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.

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!

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.

Please visit the Round Table’s Main Hall for links to all entries.