Tag Archives: magic

Garrett: Thief as Magician

Despite the title of the game Thief, Garrett is more a magician than a rogue, or rather his thievery is a form of magic when successfully enacted by the player. Garret’s training in the monastic order of the Keepers involves abilities to become invisible that border on the supernatural, as well as the acquisition of arcane knowledge, including glyphs of power. The classification of Thief and the associated image of a dimunitive, cowled figure hiding in the shadows derives in part from the thief character class that originates in Dungeons and Dragons as well as the fantasy characters that inspired it, including rogues like Fritz Leiber’s Grey Mouser. Yet, Garrett’s abilities and actions are not constrained to hiding in shadows or backstabbing; he is a quintessential opportunist who does whatever he needs to get the job done. An extra objective available at higher difficulty level in the prison level of Dark Project involves retrieving Garret’s favorite “Hand of Glory.” The Hand is an infamous black magical artifact described in the Petit Albert grimoire as the severed hand of a hanged corpse taken from the gallows and used by cat burglars to evade detection by otherworldy means. As the Petit Albert explains, “The hand of glory [ . . . ] is used by villains thieves to enter houses at night without hindrance.”

In addition to this talismanic magic, Garret plunders magical artifacts and even engages in complex acts of counter-magic as he disrupts the extra-dimensional ritual of the Trickster in the Maw of Chaos or activates the glyphs in Deadly Shadows. It’s not surprising that Garret’s cowl and long flowing robes are equal parts monastic garb and magician’s robe. He is a Master of hiding and the hidden: literally, the occult.

When skillfully guided by a player, Garrett’s magic consists in his ability to “keep silent,” one of the four powers of the sphinx extolled by French occultist Eliphas Levi in The Dogma and Ritual of High Magic. Levi argued that magicians must learn “to know, to dare, to will, and to keep silent,” powers that he attributed to the four elements of classical antiquity (air, water, fire, and earth). To keep silent means literally to maintain the secrecy of the mysteries of initiation, but it can be extended as a metaphorical principle of efficiency and noiseless grace: in other words, stealth. As British occultist Aleister Crowley explains in his Confessions, “to dare must be backed by to will and to know, all three being ruled by to keep silence. Which last means many things, but most of all so to control oneself that every act is done noiselessly; all disturbance means clumsiness or blundering.” A stance of self-controlled noiselessness is the strategic condition of success in Thief and a style of gameplay that activates Garret’s full abilities as an avatar. “Disturbance,” “clumsiness,” and “blundering” are the fail conditions of the Thief series which assure detection and death.

Garret’s apparent physical weakness, signified by hit points sufficient only for a few sword blows from a guard, is counterbalanced by preternatural abilities of stealth. Ordinary mortals risk detection when they hide in shadows, because only the deepest darkness can reliably block out peering eyes. But when a player guides Garrett into shadow and reduces his light gem to pure black, Garrett can vanish, even as a guard walks a few inches beside him. These abilities are built into the game systems of Thief, which rewards ritualistic behaviors of stealth: always tread in the shadows, walk rather than running when possible, extinguish light strategically, and close doors behind you. While we never learn the ultimate essence of Keeper training (which is itself shrouded within the game systems of Thief), our success in Thief depends on our identification with Garrett and his training, which forces us to ask “What Would Garrett Do.”

The merging of stealth and mysticism gives rise to the arcane discipline of the Hassassins in Assassin’s Creed, whose credo “nothing is true, everything is permitted” conceals a mystical insight under the veil of anarchic nihilism: a Neoplatonic belief in the irreality of the sensible world. Altair, like Garrett, “works in shadows to serve the light,” or rather to unwittingly maintain the balance of the Keepers against which he rebelled. Thief teaches the gamers and game designers inspired by it that direct confrontation is often counter-productive, and that the ability to judiciously “keep silent” and move quietly is a higher magic than a carelessly tossed fireball or a poorly chosen word.

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