Magic in games

Magic. It is one of the things I most like to see in games stories. And I mean all games stories; computer games, board games, card games, pen and paper games, movies vocal stories, written stories, daydreams… our world?

One of the important parts of magic is the suspension of disbelief. I just read Andrew’s latest post over at Ascii Dreams – but that wasn’t what triggered this post. I have had something about magic in stories swirling about in my head for years.

Like Andrew says; you need to take magic into account. If you just patch in a few spells for a select group of people, well – that doesn’t fit in at all. The why, how, what of things pop up all the time. The fanciful stuff that fits nicely in stories, faerie magic wielded by another race of beings are the easiest to use. Faerie magic. Okay, that’s fair. That will be illusions, old magic of the lands. Getting someone to fall in love with you by dancing three circles around that big oak under a full moon. Preferably naked. That magic fits into stories without any explanation, but you cannot put that kind of magic too much to the front of the story. The protagonist cannot use it, because then you have to explain the limits, the rituals and the effects. It will fall apart.

Well, you can do it, sort of. Put magic; specific formulas – or spells – into the world. Say they are remnants of earlier ages. The theories are unknown, some select people with a Gift of magic can be taught from old documents and teachers who once were taught by their masters. You just put in fragments of history and it is set. You can even extend it later by having older works discovered, or scholars finding discrete pieces of magic that binds similar spells together.

My personal favorite magical system is the one from Ars Magica. Five Techniques and ten Forms (verbs and nouns). Each magical formula consist of at least one verb and one noun. A basic spell moving a human body vertically (levitation) is a Rego (Movement) and Corpus (Human body) formula. A basic spell moving a human body from A to B without passing the space in between is also a Rego Corpus formula. Separating these is an intention, and a power guideline. In addition you need to specify some meta information such as target (individual, part or a group), a range (self,touch or something you can see), and a duration (instantly, for two minutes, a day or as long as you concentrate). These affect the power requirements.

You have a whole theory of magic, with established guidelines and existing formulas. You have the possibility of specifying the actual effect by textual description (an intention). Casting spells tire the wizard, unless he is pretty good at what he does. This is a world where magic is a powerful force, bringing its own troubles. You need to have a world that is touched by this magic – a reason for it to work in the presence of powerful beings. In Ars Magica this is fixed by adding powerful mythical forces of good and evil (Heaven and Hell) and faeries into the picture. The wizards govern themselves in order to exist and grow without attracting (too much) negative attention from the other forces. And with only a few hundred wizards… the world is dangerous even if you are powerful.

Still, what misses from this picture (as I see it) – you cannot really enchant your tower to only be seen through the wrong end of a spyglass: the magic doesn’t know of objects as such.

Well, this is all well and good. But these systems rely on human interpretation. The system from Ars isn’t that easy to accomplish in the strict world of computer (or board) games. What does this best (imho) is the component based systems in games like Ultima Underworld and Arx Fatalis. The Elder Scrolls games (in Daggerfall, at least) have had a system where you could create spells yourself, but this proved to be a bit unbalanced. A simple, inexpensive spell could see you from novice to master in a school of magic in no time.

I’d like to see a well flavored magic system, one that looks believable within the limits of a system. But who will do this? I don’t know – but Will Wright is my best guess – perhaps he could do a (high) fantasy themed game when he is done with Spore?


The past, present and future of tags.

To illustrate how badly I digress while writing… this entry started off with the title “I hate social networks”. Go figure.

In some ways I am mildly obsessive-compulsive about organizing stuff. Which means that I’ve sorted things in boxes, categories, hierarchies, systems. It always breaks.

I buy paperback books because then I know they all fit in the same shelves (maybe also because they are cheaper), and I try to get all books in a series from the same printing (or at least the same publisher) so the cover art/bookends fit nicely. I can sort and pack stuff effectively – until I end up with all the small, irregular stuff that can’t be stacked, doesn’t have enough similar items to be packed together.

When moving I spend 90% of the time on the last 10% of stuff. Excluding cleaning… that too takes 90% of the time… procrastinating away from. Perhaps I spend so much time sorting and packing the last 10% of stuff so I can avoid the cleaning for a bit more?

Back to digital sorting and stacking.

I’ve tried partitioning hard disks, building hierarchies of folders, naming systems on documents, lists and whatnot. For blogs I’ve tried hierarchical categorizing (until multiple root folders contains like named leaves), no categorizing (teh horror) and lots of categories (tags without the actual usability).

Anyway, with the advancement of tags I feel I am getting closer to something usable. Broad categories where each item is part of one, and lots of tags attached to each item. Only three problems remain.

  1. The categories are always wrong
  2. There are always tags missing on the items
  3. Tags ends up nearly duplicated, so that they doesn’t tie together like items

Now, the last gripe might be fixed by regularly maintaining the tags, and having a system for defining synonyms. (a bit of work, easier with the right “tool”).

Missing tags are fixed by regularly maintaining tags and items, and can easily evolve into a monster. It can be handled if older items grow towards a suitable set of tags over (a not too long) time. One action that have started to be included in solutions for the Internet, is the ability for the community to help you tag your items. This lets items (images, blog entries, links) mature in their descriptions faster if your community is involved. If you let them. I.e.Google lets you play a game and help them tag images.

The first problem listed above is fixed by the impossibly hard problem: Few and general (broad) categories. Yes, that easy – and still hard to do.

I really want to look into Topic Maps. But that seems like too much work to maintain. Although the possibilities are alluring.

Variations on a Theme: An order of side-quests.

Once again I dare to put words to the thoughts provoked by Corvus’ monthly round table. The red thread for April 2008 is Variations on a Theme, what is your favorite, or least favorite games, and what do they have in common that might be the reason for this?

Now, side-quests are usually disliked by gamers. They are also by me. I spent a long time getting to the feature that will make or break many games for me. It will be easier going away from it and look at what side-quests tick for me.

Why do I like side-quests? I guess it may be because they let me roam a bit more in the world I am occupying at the time. I like a game with more space to move in than needed for running from point A to point B in order to get the plot.

Why do I like side-quests? Well, they tell me more about the world and it’s inhabitants. I can get to know more of the world without reading up on it.

Why do I like side-quests? I can get more story out of the game, when I want. If I want.

I love reading books, mostly fantasy and science fiction. I love story, worlds that make sense. Well, makes sense according to it’s own rules. Hyperdrives and magic is fine. Games have a story world, and they use and portray them with varying degrees of success. Some games rely on the world being made popular and known to the player outside of the game, before the player sits down and starts up the game.

This is a good thing. I want to have a world that is detailed, fleshed out. For worlds other than our own our knowledge vary. Star Wars’ world is one I am fairly acquainted with, both through the movies and through books and games. The story world of Planescape was less known to me; it still is. But it was a world filled with optional side-quests, it told me of Sigil, of the planes and a little about the Nameless One.

Coming to think of it; in open worlds it is not so much the quest part that counts. The quest is usually there for the player to take notice and bother. For my part some of those quests that take you out and about could be left out. What encourages me is the ability to wander about and discover something unique. The random encounters in Fallout were like this. No quest tied them in, just persistence and luck. I enjoyed Oblivion for a while too – wandering about encountering dungeons, ruins and caves. Sadly, they weren’t that unique, and they didn’t tell a story.

Betrayal at Krondor was the first game I played that let me roam the world, doing what I wanted to before moving on. It is still one of my favorites. When I come think of it; the roaming an looking for stories and side-quests is what I like. Looking for something that is hidden, meant only for gamers who care. Those who explore. Who flee into the game world.

Side-quests usually offer a reward that increase your power in the game. Magical items or experience in RPGs, More troops or items in strategy games. Bonus levels, more points, money, fame. Stuff that makes the game easier. For someone like me who are bad at powergaming; I make wrong character builds, do thing because it fits with the role I’m playing. For someone like me, these optional quests are not that optional. I need better equipment and magic and stuff to get through the plot. I don’t like those optional side-quests at all.

When it comes down to it, what I like in games are freedom, choice, richness of story… I want a story world I can lose myself in, one that makes me feel joy, frustration, happiness, hate. Take your quests, I’ll look at them and discard them. If they intrigue me or offer me something I like, I’ll take them.

Perhaps I should have gone with the original title for this post? Free will, or the illusion thereof. Side-quests really are something that destroys a game for me.

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Digressions and updates

It then comes to this; I’ve got two drafts waiting, and it is a long time since I wrote my last post. It all comes down to me not being able to focus on one topic at a time. I’m digressing (is that even a verb?) all over the place, and then end up writing something other than what I started writing.

Sometimes I wonder if I should blog with a mindmap or a wiki. I wrote myself a WordPress digression plugin at one time, but it doesn’t work with newer wordpresses. I don’t think I ever used it. The whole idea was having digressions hidden; allowing the reader to pop them up if they wanted. There are probably loads, and I know there is at least one good, plugins providing like functionality. Usually by name of asides or something like them. Now I’ve gone and done it again.

I want to write something for this month’s Round Table, hosted by Corvus at Man bytes blog. It is in production, though it tends to run overboard. I’ve changed the title thrice already, but I think I have settled on what I want to write about.

The major problem is that my spare time has been invaded by me playing Ultima Underworld. I found out it was long since I played it last time, and that I actually had forgot a few things. It also seems as if I’m trying to break a few things this time around. I’ve met and talked to the Humans and Mountain men, but not yet the Goblins. I also want to play a tiny bit in an all time favorite of mine; Betrayal at Krondor. I really should just sit down and write the post.

Gaming as a chore

There are those games you just never get to finish, but you still play them. You do not play them because they are fun, but because you have to. You have, after all, paid good money for the game, and maybe even played it for a bit. Playing for these reasons are, in fact, to throw good money after bad.

I have been moderately successful in keeping these sunk costs out of my equations; I have books I have never finished, games bought and paid for that never showed me their end of game credits, movies I never finished.

I recently told a friend I was thinking about how much work it is to play games sometimes. When you have to play even though it isn’t really fun.. —Why play if it isn’t fun? he asked me. At which I replied Why do you play World of Warcraft?. That is a game where I believe an enormous part of the player base is playing just because they have so much invested in it. Money; both up front and in monthly fees, Time; hundreds and thousands of hours spent working to get the best equipment possible. And emotions. My friend plays it mainly, if not solely, because he has made friends there. Friends he have little chance of meeting without crossing country borders. Friends that have little in common other than playing WoW. He has quit, stopped paying, deleted characters many times, but still he starts again.

I’m currently avoiding playing through Icewind Dale 2. Still. It is old and I kind of don’t like it. Then I read Slipping into Oblivion over at A Slime Appears. That article made me think a bit. And I am doing just exactly what I’ve been advocating against for a long long time. I’m playing because, I don’t know. he’s on third and I don’t give a darn!

Identity, trust and OpenID

I recently wrote about OpenID on my journal, and I left kind of an overwhelming positive attitude simmering around the post. I still think you should read it or something authoritative on what OpenID is if you don’t know what it is. No, I don’t think OpenID is a silver bullet that will cure all identity and trust evilness on the web. OpenID itself once was presented as being about identity, not trust on the grounds of trust requiring identity. I don’t think OpenID goes very far towards machine readable identity, but it does go towards human readable identity.

Identifying as an URL instead of with a nickname and a password isn’t that much of an improvement. It proves you have access to some kind of an account giving you an ability to deploy web pages, and a pipeline to an OpenID server that accept you as a user. Since you can host your own OpenID server and web space is cheap (as in free) – this isn’t very comforting. Any service allowing users to authenticate comments with nothing else than an OpenID will find themselves swarmed with spam in no time.

This is known, and will be handled by making use of conventional spam filtering, captcha’s, requirement of creating an account (by OpenID identification) instead of anonymous submission (with OpenID signatures) and other means.

In addition someone will try (or have, what do I know?) white- and/or blacklisting. This might or might not totally destroy what OpenID is all about. As I see it. Blacklisting will probably work, but doing it will be walking on the edge. Blacklisting each individual account will be wasted resources. Each account is just one URL, and spammers can generate one for each comment and never run dry, even if they change the actual account. Delegation would probably be used, so you would need to keep lists on the endpoints as well. Blacklisting domains could be done, but it would require a bit of finesse or human intervention. Spammers manage to get hold of legitimate accounts, or accounts on legitimate hosts… one wrong step and you’d blocked a legitimate, and possibly popular, provider.

White listing would be impossible to do without wrecking it all. One of the cornerstones of OpenID is that you can set up your own provider, but if it was blocked by all from the start… Ok, that wouldn’t do, would it.

Where OpenID will, and do, work is between humans. If I write something, say in a WordPress blog… Incidentally I do… and start signing (in and by) as the URL of this blog, then people will know that I wrote the [whatever] I signed, and they can look up where I keep my identity and see what I am about. And what I write. That I am (most likely) a human being. This will lead to trust.

Only thing missing is spammers making sure their comments seem genuine, and lead readers on a click-through chase to a spam/ad page by way of the OpenID URL… Oh, well. Hope they don’t get that idea from me.

Blogs of the Round Table: Filling the void of voices

What you mean? Monkey Island 1 and 2 had perfect voice talent!

I came across Man Bytes Blog through the Brainy Gamer podcast. I’ve visited Corvus’ blog earlier, but now I’ll stay. Anyhow; he has got this thing going with inviting other bloggers, any blogger, to share their thought at a topic. I’ll toss in a few words at what voices in games mean to me.

I have a history of escaping into other worlds. It happens fairly often, and usually this is into books, my own thoughts, (pen and paper) role-playing games, and computer games. The latter happens less often now, and not only because I try spending less time at them. I find myself treating them more as things to be understood and solved, rather than worlds to live.

Apart from having my old Commodore 64 talk at me, my most memorable moment with voice talent in games are with Curse of Monkey Island. Or rather with the original Monkey Island, and the surprising silence I experienced as the first lines of text appeared. I had just played CMI and picked down my copy of Monkey Island from the shelf, wanting to live its magic again.

My experience playing the Monkey Island games changed from this; or in a way it did not. I never reacted to Guybrush’s voice in Monkey Island 3 – other than that it fit perfectly, but I when I played the prequels again it was Dominic’s voice I heard inside my head. I could’ve sworn at the time that his was the voice I had had in mind for Guybrush while playing the prequels years before, prior to experiencing CMI.

When applying voice talent, I have no trouble supplying my own voices. At least for my own character, and then especially if I had a hand in creating him myself. I can accept there only being voice done for certain characters. I might even prefer that only some lines for certain characters were done in voice. Like when you meet any major character, like Tandi, in the first Fallout game. You’re given a hint or an example, and your mind fills it in expertly at any other time you read her lines.

What jars it for me is anything that ruins the image of the world created. Anything my brain has to fill in itself will be good, or perfect, if there is mood. But if it is supplied for me, I will be critical to anything that threatens suspension of disbelief. Voices not matching the character? Bad lip-sync? People never mentioning my name even if it is written in the subtitles?

In the end I think I prefer making up the voices myself. But when it is done right, I won’t argue against them. For me it is very much akin to graphics. Trying to make it perfect and missing – disastrous. Better to just make it good enough, and let my mind do what it does best.

Filling in the blanks.

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