Game Magic, Gnosis, and Shattering the Fourth Wall

A Ouija board

A Spirit Stirs . . .

The publication of Game Magic has led to some inspiring and productive conversations with amazing, like-minded designers.   Some of these conversations involve the designers’ awesome  projects, which I won’t talk about online without permission out of respect for the designers’ own publicity prerogatives.

But I can safely share my sides of these conversations, which typically result as replies to questions or comments that someone has about game magic.
One such question boils down to: “What is the role of faith in Game Magic?”

Here’s my reply, published more or less verbatim.

I don’t think I’ve quite given up on transcendent experience in game magic.  I’m not sure I would use the term “faith,” but rather “gnosis” (cleaving both to the Chaote use of the word as well as that of the original Gnostic Christian sect, both of which define gnosis as direct experience of a transcendent reality).  It seems to me that games are rife with potential for gnosis.

I tend to think of magic as that which runs counter to the dominant worldview of a real world (or the baseline simulation of a virtual world).

Imagine a realistic, mundane game setting, in which simulated laws of physics define the extent of reality, and magic is off limits.  (Let’s say, a military shooter like Call of Duty or (more subversively) a realistic character-driven, physics-based adventure game like Gone Home).

And then imagine that our player character finds some candles and a ouija board in a closet somewhere and begins experimenting with them.  Maybe at first the board behaves like a funny Easter egg, with the planchette stirring a bit or spelling a silly message.  (Maybe something about Captain Howdy).  If a player puts the board aside, nothing will happen.

But what if the player keeps experimenting with the board, and gradually, one-by-one, all of the previously taken-for-granted assumptions about how the simulation works are broken.  Maybe in gradual ways, at first, with an object hovering a few inches off the ground.  Maybe the player character’s body starts being able to pass through objects that were solid before.  And then the board begins to communicate things.  True, strategically useful things about how to solve puzzles or evade enemies.  Biting, mordant insights about previously concealed character relationships or subtextual themes.

That would be redefining the impossible, within a virtual world.  Depending on how dramatically paced and with what degree of synaesthetic sensory overload, such a revelation could be shocking, even awe-inspiring.

an image of Psycho Mantis

Metal Gear’s Metaludic Black Magician

Fourth-wall breaking, meta-gameplay effects would be a powerful way to convey ritual success and game magic more generally.  I’ve been playing the original Metal Gear Solid recently, and Psycho Mantis’ reading of the player’s save game files (as well as his “psychokinetic” movement of the controller through haptic vibration) feel eerie to me even though I know that they are artificial and not the result of any real supernatural agency.  But something about the frame-breaking effect of reaching *outside* the previously defined “magic circle” and into the real world is pleasantly unnverving, not unlike what might happen (less pleasantly) if a magician left a gap in the sand of the protective summoning circle.

(I tried to do some of this in my game, Arcana, in which Choronzon (that notoriously chaotic and recalcitrant demon) refuses to obey the game’s previously defined color correspondences of red, yellow, and green, instead appearing in a burst of violet light.  He also refuses to answer questions “yes” or “no” with single or double light blinks, instead making all of the lights in the room flash haywire.  The idea of Arcana is a demonic conversational simulator, in which Choronzon signifies his chaos by flouting the previously established rules of conversational etiquette).

I’d like to see more of this type of rule-breaking, frame-shattering, possibly psychedelic magic in games, as a way of bridging the gap between shamanic/evocational experience and repetitive mechanics.

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