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.