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Magick Systems in Theory and Practice, Installment 2: Word and Gesture as Input Methods in Gaming History

Gestural input is to some extent inherent in the language of magic, as seen in the phrases to "cast a spell" and to "weave an enchantment." The fantasy of weaving magic can be vividly seen on the cover of LucasArt's Loom (1990), in which two hands weave a glowing cat's cradle out of multi-colored light. (While Loom lacked any kind of gestural interface, its unique mode of musical spellcasting and melodic feedback will figure heavily into a later blog entry on multimodal feedback and audio magic.) Gesture is also an integral part of occultist approaches to magic, ranging from the pentagrams and hexagrams traced in the rituals of the Golden Dawn and Thelemic magick, the sigils drawn by Austin Osman Spare and Buddhist kuji-in mudras later adapted in the ninja-themed anime series Naruto.

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Closely related to the idea of gestural magic is the verbal component of spell-casting, which appears in colloquial speech as a magic word. From David Copperfield to Harry Potter and the 2010 Sorcerer's Apprentice remake, the image of a wizard waving a wand and intoning a word in order to release a powerful magic spell pervades public consciousness of enchantment. Magic words are a direct extension of the arcane grammars that govern ritual and the combinatorial systems of runic languages discussed in the first installment of this blog series. Voice recognition software, now a standard part of Windows and readily available in more precise programs such as Dragon NaturallySpeaking, could heighten the immersive possibilities of incantation as a spellcasting method.

abracadabra.gifGestural input, in which players use a variety of input devices to trace symbols or fashion other secret signs with hands and body, is also especially relevant from a technological perspective after the 2010 E3 unveiling of Microsoft's Kinect (formerly project Natal) and the Playstation Move. These devices offer new levels of motion sensing technology, in addition to existing alternative input methods in the Wiimote and Wiimotion Plus, the Playstation Eye, and the force-feedback controls offered by the Novint Falcon. Each technology could be leveraged for new methods of casting spells, provided that designers can break out of the prevailing tray-of-icons approach to magic represented in many popular RPG's.

Envisioning the most creative use of new gestural and verbal technologies requires, paradoxically, an enterprise of game archeology, looking back into the history of games with magic in a search for hidden gems of unusual interfaces and input methods. Retro gaming and scholarship of retro games can offer a perspective on magic systems before they hardened into a single mold and became homogenized by marketing and ease of use or implementation.

Magic systems in modern gaming begin with early tabletop role-playing. Gary Gygax, in the "The Dungeons and Dragons Magic System," explains that there are four components to spells in his system: somatic, verbal, material, and psychological (which he reduces to mnemonic). In this article and another entitled "Jack Vance and the D&D Game," Gygax also refers to this system as "Vancian" because of Jack Vance's "Dying Earth" fantasy book series, in which magicians memorize a limited number of spells and trigger them through a gesture and word, after which the spells are promptly forgotten and must be re-memorized. The verbal component takes predominance in D & D because tabletop role-playing games are played verbally, through conversational exchange between players and DM. Other elements seem to be thought of by Gygax as present for the purpose of game balance, as when he implies that the gestural system ensures that a magician couldn't cast a spell if he were wrapped in webs or that a magic mouth couldn't be used to cast spells by proxy.

dungeonmaster.jpgThe verbal component of magic is a powerful fantasy and a metaphor for the way that language can shape the human understanding of reality. When a stage magician speaks "abracadabra" and waves a wand in order to conjure a rabbit from a hat, the magician is tapping into a primal fantasy of ultimate power: we have only to speak, and our words will have an immediate physical effect. This belief in the mystical power of language is also the impulse behind the elaborate meditations on letter and word that constitute the esoteric system of the kabbalah.


The problem with the verbal component of magic as enacted within tabletop role-playing is that this component is not performative, or rather it is performative only one step removed from gameplay. The player says "I am casting a spell," and it is understood that the player-character is reciting a complex incantation that was memorized from a spellbook. However, the player never utters the incantation (or makes the gesture or handles the ingredients). He only declares that he is going to do so: a speech act that is accepted or rejected by the Dungeon Master and other players if it conforms to the game's rules. (A later tabletop role-playing game, Ars Magica (1987), actually does require players to master a Latinate grammar in order to cast spells, though this magical grammar appears in tabletop games only after similar systems appear in computer RPG's like Dungeon Master).

Missing from tabletop RPG's is the element of simulation provided by computers, the feeling of performing magic within a multimedia environment designed to reinforce that fantasy rather than merely announcing that one is casting a spell and relying on the shared imagination of one's comrades. Early attempts at simulating magic in computer games relied heavily on a verbal component, but of a different kind derived from player interaction with a text parser.

256px-Enchanter_game_box_cover.jpgBy introducing the text parser with its underlying grammar, game designers begin to address another problem with the Vancian system, in which magic is rote: a litany, a pre-memorized recitation or a single word. If magicians study for years, and if their magic is an arcane art known only by a few, then where is the skill or art of memorizing a pre-defined speech? Those who have mastered an art or a science understand its underlying principles well enough to be able to apply them spontaneously. Fluency in a language entails a mastery of its vocabulary and underlying grammar such that the speaker can produce new utterances rather than merely copying those heard before. Indeed, the generative nature of grammar allows speakers to express ideas never envisioned by those who originally developed and codified the language. If magic is a grammar, then mastery of that grammar is displayed through the ability to adapt its structures to novel situations. The text parsers of interactive fiction were in some ways well adapted toward inviting such grammatical interactions; indeed, an interactive fiction is in part an object-oriented simulation explorable through exchanges governed by the rules of grammar. The text parser of Colossal Cave Adventure accepts the famed magic word XYZZY, thereby allowing players to experience the verbal component of magic as a simulation, albeit a simple one.

 Infocom's Spellbreaker trilogy, consisting of Enchanter, Sorcerer, and Spellbreaker, entails a magical grammar, in which spells are verbs that take direct objects, allowing players to type "frotz stone" to make a stone glow or "blorb chest" to open this locked container. Frotz and Blorb are names for, respectively, an interactive fiction interpreter and a wrapper for multimedia elements. While amusing, this application of the names of in-game spells to the programming and technology outside of and supporting the game also suggests a powerful relationship between programming and the verbal grammars of magic. Simply put, programmers and magicians both master a grammar in order to make things happen. Both hackers and wizards achieve this alteration of reality, whether simulated or real, through an arcane set of words and phrases known as programs or spells. When properly configured, a program causes amazing events to occur (calculates our taxes, launches an anti-missile defense system, summons a longed-for package from Amazon.com to our doorstep), just as magicians can throw fireballs and (when very powerful) grant wishes. However, when the programmer makes the slightest error in the placement of a semicolon or case sensitivity, the program won't compile, much as a spell fizzles.

In the case of the Spellbreaker trilogy, the games' designers consciously drew upon these parallels between magic and programming As Wikipedia explains "There are references scattered throughout Enchanter's documentation and gameplay comparing the use of spells by mages to the use of command line interfaces by programmers, and comparing mages to hackers in general. Many of the spell names, such as FROTZ and GNUSTO, are taken from MIT hacker slang of the time" (Wikipedia "Enchanter" ). There is a strong element of meta-magic and self-referentiality in this spell system, since the magic used to attain supernatural result within the game is patterned on the very methods used to create the game itself. Other text-based magic systems include the early Ultima games, such as Ultima IV , in which players type the names of spells into text parsers. Players also control a text-based inventory of spell elements, called reagents, which they mix in the correction proportion in order to alchemically prepare a spell.

Though these text-based magic systems are fascinating, they leave out a sense of visual interaction and movement.  When we imagine a magician casting a spell, we see him waving his hands in complex patterns while bolts of electricity arc from his hands. It is here that the intersection of grammar and gesture occurs. While Black and White (2001) may be the first gestural interface used for magic, the designers of The Summoning (1993) attempted to simulate gestural spellcasting through a set of hand gestures that could be combined to store spells. These hand gestures resemble the finger alphabet of American Sign Language, as well as the magical gestures made by Aleister Crowley or the kuji-in.

aleister-crowleygestures.jpg This form of spell-casting involves an implicit pun on the two meanings of "spell" as in "incantation with magical force" and "to form a word out of letters." If a grimoire is etymologically and conceptually linked to a magical grammar, then it makes sense that spells themselves consist of an alphabet, rendered gesturally to emphasize its performativity and multi-modality. Players of The Summoning arrange graphical representations of hand gestures onto a tray, much as players of Ultima Underworld concatenate runes. Indeed, The Summoning combines a system of hand gestures with a set of collectable rune stones, partially in acknowledgement that the possibility of actual physical hand-gestures on the part of the user was technologically out of reach in 1993 (in part due to the imprecision of alternative controllers like Nintendo's 1989 Powerglove).

summoninggestures2.jpg summoninggestures.jpgThe first true gestural interfaces for spell-casting are mouse-driven and operate around the metaphors of painting and drawing. Such elements are common to occultist practice, as in the rituals of the pentagram and hexagram in the Golden Dawn and Thelemic magic. In these rituals, magicians use ritual implements like wands and daggers to trace five and six-pointed stars whose points have elemental or planetary correspondences. The starting and ending points of the geometrical figures determine whether the sign banishes or invokes, as well as what elements are specifically called up or driven away.


pentagramritual.gifSimilarly, players trace such geometric forms, including pentagrams, using the hand that constitutes the HUD-less interface of Black and White (2001), in order to perform miracles. Black and White featured a patch allowing use of the P5 Virtual Reality glove, which can be used to control the computer's mouse as well many games through GlovePie, freeware created by Carl Kenner. The use of a hand to control a hand-shaped cursor in a game without a HUD added to the sense of immersion in spell-casting by removing any barrier between player and game.

blackandwhitepentagram.jpgDrawing as a spellcasting mechanic can also potentially be used in any game with sigils, although this element is often removed from gameplay and used as mere decoration. Sigils, illustrated in grimoires such as The Lesser Key of Solomon the King, are elaborate signs or seals, often inscribed with cryptic geometric designs and the names of angels and demons. Grimoires teach aspiring magicians to draw sigils on the ground in order to ward off or contain spirits. Conjurers could also inscribe sigils on amulets in order to create talismans consecrated to spirits and elemental forces.

solomonsigil.jpgSigils and the grimoires containing them have played a role in the story and art design of many magic systems, including Vagrant Story (2000) and World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King. Common artistic practice involves arcane symbols that glow and spin beneath the caster during spell-casting, as seen in Neverwinter Nights and World of Warcraft. Voices chanting ominous symbols often appear during this casting phase, but players are rarely able to interact with them. Chanting and sigil-drawing are cosmetic features designed to reinforce an enchantment mood but divorced from player interaction; in all too many RPG's, voice and drawing are neither input methods affecting the spell that is cast nor feedback mechanisms to reinforce how it is cast. The removal of sigils from input or feedback squanders their potential as gameplay mechanicisms and runs directly contrary to their role in magical lore, in which magicians learn to draw sigils for direct practical ends.

For example, the process of "sigilization" formulated by visual artist and magician Austin Osman Spare entailed an "alphabet of desire" designed to encode and give magical force to the magician's deepest longings. Spare's dual identity as a painter and a magician highlights a potential relationship between magic and the visual arts that could be capitalized on with any PC or console that has drawing capabilities, including tablet PC's, the Nintendo DS or 3DS, and the Wii. For example, drawing and painting become a game mechanic and visual trope in the magnificent Okami, in which the player uses a magical calligraphy brush to alter reality within a world that constitutes a living Japanese painting. okamipen.jpgUsing one's magic pen to fill in the gaps in a bridge can mend the wood to allow passage, just as painting the barren branches of a tree can cause it to blossom with fruit. Dawn of Sorrow, an iteration of Castlevania for the Nintendo DS, also requires players to inscribe seals using the DS stylus in order to defeat bosses, which otherwise regain strength and resurrect themselves. dawnofsorrowseal.jpg

Magic as a hybrid of writing and painting opens many possibilities of multimodal input and feedback with cosmological significance, seen most vividly in the use of symbolic color to represent schools and varieties of magic. These subjects and others will be discussed in the third installment of this blog series next Wednesday.

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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

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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?

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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(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.)

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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.

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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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