renewable resources results in a society where exploitation is pervasive, but also meaningless. There are no environmental concerns to consider when hunting animals (or even sentient monsters and humanoids), or gathering “rare” resources. The resources are gathered, but the environment never strains or suffers.

Charitably, this system results in a sort of utopian meritocracy: there is literally no limit to the amount of wealth players can amass by exploring the game’s world and killing its monsters. The exploitation of natural resources also synergizes with ludic experimentation; players learn to play the game more effectively as they amass greater riches. They learn to play more efficiently and more effectively. 

Cynically, a magic system of infinite resources sucks the wonder and value out of rare commodities. Collecting gold ore, exotic animal pelts, and rare herbs is no longer an adventure: it is drudgery. Duplicate items appear in the world at a logarithmic rate, rather than over the course of decades, centuries or millennia. Blizzard has attempted to curtail this encroaching sense of drudgery by introducing crafting recipes that require an exorbitant amount of the limitless natural resources. The theory is that their rareness can be reified by increasing the total time players have to spend searching for components and reagents. In actuality, this merely reinforces a player’s sense of monotony. It is no accident that MMOG’s are frequently described as grinds.

Other design decisions made in the interest of fairness and expedient-play have led Warcraft’s economy to become increasingly clinical and sterile throughout the years. Like all economies, Warcraft features various professions that can gather and craft resources in various ways. Initially, attempting to craft an item was a risky undertaking; there was a small probability that the player would fail and waste the required reagents. To make the game more broadly appealing, this mechanic was truncated fairly early on in the game’s life cycle. Furthermore, the game’s various professions did not feature any unique mechanics that meaningfully differentiated the crafting process; the gameplay behind mixing an alchemical potion and enchanting an item boils down to clicking through a series of menus.

Many single-player games suffer from similarly broken and monotonous magical economies, but their future has a somewhat brighter prognosis than MMOG’s. In a single-player experience, game designers do not have to worry about fine-tuning a system to be fair for a vast number of players interacting with the world simultaneously. They can create truly scarce resources, or infinite resources that re-emerge at a much slower rate than in MMOG’s. More adventurously, they can also allow player behavior to meaningfully warp and alter in-game economies.

Butterflies are tricky to catch but not as hard as in real life. Still, it's a step in the right direction. (Picture found at One Girl Geek's blog in a post about things you can eat in Skyrim)

Bethesda’s latest entry in The Elder Scrolls franchise, Skyrim, engages in a few such experiments. Even though Skyrim does not allow players to barter and argue with other actual people, its economy is more compelling in several ways. In Warcraft, the absolute bottom of a game object’s value on the player-traded auction house is determined by the amount a non-player-character (NPC) will pay for it. Save for acts of charity and obvious mistakes, players will not sell items to other players if they can get more money from the computer. In Skyrim however, flooding an NPC with the same type of item will result in market saturation and cause an observable decline in value. In Warcraft, flooding the market is less dangerous because NPC vendor values do not vary.

Skyrim’s most compelling crafting profession also features mechanics that establish cost and risk. Player’s must ingest ingredients to learn their initial effects, and then mix them with other combinations of ingredients to learn their secondary, tertiary and quaternary effects. This yields an absurdly childish but undeniably gleeful approach toward mixing potions that necessitates exploration and experimentation. If two ingredients do not have compatible effects they will be wasted. And the act of tasting ingredients has a degree of risk to it as well, since poisonous materials will harm or sicken the player. The design lesson here, is that compelling speculative economies must feature meaningful and costly differentiation as well as observable, routinized behavior.

Another neglected, but promising dimension for thought-provoking magic systems lie with scheduling. The overwhelming majority of videogames do not feature schedules of any kind. Videogame plots often present players with an impending apocalyptic danger but their implied urgency is undercut by mechanics that permit (and occasionally encourage) players to dawdle.

The speculative concept of a time-loop presents one example of magical scheduling. Nintendo’s strangest (and arguably most refreshing) installment in the legend of Zelda franchise, Majora’s Mask, features such a hook. The game sees franchise hero Link trying to save a world by preventing the moon from crashing into the planet in three days. Like the classic movie, Ground Hog’s Day, the game follows a looping structure, with the world changing appropriately, (or in some cases, utterly bizarrely) in relation to the impending apocalypse. This system is paradoxically urgent, as a player must complete every task in the game world in less than three days (roughly 54 minutes of real-time), but also permits the type of dawdling that players have come to expect and appreciate from role-playing games. Like Skyrim’s alchemy system, Majora’s Mask time loop presents players with a combination of established routines and the potential for experimentation. To solve many of the game’s mystery, and ultimately thwart the end of the world, players must observe NPC’s schedules and other changes that occur in the game world (the clearance of road blockages, changes in merchant’s stock). The NPCs consistent behavioral patterns serve to reinforce the diegesis in a more subtle and thought-provoking way than a simple facsimile of physical reality.

Recent installments in Atlus’ Persona franchise explore the possibilities of magical scheduling in even greater detail by adding an element of socialization. In both Persona 3 and 4, players inhabit the role of a Japanese high school student who must balance mundane activities like attending class, studying, sports and socializing with saving the world from supernatural evil. In Persona 4 there is a direct correlation between the forces of darkness and the real world’s weather patterns. By consulting in-game weather reports, players can literally pick their battles.

The Persona series offers player the opportunity to 
obtain superior firepower through friendship. 

The game’s socialization system is also intertwined with the game’s fanciful combat system. Like most Japanese young-adult fiction, social conformity and team work are heavily emphasized. The player’s avatar builds relationships with other characters, referred to as social links. Stronger social links allow the player to summon more powerful supernatural identities called Personas. Social links are strengthened by essentially being a good friend; helping people over-come their personal demons, (like reservations about inheriting a family business, or confused sexual orientation), become vital processes for triumphing over more direct, physical threats. The resulting tone is often bizarre and disappointingly preachy, but the game world is satisfyingly cohesive and the social mechanics add a thought-provoking spin on traditional role-playing premise. Again, we have a system that is ultimately beholden to simulated physical combat and for games to truly mature as a world-building medium, subtler forms of simulation are necessary.

Here I have hopefully explained now how magic systems can establish cohesive, mundane fictional realities through routinized gameplay mechanics, in ways that traditional forms of speculative literature cannot parallel. In order for magic to mature, we must explore the social and temporal aspects of reality in addition to physical applications of magic. The physical aspect of videogame realities are often the most sensational, far-fetched part of the experience. Exploring politics, social relationships, and daily scheduling allow designers to take a more gradual, thoughtful and thought-provoking approach toward magic as a system of speculative technology.

The concept of magic is bigger still, however. In my final essay, I describe how the concept of magic transcends even speculative sciences, and how deliberately disruptive gameplay experiences and glitches can simulate the concept of “actual” magic; forces that are ontologically “other” than technology and logic.

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