How Might We Approach Soft Magic In Video Games?

Having lived and breathed a lot of The Witness recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about curiosity and exploration as primary hooks in games. It occurs to me that these draws could be even more powerful if your exploration was also tied deeply into a game’s core mechanics and your character’s abilities. I’m reminded of more esoteric, or “soft” magic systems as described by Brandon Sanderson (I wrote about soft and hard magic systems here before, as related to Dark Souls and Bloodborne), and how their strength is that they present the allure of the unknown to invoke a sense of wonder (or terror). Even The Witness itself was at one point a game about casting magic through line-drawing. So, what if we designed a game whose primary mechanical focus was learning your way around a very soft magic system?

The appeal of such a game is pretty apparent: so long as the game can keep surprising you about the nature and extent of your growing repertoire of abilities, and allowing you to use them in engaging ways, the player should feel compelled to experiment with their abilities. Such a system would need to be very open, and success conditions would need to be quite malleable to a wide array of different approaches. You know how in games like Scribblenauts you’ll try something out to see if the developers thought of it, and get that little rush of glee when you see that, yes, they did allow you to summon the Necronomicon, ninja sharks, and the kraken? That’s the feeling we want to engender with our magic powers; that feeling that quick thinking and imagination is enough to get you out of any situation.

Of course, the development challenges of such a system would be quite astronomical, and the reason games like Scribblenauts have such freedom to include so many assets is their relative functional simplicity. Since I’d want to create as much of a feeling of living as a magic user as possible, I would propose a first-person perspective game set in 3D space to unleash my powers upon, and that comes with a slew of graphical and physics-based challenges to tackle.

Consider a language-based system of magic whereby you learn and combine magic words from some unknown language. I know that technically once you understand the rules of magic (in this case the meaning and use for words) it ceases to be a completely soft system, but there is no perfectly unknowable system since once you’ve observed any effect you begin to understand something about the magic’s nature. The notion that you’re having to actively seek out the extent of the system is, I think, soft enough. You’re a stranger exploring an island with signs of ancient civilisation and plagued by creatures both natural and unnatural. Let’s say you find and learn single words from tablets and other sources in the environment, which are added to your in-game notebook. You’re then free to utter the word while focusing on different points and objects in your environment to see what effect it has. When you think you’ve worked out the effect, you can make a note next to the word in your notebook remember what you think it does. Words are accessible through a radial menu, and your short notes on their meaning or use appear alongside them when you select them so you can keep track of their meaning on the fly. In this way you’re driven to explore the potential for each new word you learn, and get the satisfaction of puzzling out its effects on the world.

For instance, let’s say you come across a stone tablet in a forest glade with, say, “yrrdig” written on it. It’s added to your notebook and you add it to a radial menu that you can bring up anytime, and you decide to start trying it out. Speaking the word while looking at the rocks, trees, and any other point around you yields no noticeable results, until you try it out on a squirrel you see darting between the branches above you. It quickly stops what it’s doing and climbs down to you, its eyes aglow. Bringing up the radial menu again while looking at a pile of rocks, you combine “yrrdig” with the word you’ve previously worked out to mean “pull” then “stone”, and the squirrel runs and brings you the largest rock it can carry. Now, “yrrdig” might mean “friend”, or it might mean “animal”, or it might even be specifically “squirrel”. The only way to break down what it really means is to experiment. Remembering some carvings you saw earlier on depicting elemental guardians helping to build and defend settlements, you approach the nearby pile of rocks. You open your radial menu again and pair “yrrdig” with “stone”, and watch as the pile of loose rocks assembles itself into a golem creature that then follows you around, and you can issue commands to using the magic words in your repertoire.

At this point let’s say that there needs to be a hard limit of three words at a time per spell (like a more flexible version of shouts in Skyrim), and that only one spell’s effect can be active at once. To command the golem, you’d have to start out saying “yrrdig stone”, before carefully choosing the third word, and if you utter any other spells then the golem would disassemble. So with our golem friend, we approach a cave with a heavy, rusted metal gate blocking the entrance. Our magic word “pull” wasn’t enough to budge the blockage earlier on, but commanding our companion with “yrrdig stone pull” prompts our hulking friend to grasp and heave the gate until it creaks and snaps away, allowing us to enter.

Each different combination of words that could possibly make sense or be used in-game would have to be accounted for, and there would undoubtedly need to be a common thread of logic for the sake of a consistent-feeling world.

I am by no means saying that this system by itself is enough to carry a game. It goes without saying that a successfully realised game should require compelling characters, an engaging plot, interesting environments, and perhaps most crucially a range of interesting puzzles and situations to work through. There’s no point to such an expansive system of interacting with the world if you can just brute force your way through everything by setting it on fire. But if the sense of mystery and adventure is reflected in both the narrative and mechanics of a game’s design, then that can yield some real potential.

I’ve gone into detail for one potential avenue for working soft magic into a game, but there are plenty of ways to explore such a system. There’s a great amount of potential for sigil magic, ritual sacrifice, alchemy, and a number of other interesting possibilities. Upcoming Ubisoft game WiLD has you invoking animal Gods to expand your range of powers as a shaman (your powers seem pretty well-defined in that you control and befriend animals, but there’s something about summoning and communing with all-powerful, unknowable beings that lends an esoteric quality to the nature of your powers) and Divinity: Original Sin 2 has shown off a very promising-looking magic system in which you combine spells and magic ingredients to create interesting combined effects. So long as there’s an element of experimentation as you try out new permutations of your abilities, the experience of discovery should be just as strong.

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