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Magick Systems in Theory and Practice, Installment 8: Conclusion

First, I'd like to say thanks to Jason McIntosh, Kevin Jackson-Mead, and Andrew Plotkin for the opportunity to write this series; it's been extremely useful to have a forum for clarifying my own ideas on magic systems. I'd also like to thank everyone who read and commented on each blog entry. Your feedback has been very helpful, often bringing new games to my attention as well as offering helpful insights into existing games and concepts. When Jason and Kevin first mentioned the idea of guest-blogging on the Gameshelf, we agreed that a limited duration of a couple months made the most sense, in part so that other guest bloggers can carry forward the mission of the Gameshelf in many exciting ways.


And, while in one sense I'm wrapping up this particular series, I feel more like radiating outward in many directions, because the opportunity to write here has inspired so many ideas for further exploration. Magic is an explosive nexus that doesn't react well to being contained or bottled up. It's best to answer the question: where next? And the inevitable answer is: many directions. This installment is written under the aspect of the sign of chaos (as invented by fantasy writer Michael Moorcock and adopted equally in games like Warhammer 40k and Peter Carroll's occultist movement Chaos Magick). In its positive sense, chaos is a signpost pointing toward a multitude of possible paths, liberating creative energy rather than confining it.

As far as my own creative work goes, I'll be posting a new video of my Arcana Manor interface on Youtube soon, since I now have working code in the form of drag and drop elements of spell grammar feed into array, as well as a function for matching the changing contents of this array with a database of spells. Using GlovePie, I now have keyboard input controlled by voice, as well as drawing input via the Grafitti bitmap drawing library in Actionscript 3.0. I'm currently working with mouse gesture recognition libraries in order to allow drawing gestures to be fed to the array, thereby making drawing a fully integrated aspect of the interface. 

My work at this point focuses primarily on gui development and control schemes because a magic system is an interface--a symbolic construct laid over the world in order to make something happen. Magic is applied symbology, directed outward as well as inward. It is for this reason that occult practice is more useful to me as a designer than the psychotherapy or comparative mythology of Jung, Eliade, and Campbell. Magic is a practice as well as a theory, a system of symbols whose purpose is the alteration of rule-based reality rather than self-analysis or anthropological speculation. 

One of the places that I'm applying my ideas about magic systems is in teaching within the game development and design major at Dakota State University. In Fall 2010, I'm teaching a class called Game 492: Magic and Combat Systems, in which these blog entries will be part of the suggested reading. Students will design systems of spell-casting and fighting in a variety of different game genres and using an array of tools, with the aim of breaking out of the "tray of icons with cooldown period" approach as well as the "depthless button-mashing" paradigm. In addition, I'm teaching a class on Classical Myth and Media (with emphasis on magic-related topics such as Orpheus, Dionysus, and the mystery religions), as well as a course on level design. Finally, I'm team-teaching the junior-level projects course, in which one team is developing a puzzle adventure game about alchemy. 

In addition to my own creative production and teaching, I'm continuing my research into magic systems, with an extension into magic across media, while keeping my center firmly in games. Some of this research involves looking forward to new magic systems on the horizon, such as the Sorcery game, with its elaborate gestural casting system designed for the PS3 Move, as well as the MMO The Secret World, with its designers' promise of new schools of magic and methods for acquiring magical abilities. I'm interested in any platform with alternate control systems: Kinect, 3DS, Playstation Move, Ipad, Iphone, and Android.

I'm also fascinated by the often-neglected realms of non-digital gaming and gaming history--including CCG's, board games, and miniatures--where games can be stripped down to the bones of their mechanics (and possibly also their metaphysics). My investigation of magic systems is as much an exercise in game archeology as game prognosis, since I'm looking back to the early and middle eras of game design for lost gems that occurred before magic became homogenized and standardized into a single template. 

Just as simulations of magic in non-digital games can help to expose the skeletal structure of digital magic systems, so magic in other media--such as graphic novels, music, and film--can inspire and illuminate magic systems in games. A case in point would be magic in music, especially the genres of black metal and death metal. The occult-themed song "The Grand Conjuration" by Opeth has a down-tuned, double guitar and eerily keyboard-driven melody that almost cries out for a game adaptation: a cry partially answered by an "8-bit Opeth" tune posted on Youtube, to a chorus of comments asking for the accompanying retro NES game. (Part of me wonders if the SNES game Demon's Crest might have been the appropriate game, but 15 years too early.) 

Particular metal songs aside, there could have easily been a blog entry on magic and audio, with emphasis on songs as magical spells in games like Loom and Ocarina of Time. Audio magic extends naturally into cinematic magic systems, such as Mother of Tears, the third installment in Dario Argento's Three Mothers trilogy, which finally grants its protagonist supernatural powers to fight off her witch adversaries. All of these media offer an alternative to the crass popularization of magic in Hogwarts and its ilk, in which the metaphysical imagination degenerates into juvenile fantasy. 

As I've been thinking about how to wrap up this blog series, I've had in my head the motto that Irish poet W.B. Yeats took in the Order of the Golden Dawn: "daemon est deus inversus" (a demon is a god inverted). The possibility of the demonic implies intimations of the sacred, the demonic in the original Greek sense of "daimon" as a guardian spirit. Even the darkest of games gains power not from evil but the spiritual, the awe-inspiring, the energy-charged. The Dark Heresy of Warhammer 40k, the rebellion of Raziel against Kain, or the battle against demons in Demon's Souls are all manifestations of a struggle against the prosaic, the dull, the authority of this world. At their deepest levels, all aspects of magic systems--their grammars, words, gestures, graphics, audio, and metaphysics--speak to the ritual purpose of reaching inward and outward into the furthest planes of our imaginations.  And that's a banner that I'll gladly wave, with the happy assistance of kindred souls like the readers of the Gameshelf.

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