Tag Archives: eternal darkness

A few theoretical thoughts about magic systems, allegory, programming

I don’t think about theory much these days, focusing more on creative projects. For the last couple of days I’ve been doing some preparation for my classical myth and media class, which sparked a few theoretical thoughts.  Also, I’m continuing to think about magic systems, inspired in part by a podcast ( on which Roger Travis graciously invited me to be a guest) about this subject and its relation to Arcana Manor. Magic systems have become the focus of my creative design work and my research, and I tend to think about them through the lens of interactive or procedural allegory, a system of expressive rules.

This will make more sense to readers (hopefully) when the podcast is posted.

A magic system is a set of core mechanics (spell-casting is one of them, maybe the primary one) for  simulating supernatural powers and abilities rigorously and symbolically.

Quests, because of their relationship to narrative, tend to be scripted within an engine through quest flags and state changes.

Magic systems can be partially scripted within an engine (depending on the engine’s flexibility), but truly innovative mechanics have to be programmed.  New mechanics tend to require, at the very least, modifications to an engine’s source code and may require the development of new engines (or at least sub-systems within an engine).

What matters to me is allegory as system, as organized matrix of rules for generating symbolic meanings. This is distinct from a linear procession of symbols (i.e. narrative) or from free-floating pool of symbols merging into each other (collective unconscious, dream). In linear mediums, allegory manifests itself as narrative (although I wonder if poetry, in its capturing of de-contextualized images, may be allegorical without being solely or even primarily narrative). Rimbaud’s Vowels or Baudelaire’s Correspondences are dense symbols without narratives. Dante’s Divine Comedy does chronicle the adventures of one pilgrim (Dante) through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, but the descriptive focus of the poem is the spatial organization of these realms and their inhabitants. The afterlife is a cosmological system for representing the punishment of sin and the rewarding of virtue.

A mythology (whether real as with the Ancient Greeks or invented as in the Cthulhu Mythos) is a system (a pantheon, a set of places, artifacts, recurrent events, themes). Many narratives can occur within a mythos, but many systems can also be generated by a mythology. When I was thinking about quests, I was trying to connect narrative and system, to explore their generative interplay. As I think about magic systems, I am more and more concerned with dynamic, procedural systems, which can be expressive in interactive, procedural, re-configurable ways.

Ritual is a key middle term.  Ritual is enacted myth, enacted symbolism.

Eric Zimmerman says that there is magic in games but argues that this magic is the thrill of creativity and problem-solving, which are distinct in his mind from a mage’s 8th-level fireball spell or the mystical experiences of organized religion.

I don’t see these three aspects of magic as inevitably distinct.  There are all sorts of connections to be woven between them.

That’s why I have a Clive Barker quotation above my desk, which in condensed form says “magic is the first and last of the world’s religions: a religion whose profoundest ritual is play.”  The quotation is longer but would require a detailed gloss to do it justice, because the idea is too important for me to treat lightly.  But the main point is that in Barker’s mind the three aspects of magic in games are intertwined expressions of one another.  (And he puts his money where his mouth is, since this quotation is from the introduction to his Imajica collectible card game, and he has also discussed the metaphysical implications of the magic system in Undying.  Incidentally, the magic system in Undying may be my second favorite magic system, just beneath Eternal Darkness.)

(A sidenote on Jung: Jung coopts the concept of the symbol for psychoanalytic purposes, but the term comes to prominence in Western thought in Romanticism (English, German, French), which precedes Jung chronologically. (e.g. Coleridge, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Nerval).  In the game Eternal Darkness, the narrator invokes Jung, Freud, and Skinner as possible correspondences to the three Ancients, but then dismisses these psychoanalysts as inadequate to the horror and majesty of the beings represented by the runes. This is a nice way of suggesting that, while Jung is a key figure in understanding symbols, their content and operation eludes his unitarian and trans-historical attempts to explain all symbols as products of a psychoanalytic entity (the collective unconscious) which he invented. A theoretical entity which originates in his own German Romanticist/early modernist context and his Freudian training.)

And allegory precedes Jung also (Plato, Spenser, Dante).

I need to read Angus Fletcher’s Allegory: Theory of a Symbolic Mode.

Question for further research: what are some of the most innovative magic systems, both in terms of mode of spell-casting, effects, and symbolism?

Mage: The Ascension and Mage: The Awakening (tabletop)

Magic: The Gathering (cardgame)

Betrayal at Krondor (crpg)

Arx Fatalis (crpg)

Loom (Adventure Game)

Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem

Magic Systems and Meaningful Scripting

Runes in Eternal Darkness

Runes in the Magic System of Eternal Darkness

One of my next projects will be an article comparing the magic systems of various games, both conceptually and in terms of their underlying quantitative mechanics, as one example of how interactive symbolism can be programmed. As readers of Quests know, I regard programming as a form of procedural, interactive writing, which unfolds according to a set of rules that both constrain and facilitate player actions and interpretations. For example, the magic systems of role-playing games (tabletop, single-player, and MMO) comprise rigorous, quantitative rules for altering the physical and sometimes mental reality of a particular game world. Because these systems often involve glyphs, runes, and incantations, there are opportunities to encode meaning into a core game mechanic, as in the tabletop game Mage: The Awakening or the elaborate cosmology of Eternal Darkness.

Questions for research include:

  • How have different table-top RPG’s, CRPG’S, action-adventure games, and MMO’s implemented magic systems?
  • What are the origins of magic systems in fantasy novels? For example, the convention of having magic users memorize spells that are then erased from their memory after being cast derives from Fritz Leiber, but not from Tolkien (who eschewed direct references to the concept of magic in his work).
  • What is the relationship between game systems of magic and real occultist systems? (This treads on difficult ground, because of many gamers’ understandable discomfort with the association by fundamentalists of Dungeons and Dragons with black magic. However, Gary Gygax himself encouraged dungeon masters to consult encyclopedias of the occult as reference works, and Silicon Knights did thorough research into actual historical arcane systems in order to build the elaborate spell-casting system of Eternal Darkness. The table-top role-playing systems Nephilim and Mage: The Awakening both embrace mystical lore as metaphors explored through their game mechanics.)
  • Most importantly, as relates to programming practice:
  1. How did the World of Darkness mod (WoDMod) script the magic system of the Mage tabletop game into Vampire: The Masquerade Redemption?
  2. How do custom NWN scripters make their own spells?
  3. How could we as designers learn from past design of magic systems in order to make our own games’ magic systems both more fun and metaphorically resonant, so that we invest this aspect of fantasy with all its potential for symbolism rather than reducing it to the glitz and glamor of flashy visual effects without substance?