Small Magic


Magic sucks. We’ve fucked it up. We’ve made it boring. We’ve taken something that, conceptually, contains the range of all things unexplainable, extraordinary, and mystical, and compressed it into essentially an invisible sack of hand grenades.

This isn’t just a problem with video games. It might have started with Dungeons & Dragons: D&D was originally created by combining the strategic play of war games with the high fantasy setting of The Lord of the Rings, and this origin still shapes what games are today, as well as what magic is within those games. However, while wizards and magic were an important part of the stories of Middle-Earth, these elements didn’t readily map to war game mechanics. Reading the books, it’s sometimes difficult to tell what’s magic and what’s just everyday cleverness, what’s mystical knowledge and what’s just regular everyday knowledge. Most of the time, Gandalf is a badass, largely not because he casts spells, but because he is a tall man and he carries a long and very sharp sword – which is, itself, magic, but all that magic seems to do is make it cut through things real good. Though he’s got a few tricks in his pocket, the exact nature of these is never really made clear beyond that they murder the shit out of orcs.

However, this sort of ambiguity is antithetical to the systemic requirements of game design, particularly those of the war games of the time. So, instead, magic is changed to fit into those systems: Mysticism and the unseen become an engine to throw fireballs, magic missiles, lightning bolts, and various other mildly exotic projectiles.

And yet even Dungeons and Dragons had certain mystical components that have largely since been discarded, even in later editions. Rituals, reagents, incantations, everything that makes each spellcasting event significant is taken away in the name of convenience, and the potence of magic is similarly restrained. Sure, a big fireball may seem impressive, resurrecting a person is a true miracle, but both of these are tiny and manageable in scope by their design. The spells of prophecy, the spells that create dreams and nightmares, the spells that truly shape the world rather than just blowing up a small part of it are elided. They’re too complicated and, perhaps, to those with no imagination, too boring.

As they often do, the Discworld books bring this transformation and conflict directly into the fiction. Old wizards – and, since wizarding is a discipline that takes a long time to master, and once it does brings considerable longevity benefits, there are quite a lot of old wizards – they believe in tradition, in the rituals and incantations and the rare and grotesque reagents, your eyes of newt and troll blood and whatnot. Younger wizards believe in the empirical method, rather foolishly considering how rarely the Disc behaves rationally even outside of the magic-soaked Unseen University, and know that most of the ritual isn’t really necessary, and is really just a waste of time. The tension between them is sharp, but ameliorated by the younger set’s apparent disinterest in the traditional wizard games of self-promotion through assassination in favor of apocolyptically unwise magical experimentation.

In games, it’s difficult to create magic that’s about anything less immediate and obvious than a deus ex machina carrying a submachine gun or a panacea. Just as with war games, we’re constrained by the quantifiability of our systems, by the fact that in the end we need to turn everything into a set of instructions and numbers to be interpreted by a machine. The problem with expressing magic through games becomes the same as trying to express emotion through games, trying to find a way to convey something unseen but felt, powerful but immeasurable, through a system that can only be expressed via measurements and perceived through sight. Like the old wizards, we can only look helplessly on as the systems get faster and more efficient, ‘convenient’, and try to explain that something is lost when everything is found.

  1. This post is fantastic. I totally agree with you. Magic must be magical– I mean that in the sense of our mind’s eye. For nerds like us magic has become so pedestrian as to become innefectual in our minds. “Oh, yeah, just cast a spell.”
    The best incarnations of magic are those that are built up as rare, mystifying, perhaps unheard of–or at the very least, special, intricate, and complex. I loved DND when spells had components and wizards had to memorize spells from a spellbook beforehand.

    In stories and storytelling, magic really feels awesome when it is built up as something it should be: awe-inspiring, rare and powerful. GRRM does this well in Song of Ice and Fire by making magic basically not believed in for much of the books, only to appear in small doses and completely blow the reader away. This is an extreme case, but I think it illustrates the point well. Or in Robert Jordan’s wheel of time when the male source of magic was tainted and drove male magic users mad–awesome element. Even the aes sedai who could cast magic only were able to with a lifetime of dedication to it.

    Anyway. I love the post. Puts words to my thoughts of why I hate magic in any game or story where it seems commonplace or just accepted without question.

  2. Totally agree with you here- magic in most modern fiction (games, movies, and books) is weaponized. I think the reason why Harry Potter was such a success was because the system of magic (or lack of system, since there is no explanation of how it works in the HP books) made everyday objects and events a wonder to experience. Sure, there are offensive spells in the HP universe, but for every Avada Kedavra there are unexplained enchantments like chocolate frogs, slug-barfing spells, flying brooms, magical joke shops, and Marauder’s Maps.

  3. I would really love to play the game where your main character’s magic abililities are completely harmless and mechanically useless spells like “grow flower” and “summon butterfly swarm.”

    To me this idea is rife with possibility.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: