Wednesday, May 8, 2013

EXP Podcast #223: Conjuring Video Game Magic

Image from Giant Bomb
This week, we open a gateway to the spirit realm to call forth a podcast that defies the feeble constraints our earthly plane and human minds. "What sorcery is this?" you ask. It is precisely that, mortal: this week we talk about magic. Actually, we use Robert Rath's recent article on the subject to push past the usual focus on psychic missiles and black cauldrons. Magic is a common mechanic in games, but its more sociological role is rarely portrayed. What would it look like if magic in games was a lifestyle, rather than simply a way to roast bad guys when you're tired of swinging a sword? As always, don't hesitate to join the conversation by suddenly materializing in the comments!

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Show notes:

- "I Hate Magic," by Robert Rath, via The Escapist
- Runtime: 28 min 25 sec
- Music by: Brad Sucks


  1. Great show as always guys. The big problem I have with Magic is games is when it is represented as something other than a choice. The examples you referenced in Demon's Souls and Don't starve I have no problem with, in this context I see no tangible difference between the choice to use a gun or a magic spell book. In these worlds magic is a choice, however in other series when magic is represented as a core component of a character, or something they are born with I find that it creates an uncomfortable dissonance for me.

    Take Dragon Age for example. In that world, mages are not trained, they are born. From here the authors attempt to make a point about bigotry or racism in the world with respect to magic users, which outlines the basic issue. Racism in the real world is based on irrationality and assumed knowledge, but in these games it is portrayed in the context of what is quite honestly a rational fear. So, how exactly is it racist to be afraid of someone who can light you on fire with their mind? All in all I find that games where magic is not a choice to either misrepresent real world ideas, or limit the topics that can be honestly discussed.

  2. I completely agree w/ the innate ability aspect of magic. I still find it interesting to address the "somewhat-racist" feelings about Blood Mages in the world because it's something that would happen regarding people with stunning powers. Super heroes, for example, would have profound effects on the social landscape of their worlds, it makes sense magic users would too in fantasy worlds.

    I'm actually a bit more weirded out by game that don't address the innate magic of a select group of people. A game really has to sell the normalcy of magic if I'm supposed to buy into that part of the world.

  3. That is a good point with superheroes, I hadn't considered that. The difference I see is how magic is represented in games, where just about all the magic we know about is combat focused. Marvel's main mutants on the other hand tend to just have exaggerated features (strength, eyesight, etc), although some of those characters like magneto are effectively magic users as well.

    To your second point, there are a couple missions in Dragon age 2 that really examined with how society deals with insanity, one in particular where a character believed he was being controlled by a demon that made him kill. This message I found to be extremely effective, where as bigotry in relation to mages fell flat for me.

    I would really like to see a game that doesn't go so far up it's own ass with it's lore, and just be willing to talk about racism, discrimination, or other topics like this as they exist in the real world, using the real world representations of those ideas.

  4. I actually usually like the whole "curse of the gift" idea behind mages in Dragon Age, especially as magic comes with the risk of being an abomination...

    I'm not so sure I like the racism analogy the games go with, although I've usually thought of it in more of an LGBTIQ manner (or at least, I related to it more as a gay person than I think I would have if I were not from a majority race) which works out a little better I guess?

    I think Magic/Sexuality angles could be something interesting to explore on the DA basis, given that magic is 1) Not optional, 2) Will destroy you if not accepted. As I'm sure many long time closeted people will tell you it can be quite destroying to be that way.

    On magic systems though, have any of you heard of rudra no hihou (Treasures of Rudra)? Japan only SNES game (of course), but allowed you to construct spells using words... Worked better in japanese for obvious reasons of course.

    Another game that comes to mind is the spell making systems in Eternal Darkness, although I've only read about the system, never played it.

    I generally do agree with you guys though on the magic just being an oddly default thing without explanation or reason. And many games that do try to reason it slightly, only do so slightly.

    I'm trying to think of games that explained their magic much more beyond "hey, you are born with it" or "You have 'magic item' that allows you to use magic, go you!"