Magic Needs To Be Mysterious and Unpredictable In Games

Most of the great writers of fantasy know that magic works best when left unexplained, when it is allowed to be mysterious and unpredictable.  There is, after all, little point in writing a story featuring magic if you then make that magic mundane.  An author wants to create the illusion of a system or set of rules, but one which is mostly hidden and secret, because nothing will kill mystique like familiarity.

Any videogame which allows the player to manipulate any kind of magic system will necessarily run up against this problem.  In order for the player to be able to manipulate the rules of the game in a meaningful way, he or she will need to have a full understanding of the effects and power of the tools at his or her disposal.  In videogames which feature magic systems, this means the player will need to be able to know exactly what the magic does and how it works in order to play the game effectively.

Magic, as a narrative device, resists systematization.  In most fantasy settings, magic is all about the manipulation of forces beyond human understanding in order to accomplish things you shouldn’t be able to do.  It’s about breaking the rules, and thus doesn’t do very well when it’s forced to strictly abide by them.

For this reason, magic systems in games have a tendency to become bland and boring, placing all of their hope for luster or wonder in whatever spectacular visual effects accompany them.  You do not gain a feeling of wonder or mystery from Elika’s ability to rescue the Prince, or from Morrigan flinging fireballs, or even from Yuna’s summoning magic.  You always know exactly how these things are going to work.  They are tools you use to solve problems, and the systems are generally clear, easy to manipulate, and, furthermore, frequently very similar.  The tired old mana system is found in games from BioShock to World of Warcraft, and doesn’t show any signs of disappearing any time soon.

This becomes disappointing not only as a matter of personal preference (i.e., Bill likes his magic weird, and is therefore sad when it isn’t) but because it frequently causes conflict between a game’s themes and the actual experience of playing the game.

The Dragon Age franchise is perhaps the best example.  In the lore of Dragon Age, magic is a strange and dangerous power.  Mages are always at risk of demonic possession due to their connection with the spirit realm, and must thus be guarded by a church-appointed order of warrior monks lest they lose control of themselves and harm everyone around them.  Some schools of magic are so dangerous that they are forbidden, never to be learned, and their practitioners hunted down and murdered.  Rather than allow a volatile mage to be set free, the church would sooner simply burn away their magic and leave them as nothing more than hollow shells, emotionless husks doing their duties in quiet obedience.      For these reasons, mages and non-mages are constantly at each other’s throats– mages resent their church-sanctioned imprisonment, and non-mages fear the mages’ volatility and power.  This struggle between magic and mundane is one of the central themes of the franchise, particularly the second game.  Mage and non-mage are fundamentally different in Dragon Age.

Yet nothing in the game’s mechanics supports any of this.  Mages and non-mages alike learn abilities in exactly the same fashion and the mechanics governing the use of those abilities follow exactly the same logic.  The only appreciable difference between the two sets of mechanics is that the currency the different classes use to spend abilities have different names (mana vs. stamina) and are different colors (blue and yellow, respectively.)

Both mages and non-mages learn abilities through leveling up and then use those abilities in a manner constrained by the amount of fuel (that is, mana or stamina) they have left.  While the individual effects of the abilities are different, the general structure of the systems are completely identical, which rather undercuts the notion that magic is something strange and alien and wholly unlike the normal world.

Furthermore, for all that magic is supposedly volatile and dangerous, there is never any penalty or danger in the rules, even when dabbling in the forbidden dark arts of Blood Magic.  While the narrative does address these problems (Merrill’s forced confrontation with the consequences of her actions in DA2 is particularly excellent), all the dangers are rendered outside of the game’s mechanics, which somewhat cheapens the effects.  One begins to feel like the game is cheating.

I don’t mean to harp too much on Dragon Age.  I certainly understand the desire to keep some measure of consistency and symmetry throughout character classes, and I am honestly not sure how one would implement a mechanical risk of demonic possession without things getting very annoying indeed.  But it feels like a wasted opportunity, and it certainly impacts the game’s atmosphere.  Magic feels cheap in Dragon Age, for all its talk of mysterious dangers, and part of that cheapness comes from the blandness of its mechanics.

While I’m sure there are many examples of magic systems done right, the game which sticks out most in my mind is Sierra’s Betrayal in Antara, released for the PC in 1997 as a spiritual sequel to Betrayal at Krondor.  Antara is not, all things considered, a particularly good videogame.  It is unfathomably buggy, graphically ugly, and occasionally features a positively Zorkish attitude of being a dick to players who can’t read its mind.  (It is possible to become stuck towards the end of the game if the player does not happen to have a sufficient quantity of rope in inventory.  Rope, you must understand, is almost entirely useless up to this point.)

But it also featured a magic system which differs completely from the traditional mana/MP system and manages to underscore the game’s opinion of magic rather than actively stand against it.  Of the four playable characters in Antara, only one, young farm boy Aren Cordelaine, is able to use magic.  The majority of the mechanics by which Aren learns and then casts spells are completely unique to him and have no analogue with the other three characters.

For Aren to learn a spell, he has to learn all of the various component parts which construct it.  These components are things like the cardinal elements (fire, water, air, etc.) but also concepts such as “create,” “remove,” “detect,” “touch,” etc.  To teach Aren a new spell, the player does not simply allow him to level up, or learn them from miscellaneous spellbooks.  Instead, when Aren has achieved a sufficient level of mastery in enough of the components, the player will be able to begin constructing individual spells out of a combination of three of those components.  The game’s first spell, for instance, a large, short-range burst of electricity, is composed of “touch,” “create,” and “electricity.”

What’s most interesting about the system is that the player will not know what a given spell will do until he or she has finished researching it.  The player can see which spell components are available to be assembled into a spell, and then wait to see exactly what has been constructed for a certain amount of in-game time.  Further, as there are something like 20 different components, one is never sure exactly how many spells are possible.

Finally, the actual act of spellcasting is not fueled by mana, but rather by Aren’s health.  The more powerful the spell, the more of Aren’s health is poured into it.  The most powerful spells will take away a fourth or more of the caster’s health, ensuring that spellcasting is never taken lightly.

In the lore of Antara (much like Dragon Age), magic is a volatile, dangerous force which is not completely understood even by the greatest mages.  Unlike Dragon Age, however, the game’s mechanics actually support this conception.  Spellcasting is dangerous because it causes physical damage to the caster and places him in direct harm.  It’s mysterious because you never know exactly how many spells are available or what certain combinations of elements will give you.

The best games are those wherein the mechanics and the narrative (and all the various other elements) work together in harmony to construct a coherent and consistent whole.  Many games miss the opportunity to reinforce the strangeness of the magic in their lore by using tired and bland mechanics, but a little extra effort can allow magic to remain mysterious, dangerous, and interesting.


  1. Tommy Cosmos

    Mike Finigan ffffuuuu

  2. chrisguitar

    Very interesting read!
    It has become a norm, that players may choose to be a mage. And somehow the only way to balance mage-characters against “physical”-characters is by conforming them to each other.
    Thus spells become mere “skills” and loose all their mystery.
    But not only the game mechanics are the problem here. Also the way the environment reacts to PCs casting a spell. Mostly there is no reaction at all. It mostly doesn’t matter if you destroy a barrell in a crowded street with a hammer blow or a mighty fireball.
    As far as i remember some of the Elder Scrolls games had at least some appropriate reaction from surrounding NPCs (“So you are trained in Destruction-magic?”) but magic is a very common trait in the TES-Universe.
    It would be awesome, if  NPCs (neutral and hostile alike) would react with wonder and amazement, when a PC starts shooting fire and lightning out of his/her fingers.
    But that would probably disrupt the balance to the other character-classes. Maybe it would only be possible in a game where the player HAS to be some kind of mage.
    Another note: i would love it, when mythical creatures would also be special again. In most fantasy-games the world reacts to a werewolf the same way as it would to a rabid dog. Apart from the occasional boss-dragon those creatures are nothing more than  XP-supply.
    I like the Game of Thrones approach more: people have heard from mythical creatures like white wanderers, dragons and undead but hardly anyone has ever seen one.
    If the player encounters one of those the first time, it would be special. Not simply another zombie (or whatever) ready to be mowed down.

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  4. Rachel_Helps

    loved this post. 

  5. NickisNixed

    Really enjoyed this!

  6. WombatofDoom42

    @AGBear Hey thanks! Glad you liked it!

  7. Ctrl+F: “Magicka” (none found)

    • WombatofDoom42

       @BooDooPERSON I haven’t played Magicka.  I know it’s a problem, and thought of it when I was writing it…

      • Grimpunch

         @WombatofDoom42  @BooDooPERSON 
        then go play it and rewrite 😛

        • WombatofDoom42

           @Grimpunch Heh.  I’m sure Magicka is great, but I don’t think playing Magicka will change Dragon Age’s problems.  😉

        • TomSmizzle

           @WombatofDoom42  @Grimpunch The thing with Magicka is that the magic system is chaotic and has a lot of the things you call for in the article until you learn its systems. Then everybody uses the same go-to spells for everything and it may as well be any other twin-stick shooter.

    • Coccyx

       @BooDooPERSON I did exactly the same, and found only this.

  8. JB Friedlander

    Unfortunately, having magic be mysterious can’t really work. In the old fantasy world of yore, books would sit in arcane libraries, and mysterious etchings on the walls of crypts would be the only sources of arcane magical teachings. Today, we have the internet, and so if you do make a game where the magic system is sufficiently complicated, players will grow bored and look it up, or grow bored and stop playing. Of course, fans would do this because they love the game. Even if you had health=mana (or some other penalty for using a spell like fatigue), then you still have to deal with min-maxers who would do the next best thing, and the “mystery” of creating your own spell might be lessened by the fact that someone already tried it, and very much diminished because someone made one that is, mathematically, better. The next solution then is to have a random magic system, or a system where “spell failure/misfire” is impossible to eliminate. But then you have just another dice rolling system where no one wants to play the mage because that one time you don’t have your health buff up you roll double 1s and nuke yourself trying to cast “speak with potted plants”. Look, guns in video games have ammo (mana), react in predictable ways (do not look in the active end of the device), and only in JRPGS require you to “identify” in any way what they do (I’m looking at you PSO). If we want magic to be different and mysterious then it can’t be something that a fantasy character/player relies on as much as much as their modern counterpart relies on a gun. When wizards stop being medieval black ops (scry and die) then what use will players have for the squishy mage that can’t hold a sword?

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  10. darrylayo

    @patchworkearth …/SOMETIMES/.

  11. darrylayo

    @patchworkearth I look at magic from many points of view. There’s the mystery angle which is valid but there’s also the work/craft angle

  12. darrylayo

    @patchworkearth historically, a lot of what we call “magic” stems from “women’s work,” that male storytellers simply didn’t understand

  13. darrylayo

    @patchworkearth for example, when Odin (inspiration for Merlin & Gandalf) disguised himself as a woman to learn “unmanly” “womanly arts.”

  14. liceham

    “I am honestly not sure how one would implement a mechanical risk of demonic possession without things getting very annoying indeed.” – You might like to try Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter. In that game, you essentially become possessed by a dragon, and dragons have near-limitless power. Whenever you change into dragon form, however, a percentage ticks up – the extent of your possession. You are almost completely invincible while in this form, and extremely powerful. It makes any fight in the game much easier, but if that percentage ticks over to 100% at any time, you lose the game and have to start over, as you lose yourself completely to the possession. Oh, and that percentage also increases by walking around.

  15. st33d

    Rogue, which is a pretty old game, has unidentified magic items. Every magic effect will either save you from death or blow your own leg off. Even if you have identified a magic item, it’s exact effects are still pretty cryptic.
    The trouble with the identification game is that it doesn’t cater to casual players.

  16. tanjon

    Y u stick pictures of DAO in there now I feel all sad and misty eyed ._.
    I think that if Bioware really wanted to, they could have done better than Antara. Replacing mana with health is a rather simplistic switch, after all. Ideally, the more you used, say blood magic, the more your conversation options and appearance would twist. Your answers would become more and more manipulative over time, you would struggle with maintaining human form, occasionally shapeshifting against your will into demon form, and at some point, you would simply lose your mind and go all demon (and be killed off), or become a sentient demon with a personality of its own whose narrative would then be woven into the story seamlessly.
    This is, of course, ideal and near impossible. But they COULD have done it. And I suspect they would have if they had infinite money and times 🙂

    • BrianWolf

       @tanjon This isn’t quite the same thing, but Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter had a remarkably similar system. The main character had access to an over-powered dragon form they could use at any time; however, this also permanently increased a special meter. The meter was also filled (albeit very slowly) just by the character walking around and using other actions. If the meter reached a 100%, it was a game over. The catch is that you also had the ability to restart the whole game with the skills your character gained and (I believe) some of your equipment and money. This way, you’d restart the game (a relatively short 20-30 hours for an action-RPG), but you’d breeze through the early parts much quicker, as well as access a bunch of new cutscenes adding more info to the story (while simultaneously letting you skip bits you’ve already watched). It’s not perfect, but it was certainly a bold, different game when it came out.

  17. mllange

    Conquest of Elysium 3, while not a great game  – does offer a few interesting aspects of magic for certain classes.  (Losing control of your heroes/leaders/units due to madness, etc.)  I’ve enjoyed aspects of it.

  18. kveale

    Great article! It reminded me about the magic system in “Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem” for the Gamecube. The system had its problems, but it was all framed around learning new runes for different concepts and arranging them in different ways: basic spells had three runes, which were the minimum, all the way up to nine. And the spell was incanted by working around the runes, while the protagonist stood still… meaning that casting a nine-rune spell in a boss-fight was an exercise in tense timing. Fun stuff!

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