Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Magic as Logical Lacunae

In my past two essays, I have discussed the history of magic systems in video games, and the how magic can be used as a mundane force used for world building. In the second essay, I described magic as an analogy for other systems of technology that exist in our world, like ordinance, the internet, and economics. I further argued that one way for magic systems to progress would be to consider more mundane, less-fantastic uses of magic that would mirror more pedestrian uses of real-world technology. In this third essay, I will discuss an alternative approach to magic. One that presents magic as a disruptive, countervailing force to technology that is inherently chaotic and inconsistent as opposed to reliable and technological. These alternative systems do not follow the technological rules of Acquisition, Execution and Calculation; or if they do, these mechanics are hidden away from the player to keep the mystery alive.

To begin I would like to briefly consider the ontology of various concepts of magic in the real world. There are several kinds of magic to consider, each existing through combinations of material reality, cultural practices, and in some cases, faith-based belief.

First, there is legerdemain, or slight-of-hand, which exists as a performance art based around dexterity and misdirection. This type of magic represents a trainable skill grounded in physical reality with ontology resembling ballet, acting and pantomime. Like those other performance arts, sleight of hand has a number of cultural traditions that vary throughout the globe. Many practices invoke the superstitious themes of earlier conceptions of magic (discussed below) to perpetuate the illusion of mythical power. Other practitioners guard their secrets as tools of their trade.

The second form of magic is stage magic, which often overlaps with the former category of legerdemain. This form of magic is perhaps even more grounded in physical reality, and is ontologically similar to set-design, stage lighting, prop-use and more generously, CGI, camera tricks and other fanciful post-production techniques. It too invokes mystical metaphors for thematic reasons, though due to the collaborative nature of theater, it is generally less secretive than sleight of hand.

The third way to consider magic is as a primitive science. Many superstitious practices, such as alchemy, humorism, and herbal medicine, were motivated by spiritual or esoteric beliefs that gradually formed the foundation for scientific disciplines such as chemistry, anatomy, and nutrition. The ontology of these systems is more complex. For example, alchemy’s existence is partially comprised of non-scientific, but empirical practices of early chemistry, and faith-based belief systems. It is exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to identify a modern day cognate to this early science ontology. If we knew what our delusions were, we would not suffer from them so persistently.

The fourth type of magic is fictional magic. The type of magic I discussed in the prior two essays fall within this category, which encompasses escapist fiction, role-playing systems and other forms of willful, but self-conscious make-believe. The ontology of this type of magic is comparable to other forms of fiction, though it is arguably more speculative than fiction set in historical, or realistic contemporary situations. Like science-fiction, the motivations for creating and consuming this type of fiction range from pure escapism, to speculative curiosity to metaphorical polemics.

The next type of magic, which we might describe as true belief, is ontologically analogous to modern religion and spiritual practices. The actual form of that ontology however, varies drastically depending on one’s personal belief system. To the skeptic, or realist, this type of magic is flatly wrong. At worse, it is a malicious type of willful ignorance that impedes scientific and cultural progress. At best, it signifies confusion, naivete, a lack of education and access to information, or exists as a psychological placebo to make hard truths (like the inevitability of death) bearable. True believers’ take on magic also vary wildly according to their belief. Since the inquisition, modern Christian religions have drawn distinction between miraculous phenomena which are benevolent, and magical phenomena, which are infernal. Few true believers bother to consider the actual ontological implications of the existence of magical phenomena, however.

With the readers’ indulgence, I would like to conduct a thought experiment considering the implications of actual magical phenomena. It is not my intention to try and prove or disprove magic, but because such a perspective, “unreal” as it is, may yield interesting design decisions for games featuring magic. It may hint at experiences that lie well-outside the realm of typical ludic systems and encounters.

The first and most important truth suggested by this thought experiment is tragic and terrifying: there are things about the universe we cannot understand or accurately describe, let alone manipulate. If magic phenomena could be accurately explained, they would cease to be magic and start to be scientific. The skeptics now ask “Why should we bother talking about things we will inevitably get wrong?” The answer is to think about the things we can get right; and to color in the edges that define our conceptual blind spot.

For example, skeptics and fanatics can agree on one thing: magic exists in opposition to logic. This accounts for why magic is often associated with madness in art and literature. Those who purport to practice or interact with magic are necessarily acting under delusions, since magic cannot be logically understood. Another truth, consistent with all five ontologies of magic is that magic phenomena are things that provoke wonder and curiosity. Even if they cannot be explained, attempts to understand it can be made. There is no core of sense to be had, no actual solution to the mystery, but an infinite potential for delusional explanations to be made. Magic phenomena could therefore ontologically exist as persistent logical problems that cannot be explained.

Already, we have enough information for a conceptual simulation approaching actual magic: a computer glitch within a game world. Granted, we have to approach a computer glitch from this very specific perspective: an entity existing within a flawed diegesis, or broken narrative world. As a figment of computer code, we cannot fix the glitch in the game world, but we can interact with it. And if we attempt to interact with the glitch, we run the risk of tearing at the seams that hold the world together.

One example that springs to mind is the famous missingno glitch in Pokemon Red and Pokemon Blue. In the game, the player assumes the role of a child who catches animals called pokemon in tiny balls, and ‘trains’ them through gladiatorial combat. The missingno glitch is actually a combination of two specific glitches, as explained in JpDeathBlade’s Missingno info-graphic (currently visible at
http://imgur.com/vFbFu), which I will attempt to summarize below. 

In the game world, the player encounters different pokemon by wandering through different environments. Environments are determined by terrain panels, such as grass, water, caves, buildings, and through fishing. In towns, pokemon are normally not encountered. There is a case however, where you can receive a tutorial on how to catch pokemon by talking to an old man. This special encounter carries a grass tile encounter. When a player transitions from one environment to the next, the terrain memory from the previous location is usually wiped. But by using the “fly” command from Viridian City to Cinnabar Island, the terrain memory from the previous location will be retained. Cinnabar Island is unique as it has a specific stretch of land along its coast that is erroneously labeled as grass tiles.

Due to the limited memory of the Game Boy platform that runs the game (32 bits), the information that would normally determine which pokemon are encountered is instead used to store the player’s name data. As a result, when the player triggers a pokemon counter on the coast of Cinnabar Island, the game incorrectly attempts to draw pokemon data from the player’s name data. This allows the player to encounter a number of different pokemon depending on the spelling of the player’s name, and it also leads to a confrontation to missingno. Missingno, which is short for Missing Number, is an exception handler that is thrown up in place of missing data.

Fig. 1: Missingno Encounter in Pokemon

Several things can result from an encounter with missingno. If the player flees from the encounter, the item in his sixth inventory slot will be doubled, again due to memory problems. If the player captures missingno, it will very likely corrupt the games’ save file by creating a non-existent entry in the player’s pokedex, encyclopedia.

From a diagetic perspective, these interactions are both possible—easy even!—but they make no logical sense in the game-world (that said, many fans have concocted explanations that attempt to reconcile missingno with pokemon canon). Even in a world where monsters can be captured in pocket-sized balls and humans can be carried aloft by pidgeon-sized birds, being able to duplicate items and break the game world makes no sense. Making something from nothing (a common trope in every ontology of magic) threatens to destabilize the game’s fictional economy, and interacting with the missingno entity could destroy the game-world itself. This brings us to a second important truth about magic: if it were to exist in a “realistic sense,” it would not only be terrifying and maddening, but also fundamentally and catastrophically dangerous.

So how can we make a game with a system that captures this “actual” type of magic? First of all, since we are necessarily building a system out of logic, to create “actual” magic, we would need a filter that at least creates the illusion of illogic, where cause is severely decoupled from effect. This can be simulated with varying degrees of crudeness, through clever use of random functions in programming. Secondly, these randomized consequences would have to be dangerous, or at least severely frightening to convey the terrifying lacunae, the unknowable black hole that actual magic would represent. Finally, from a pragmatic perspective, we cannot expect the player to engage the gameworld from an immersive, hypothetical perspective, as I have just done with pokemon. Therefore, we would need some sort of game system that engages with the player at a meta-level. Finally

Surprisingly, there are already two games that fit these conceptually difficult and bizarrely specific criteria.

The first title that springs to mind is Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem. The game was developed by Silicon Knights, and exclusively released for the Nintendo GameCube in North America on June 24th, 2002. As you may expect from scary criteria, the game has a horror theme, and a “Mature” rating the ESRB. In fact, it was the first ever mature-rated title to be directly published by Nintendo.

In the game’s frame narrative, you play Alexandra Roivas, a young woman exploring her Grandfather’s Rhode Island Mansion. You stumble across The Tome of Eternal Darkness, a book as evil as its title suggests, which documents the lives of the Roivas bloodline. This frame narrative serves to segment the plot into different levels set in disparate time periods, and in each level, Alexandra’s ancestors do battle with some unspeakable evil. Eventually Alexandra learns how to face the unspeakable evil herself learning spells and skills from her ancestor’s accounts in a manner that is not-unlike the Assassin’s Creed series’ science-fiction meta-narrative.

The truly magical mechanic of the game is called the “sanity meter.” In addition to physical health, the character’s state of mind will gradually deteriorate as they encounter frightening enemies. As the sanity meter depletes, strange and unsettling things occur in the game. The player will suffer hallucinations were they explicably explode, or gravity is inverted. Sometimes the hallucinations will abate; other times the player is forced to play through them. The true master-stroke of the game, is that it will often disrupt the very medium of the videogames itself. When saving, the game will occasionally present players with messages that their save card has become corrupted (destroying save data from every title on the card).

Fig. 2: Eternal Darkness’s Sanity Meter (upper left)

Admittedly, the sanity meter does create a rough logical framework to forewarn players, in the interest of making the game fair. The bar’s depletion is roughly equivalent to the musical swells in horror films, playing on viewers’ dread by hinting at the violence that will soon occur. But the system is also delightfully deceptive. Hallucinations will periodically occur when the player’s sanity bar is nearly full. Other times, when the bar is nearly depleted, several minutes will pass before the player suffers a hallucination.

The game also features a more conventional magic system that is oriented around combat and recovery. The Acquisition system is based on items that are termed runes (but more accurately thought of as Sigils), which can be mixed and matched to create different spell effects. The Execution system boils down to button presses (as opposed to menu commands, or crafting recipes). The Calculation system falls in line with Rock-Paper-Scissors-style elemental dominance, with Magic presiding over Health, Health presiding over Sanity, and Sanity presiding over Magic.

Relatively simple combat system notwithstanding, the inherently hostile game world, whose logical consistency steadily degrades as players navigate it, comes close to capturing the sentiment of a perpetually unknowable magical world.

One other game comes closer still to a truly magical world.

LSD: The Dream Emulator was developed by Outside Directors Company, and published bu Asmik Ace Entertainment for the original Sony PlayStation on October 22nd, 1998. It was re-released in Japan, through the PlayStation network, on August 11th, 2010. It has never been officially released in the United States, but in recent years, the game has gained a cult following thanks to the internet

The premise of the game is simple: the player wanders around a randomly generated psychedelic dream world. By bumping into various objects, she may be transported to new environments, or if she falls into a pit, she will wake up. After roughly 10 minutes of play time, she will wake up anyway. Each dream concludes with a graph that is supposed to char the player’s mental state throughout the dream according to four categories: Upper, Downer, Static and Dynamic.

Fig. 3: LSD’s Dream Grid

For memory reasons, there are a limited number of environments and entities the player can encounter, but the textures used to color said entities are often distorted, resulting in subtly different experiences every time. Due to the randomized nature of gameplay, players very rarely have duplicate experiences. Eventually, the player will unlock a “flashback” feature, allowing them to revisit dreams, but for a shorter period of time, unless they precisely retrace their steps from the first dream.

There are no objectives or win conditions. There is no combat. The game is a perpetual mystery, and while it is occasionally disturbing, it is not remotely concerned with providing players with a frame of reference to judge their experience. In this sense it is even more magical than Eternal Darkness. While an unknowable, or inherently anomalous world has terrifying implications, those implications are only terrifying from an anthro-centric view point.

Magic, should it exist, is much bigger and weirder than humanity can comprehend. Glitches and games both represent a very promising opportunity to get outside of our conceptual comfort zone and see just how strange, damaging and irrational magic could possibly be.

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