The Designer's Notebook: Let’s Put the Magic Back in Magic

Do you believe in magic? Ernest Adams does. In this week's Designer's Notebook, Adams wants you to rethink the implementation of magic in games. Heed his call to get the numerical data out of the supernatural and inject some good old-fashioned superstition and emotion.

If you’ve ever played an old computer game — a really old computer game, on a printing terminal attached to a mainframe—you’ll remember that its output looked something like this:

It is year 3 of your reign. The population is 1937 citizens. In the past year, 24 citizens died and 92 citizens were born. You have 178 acres of land under cultivation and 241 bags of grain in storage.

How many bags do you want to use for seed this year?

One of the things that’s immediately obvious in this example is that it’s full of numbers. Computers only manipulate numbers, of course, and therefore all computer games are necessarily mathematical models. In the early computer games, the model was pretty close to the surface — since there weren’t any graphics, all the designer could give you was numbers with a little bit of text to glue them together.

That isn’t the case any more, and over the years we’ve learned to hide or disguise the numbers, mostly borrowing from statistical displays. We use bar graphs, colored lights, instrument panels, and variety of other mechanisms to present numerical data without actually putting digits on the screen. Some of these can be very clever, displaying the information in a direct and immediate way which fits in well with the game world. In Doom, for example, there was a picture of a head at the bottom of the screen which represented you, the player. As you took damage, your face gradually got bloodier and bloodier. Your head sagged, and you looked increasingly exhausted. As you were healed, you looked less gruesome and more alert. The head also displayed other things—as you picked up weapons or ammunition, it grinned maniacally for a second or two. It was a smart, well-designed mechanism for displaying different variables in a small space.

At the same time, however, there was also a "health" counter in Doom that told you in explicit numbers exactly how much health you had left. Since you already could see the head, the counter was redundant, and I think it was a mistake.

Whenever we put a raw number on the screen, we’re clinging to our printing-terminal heritage. If your fantasy world really involves numbers, as in a business game or a simulation of a modern military vehicle, well and good. But if you’re a space marine or a knight-errant, you shouldn’t be seeing numbers all over the place. No knight ever inspected his armor and said, "Yup, this can handle exactly 37 more whacks."

In addition, there are some variables in a game whose values should be imprecise. Fuel and ammunition can and should be precise, but health and armor strength shouldn’t be. I realize that we don’t want to simulate health with complete realism by tracking each limb and major bodily organ separately and implementing the effects of damage to each in a different way; but on the other hand, it harms the suspension of disbelief when we give the player one single absolute health number. If you’re going to show health with a bar graph, make the end of the bar fuzzy. Even if you’re tracking health inside the game as a hard-and-fast number, there’s no need to tell the player exactly what it is.

Nowhere is this more true than in the way we handle magic. We’ve borrowed our mechanisms for implementing magic from Dungeons and Dragons, which provides a useful mathematical model. But Dungeons and Dragons is a pencil-and-paper game, and the math has to be done in front of everybody so that they can be sure you’re not cheating. There’s no need for that in a computer game. The bookkeeping should be buried so deeply that no hint of it is visible to the player.

Magic is about superstition and emotion. The belief in magic arises from two intersecting human needs. One is the need to explain an incomprehensible and hostile universe. We may not be able to control death, disease, the crops, or the weather, but it’s comforting to think that there’s occult knowledge which gives the answers and the power. The other need is a desire to believe that there exists a kind of superior being who is not subject to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. The idea of such a being gives us hope that either He may come to ease the plight of suffering mankind, or that by emulating Him we could become like Him.

In previous centuries, when the dominant paradigm for understanding the universe was supernatural, this being was God, or a variety of gods or spirits. In our century, the need to believe in such things hasn’t changed, but the paradigm has. Today the dominant paradigm is science and technology, and so for many people God has been replaced by "aliens" — powerful and, we hope, benevolent aliens. In fact, there’s a centuries-old debate about this: when God comes, will He be an avenging God, hurling humanity into damnation, or will He bring enlightenment, peace, and bliss? Today we ask: when the aliens come, will they be conquering super-beings who want our planet for themselves, or will they be benevolent, bringing us gifts of high technology to improve our lives? It’s the exact same debate; only the context has changed.

You can also see this change in the terminology used by snake-oil salesmen on the credulous. In classical times they sold amulets and charms which were believed to ward off evil spirits. In the Middle Ages, they sold relics: the bones of saints or fragments of the True Cross, which were believed to invoke the protection of God upon whoever possessed them. Today it’s crystals and copper bracelets, and the language is not that of spirituality, but of technology. These objects are said to "focus biomagnetic fields" and to "channel energy flows," phrases which would have meant nothing a thousand years ago. It’s all still hocus-pocus, but it’s the hocus-pocus of pseudoscience rather than religion.

My point about all of this is that it has nothing to do with rationalism. Magic, ancient or modern, comes from a pre-rational place in the human mind. It comes from the limbic system in the brain, from fear and lust and longing, from awe and wonder and horror. We game developers are not in a good position to understand this. We’re computer people, engineers. We’re the ones who did well in science class in high school. The phrase "Boolean algebra" holds no terrors for us. We are the heirs to five centuries of rationalism… and it shows in the games we make. Our magic isn’t magical, it’s mechanistic.

Arthur C. Clarke once wrote that any sufficiently advanced technology is virtually indistinguishable from magic. He didn’t mean indistinguishable to us – western technologists; he meant that the cultural response to such things is relative. The distinction between magic and technology lies in the attitude of the observer. When the medieval peasant observed some mysterious and inexplicable phenomenon, he regarded it as the work of God, or of witches or demons. When we observe inexplicable phenomena, we regard them as the work of not-yet-understood scientific principles.

When we’re implementing magic in games, we as game developers need to put our rationalism and technological outlook away for awhile. We need to reach down into that seething morass of superstition and emotion which we have so effectively suppressed, pull out a handful of that glop, and learn to work with it. Think about how magic feels to people who believe in magic. If you’re a wizard, you’re not some medieval bean-counter, busily totting up his mana points in a big ledger. You’re a human being who has been touched by the hand of the Almighty. If you’re a sorceress, you don’t spend your time loading spells in and out of your brain as if they were bullets in a gun, and wondering which ones you should take along with you. You’re a person who has been born to an amazing and appalling condition: the unimaginable forces of nature are thundering through your body in a raging torrent, barely under your control. You shouldn’t be thought of as "a convenient person to have in the party;" you should be an incredibly dangerous and frightening person to be around.

Look at the way we handle magic items in most fantasy role-playing games. You’re walking through the forest and you come upon a staff. Half the time you know immediately what it is—it’s so clearly labeled it must have stenciling on the side: "Staff, magic, lightning+3. U.S. Government property. Penalty for unauthorized use." Either that or it’s not labeled and you have to take it to some old crone of your acquaintance who just happens to be able to identify any magic item ever made. "Greetings, fair adventurer! How can Samantha help thee today? Ah, yes. Thou hast a staff, magic, lightning+3. Is there anything else I can do for thee?"

Our characters’ emotional responses to these items amount to bland indifference. Most of the time we pick these things up with total aplomb, total equanimity, and walk around with them without any comment. You get into battle and the extent of your thinking about the subject is planning who you’re going to use it on. "Let’s see, I think I’ll zap you, and you, and…. uh, you."

This is wrong. We’re talking about a magic staff of lightning here, not a can of pepper spray. The appropriate emotional response to finding one is not "oh, good, this could be useful." A magic staff of lightning is an object of dreadful power, capable of summoning one of the elemental forces of the universe. Our magic-believing characters should respond about the same way that we would if we were handed an armed atomic bomb: "Holy $#&%!! I just picked up a stick full of lightning! God, I hope it doesn’t blow my head off."

We need to change the way we treat magic in our games, and we also need to change, to some extent, the way we implement it in code. Right now, we treat magic spells and magic items no differently from the way we treat weapons or tools. But magical items are not weapons. Magic is weird and mysterious and strange, it’s bizarre and disturbing and grotesque, it’s glorious and dazzling and beautiful. Magic is supernatural, in all the extraordinary senses of the word. Most of all, magic is not predictable. Magic is not reliable. Magic is not mechanical. We need to make magic seem magical again.

Attention, friends and fans! At long last, this column has a name. After considering and rejecting various "clever" alternatives (Designing in Ernest, The Designer's I,and so on) I decided to go with a straightforward description: The Designer's Notebook. I realize this sounds a bit retro. To be entirely hip, it should probably be named The Designer's PDA or The Virtual Whiteboard or something like that. But those things all sound clunky and they don't have the universality that I want to suggest. Remember what your notebook was like back in high school? It was the center of your working world. You did assignments in it, took notes in it, scribbled, doodled, and made airplanes out of the paper. More importantly, you could take handouts or photocopies, hole-punch them, and stick them in there. Anything that mattered to you, anything that you thought might be useful, got shoved into the notebook.

My columns, taken as a group, are a lot like my old notebooks - a bit scattered, a lot of variety. Ideas occur to me at random and I write them down. Hence The Designer's Notebook. Thank you for reading it.

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