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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.

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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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Magick Systems in Theory and Practice, Installment 7: Arcana Manor

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Since this blog series is called "Magick Systems in Theory and Practice," I feel that I should talk about my own practice in terms of concrete design of magic systems. For the past year and a half or so, I've been working on a project tentatively (and perhaps temporarily) titled Arcana Manor

For the sake of consistency, I'll reproduce some of the most recent design document, starting with the game's elevator pitch.

"In Arcana Manor, the player wields a uniquely immersive and symbolic magic system to defeat the demons of a surreal Gothic mansion and unlock its secrets. Arcana Manor is a ceremonial magick simulator with an elaborate system of gestural sigils, incantations, colors, and sounds that makes players feel like true adepts, not mere button-pushers. 

The magic system has these overall goals:

• to let players feel like they are the ones casting the spells rather than watching a character cast them

• to allow players to express and re-configure symbolic ideas differently in order to warp and alter reality, i.e. the system changes and adapts to different players' behaviors and personalities
• to be learnable, in part, through experimentation and trial-and-error so that there will be mystery surrounding the system; while the system is rigorously rule-based, a part of magic should remain magical in the sense of unpredictable, hidden, and knowable only through direct experience.

The conceptual framework of the magic system is based on ideas derived from authentic mystical and occult lore, in which magic is a metaphor for the power of the creative imagination.

• Players cast spells through their mastery of arcane knowledge and the symbolic correspondences of ritual
Aleister Crowley, Liber 777: 'There is a certain natural connexion between certain letters, words, numbers, gestures, shapes, perfumes and so on, so that any idea or (as we might call it) "spirit", may be composed or called forth by the use of those things which are harmonious with it, and express particular parts of its nature.'"

When I first started thinking, working on, and blogging about Arcana Manor, Kevin graciously posted on the Gameshelf a quick synopsis from my home blog, http://www.designingquests.com.  Early in the process of development and team formation, I also set up a wiki with the game's design documents and concept art.  Much of this information is now outdated as the game's concept has shifted, but some of it still applies.

Arcana Manor started out as a prototype in the Unreal 2 engine, which consisted solely of a small labyrinth of rooms meant to convey a Gothic funhouse of strange winding staircases, treacherous platforms, and walls textured with backwards Tarot cards. The idea was to convey the experience of moving through an architecturally instantiated tarot deck in an action-adventure game with a unique magic system.

As I worked, it soon became apparent that creating a magic system from scratch within the Unreal editor would be extremely difficult. (The designers of Clive Barker's Undying actually did so, but only through a large team of artists, as well as programmers with expensive source code access--which costs hundreds of thousands of dollars per seat on the project).

So I decided to move to a less expensive and more flexible indie engine: the Torque Game Engine Advanced, a relatively cheap non-commercial license of which gives access to source code. The Torque Game Engine Advanced allowed me to create more customized levels with my own textures and 3d models, culminating in a 3d version of the kabbalistic tree of life, with the branches or sephiroth marked by appropriate Hebrew letters and Golden Dawn attributions of hovering major arcana tarot cards. 

Arcana Manor didn't fully hit its development swing until I started using the gui editor to create my own custom interface for spellcasting. The interface that I developed reflected all of the theories that I've described in earlier blog posts about spell grammars and symbolic correspondences, and creating the interface actually refined these theories considerably. The player dials in a spell through a complex set of revolving tarot wheels derived from an Iphone interface, as well as a radial set of buttons distributed along a hexagram.

I like the look and feel of this interface because it conveys the feeling of the magic system that I'm going for, but there is little backend code to make the system work consistently as a method of spellcasting. Furthermore, the Torque gui editor is not very flexible, so writing such code was a maze of C++ modification and scripting, the cost of which far outweighed its benefits. (I also began an academic year of teaching four classes a semester, which brought my own game development to a temporary halt.)

Halfway through the following summer (i.e. this one), I switched to Flash because of its flexibility of interface development, and I starting learning GlovePie (a program for alternative input methods, such as WiiMotes, P5 Virtual Reality gloves, the Novint Falcon force feedback controller, and the Emotiv EEG reader). Flash development entailed study of Actionscript 3.0 using Gary Rosenzweig's excellent book Actionscript 3.0 Game Programming University. Anybody interested in a blow-by-blow account of my slow migration to Flash and GlovePie, as well as the current progress of Arcana Manor, can check out my twitter feed: @arcanamanor. I ended up separating the interface of the magic system from the background game, enabling me to focus on two-dimensional art assets and a gui with a working back end.

The current interface consists of a drag-and-drop set of tarot cards, gems, and Enochian letters that can be placed on three targets in order to form three-element combinations that constitute various spells. Most of my Actionscript 3.0 programming has focused on enabling the drag-and-drop functionality and developing a set of arrays that track spell input, store it in an array, and then matching each element of the array as well as the completed array against a database of spells. To make this work, I had to write a function to match individual elements as well as a function to compare arrays against a multidimensional array. My colleague in the DSU game design program, Steven Graham, generously helped me tweak and edit this code to make it fully functional tonight.

There is still a lot of work to be done to match up with the vision of multimodal input and corresponding multimodal feedback at the heart of this project. I've summed that vision up in a long series of design documents, which I will post in a subsequent blog entry, along with more videos, links, images, and descriptions. But I hope that this entry gives a taste of what I'm up to and how I'm putting the theory of magic systems into practice, one step at a time.

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Magick Systems in Theory and Practice, Installment 6: Metaphysics and Mechanics

A magic system is the sum total of its mechanics, interface, visual art, audio, narrative, and mythology, because a game is defined by its experience and experience consists in all of these components. Since a magic system simulates the alteration of reality by the will through the agency of metaphysical forces, all of the components of a magic system (such as visuals and audio) should ideally be pervaded by the metaphysics that the system is designed to simulate. Yet, a magic system that pushes its metaphysics to the peripheries of its art style and narrative is taking the easy way out, with the result that hardcore players will tend to ignore what they regard as mere flavor and fluff in favor of the mechanics through which they can gain concrete strategic advantage. A designer who aims to enrich her magic system through the introduction of metaphysical profundity will want to unify metaphysics and mechanics so that the understanding of esoteric concepts will improve a given player's ability to succeed in the game. Then, the hardcore gamers will tend to have the greatest, deepest grasp of the game's metaphysics because they stand to benefit most from such a comprehension.

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How, then, could mechanics and metaphysics be intertwined? The conjunction between the rules and affordance of a game with its philosophical implications can sometimes best be observed in non-digital games, in which the skeleton of mechanics tend to be unobscured by moving graphics and sound. One example of intertwined metaphysics and mechanics is *Nephilim*, the French game of "occult roleplaying" alluded to in last week's blog entry.

Among *Nephilim*'s many interesting mechanics is a modifier that changes the effect of a given spell according to the astrological signs associated with hours and days of the week as they interact with various elemental correspondences. The system is sufficiently complex that a Game Master's Veil (i.e. screen) includes a pentagram-shaped dial with windows that can be placed over a complex astrological table in order to calculate the modifier every time that a spell is cast. The astrological modifier and its expression through a concrete tool of turn-by-turn gameplay is one example of a metaphysical system of celestial influence and its conjunction with a game mechanic.


The word "conjunction" is not coincidental, since one of the most concrete ways to express a cosmology as a game mechanic is through the simulation of heavenly bodies and their mystical influences. Ever since the moongates of the Ultima series, in which the phase of the moon determined the destination of a teleport spell, the magic systems of some games have incorporated a calculation of celestial influence. One notable example are the games in the Dragonlance *campaign setting, which features three moons (white, black, and red) associated with three gods (Nuitari, Solinari, and Lunitari) and three alignments (good, evil, neutral). 

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Mages of a given alignment have access to a specific set of schools of magic (black mages, for example, are the only magic users able to cast necromancy spells) and receive positive and negative modifiers depending on the phase of the three moons. The moon-based system of phases and modifiers is implemented in both the tabletop rules for the Dragonlance setting as well as some of the CRPG's based on this setting, such as Champions of Krynn.  The cosmology has been deemed of sufficient interest to at least one writer, Darren Bellisle, that he took it upon himself to calculate the exact trajectories of the moons using scientifically accurate astronomical formulas.  The moons of Krynn and their associated magic systems take place within a larger astronomical and cosmological context in which the constellations represent a genealogy of gods, visualized as a family tree that closely resembles the Greek and Roman theogonies. By now, the association of gods with colors and schools of magic resonates with accumulated examples of the deities, runes, and colors of Eternal Darkness and Warhammer. The specific use of moons to provide magical modifiers also appears in the richly complex and mythologically-infused Shin Megamei Tensei meta-franchise.

A further example of the relationship between mechanics and metaphysics is Enochian chess, an esoterically-charged, four-handed chess variant practiced in the upper levels of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a ritual magic group in Victorian England. Enochian chess takes its name from Elizabethan astrologer and mathematician John Dee's system of magic based on communication with angels through an angelic alphabet and associated language. The gameplay of Enochian chess is patterned off Chatturanga, a four-player Indian precursor to chess, but the four sets of pieces in Enochian chess are four groups of Egyptian gods associated with each of the classical elements. Enochian chess is designed to be a summation and synthesis of the entire Golden Dawn esoteric teachings, which involved the adept's balancing of the four elements in her own personality and the outside world. Consequently, capturing a piece in Enochian chess requires a player to maneuver all four elemental incarnations of a given piece, such as a bishop, into a single square--after which all four versions of the piece disappear.

Thus far, metaphysics and mechanics are closely aligned: the capturing mechanic simulates the balancing and sublimation of the elemental forces. When the four Enochian chess boards are examined, however, an unsatisfying rift opens between mechanic and metaphysics. The Enochian chess boards are masterpieces of compressed symbolic correspondences, in which each square displays corresponding tarot, alchemical, geomantic, astrological, and Enochian attributions.

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These boards are patterned on the four Enochian Watchtowers: matrices of Enochian symbols, English letters, and elemental attributions arranged through intricate configurations of pyramids. But whereas the Enochian tablets constitute a generative matrix designed to produce sacred names of power, the Enochian chess boards have no direct affect on play. (Arguably, the boards serve a secondary and tertiary function as cosmological teaching tools and divinatory aids--functions which might be considered as levels of gameplay. The attributions on the boards matter because the spaces over which the pieces move indicate an answer to a question about the future posed prior to the game. I'm also currently unable to test to what extent strategy in Enochian chess correlates with metaphysical propositions about strategically useful esoteric conjunctions, i.e. whether capturing pieces becomes more feasible from a gameplay perspective in particularly charged nexi. The relevant documents about the rules of Enochian chess can be read in a late chapter of Israel Regardie's Golden Dawn as well as Chris Zalewski's book, Enochian Chess of the Golden Dawn).

Nephilim, the moons of Krynn, and Enochian chess all represent varying levels of integration between the metaphysics and the mechanics of magic systems. The movement from esoteric system to game rules is a two-way street, in which the inherently systemic structure of occultist practice organically evolves into gameplay even while games aspire to the characteristics of spiritual practice. However, each of these games is still only an approximation, a stab in the dark at the Platonic ideal of metaphysically resonant games, which might be represented by Herman Hesse's imaginary Glass Bead Game in his novel of the same title. Though the book is rife with complexities and ironies about the nature of Hesse's metaphor for intellectual inquiry, the narrator rhapsodizes about the metaphysical ramifications of this encyclopedic game, which weaves together all fields of knowledge according to principles of musical counterpoint. As Hesse's narrator explains, 

 I suddenly realized that in the language, or at any rate in the spirit of the Glass Bead Game, everything actually was all-meaningful, that every symbol and combination of symbols led not hither and yon, not to single examples, experiments, and proofs, but into the center, the mystery and innermost heart of the world, into primal knowledge. Every transition from major to minor in a sonata, every transformation of a myth or a religious cult, every classical or artistic formulation was, I realized in that flashing moment, if seen with truly a meditative mind, nothing but a direct route into the interior of the cosmic mystery, where in the alternation between inhaling and exhaling, between heaven and earth, between Yin and Yang, holiness is forever being created.

As designers of magic systems, we may not be able to create the Glass Bead Game (though some designers have tried), but we can reach toward some approximation of its sublime richness if we strive toward the "chemical marriage" of metaphysics and mechanics.  In next week's entry, I'll demonstrate one small step that I'm making toward these goals in my own design work.  

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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. 

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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 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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Jon Blow talks about the stars in Braid

Jon Blow, author of the hit indie videogame Braid, gave a talk about game design in January 2010. The talk is short, about 20 minutes, but the Q&A that followed was about an hour, and I found it to be even more interesting than the talk. In particular, he answered a question about the stars in Braid, which is a part of the game that he is usually silent about. So I thought it was worth excerpting the question and his answer (about 9 minutes total). But, if you have time to listen to the full talk and Q&A, it's got other interesting stuff too. (He initially blows off the question and takes another question, which I edited out; that question, by the way, was about Wulfram, a team-based first-person tank shooter game with some pretty cool strategic elements that he co-wrote in the mid-90s.)

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Review of changes in Pokemon gameplay

It's apparently time for my yearly post. Hello everyone!

I just wanted to point at this: A Brief History of Pokemon Battling at the Ogiue Maniax blog. I'm not very familiar with the franchise, but this was a great explanation of how the gameplay of the Pokemon video game has evolved through the years.

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Winceful games-for-girls marketing

On Ian Bogost's Twitter feed, we find this striking photograph by Allison Moore of a Nintendo DS game retail rack:


Yes, it's one little slice taken out of a greater visual context, and its true that I'd have no reaction either way to seeing any one of these titles sitting by itself. (And you won't hear me saying boo about Peggle, in any case.) But it's still hard to look at this particular picture and not think of another culturally representative game, albeit one from over 40 years ago...


Miles to go.

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Free game | Randomness in games | IF suggestions

Wadjet Eye Games is giving away its game The Shivah (normally $5) in honor of Yom Kippur:

his weekend is the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur! It's a special time of year when Jewish folk reflect on the past year. So, on reflection, we're giving away The Shviah for free.

From now until Tuesday, simply use the coupon code "FreeShivah" when purchasing and you can nab the game absolutely free of charge.


Greg Costikyan posted his talk from Austin GDC about randomness in games. Definitely worth checking out.
Nick Montfort posted his updated list of interactive fiction suggestions, games he suggests for people who have some interest in IF but who haven't played much.

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Polygonal Fury

Polygonal Fury screenshotPolygonal Fury is a new game by a first-time game maker. In the game info, it acknowledges the influence of Boomshine and Circle Chain. The basic idea is that you click on the screen to try to start a chain reaction to destroy a certain number of the shapes on the screen. Boomshine is not a very deep game (it's mostly luck-based), but it has a really nice atmosphere, mostly provided by its excellent, soothing music. The music in Polygonal Fury isn't quite as noteworthy, but the techno beat of it fits pretty nicely with the look of the game, so it works. What makes Polygonal Fury stand out a bit is its strategy.

There are three different shapes, and each one dies in a different way. Circles explode with a certain radius, squares shoot off in one of the four cardinal directions, and triangles fire off a laser at a random other shape on the screen. The thing that makes Polygonal Fury interesting is that you can upgrade the different shapes to do things like give circles a larger explosion radius, make triangles do more damage, get supershapes that are more powerful, and get extra clicks.

It didn't take me too long to win, but the later levels did require a bit of shuffling of upgrade points and discovering the right strategies for what to click when. Definitely worth playing if you like clicky action games with a bit of strategy.

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Random links

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Warzone and the Neverending Tower Defense

An example of a maze in Warzone Tower DefenseI found a new tower defense game via JIG, Warzone Tower Defense. It has a standard (but nice) selection of upgradable towers, and it's an open area (like the Desktop Tower Defense games) instead of pre-defined paths (like most every other tower defense game). As the waves go on and the enemies get tougher, you're forced to build mazes (see the image), which I find kind of tedious. Now, you're forced to build mazes in Desktop Tower Defense, too, but at least that ends. Warzone Tower Defense doesn't end, apparently. It just keeps going and going until you die. Now, this is obviously interesting to some people, as their forum is full of people bragging about the levels they reached (before dying or having their browser crash), sometimes with pictures showing the various complicated mazes they've built.

So, the game is definitely fun for a while, but I really do prefer my tower defense games to be winnable, even if it takes a really long time.

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Video game movie fake trailers

A brief moment of link-spamming. Which we don't do very much here at the Gameshelf, because we're all into critical analysis and deep esoteric ludic discourse 'n'all. But occasionally, I have to say, these videos from collegehumor.com make me die laughing.

Die! With metaphorical-nonmetaphorical irony!

But they're all videogame fake movies, so it's okay.

Note: it's the soundtrack, always.

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Tower Offense?

Since I've been playing and thinking about tower-defense games recently, it occurred to me that it might be interesting to have a reverse tower-defense game, where you plan out the hordes of monsters that get shot at by towers. Thinking that this was unlikely to have been a completely original thought, I searched around and found Anti-TD, a game that came out two years ago.

(It's part of the Anti Games Series by Sugar-Free Games. It also includes Anti-Match3 (I guess this could be fun if you were a fan of the genre, but it's not my thing. Although it does apparently have a two-player mode, where one person plays the dropper and one person plays the matcher, which is interesting) and Anti-Pacman (you play all four ghosts. When you're not controlling a ghost, it wanders about on its own. When you are controlling a ghost, you move it around with the arrow keys. When a ghost dies, it is gone for good, so you don't have it available for later levels. Jason, you should at least check it out for the art that it shows you between the levels. While researching this, I also ran into the game Pac-Man Vs. for GBA and GameCube, where one person plays Pac-Man and up to four others play the ghosts. They get around the inherent unfairness by letting Pac-Man see the whole board (on the GBA) but letting the ghosts only see the area around themselves (on the TV screen). When a ghost gets Pac-Man, the two players switch places).

Anti-TD is not a very good game beyond the concept. For one thing, it took me about 30 seconds to discover a winning strategy that made the game too simple to care about. Let me explain. You are presented with a board that has paths and towers on it. You can select a type of creature and an entrance, and then send it. Your goal is to get a certain number of creatures to the exit alive. There are about a dozen different creatures, and they come in five different levels each (each one slightly faster or more resistant than the last). The only stats the creatures have, however, are unit type (ground or air), speed, and resistance. In each of the 10 levels, you start with a certain amount of money. I very quickly noticed that when I sent some creatures out, even though they died, I ended up with more money than I started with. I guess you get some money just for having your creatures spend time out there or something. So I picked a fast unit and then just kept sending those out, and my money built and built. Eventually, either that unit would overwhelm the defenses or I could save up enough money to buy a bunch of the top unit and push those through. I won the game in about half an hour.

Besides being absurdly easy, there also isn't much opportunity for strategy in the game. There are different tower types, but you can't click on them to find out anything about them, and there's certainly no indication that different units are affected differently by the different types of towers. And as for picking a path, it's simply a matter of counting the number of towers on each path and picking the one with the least defense. There are also little power-ups that appear and disappear randomly, but they really don't add much to the gameplay.

So, what should a good reverse tower-defense game have? Here are some initial thoughts.

  • It should allow you to see what the towers are. Maybe it doesn't give you the full stats, or at least not until you've had a few units gunned down by that type of tower, but you should at least be able to tell what it does by clicking on it or hovering over it.
  • It should have different creature types have different strengths and weaknesses in relation to the different tower types. This can be done in any of the ways any of the various tower-defense games have done it: associate creatures with different elements, have them walking or flying, give them resistances or susceptibilities to different tower types, etc.
  • It should have some logical (or at least explained) way that you get resources. Maybe you get resources over time. Maybe you get resources for destroying towers or for getting creatures to the end of the board.
  • It should have some kind of upgrade mechanism. In Anti-TD, all of the creature types are available to you from the beginning as long as you can afford them, and you can afford most of them in the first level. Part of the fun of a tower-defense game is being able to upgrade your abilities or at least upgrade the towers. It should work similarly for upgrading monsters.
Anyone have any other ideas?


Asymmetric multiplayer tower defense might also be an interesting challenge to design. In regular tower-defense games, your goal is to slaughter wave after wave of your enemy. In a reverse tower-defense game, your goal would be to overwhelm the defenses. How would this work with one player playing the monsters and one player playing the defender? It would be a challenge to make the game fun for both people, since it's unlikely to be much fun to get all of your guys constantly slaughtered. Also, if there is any kind of planning between stages, the timing would have to be such that it doesn't take one person 10 seconds and another 3 minutes to decide what to do next (I guess a timer could easily solve that). It might be interesting to play a series of matches, where each player gets experience and is upgrading and such as the matches go on, but where the players have totally different roles. Are there games out there like this?

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Balloon Invasion

I was so impressed with GemCraft Chapter Zero that I decided to check out the page of the creators, Game in a Bottle. I found Balloon Invasion there.

For everything outside of the levels, Balloon Invasion uses the same engine as GemCraft Chapter One. So, you still have a side-scrolling map, levels you have to unlock, skills to upgrade, etc., except that it's all themed for an artillery defense against an invasion of hot-air balloons and zeppelins dropping bombs.

The levels are what make this a completely different game. You are presented a side view, with your main flak gun at the lower right of the screen. Balloons of different shapes, sizes, and speeds come floating from the left to the right. You need to aim your flak gun at the balloons, leading them the appropriate amount. And exactly where you aim is important, as the flak shells need to explode at a certain point in space (so they're not like bullets or lasers, where anywhere along the trajectory is equally good). The key difference here is that you are constantly actively firing, making this game feel much more real-time than GemCraft, where you place towers and gems and then just sit back and let them shoot automatically.

To keep up the excitement and to help you out, you can also place other guns (which come in different types and which fire automatically) and call air strikes. Your other guns usually get destroyed throughout the battle, but you only lose if your main gun gets destroyed. This is the other main difference between Balloon Invasion and GemCraft (and most tower-defense games): it doesn't hurt you if the balloons make it to the other side of the screen. Yes, it hurts you if they drop a bomb on your main gun, but not all of them do (if you have other guns out, they will often drop bombs on the other guns first, and balloons have a limited number of bombs). The balloons somehow magically appear on the left again after going off the screen on the right, but I can forgive this minor unrealistic aspect.

So while Balloon Invasion probably won't keep me playing as long as GemCraft Chapter Zero did, its different gameplay mechanic makes it novel and will keep it interesting for a little while at least.

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Jmac's Arcade #6 - Pac-Man

This is the first Episode of my show Jmac's Arcade that I've made since 2007, which means it's also the first one I've made since the launch of this blog. I hope you enjoy it. If you do, you will probably like the previous five videos as well.

Making this also gave me a chance to stretch my video-editing muscles as I head into a fairly ambitious Gameshelf-related project. More news on that as it happens.

Anyway: The background music is "The Annual New England Xylophone Symposium" by Do Kashiteru, and I've written about Jamey Pittman's The Pac-Man Dossier on this blog already.

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GemCraft Chapter Zero: Gem of Eternity

As I mentioned in my last post, I finally won GemCraft Chapter Zero, so I feel like I can post about it now. I'll use headers for organization, since this is going to be long.

Introduction
GemCraft Chapter Zero is a tower-defense game, a prequel to the original GemCraft Chapter One: The Forgotten. Zero is a vast leap over One in many ways. There are little touches that make life easier, like being able to call multiple waves early with a single click, and being able to combine gems in towers instead of needing to remove them from towers to combine. But there are also more substantive changes, like greatly expanding the number of skills, and introducing nine (well, ten) different ways to play each level.

Story
And for a tower-defense game, there's actually a bit of a story building up over the series. (Slight spoilers ahead, but the story isn't what the game is about.) At the beginning of One, you find out that there is a wizard in the east who has unleashed monsters for some unknown reason. You battle your way across the land, clearing towers of monsters. When you get to the end, you find that something called "The Forgotten" has possessed this other wizard, but it decides that you're a better host, so it kills the other wizard and possesses you. You're then told that it is going to take you to the east, to unleash more havoc.

In Zero, you are a wizard in search of the Gem of Eternity. The wizard council tries to hide information about it and forbid you from finding it, but you ignore them and search out the gem anyway. In the end, you take the gem and realize that its power has been used to imprison an ancient, powerful evil, The Forgotten. It possesses you, and you become the mad wizard in One. You're told that The Forgotten plans to lure another wizard, and that with the power of both wizards combined, it will finally be powerful enough to fully come into the world, which you learn will be picked up in GemCraft Chapter Two.

The story is pretty dark. In both One and Zero, the protagonist ends up possessed by an unspeakable evil; not much of a reward for defeating wave after wave of monsters. But I'm definitely looking forward to Two, both to see what additional improvements are made to the game, and also to see if The Forgotten is finally defeated (and I expect a very difficult final battle).

Tower-Defense Games
Now to go into some more detail about the game. For those who don't know, the tower-defense genre, which has exploded in the past couple of years, involves placing towers in order to kill monsters that try to cross the screen. You get money for killing monsters, which you can use to buy more towers or upgrade existing towers. Key strategy points generally involve where to place the towers, which towers to purchase, and how and when to upgrade the towers.

The GemCraft Games
In the GemCraft games, you build empty towers on the board, and then you build gems, which you place in the towers. The gems fire blasts that damage monsters and that also have different special effects depending on the color of the gem (blue slows, green poisons, red does splash damage, etc.). You can build six different grades of gems, in eight different colors. Each level has from two to eight of the gem colors available, and when you choose a grade of gem to build, the color is randomly selected from those available for the level.

Combining Gems
You can combine gems to make more powerful gems. Two gems of the same grade can be combined to form a gem of the next higher grade (if you combine gems of different grades, the combined gem is the higher grade, but it's slightly better than the original higher-grade gem). Part of the strategy involves knowing when to combine gems and when to wait to buy higher-grade gems directly (it's cheaper to buy a gem than to buy the two component gems and combine them, but it also takes longer to save up for the higher-grade gem, during which time monsters might be trouncing you). Note that you can combine grade six gems to make grade seven gems, even though you cannot buy grade seven gems directly. The highest gem grade I've made is grade nine. I'm not sure if there is a maximum grade. OK, so I just spent an hour or so making a grade ten gem, so I'm guessing there's no maximum. (A grade ten gem takes 16 grade six gems. The last level requires you to throw seven grade seven gem bombs, which is 14 grade six gems, so I knew that I just had to go a bit beyond what it took to win the last level. Of course, that required gaining a few more experience levels so that I was powerful enough to do that.)

Traps
Traps in Zero replace trenches in One. A trench is built along the path, and it slows down the monsters that go over it for a little bit. It's useful to put these near your towers, so that your gems have more time to hit the monsters. Traps in Zero are basically a combination of a trench and a tower. You build them in the path, but by themselves they do nothing. Like a tower, they require a gem to activate. A gem in a trap does much less damage and has much less range than a gem in a tower, but its rate of fire increases and its specials (slow, poison, splash, etc.) are much more powerful. Throughout the game, I didn't find much use for traps, since I always felt that if I had a gem, I wanted to put it into a tower. Maybe I would have gotten through the game faster if I had used traps effectively, but I don't know. They're obviously most effective when you're faced with swarms of weak creatures, which is the case in the Swarm level type.

Gem Bombs
Besides sticking them in towers and traps, another thing you can do with gems is make bombs out of them. This concentrates their power (including their special) into a single large explosion, quite a bit more powerful than a normal blast from the gem. Now, generally, using gem bombs to destroy monsters isn't very cost-effective, since the average gem will do much more damage over its lifetime in a tower than as a gem bomb. Still, there are times when this is useful, such as during the Sudden Death level type (generally, if a monster reaches the end, it costs you some mana to banish it, and it reappears at the beginning (if you run out of mana, you die); in Sudden Death, you die if any monster reaches the end, no matter how much mana you have). However, gem bombs are useful for destroying other things on the field (auxiliary buildings where monsters can also come out, little buildings and rocks and whatnot so that you can place towers in that spot, and beacons, which negatively affect an area of the board by doing things like healing monsters, preventing you from placing towers or traps, and making monsters invulnerable (until they reach the end)). I did have occasion to experiment with an all-gem-bomb strategy a few times, and it is quite fun, but it only works on some of the lower levels.

Shrines
Shrines are another feature that is present on some of the levels. Each shrine is of a particular type (damage, mana gain, armor reduction, etc.), and they are activated by sacrificing gems to them. A shrine has only a certain number of charges, so there is a limit to how many times it can be activated. They can sometimes be useful, particularly the damage ones near the end of a level (call the rest of the monsters, then kill them all with the damage shrines), and there are some fun degenerate uses of them in the Endurance level type (Endurance keeps sending monsters at you until you die, but the upshot is that you always win (you just sometimes don't get very many points); there is a shrine that gives you three times the points for up to 100 monsters on the field, so you can call all the monsters and sacrifice several gems to get points; this combines very nicely with one particular type of damage shrine; if these shrines are available on a level, it usually results in a higher score than playing the Endurance level like a normal person). However, the big use of these shrines is for the amulets.

Amulets
For anyone who has spent much time at all playing casual games, amulets will be instantly recognized as equivalent to achievements. Achievements are little metagame tasks for which you get some points (or sometimes nothing at all beyond the satisfaction of getting the achievement). (And I can't pass up this opportunity to mention a fun parody game called Achievement Unlocked, which is nothing but achievements.) However, amulets in Zero are a major source of points (and points increase your level, which gives you skill points, and skill points are how you're able to beat higher levels). It's even possible to get more points from amulets than from killing monsters on some of the levels.

Amulets come in two varieties, those you can only get once and those you can get every level. The ones you can get only once are mostly for reaching certain milestones throughout the whole game (completing a certain number of a certain level type, building a certain number of towers, killing a certain number of monsters, throwing a certain number of gem bombs, etc.). The ones you can get every level include things like winning a battle without doing something (building a tower, throwing a gem bomb, building a trap); building a grade seven, eight, or nine gem; finishing the level with a certain amount of mana; and so on.

The other kind you can get every level are called shrine burst amulets. You get these by sacrificing a grade six or higher pure gem (a gem of only one color; you can combine gems of different colors, and the combined gem takes on attributes of both component gems) at a shrine, and you get one for every time you do this in a level. The points you get for these can be significant, especially in some of the later levels where there are sometimes a lot of shrines. An average base score on a level might be anywhere from 1200 to 2000 points. Each shrine burst amulet is worth 300 points, giving you the ability to sometimes get 1200 or more points just from the shrine burst amulets. As I said above, the points you get from amulets can easily be more than the points you get from simply killing monsters.

Skills
One of the most noticeable big changes from One to Zero is the greatly expanded set of skills to improve. In One, you have a set of 12 skills (things like gaining more mana, having gems cost less, getting gems at the start of a level, etc.), and at the beginning of the game, you can only spend points in one skill, having to wait until you are of a certain experience level before you can unlock the next skill.

In Zero, there are 28 different skills (one for each color of gem, three dealing with your mana pool, three dealing with gem bombs, three dealing with traps and towers, etc.), and you can advance in any of them regardless of your experience level (as long as you have the skill points). The first level of a skill costs five points (the number of points you get to spend for each experience level you gain), and they go down as you spend more, costing two points in the middle, and then going back up, costing six points for the tenth level in a skill, for a total of 36 points to get tenth level in a skill. In order to max out, you would need 36 * 28 = 1008 skill points, which you would get with 1008 / 5 = 202 experience levels, or level 203 (you start out at level 1 with no skill points to spend). To give a data point, my character who won the game (and then gained a few levels so I could verify that you can in fact create a grade ten gem) is level 93, with 460 skill points to spend. So let's just assume that no one is going to be able to max out even most of the skills, so choices have to be made.

There are some pretty obvious choices for skills to take all the time once you have the points. Maxing out the skills that allow you to build towers cheaper, to build gems cheaper, and to start a level with more mana will allow you to build a tower and a grade four gem before any monsters start showing up, which gives you a nice safety net for most levels. As you get more points, maxing out the skills that give your gems higher damage, range, and firing rate are pretty key. But there is plenty of room for variation based on the particular layout of the level, the particular level type you are playing, and your particular playing style.

Level Types
The other very noticeable change from One to Zero is the addition of level types. One encourages replay of levels by giving a score to try to beat for a level. If you do, the frame around the level on the map will "glow", and you will have a chance of unlocking a hidden level. In Zero, level types are used to encourage replay of the levels.

When you first play a level, you must play it in the Normal level type. Once you win in Normal, you may play the level in any one of eight other level types, provided you meet the experience level requirement. To play the Sudden Death level type, you must be experience level eight; to play Endurance, you must be level 16; to play Heroic, you must be level 24; and so on through Arcane at level 64. Some levels are too tough to beat on Normal at the experience level you are, so in order to gain some experience levels to be able to advance skills, you frequently need to return to lower levels and play them at different level types.

To give you an idea of the scope of the game, there are 78 different levels. In the game where I've won, only the first 18 levels have been completed in all of the level types, there are five levels where I've only completed Normal, and there are 18 levels where I haven't even completed the Normal level type. There's also a special level type that only becomes available once you've won the game, and it keeps getting tougher and tougher every time you play it for a level.

Conclusion
There are many possible paths through GemCraft Chapter Zero, and I could probably spend as many hours playing it to completion after having won it as I spent to win it. The sheer number of levels, level types, skills, and amulets might make the game seem daunting to some, but I found it a challenging and rewarding game. I'm very much looking forward to the next installment.

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A Few Links

I finally went through my 500+ starred-item backlog on Google Reader. I'm down to 25 or so, which is pretty good. Here are a couple of things that I thought might interest more people, one on board games and one on video games.

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