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Magick Systems in Theory and Practice, Installment 4: Horror and Magic

The relationship between magic systems and horror is hidden and unexplored territory, as secret as the black arts that lurk within the games themselves. Horror as used here refers not strictly to the genre of survival horror, which is a marketing construct invented in association with the first Resident Evil. Rather, horror-themed games include any game whose purpose is to evoke a sense of fear, dread, and the sublimity of unknown dark forces. Horror-themed games can be first person shooters, action-adventure games, and side-scrolling beat 'em ups. Magic is rarely the core mechanic of horror-themed games, often because players are put in the position of fighting magic through firearms and melee, or using magic only indirectly through artifacts. Magic and horror are intimately wedded in terms of themes but not in terms of direct player interaction.

realmsofthehaunting.pngYet, horror games often have the most original and memorable simulations of magic in terms of atmosphere and mood. What horror games have to teach us is their atmospheric simulation of magic, the Gothic mood that they associate with magic through a combination of art style, audio, and (sometimes) haptics. If more closely melded with the core mechanics of games, magic systems in horror games can be superb examples of design and provide inspiration for other hybrid genres.

Magic appears prominently in horror games because of an endemic thematic preoccupation with the supernatural, with emphasis on its dark side as the infernal and the demonic. With this supernatural element in mind, the definition of magic systems can be further refined and extended from last week's blog entry. A magic system is a set of rules and symbols for rigorously simulating the alteration of reality through the will by the agency of a supernatural force, whether conceived of as a genuine metaphysical presence, a symbolic construct, or an energizing psychological reality. In keeping with Crowley's axiom from Magick and Theory and Practice that "any intentional act is a magical act," any act of gameplay requires the operation of the will to achieve a desired result in altering a symbolic reality; therefore, any game mechanic can potentially be looked at as magic. This definition could theoretically be extended to include snowboarding and guitar playing if the experience of these activities approached the transcendent (which according to some Rock Band devotees, it certainly does). However, those genres that most embrace the representation and simulation of the supernatural will tend to exhibit interrelated mechanics that can most rigorously be defined as magic systems.

 Next to fantasy, horror is the narrative genre that most readily takes the supernatural as a fictional premise, rather than rationalizing or dismissing it. Hence, horror games will often but not always include some supernatural element but will also sometimes struggle to integrate it with the game's core mechanics, perhaps in part because magic in horror is frequently represented in Lovecraftian terms as eldritch and unknowable. The need to obscure the workings of the supernatural within a cloak of mystery can conflict with the goal of making mechanics rational and accessible to players. Approached clumsily, this fictional premise leads to the conclusion that the enemy has magic and the player does not, so she must shoot the enemy or hit him with a stick. Approached with subtlety, a horror-themed magic system can be as consummately rational as the black arts themselves, with their dread economy of souls bartered for power, and at the same time dense with mystery that emerges from unexpected combinations and effects.

From Doom to Demon's Souls, games abound in demonic manifestations and exorcisms, and while the first response of players and designers may be to fire a shotgun in the direction of the approaching devil, sooner or later it makes more sense to fight fire with fire. Hence, the protagonists of horror-themed first-person shooters and action-adventure games become scholars of the occult, wielding not just a gun but the arcane knowledge needed to defeat their enemies.

Magic haunts the fringes of Doom in the form of burning pentagrams and demonic enemies, highlighting an element of gameplay that may have deep archetypal resonance. Indeed, the highest function of gameplay in horror games may be to allow players to face their demons, both literally and figuratively: a trope as old as the first mythic attempts to grapple with the problem of evil. Despite the presence of demonic elements in Doom, the players' abilities remain primarily physical. As the prototypical first-person shooter (though not the first one, which was Wolfenstein 3D), Doom keeps its gameplay grounded in the obliteration of demons with ballistic firepower. Nonetheless, the player's use of teleporters etched with occult symbols (both pentagrams and sigils), allows him access to infernal realms, forcing him "knee deep in hell" in the game's own words. Doom is a game about accidentally opening a rift from Hell onto Mars, and the demons that spill out of this schism mirror the spillage of the supernatural into the otherwise physical activity of shooting.

The Heretic and Hexen series, a line of fantasy-themed Doom clones published by Ravensoft within Id's hexen2.jpgDoom engine, moved the mechanic of magic from periphery to the center of the first-person shooter, albeit in the form of re-skinned shooting mechanics. Because the series is heavily influenced by Doom, it also carries over some of Doom's dark aesthetic, resulting in magic that is both darkly themed and wielded against demonic enemies. Hexen is German for "witches" (and, more literally, "casting a spell"), and its gameplay delivers on the experience of spell-casting from a first-person perspective through the use of magical staffs and other items that fling spells when swung. First-person games with magic tend to represent spells as projectiles that release their magical effects on impact with either a character or an environmental object. Spells are often also accompanied by an animation file that represents either the swinging of a melee object or spell gestures such as hand-waving.

The appearance of magic within first-person shooters is an outgrowth of the action-RPG, a hybrid of real-time combat, first-person perspective, and role-playing elements like stat-based character advancement. Ultima Underworld helps solidify this sub-genre, but it comes most strongly into its own in the Elder Scrolls series, particularly the celebrated late installments Morrowind and Oblivion. Action-RPG's are exercises in immersion, eschewing turn-based combat and mouse-driven auto-targeting in favor of aiming melee attacks and spells in real time. Third-person perspective and turn-based combat have tended to dominate RPG's of the last five years, especially MMO's, in part because these games place emphasis on the display of avatars for performance-oriented identity and socialization. Yet, this distancing of player from avatar, in which players peer down over the shoulder of a character rather than seeing through her eyes and gesturing with her hands, puts a gap between spellcaster and spellcasting that can be detrimental to the immersive experience of magic.

In the first-person perspective, players can feel as if they are the ones casting the spells rather than watching someone else cast them. The Elder Scrolls, in addition to its diverse range of spell effects, lets players run, swing swords, and fling fireballs simultaneously. Because this process requires quick thinking and quicker reflexes, it increases the degree of immersion associated with magic, rather than permitting players to simply select a target and then click a row of icons. The Elder Scrolls universe is not predominantly horror-themed, though it does incorporate Lovecraftian elements (such as the mythos-named Daedra Mehrunes Dagon and the R'lyeh-influenced architecture of the Daedric shrines) within a somewhat Gothic world. However, first-person action-RPG's lay the groundwork for full integration of magic systems within a horror-themed FPS, which occurs in the cult classic Realms of the Haunting and Clive Barker's Undying.

Undying is a classic example of a player character whose gameplay abilities entail using the powers of the dark against itself. In Undying, the player takes the role of Patrick Galloway, a scholar of the occult who wields both spells and guns. In terms of gameplay, this story premise allows the player to shoot weapons with one hand and cast spells with the other. Many of the spells in Undying are traditional first-person shooter projectiles with magical particle effects attached, yet even these spells have a Gothic flair. In casting a Skullstorm spell, the player as Galloway pulls shrieking skulls out of graveyard soil and flings them at enemies, with the restriction that the spell can only be cast while standing on soil. Another spell summons and strengthens demons but can be used to cause a human enemy to turn his gun on himself. The Scry spell reveals hidden apparitions and messages. Because Undying's spells actually function as casting effects rather than being dependent on items like magical staffs, they feel less like disguised shooter mechanics and more like a hybrid genre, such as the awkwardly hyphenated horror-themed action-adventure-shooter.

undyingspells.jpgWhile Undying successfully adapts magic to the first-person action-shooter, two other third-person action-adventure examples feature a less graceful integration: Nightmare Creatures and Shadow Man, both of which games are distinctly within the vein of the Soul Reaver series. In Nightmare Creatures, the player can take the role of a priest and scholar of the occult fighting off a cult led by a mad scientist with the suspicious name of Adam Crowley. Magic in this game appears as a metaphor for combat (much as in the later Bayonetta), specifically in the form of staff techniques unleashed through button-based combos, as well as magical effects created by power-ups. In Shadow Man, magic takes the form of voodoo abilities powered through dark souls and artifacts called cadeaux, reinforcing a French and Caribbean-influenced take on the horror-themed action-adventure game. One review wryly refers to Shadow Man as "Resident Mario" in reference to the importance of collecting the gameplay equivalent of coins and stars in order to unlock new areas and powers. As with Hexen, magic in these games plays a heavy part in world, art, and narrative design but is kept at a distance from the game's core mechanics--with a greater distance between world and mechanics in Nightmare Creatures than in Shadow Man.

When the magic system of a horror game does manage to mesh the atmosphere of audio and visuals with an equally rich core mechanic, the results tend to be superb. In Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem, magic (or magick, as the in-game text calls it) constitutes one of the core mechanics of this tremendous cult game, explored through a combinatorial language of runes whose multimodal richness and mythological depth far outstrip most magic systems. Eternal Darkness demonstrates that horror games can teach as much about the atmosphere of magic systems as their mechanics. The runic language of Eternal Darkness owes a debt to Dungeon Master and Ultima Underworld, but the audio of demonic chanting and visual explosions of symbolically-charged color of Eternal Darkness takes the game's magic system to an entirely new level.

Another superb example of magic in a game with horror elements is the masterful Vagrant Story, an RPG with strong survival horror elements, in which magic is the manifestation of a mysterious force called "the dark." Vagrant Story resonates with occult authenticity, since the player acquires spells from grimoires and doors are locked by sigils, both of which terms derive from ceremonial magic. Eschewing the Vancian system of Dungeons and Dragons, each grimoire is a spellbook with one spell which the player acquires permanently as his memories of abilities from a former life return. In a display of shockingly extensive research into kabbalistic and occult thought, several doors in the keep of Lea Monde are labeled with Hebrew letters glowing in symbolic colors.

vagrantstorysymbol.jpgWhile Vagrant Story and Eternal Darkness may eschew the Vancian systems of Dungeons and Dragons, another classic horror writer casts his sublime shadow over both games and horror gaming in general: H.P. Lovecraft. The energizing influence of horror games on magic systems is analogous to the influence exerted by H.P. Lovecraft on Robert E. Howard, resulting in an infusion of Conan's low fantasy with a black dose of the Cthulhu mythos.

To contextualize this analogous influence, it is important to see that the predominant literary source of high fantasy in games is J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. J.R.R. Tolkien's Catholicism led him to downplay the use of magic by his protagonists, resulting in a predominately weak and diluted use of enchantments to harmoniously influence nature. (Gandalf's defiance of the Balrog is an exception, and Sauron's power is an exception that proves the rule by condemning magic as powerful but devastatingly wicked and destructive to self and other). The undeniable influence of Tolkien on fantasy RPG's has perhaps marred the seriousness and atmosphere of these games' magic systems, such that Gary Gygax classified magic in Tolkien's fiction as "generally weak and ineffectual." True to form, the magic system in Lord of the Rings Online can sometimes be a little less than thrilling, since the main casting class of Loremasters are a relatively lukewarm druid/mage hybrid with elemental magic powers and beast pets. (The addition of Runekeepers with electrical shock magic is slightly more intriguing but of dubious relationship to Tolkien's fiction).

In contrast, Robert E. Howard's vision of magic is sufficiently influenced by the Cthulhu mythos to become both darker and more rich than standard high fantasy, suggesting an analogous inspirational power for horror to influence magic systems in games. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard corresponded extensively because of their mutual tendency to publish in Weird Tales. Magic in Howard's stories has a distinctly Lovecraftian eldritch quality, merged with a fascination with Egyptology to produce a vision of sorcery as evil and founded upon dangerous ties with demons. It is this vision of magic that works its way into the black decks of Magic: The Gathering, with their Demonic Tutors who convey knowledge at a price and the Overeager Apprentices whose presumption ends with splatters of their own blood on the walls.

overeagerapprentice.jpgThe magic system in Age of Conan literalizes the analogy between game genre and game fiction through a magic system that is dark and deep in both mechanics and atmosphere. As explained in an interview and confirmed on the Age of Conan site, magic in this MMO is:

1) Dark

2) Dangerous

3) Difficult

As Gaute Godager, the director of the game, explains:

we try to make the visual look and feel of magic in Conan different from what you have seen in other games and the more traditional fantasy settings. The clownlike, fireball-tossing magic users in pointy hats, with puffs and multicolored robes, are not part of the Hyborian universe. In Conan's age, magic is dangerous, hidden, and dark. Men who meddle with magic inevitably fall to its temptation and powers. Magic uses you as much as you use it.

In terms of mechanics, magic in Age of Conan includes a high-level skill called spellweaving, demonologistspellweaving.jpgin which players can combine spells rhythmically in order to produce a meta-spell of devastating proportions. In an E3 demo of this feature, spellweaving was explained as representing the risky aspect of magic "where the magician summons a demon, does something wrong in the spell, and is pulled down into hell." This approach to magic is an attempt to represent within gameplay and audiovisual feedback the skill required to cast spells and the risk in misusing one's skills. Age of Conan drove many players away through a buggy launch and an initial lack of endgame content, but the vision behind this magic system and its larger place with a coherent and stirringly brutal world are unique. They entail a horror-influenced rejection of the cute and superficial approach to magic adopted by many mainstream RPG's and popular fantasy fiction, in favor of a vision of the arcane that is darker and deeper. As Godager explains: we have tried to make magic more "real," in a sense. Manipulation of the natural forces of the world, the summoning of "real" demons from a dark, untold hell, and touch-based shamanistic powers are major parts of our magic system. Yes, there will be magic in many forms, but you should feel the difference when playing this game. You should feel the age of darkness, the weight of history, and the fear of being corrupted when you walk the path of arcane magic. Funcom's upcoming release of The Secret World, a paranormal-conspiracy themed MMO with Lovecraftian elements and a mysterious magic system suggests that they could be on the verge of carrying forward the vision behind Age of Conan with the benefits of a first attempt and a refined Age of Conan engine.

Game genres are convenient categories for talking about features of mechanics and worlds that certain games share. Up to a point, these categories can be useful in refining mechanics, because they allow designers to contrast the varying virtues of the targeting functions in Doom, Call of Duty 4, and Gears of War. When a mechanic becomes wedded in the public consciousness to a particular genre, there is a potential problem of homogeneity, of cookie-cutter conformity. It is then that we as designers need to break up the mold a little bit, to invoke the forces of darkness not out of any ultimate love of evil but a desire to shake our systems out of their complacency. To create an atmosphere of the infernal is to court controversy, to step close to the boundary between occultism and gaming which created such bitter controversy in the 1980's. But this boundary is precisely the fertile ground from which new ideas can emerge. To take one of Godager's statements out of its original gameplay context in Age of Conan and into the realm of design: "the ultimate power comes when you are able to walk the fine line--the one between destruction and creation."

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Magick Systems in Theory and Practice, Installment 3: Schools of Magic

The definition of a magic system introduced in installment one could be sharpened from "any set of rules designed to simulate supernatural powers and abilities" to "any set of rules and symbols designed to simulate the alteration of reality through the will." This definition echoes Crowley's first axiom from Magick in Theory and Practice ("magic is the science and art of causing change to occur in conformity with will"), though it can apply to games without requiring designers to buy into any particular philosophical scheme.  Rather, an appreciation of magic requires only a little reflection on the profound mystery of the will: by deciding to do something, we can make it happen. For example, we focus our will to pick up a glass of water at lunch, and we do pick it up. Magic is an extension of similar taken-for-granted acts of will into a more profound longing: to control not just our immediate surroundings through the direct use of our body, but to shape nature, technology, other human beings, and the spirit world through the force of the will.

hereirule.jpgPerhaps most specifically, the fascination with magic stems from a desire to guide and shape the forces that govern the course of our individual human lives. The exercise of will to create change in life is murky and difficult, thwarted as it often is by forces both internal and external beyond our control. But in games, there is the potential of mastery, of understanding rules and then manipulating them through strategy in order to achieve a desired outcome. "Here I rule" is the marketing slogan of Magic: The Gathering, a declaration often accompanied by depictions of a skinny adolescent smirking confidently while surrounded by the fearsome monsters. As gamers, many of us identify with that sentiment.

As magic systems in games evolve, various forms of alteration of reality become formalized into types or "schools" of magic to categorize the ways in which players can alter a simulated reality. 


As early as 1976, Gary Gygax reflected on the varied possible effects of spells in his article "The D & D Magic System":

Spells do various things, and just what they do is an important consideration, for some order of effect in regard to the game would have to be determined. Magic purports to have these sorts of effects: 1) the alteration of existing substance (including its transposition or dissolution); 2) the creation of new substance; 3) the changing of normal functions of mind and/or body; 4) the addition of new functions to mind and/or body; 5) summon and/or command existing entities; and 6) create new entities. In considering these functions, comparatively weak and strong spells could be devised from any one of the six. Knowing the parameters within which the work was to be done then enabled the creation of the system.

Schools of magic evolve through the history of first-generation CRPG's such as The Bard's Tale and Wizardry until they solidify into a fairly uniform set of spell effects, with variations in individual spell possibilities from game to game. For example, the classic Bard's Tale (1985) divides magic into four schools: conjuring (damage and production of magical items), sorcery (illusion), magic (lingering spell effects), and wizardry (summoning creatures). As a relatively recent culmination of basic RPG magic schools (and of the single-player Western RPG generally), The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (2006) offers a strong contemporary baseline for the possibilties of spell effects. Like Oblivion as a whole, the magic system is smoothly implemented and richly complex, if firmly grounded in the history of RPG's and not particularly original.

Oblivion features six schools: Destruction (damage), Alteration (buffing), Illusion (sensory deceptions like invisibility and silence), Conjuration (summoning creatures, especially daedra), Restoration (healing), and Mysticism (harnessing unusual telekinetic effects and the ability to detect life by lighting up all living creatures on the map). The fascination of the school of mysticism in Oblivion suggests that magic systems can be most interesting from a gameplay perspective when they incorporate as many of the game's mechanics and systems as possible, rather than restricting themselves to combat or character statistics. This extension of magic beyond combat and healing (or its enmeshment with more sophisticated combat systems) requires clever programming to implement.

Based on a historical consideration of magic systems, common schools of magic, present in almost any RPG, include:

• Damage;

• Healing;

• Buffing (raising stats of character or item);

• Summoning;

Less common schools include:

 • Telekinesis;

 • Architecture (opening, closing, moving, building);

 • Sight (or insight);

 • Teleportation (especially interdimensional);

 • Mapping and navigation;

 • Illusion and dispelling illusion;

One problem with magic systems, especially those focused on damage and healing, is a tendency to rely on a simplistic cosmology based on the four classical elements of the ancient Greeks (earth, air, water, and fire). MMO's abound in fire and ice mages, as well as an endless parade of wizards, druids, and shamans who manipulate the powers of the four elements. Even obscure cult classics lauded by their devotees for innovative customizable spell systems (such as Magic and Mayhem: The Art of Magic [2001] and The Dawn of Magic [2005]) end up falling back on combinations of the four elements, sometimes with light and darkness or chaos and order thrown in for good measure. While this cosmology can result in many flashy damage spells with stunning particle effects and explosions, it is a reduction of human experience that soon seems routine rather than enchanted. The experience of fire and water are certainly primal and compelling, as anyone who has witnessed a forest blaze or an ocean tempest can attest. Yet, both in day to day life and the furthest flights of our imaginations, we do more than admire campfires and swim; consequently, in simulated magic we should do more than throw fireballs and iceblasts.

In contrast to this simplification of reality down to four physical elements, schools of magic eventually evolve into or intersect with a larger cosmological ambition of mapping out reality. Pragmatic considerations of how to simulate alterations of reality leads to philosophical reflection on what aspects of reality can be altered, resulting in a kind of metaphysical taxonomy.

To display these abstract concepts in ways that are easily graspable for use in gameplay, designers often assign symbolic colors to schools of magic.
Examples include:

• The color pie in Magic: The Gathering (1993);



magiccolorpie.jpg• The eight winds of magic in Warhammer (both tabletop[1987] and online[2008]);


warhammerwindsofmagic.jpg • In Eternal Darkness (2002), the colors associated with the runic magick of the three Ancients (as well as a hidden purple rune, and an implied yellow school of magick discussed by Denis Dyack in The Escapist)


 • The colors of magic corresponding to the spheres of magic in Mage: The Ascension (1993) 1. Correspondence: Purple 2. Life: Red 3. Prime: White 4. Entropy: Indigo 5. Matter: Brown 6. Spirit: Gold 7. Forces: Orange 8. Mind: Blue 9. Time: Green


• The nine colored pillars of Nosgoth in Blood Omen: The Legacy of Kain (1996) and their associated spheres of "Death, Conflict, States, Energy, Time, Dimension, Nature, Mind, and Balance"


pillarsofnosgoth3.jpgIn all of these examples, the cosmology simulated or implied by the schools of magic substantially richer and more complex than the four elements or the opposition of law and chaos. Symbolic color also resonates with a deep-seated human association between mood and color (which results in entire design classes on color theory), as well as occultist tendency to assign esoteric meaning to color (as in the King and Queen scales of the Golden Dawn and their display in tarot as well as the Rosicrucian-inspired Vault of the Adepti).

vaultoftheadepti.jpgThe metaphysical taxonomy of reality in magic systems occurs to varying degrees of depth, ranging from flavor text in small or large amounts [the backs of Magic: The Gathering cards exemplify short flavor text, while the codexes/codices in Dragon Age contain more elaborate philosophical ruminations] to deep integration with gameplay. As such, these metaphysical mappings of reality tend resemble both tarot and kabbalistic mappings of the universe in the tree of life, which in the Golden Dawn system has many associated attributions of colors, tarot cards, and other elements.

At this point, magic begins to intersect with planar lore: specifically, the idea of a multiverse with many different dimensions or planes, a notion derived from many realms of mysticism, including the Theosophic lore of Madam Blavatsky (in which the particular term "plane" gains popularity). (As for multiverse, the word shows up in the philosophical writings of Henry James and is later popularized in the Eternal Champion saga of Michael Moorcock). The first meeting of the planes and magic appear in Dungeons and Dragons supplements, such as The Manual of the Planes (1987) and the Planescape campaign. The principle of planar magic is that "belief and imagination rule the multiverse," so that one's philosophical outlook can directly shape physical reality if those beliefs are held with sufficient strength. The planar cosmology results in a radial diagram called the Great Wheel, whose dimensions do correlate with the various alignment possibilities of the D & D moral universe. While the permutations of "lawful," "chaotic," "good," "evil," and "neutral" are in their own way as limited as the four elements, the factions of Planescape are philosophically nuanced and sophisticated, representing the dense concepts of solipsism (the Sign of One) and anarchism (the Xaosects).

great-wheel.jpgSimilarly, in Magic: The Gathering, dueling magicians called Planeswalkers gain their different colors of mana from multiple planes of existence in the multiverse. Magic's colors bear a superficial relation to three out of the four elements (red = fire, green = earth, blue = water). Yet, the five colors of mana represent a more abstract and nuanced set of human experiences. According to the official released color pie and the official site of Magic, the following color correspondences apply:

 • Red = chaos and impulse

• Green = life and growth

• Blue = deception, calculation, and illusion

• Black = ambition and power

• White = order and justice

Magic: The Gathering is relatively unique in that its multi-colored schools of magic manifest primarily through gameplay and are only reinforced through flavor text and images.  For example, as the school of ambition and control, black magic entails seeking mastery of the game at any cost, resulting in a mechanic of sacrifice in which black strategically gives up any resource (creatures, mana, life points, graveyard cards) in order to gain an advantage. As the school of freedom and impulse, red magic involves a mechanic of quickly doing damage that either gains a decisive advantage early or loses within a few rounds.

Passing beyond the colored schools of magic is the dark, often forbidden school of blood kaedesmithbloodmagic.pngmagic, which appears in many games as one example of how to push outside the constraints of elemental damage and law versus chaos cosmology. Blood Magic often shows up in horror-themed games, sometimes vampiric and at other times simply Gothic. All of the magic in Vampire the Masquerade: Redemption (2000) involves ghoulish varieties of blood magic, as does the similarly-themed Gothic vampire game Blood Omen: The Legacy of Kain (1996). Blood Magic also shows up as a hidden school in Dragon Age. In each case, blood magic involves especially gory and disturbing varieties of RPG gameplay, ranging from gory damage and restoration spells to mental manipulation powered by human sacrifice.

However, the two most striking implementations of blood magic appear in the cult Killer7 and the horror-themed squad-based shooter, Jericho (2007). In Killer7, Kaede Smith, a svelte and ferocious beauty with a Gothic pallor, slits her own arms to release a spray of blood, which is then channeled by a phantom bondage queen in order to dissolve barriers. Kaede Smith's blood magic opens barriers, both literal and metaphorical, by using her trauma to see beyond the apparently solid limitations of the physical world as experienced by the other six assassin personalities. The metaphorical element of breaking through barriers is more strongly highlighted in a game that foregrounds its own preoccupation with transcendent insight through imagery of a third eye, including a health meter on the HUD which is itself a gradually opening and closing eye.  (In Killer7, blood magic is part of a larger (and highly taboo) thematic preoccupation with disability and sadomasochism. Harman Smith, an assassin whose participation in a game of cosmic chess borders on godlike, is also a wheelchair-bound masochist who alternates dispensation of Zen-like wisdom with dominatrix sessions at the hands of young woman doubling as his maid.)

A similar character appears in Clive Barker's Jericho in the form of Billie Church, a Blood Mage. Jericho is an enjoyably horrific game whose squad-based AI is somewhat broken, but this one element of magic in its paranormal squad-based arsenal is powerfully successful. Billie is a lapsed Southern Baptist, abused by her father and institutionalized in an insane asylum, where demons carved biblical verses into her flesh. In gameplay, she uses her katana to carve glyphs in her arms, which then explode into tendrils and bulbs of blood, enwrapping and immobilizing enemies, who can then be sliced to ribbons or blown to bits. Like Kaede Smith, Billie makes a sacrifice of her most precious life fluid for insight, in a maneuver that Barker calls (in other contexts) "using the wound"--a deliberate exploitation of debilitation and trauma as paradoxical means of shamanic enlightenment.

billiechurchbloodmagic.jpgBarker's use of blood magic parallels his own attempts as a designer to expand and deepen the variety of spell effects, seen perhaps more effectively in the cult horror classic FPS Undying (2001). Undying features a scry spell that allows players to see beyond the veil into hidden sights, such as apparitions and messages scrawled in blood. As Barker memorably and humorously explains:

Undying is about being smarter, faster, cleverer, and a better magician than a gunslinger. It's about magic. The idea of scrying--seeing things you normally can't see--is very interesting. Much more interesting than a f_g big gun. We've seen that stuff before. I think that's had its day. I think as the new millennium has dawned, we are in a different kind of space. We think more spiritually, we think more about magic and transformation. We think more about the self rather than how many guns we can muster. I'm not saying that Undying is a metaphysical treatise, but its heart is not in the big gun territory.

The presence of innovative spells in games like Undying and Killer7 suggests that in order to expand the diversity of useful spell effects and schools of magic, we need to look outside of the RPG genre into other genres that sometimes simulate magic, like survival horror, first-person shooters, strategy games, and action-adventure games.

Game genre shapes game world, which dictates the affordances and limitations of spellcasting, i.e. what is possible in magic and what is useful. In next week's installment, I will examine some of these game genres, with particular attention to magic and horror, and what they have to teach us as designers of magic systems.

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Magick Systems in Theory and Practice: Installment One

I am pleased to introduce Jeff Howard, The Gameshelf’s first guest blogger.

Jeff is Assistant Professor of Game Development and Design at Dakota State University in Madison, South Dakota. He is the author of
Quests: Design, Theory, and History in Games and Narratives. He received his B.A. from the University of Tulsa and his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin. He is currently working on a game-in-progress, Arcana Manor, and related research about magic systems.

He plans on writing about games and magic over the next couple of months here, starting with this post. Enjoy! —jmac


A magic system is any set of symbols and rules designed to rigorously simulate supernatural powers and abilities. Magic is pervasive as a game mechanic and fictional construct within games, spanning across genres (RPG, MMORPG, adventure game, action-adventure, fighter, survival horror) and decades (from the 1974 first edition of Dungeons and Dragons to World of Warcraft and beyond).

Magic is part of the very nature of why people play games: to simulate abilities that they do not possess in real life; to escape from the prison of the mundane to the realm of enchanted; to weave the chaotic forces of life into a rule-bound system that can be understood and, at least partially, controlled.

The problem is that many magic systems aren’t very magical. RPG’s, both multiplayer and single player, have the same shortcoming: players press a button on a tray of icons, then watch an animation fire, followed by a cooldown period, after which players press the same button again. This process of spamming a hotkey button or two, cued to one’s most powerful spells, doesn’t feel like magic.

Magic, as depicted in fantasy literature and occult tradition alike, is a complex and arcane art comprised of gestures and words, as well as ingredients carefully combined with ritualistic artifacts in order to draw away the veil between the natural and supernatural worlds. So, the question emerges: how could designers put the magic back into magic systems?


The solution is a two-pronged approach of game archeology, locating and analyzing the most innovative magic systems in games, and investigating the actual occult systems that can provide inspiration for game designers.

An analysis of magic systems from a game historical perspective is useful in order to locate games which have featured spell-casting methods that are more immersive and richly meaningful than the average RPG. Game interfaces and mechanics tend to become homogenous over time due to familiarity and a desire to create low learning curves for designers and players alike. However, there are many hidden gems from throughout the history of magic systems which occur either before the standard row of spell icons becomes well established or which work in deliberate opposition to this way of casting spells.

While careful examination of game history can help re-energize magic systems from a formal and aesthetic perspective, depth of gameplay may require reaching outside of videogames and into the human ritual practices and metaphysical symbolism often referred to as the occult. In this context, occultism includes many mythological and ritualistic traditions, including Western ceremonial magic as well as tarot and voodoo, characterized by an attempt to conjure and control metaphysical forces. Game designers have tended to shy away from talking about the metaphysical aspect of magic systems because of the attack on Dungeons and Dragons in the 1980’s by fundamentalist Christian groups due to its perceived occult content or ritualistic nature. Yet, because rituals are intended to be practiced rather than merely observed or read about, ceremonial tradition is often systematically organized in a way that lends itself to being implemented digitally and interactively.

As both historical examples and cases of confluence between gaming and metaphysical magic systems, there have been many innovative games featuring magical grammars, usually in the form of runes or symbols that can be combined to create spells. The word grimoire comes from the Middle English grammarye, which means grammar, as in a set of syntactical rules for combining words into well-formed sentences. A grammar can also refer to a book containing these linguistic rules. The etymological connection between grimoire and grammar comes from a medieval distrust of learning whereby any schoolmaster carrying a grammatical handbook was perceived by the illiterate as a potential warlock. At the same time, grimoires resemble grammars because grimoires contain the meaning of elaborate symbols and sigils as well as rules for combining these symbols in order to produce magical effects through ritual.


Rituals are complex multi-sensory productions involving the rule-based combination of gestures (tracing sigils), objects (wands and chalices), spatial configurations (temples and magic circles), auditory elements (chanting and music), and scents (incense). Such symbols are combined according to the principle of correspondences, by which elements stand by association for other elements. The literature of ceremonial magic is rife with tables of corresponding Tarot cards, Hebrew letters, astrological signs, musical notes, precious gems, and innumerable other elements. Such books include Aleister Crowley’s Liber 777 and its more recent expansion as Stephen Skinner’s Complete Magician’s Tables. The correspondences tabulated within these books are regarded by practitioners as deeply meaningful and intended to encode insights about the metaphysical structure of the universe (often by way of the kabbalistic tree of life, whose branches or sephiroth have lent their name to one famous RPG villain).

magician's tables.jpg

Magicians express meaning in ritual through performative and participatory action, requiring the active involvement of magical practitioners with an understanding of its rules and symbol systems. As such, ceremonial magic is a precursor and analogue to games as interactive multimedia. Because these multimedia performances are intended to accomplish pragmatic or spiritual work, ritual in ceremonial magic is often referred to as a working or, in more modern English, an operation. Both these words were frequently used by occultist Aleister Crowley and, later, by graphic novelist Alan Moore to refer to his spiritually-purposed multimedia performances. The words working and operation also hearken to the tradition of opera (Italian for work), so named because the synergy of music, poetry, theatrical sets, and costuming is a work of art that is greater than the sum of its parts. The most superb magic systems and the games of which they are a part aspire toward the condition of opera, as in the magnificent cohesion of Demon’s Souls. Indeed, scholars such as Marie-Laure Ryan regard Richard Wagner’s imagined synaesthetic and fourth-wall-shattering future opera, called gesamundwerkt (German for “total art work”), as a foreshadowing of interactive multimedia.

Unfortunately, games rarely take full advantage of this potential for multimedia input or feedback, instead restricting players to mouse or gamepad input accompanied by primarily auditory and visual feedback with a minor amount of haptics. However, the increasing prevalence of alternative input methods like the Wiimote and the upcoming Kinect affords multiple opportunities for multimodal input that more closely simulate magic as a subtle art of multimodal ritual. Moreover, the history of magic systems offers multiple examples of games that allow players to cast spells using combinatorial grammars, alternative input methods, and sometimes a combination of grammar and alternative control scheme. By studying and understanding magic systems with these traits, designers and students of game design can imitate and improve upon their best features within new technological contexts.

In terms of combinatorial grammars with metaphysically meaningful correspondences, the highest example may be Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, a horror game in which players cast spells by placing runes along the points of geometric figures in order to express a given spell’s meaning. For example, the combination of “protect,” “self,” and “intensify” would create a buffing magical armor spell at a level of power influenced by the number of intensification runes (“pargon”) placed at the end of the spell. Moreover, players cast each spell under the aspect of three alignment runes that correspond to Lovecraftian Ancients, each of which is in turn associated with a color that stands for a principle of humanity (body, mind, and sanity). These three Ancients and their associated runes and colors trump each other in a rock-paper-scissors mechanic at the game’s heart, which players manipulate by imbuing weapons and protective spells with a particular color of magic designed to overcome monsters of the opposed (and weaker) color. Spells in Eternal Darkness are philosophical propositions with narrative context and magical force: for example, X’elatoth’s green rune trumps Chatturgah’s red rune because the dissolution of sanity erodes the body, an outcome that can be enacted mythologically in the winning ending of a play-through in which the enemy boss aligns himself with X’elatoth.


This particular lineage of games with combinatorial grammars, of which Eternal Darkness is a high point, starts with an early first-person dungeon crawling RPG Dungeon Master, in which players combined strings of runes in order to cast spells. These runes allow for the discovery of new spells through trial-and-error experimentation, enacted in real-time combat that adds both a cerebral and a dexterity-based challenge to the system. Despite these technical innovations, Dungeon Master lacked an overarching meaning to its systems beyond flavor text within the game’s manual.

dungeon_master_large.jpgUltima Underworld I and Ultima Underworld II extend the lineage of Dungeon Master, in which players collect rune stones in order to piece together, through trial and error, spells governed by a magical grammar. This magic system has precedents in the virtue system of Britannia, based on a set of correspondences between three principles of Truth, Love, and Courage and their combinations to form eight virtues, each of was attributed to a dungeon, a town, a character class, and a color based on permutations of three primary tints. The magic system of the early Ultima games was, to a limited extent, based on runes and syllables typed in a text parser, as well as the combination of alchemical reagents. However, Ultima Underworld added a grammatically based combinatorial system as well as a first-person interface hearkening back to Dungeon Master. The occurrence of first-person interfaces with grammatically-based magic systems suggests that both features serve the larger goal of immersion—allowing the player to actively take the role of spell-caster through the mechanic of combining magic words and the visual perspective from the eyes of the caster.


These twin features of magical grammar and first-person interface gain the third element of a gestural interface to form a triad of immersive magic-casting in Arx Fatalis, a dungeon crawl by Arkane studios originally pitched as the third Ultima Underworld, in which players cast spells by tracing combinations of runes in the air with colored light.


(This method of spell-casting resembles and may originate within certain occultist traditions, such as the Lesser Ritual of the Pentagram of the Order of the Golden Dawn, in which ceremonial magicians traced combinations of pentagrams in various configurations and with appropriate implements in order to banish or invoke spiritual presences.)


A more immersive but less combinatorial approach appears in Black and White, Peter Molyneux’s famed strategy game, which deliberately eliminates a heads-up display or HUD in order to allow players godlike control over a disembodied hand that traces symbols over its domain in order to cast miracles. Molyneux’s game is sometimes referred to as the first gestural interface, in part because a later patch enabled players to control gestures with a P5 Virtual Reality glove, adding another level of physical immersion.


Next week’s installment of this blog series will discuss gestural magic systems and other related forms of controlling spells through multimodal input, including some discussion of a game I am currently developing to put these ideas into practice.

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Eternal Darkness 2 Highly Unlikely

Eternal DarknessEven after ending their contract with Nintendo, Silicon Knights CEO, Denis Dyack is still asked if there are any plans for a sequel to Eternal Darkness. His answers regarding sequels have been strongly misinterpreted and there are many rumors being made without any basis at all.

“I am most often asked if we have sequels in mind for Eternal Darkness. The answer is absolutely yes.”

- Denis Dyack, Silicon Knights Blog, July 06, 2006

This does not mean there are fragments of Eternal Darkness 2 code and media hidden in their offices. It means they have ideas for a sequel if they ever had a chance to make one.

Although Eternal Darkness did not sell very well, it is well known for inventing “video game insanity”, literally. As the player progresses through the game, there is a sanity meter in addition to the common health and mana meters. The lower the sanity meter lowers, the more distorted the gameplay becomes. This can happen in various ways:

  • The camera tilts at an odd angle
  • Sounds of people screaming and crying loudly
  • Walls bleeding
  • Statue heads turn towards the player as they walk
  • The sound of loud knocking on doors
  • The screen turns black with the word “VIDEO” on the top-right corner as if the GameCube was turned off. The sound of your character being attacked can be heard in the background.
  • After saving a game, it will ask “Would you like to erase all data?” and will appear to erase the data no matter what was chosen.
  • The player will be attacked by monsters and the message “Please reconnect your GameCube controller” will appear at the bottom.
  • The game will pretend to crash and display the infamous “blue screen of death”
  • All doors in the room will be locked, making the player think they are trapped in the level.
  • Insects will appear to be crawling on the television screen.
  • The game will suddenly end with the message that “Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Redemption” will be coming out soon. This does not mean a sequel will be made!

AnthonyThere are many effects, and after some of these effects, everything will go back to normal (or more normal) with the player’s character screaming, “This can’t be happening”. The player can also recover sanity by performing finishing moves on monsters and casting recovery spells. The player’s health starts to drain after sanity reaches zero. I admit that there were times when I intentionally lowered my sanity just to see how many effects I can encounter. It was this method of messing with the player’s mind that gave it good reviews. It was weird enough to stop and think about what just happened, entertaining enough to find more effects and happens occasionally enough to make it hard to tell when it will happen next. It is a freaky game with a deep story and amazing audio. In addition, Eternal Darkness is the first mature rated game ever published by Nintendo.

Whenever a game is published by Nintendo, they own certain portions of the game, while Silicon Knights own other portions such as the characters themselves. The sanity system has also been patented (no. 6,935,954). The inventors are Henri Sterchi and Denis Dyack of Silicon Knights and Edward Ridgeway of Nintendo. It is because of this patent which stopped other developers from ripping off the sanity system for other games. In addition, it has never been made clear whether Eternal Darkness is an intellectual property owned by Silicon Knights or Nintendo.

“It’s not time to even talk about those other kinds of things for various different reasons. Nintendo, who’s still our silent partner, a lot of people don’t know that. We have a great relationship with those guys, and it’s not time to talk about Eternal Darkness 2.”

“It’s a complicated question with a complicated answer and we’re not answering the question.”

- Denis Dyack, Interview with Joystiq

Alexandra RoivasNintendo still owns stock of Silicon Knights, even though they have nothing to do with any of their current projects such as the Too Human trilogy. In addition, it has never been made clear why Silicon Knights did not renew their contract with Nintendo after developing only two games with them: Eternal Darkness and Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes.

Denis Dyack also stated that they want to make different types of games without being stuck in a single genre. He said that there is plenty of “undiscovered country”, with ideas that have not been quite explored yet. Dyack also made a very fascinating comparison between the video game and movie industry and stated that the major publishers are merging together to become larger and make fewer and better movies to make higher profits. Of the hundreds of games released last year, it is impossible to review each one and make a profit off each one as well. Video game publishers are also echoing this, with Activision Blizzard being an example of this.

However, I believe that Steam, WiiWare, Xbox Live Arcade, and the PlayStation Network make it possible for smaller developers to continue selling their games. Unfortunately, this does not make the process of pitching an idea any easier.

Denis DyackIn conclusion, there is no strong evidence that shows that we will be seeing an Eternal Darkness sequel anytime soon. With the legal barriers and the need for confidentiality, Denis Dyack does not have any other answers other than the fact that it is “complicated”. Even though I never finished Eternal Darkness, I would love to play a sequel should it ever get developed someday. Until then, Silicon Knights has a lot of work ahead of them with the Too Human trilogy and a bunch of unknown games they will be working on in between. These unknown games will be different from their other games in every way, in genre, gameplay, appearance, plot, etc. They have made many achievements with their games and working with Microsoft and Nintendo and did a great job of placing Canada on the map for game developers. The only person we can trust in regards to an Eternal Darkness sequel is Denis Dyack.

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