Among world-building aspects that grab my imagination, a good magic system is always high on my list. I can remember the moments that I got into series like Fullmetal Alchemist, The Inheritance Cycle, and Harry Potter– they’re all series that have strong, interesting magic systems. Brandon Sanderson, writer of the Mistborn trilogy and living magic system machine, has described his personal rules for magic, starting with this wonderful article. He proposes that there are two main types of magic in fiction- hard magic and soft magic, a classification I think is tremendously useful.
Hard magic is more easily categorisable- it’s a magic system that’s very well-defined in-world, and should be well-understood by the audience. Fullmetal Alchemist uses hard magic in its alchemic transmutations- there are very clearly defined rules, such as equivalent exchange (a transmutation’s output equals the cost of the input, usually in terms of mass), and the need for transmutation circles, a kind of equation contained within a drawn circle to direct the outcome of the magic. Most games use this kind of magic, especially when the player character is a magic user. This is because the player has to understand the outcomes of magic, and produce consistent effects within the game. In other words, “press x to shoot a fireball”.
Soft magic, however, is of the more murky, less well-defined kind. Classic examples of soft magic are in Lord of the Rings, where the reader/audience doesn’t have a clear idea of what magic is capable of in the world. It’s hard to find examples in games where magic is completely soft, because there tends to be a clearly observable and repeatable consequence of magic when it happens. A close-an example as I can think of in games is the use of “tears” in Bioshock: Infinite. Plasmids and tonics are fairly well-defined: mutations lead to specific magic powers, fuelled by EVE/salts. Tears, however, make use of Elizabeth’s mysterious powers to pull objects from alternate dimensions into your world. We don’t really know the source of Elizabeth’s powers, or their extent, meaning they draw from a more arcane magic system than your other powers in the game. There is some predictability in the outcome of tear use, but by my estimations it’s closer to the soft end of the magic spectrum.
What I find interesting about this classification of magic is how it’s used to influence and enhance stories and worlds. A friend recently said to me that he liked Bloodborne, but they thought it was a shame that the magic was different to Dark Souls, in that it was a) less prevalent and b) less well-defined. And that made me realise that, while both games are linked spiritually as From Software games (especially mechanically), their different magic systems are reflective of their different worlds.
Dark Souls, occupying a somewhat conventional Western fantasy world (albiet Miyazaki’s twisted version of tropes therein), has a hard magic system. The mystical forces in the world are well established in fantasy: Gods, dragons, castles. The magic system has you casting spells using magic staves (or a holy trinket if it’s faith-based magic), and the spells by and large fantasy staples; fireballs, energy projectiles, barriers, and the like. These relatively simple-to-understand, easily defined spells are reflective of the high fantasy world they inhabit.
Bloodborne’s world, however, is less high fantasy and more Gothic and Lovecraft-esque cosmic horror. Rather than learning spells and casting them from a magic channeling weapon like in conventional fantasy, you’re using strange relics to channel your magic in less conventional ways, often affecting your physical abilities or attributes rather than blasting enemies with ranged spells. It’s tied to your quicksilver bullet reserve, which means it’s a kind of blood magic. It’s a far more arcane system, and reflects the world of Bloodborne far more effectively than if you were throwing about fireballs and bolts of lightning. You’re twisting your body through blood magic to better combat the evils of the night- a common theme in the game. This darker, murkier twist on magic is indicative of the mystical forces behind the curtain in Bloodborne. In Lovecraft’s work, the unknowable, the indescribable, and the incomprehensible are common and important aspects of the horror- the protagonists are faced with forces far beyond their ken, and the sheer, primal terror that awakens within them is the driving force of the fiction. Bloodborne owes much of its world and ideas to Lovecraft’s work, and the softer, less conventional magic system mirrors this more mysterious world.
Of course, almost no hard magic system is 100% hard, because the fiction should work to expand the audience’s idea of what magic can do; and no magic system is 100% soft, since once a consequence of magic is observed, you start to understand at least a part of its nature. However, I think that Dark Souls and Bloodborne’s respective approaches to magic mechanics are great examples of expressing the worlds the games respectively evoke.