“Breathing With Meaning”: What Non-Magical Magic Tells Us About Fantasy Fiction

Last week I wrote about magic, and how the systematisation of video game magic causes the phenomenon to become distinctly non-magical. I focused mainly on magic as a combat mechanic, but my statement that game developers “rewrite the laws of nature in such a way that magic can come to ‘exist’” extends to all forms of magic in their game worlds. This may include things like elevators (Guild Wars 2), transportation services offered by non-player characters (The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind), long-distance communication devices (The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings), et cetera. To once again reiterate the point I made in my previous post (this is the last time, I swear): these phenomena are presented as if they are magical, but their very existence nullifies that ‘magic-ness’, both in video games and in other media that depict magic. Keeping all of that in mind, what does this alternative understanding of magic in fantasy fiction tell us about fantasy fiction itself?

Before I get to this question, I should talk about the ‘fantasy versus science fiction’ debate. No, that’s not the ‘Lord of the Rings vs. Star Wars‘ debate, I intend to keep well away from that one. (That said, LotR is better.) The debate I’m referring to revolves around the question of which of the two genres is better suited to provide social criticism. A rather common view is that science fiction is the most capable of this, since it usually attempts to ‘predict’ the future. Often, sci-fi uses the contemporary social, political and technological situation as a starting point. It then extrapolates from that situation an imagined future in which the possible consequences of some of its aspects–whether positively or negatively–are heavily amplified. Since the genre is thereby mostly rooted in our own material reality, it can very effectively question or comment on the flaws of our current social structure.

Now, I don’t intend to question sci-fi’s capacity for societal critique, but I do object to fantasy then being dismissed as an ‘ahistorical’ and ‘escapist’ genre, incapable of saying anything meaningful about contemporary social issues.1 In fact, fantasy fiction has a whole lot of things to say, we just need to be willing to listen. This is where Ted Friedman’s wonderful essay, “The Politics of Magic”, comes in:

The key to fantasy’s contemporary resonance […] lies in the way the genre negotiates two intertwined preoccupations of our era: technology and nature. […] At a time of both great technological advances and looming ecological catastrophe, the fantasy genre provides writers, directors, game designers, and audiences an opportunity to reimagine their relationships with both their machines and their environment.2

According to Friedman, fantasy gives us a chance to reflect on our connection to modern technology because the genre’s primary trope, magic, “serves the role in fantasy that technology does in science fiction–and in fact, the role that technology serves in real life”. Magic is not just non-magical, it’s very much technological: it’s “the fictional force that makes tools work in fantasy worlds”. It’s what powers the elevators, transporters and communication devices I mentioned in the introduction. However, since we supposedly cannot comprehend this ‘fictional force’ (it is still presented as being ‘magic’, after all), these technologies become devices that we simply expect to function without understanding how or why they work. For Friedman, this makes for a sursprisingly accurate “metaphor for representing our alienated relationship to [modern-day] technology”. Similarly to the magical technologies in fantasy fiction, we don’t know how the real-life technologies we use everyday work anymore either. Who can still single-handedly fix their car engine, or their washing machine, or their smartphone? As far as most of us are concerned, “it might as well be magic”.

In addition, fantasy can also help us to rethink our relationship with nature. Even though magic isn’t actually magical anymore, fantasy still wants to make us believe that it is. Friedman notes that magic does not only drive the fantasy world’s technologies; it also facilitates the existence of “talking animals, self-aware plants, and landscapes that breathe with meaning”. Magic creates connections between human and animal, between civilised society and savage nature, and shows us that there is–hypothetically–much to be learned from those creatures and entities that we normally deem ‘below us’. At the very least, it suggests that the human perspective on things might not always be the most well-rounded or rational one: for example, when humans destroy their environment in fantasy fiction, magic allows the environment itself to protest–the rise of the Ents in Lord of the Rings, defending their forest from Saruman’s corruption, comes to mind here.

The Battle of Isengard, the “last march of the Ents”, nature refusing to make room for technology.

The two-faced nature of ‘magic’–presenting itself as magical when it is, in fact, technological–makes the phenomenon a suitable way to represent our relationship with both technology and nature. By incorporating magic, this potent metaphor, into the very fabric of its universes, fantasy offers us a way to reflect on those relationships in a similar way that science fiction does. It shows us alternative ways to think about the divide between technology and nature, and about our own disconnect with both of them. If we strip away the medieval setting and the archaisms, fantasy worlds become tentative answers to the question, “How might we live with far-advanced technology, whilst still trying to co-exist in harmony with our natural environment?” While some may look at fantasy and see a purely escapist imaginary scene, those with a more trained eye might spot that its landscapes are, in fact, breathing with meaning.

P.S. I very much intend to analyse at least one fantasy video game (The Witcher) from this theoretical perspective. However, that will have to wait because next week, for the sake of variety, I want to write about something that isn’t magic- or fantasy-related.


Notes and references:
1. That’s a very, very brief summary of the argument made in: Frederic Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: the Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (London: Verso, 2005): 57-71.
2. Ted Friedman, “The Politics of Magic: Fantasy Media, Technology, and Nature in the 21st Century.” TedFriedman.com, 21 January 2014, https://tedfriedman.com/2014/01/21/the-politics-of-magic/. I’d recommend reading the entire article if you’re interested, it’s quite good.


Taking Issue with ‘Magic’ in Video Games

What is magic?

Seriously, what is magic? I don’t know. Nobody really does. Aside from the question of whether it even really exists in the first place–it doesn’t, in case you were wondering–it has always been rather unclear what the term ‘magic’ exactly means. Magic is always presented as something that is beyond us mere mortals, a phenomenon that bends and/or breaks the laws of nature as we know them. According to Christopher Lehrich, “magic appears to be a way of labeling for future consideration that which has no reality to label, that which potentially violates reality”.1 It is a word that necessarily cannot refer to anything that is materially real. It is the unexplainable, the incomprehensible, the unthinkable. And yet, we all have a set of mental images that we can link to the concept: from the spectacular spells you can cast in Dragon Age to the subtle ‘Signs’ in The Witcher. Hell, the whole fantasy video game genre is based around the simple assertion that, in its fictional worlds, magic is real and omnipresent. In these games, magic becomes part of everyday life, normal instead of non-existent. It is clear that ‘real’ magic and video game magic are two entirely different things, but how can we understand this contrast between them? And, what does it tell us about the idea of magic more broadly?

Video games in the fantasy genre take their versions of magic one step further than other media. Not only do they depict magic, they also systematise magic. Game developers don’t just have to come up with an answer to the question of what magic would look like in this world they’re creating; they also need to consider how their idea of magic would work as a system, as part of their world’s metaphysical structure. While novelists and film producers can focus on the aesthetics of magic, game developers need to take the mechanical workings of magic into account as well. Armour that protects you from fire damage cannot just be “fire-resistant”, it needs to specify exactly how much fire damage it will ward off. A bolt of lightning cannot simply cause a bit of a shock and a third-degree burn wound, the game’s code needs to detail how long that shock will last, how much damage the bolt will cause to your character’s health points, and so forth.

This systematisation of magic seeps into other aspects of gameplay and game world. Spells and other forms of magic are often part of hierarchies and different categories, and can usually be upgraded to have additional effects or do more damage. The Storm Bolt spell in Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, for instance, can be leveled up with ‘ability points’ to increase its damage output, stun duration and area of effect. Moreover, if the player upgrades two other abilities in their ‘Sorcery ability tree’, they can enhance the spell even further. We are never really told how this works diegetically2 and that’s arguably not necessary either, because this point-based upgrade mechanic has existed for decades, finding its roots in Dungeons and Dragons. It’s just how things are done around here.
Furthermore, in many games there is a limit to how often the player can cast their spells. Broadly speaking, there are two ways of creating such limits: ‘cooldown times’ on spells and ‘mana’. Cooldown time means that a spell cannot be used again for a set period of time after casting: the more powerful the spell, the longer its cooldown time will be. Mana, a slightly problematic concept also referred to as magicka, is most often seen as the mystical force from which magic draws its power.3 Similar to their health bar, the player character possesses a certain amount of ‘mana points’, and every spell costs mana points to be cast. Once these run out, the player cannot cast any more spells until their mana/magicka is replenished.

Casting the Shock Bolt spell in Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, with the blue mana points bar displayed in the top left corner.

What I’m getting at with these examples is that video game magic is decidedly not the mysterious, untamed, invisible force that we usually think of ‘real’ magic as being. Instead, it is, like the rest of the virtual world it inhabits, very much grounded in rules. Video game magic requires such rules to be able to exist in the game world, because the game’s artificial, coded nature demands that everything in it is quantifiable. Any player-induced in-game action needs to met with a measurable, pre-determined in-game reaction. It’s no coincidence that this sounds suspiciously like Newton’s third law of motion: what developers do when they are programming the rules for a game is essentially the writing of fictional laws of physics. When they include magic of any kind in their game, they rewrite the laws of nature in such a way that magic can come to ‘exist’. Video game magic then works like any other game mechanic: a hunter’s flaming arrow and a mage’s fireball may look and feel different, but on a very basic level, they are both projectiles that will deal a certain amount of fire damage on impact.4

Hopefully, it’s clear now what the fundamental difference between ‘real’ magic and video game magic is. As we usually see it, magic in the real world would be something that breaks natural laws, it would be something supernatural. In video games, there is no room for the supernatural, because magic is already part of the game world’s natural laws. Because of this systematisation I have described, video game magic is never truly ‘magical’: though presented as mysterious, dangerous and arcane, it becomes quantified, regulated and mundane. Therefore, what we visualise when we think about the broader concept of ‘magic’ isn’t actually anything close to that, because it will often be based on video game (or any other medium’s version of) magic. ‘Real’ magic can never really be magic, if that makes any sense.

Something proving its non-existence by existing, what does that remind me of?


Notes and references:
1. Christopher Lehrich, The Occult Mind: Magic in Theory and Practice (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2007): 164.
2. When an aspect of a game is ‘diegetic’, it means that this aspect is part of a game’s narrative world, which is also called ‘diegesis’. ‘Non-diegetic’ aspects are typically things like the menu screen, loading screen and interface; they are instrumental to the whole gaming experience, but exist distinctly outside of the game’s fiction.
3. For an example of how this is construed within game narratives, see: http://en.uesp.net/wiki/Lore:Magic.
4. William Sims Bainbridge, eGods: Faith versus Fantasy in Computer Gaming (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2013): 167.