Do You Believe In Magic?

Aug 22, 2012 No Comments by

In real life, magic is about stimulating the imagination and curiosity. It’s supposed to instill a sense of wonder and mystery. In gaming, magic is often more about particle effects and stat changes. It’s easy for developers to make a fire spell that’s a flashy reskin of a rocket launcher, but it’s only when spells get creative that it really becomes magic.

I remember the first time I tried out my lightning spell in Skyrim. I found a school of slaughterfish in a nearby river. So, combining razor-sharp wit with a knowledge of basic elemental interactivity, I figured I’d be able to electrocute them for an easy kill. I let loose, and found that Skyrim’s rivers were decidedly nonconductive. In fact, the world didn’t react to any spell at all; water didn’t freeze, trees didn’t burn, and I was left with the distinct feeling that my Spell of Ice Spike was little more than a Spell of 25 Damage tinted light blue.

Magic has the potential to give the player incredible ways to interact with his environment in rewarding and creative ways. The more opportunities for creative thinking, for those fleeting moments that make players feel like fleeting geniuses, the better. These can be intentional, such as puzzles with decidedly eccentric solutions, or unintentional, such as using a levitation potion (along with a pocketful of programming bugs) to beat Morrowind in under five minutes. Even if the game ended up being broken like a soup cracker, there’s no way that can be described as anything but an awesome feat. Conversely, when a player’s genius is left unrewarded, it just leaves them feeling cheated, whether it’s because their fire spell didn’t boil water, or because an arduous mountain climb was halted by an arbitrary invisible wall. If magic is watered down to make it “safe” – unlikely to affect the world in a way the developers didn’t intend – then it hardly feels magical at all.

That being said, there are games that are doing remarkable things. Magicka’s approach has the player combining elements to form spells, encouraging creativity and experimentation. For example, due to its constant usage, Magicka has cemented ESARR as laying down four fire-lightning tripmines in front of me. The number of combinations is astronomical, and it always feel satisfying seeing your ingenuity pay off with a (freezing-exploding-lightning-) bang. Even when I flub the combination and a ring of water-spewing rocks erupt around me, that’s part of the fun. The feeling of tinkering with something so unstable and hard to fully understand is what makes Magicka’s experimentation fun.

Similarly, Bethesda has showcased creative uses of Dishonored’s versatile spells. They toe the line when it comes to being game breaking: “The moment that makes Dishonored for me is when we see something we didn’t know existed in our own game; when you see two systems interacting together and creating something surprising. It creates an emergent solution to a problem you had and that’s when it feels like the game is alive,” said co-designer Harvey Smith. From bodily possession to teleportation, the power of each ability is reliant on the player’s skill and ingenuity, allowing for truly rewarding experiences.

Capturing the essence of what makes magic unique is no simple task, and not all games are able to pull it off convincingly. It’s encouraging to see the imaginative efforts, but I’d like to see more consistency in just how thought-out magic really is.


About the author

Amateur games journalist looking to expand his portfolio. When I'm not writing for Super Combo, I'm editing articles for others or goofing around in Dota 2. If you enjoyed the article, let me know! I always appreciate feedback. You can learn more about me at
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