A Kind of Magic

Francis Cressotti | 5 Apr 2011 08:30
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"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." - Clarke's Law
"Any sufficiently rigorously defined magic is indistinguishable from technology." - Niven's Law


Magic has had its place in games since the early days. Mario gobbled magic mushrooms to double his size and to shoot fireballs. There was no explanation of the mechanic or the reasoning, it is simply obvious that sometimes if you eat some mushrooms you might suddenly turn into a giant. In The Legend of Zelda, Link eventually gets a magic sword with which he defeats Ganon, the Prince of Darkness, who throws fireballs in properly evil sorcerer fashion and is also seeking a magic artifact that will allow him to rule the world. In other games, there are devoted magic user classes, solving problems that can only be solved by magic, killing monsters that can only be killed by magic, fighting forces that are using magic to bend the world to their will.

But altering reality isn't a purely magical conceit. It is one of the explicit functions of technology as well. Humans have always used tools - technology - to make the world suit their needs. From using a sharp stick to hunt for meat all the way up to using your iPhone to tell you what song is currently playing on the radio or using some steel and concrete to dam up an entire river, people use technology to change the world, sometimes in dramatic ways.

Technology as a narrative and gameplay element has a history every bit as distinguished as magic in videogames. In the original Metroid, Samus Aran ran around blasting things into oblivion using her power beam, then collapsed into a little sphere and rolled away. The player didn't need to ask what kind of strange science it was that turned their heroine into a sentient bocce ball, all that mattered was that she could lay the bombs necessary to open new passages and roll though narrow spaces. The explanation, such as it was, was utterly simple and all-encompassing - she's a space bounty hunter with really sweet gear.

For all intents and purposes, magic and technology serve exactly the same narrative function in games: power. They both are tools that either the writers use to magnify the urgency of the plot or the characters use to interact with the world around them and alter it to suit their needs. Yet despite their narrative parallels, magic and technology have occupied different places in our minds thanks to genre distinctions: fantasy and science fiction. Link would look just as funny wandering around in a powered exoskeleton as Samus would look swinging a wooden sword.

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