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The Magic of Video Games

Johnny Unusual

(He/Him)
This is just a question I thought of and I have no answer in mind at all. What game do you think has the best mechanic or even just general use of magic and spellcasting. Not just selecting a magic spell from a list in an RPG, but something that makes you feels more involved into the idea of casting a spell. I know this is something of a vague question and I apologize for not articulating it well, but I'm curious.
 

JBear

Internet's foremost Bertolli cosplayer
(He/Him)
Magicka certainly comes to mind. I think it expects too much of players, but the way that you combine elemental runes to make spells feels more authentically like casting magic than anything I've ever played. Which, probably not coincidentally, also makes it the best game for hilariously killing your friends as everything goes terribly wrong.

Runner-up is probably Treasure of the Rudras, which does something similar, but much more robust, and with kanji in place of magic runes. Shame it's more or less impossible to translate into english, although fans have done an amazing job trying anyway.
 

R.R. Bigman

Coolest Guy
Soul Sacrifice is my knee-jerk pick. It such a varied number spells, and since spells are your only attack and have mostly limited uses, you have to really strategize when picking your load out. It’s what I wish the Dark Souls games would have done with their magic system, back when they still had them.
 

JBear

Internet's foremost Bertolli cosplayer
(He/Him)
Oh, oh, and Legend of Grimrock had a cool magic system too, where you have a 3 x 3 grid of runes and have to trace a path through them like a tablet password.
 

Mogri

Round and round I go
(he)
Staff member
Moderator
Oh, oh, and Legend of Grimrock had a cool magic system too, where you have a 3 x 3 grid of runes and have to trace a path through them like a tablet password.
...While dodging giant crabs.
 

Super Megaman X

dead eyes
(He/Him)
Secret of Evermore was also interesting in that it wasn't "magic" it was Alchemy, so you had to gather materials out in the field and spend them, in order to cast spells, with different combinations having different effects.
 

ThornGhost

lofi posts to relax/study to
(he/him)
Nethack's baroque layering of enchantments, blessings, curses, sacrifices, prayer, potions, scrolls, books, wands, intrinsic abilities and spells is maybe the most complex I have personal experience with, though it does feel a bit mechanical when you understand how they interact. That takes a good long while though.
 

Bongo

excused from moderation duty
(he/him)
Staff member
Of all things, I love how it works in Fable 2. You'd charge up a spell to one of five increasingly powerful charge levels, but you could have a different spell equipped to each charge level, so you could bring a lot of customizability to your play style. It was also cool that each spell had both a version targeting a single enemy and an untargeted area-effect version. Very fluid, very fun. I kinda want to play that game again now.

However, I have the most admiration for the effort that went into it in Ocarina of Time specifically. Even its successors that used a similar system didn't do so with as much thoroughness. The concept was simple: the player would perform magic spells (even if some of them seem pretty mundane, like identifying yourself as a royal messenger) by playing a song, and, similarly to the game Loom, the player must enter the notes of the song themselves (though not in a rhythmic or polyphonic way).

This meant Koji Kondo was faced with a challenge. He had to design a system that could require players to input music. The process had to be easy, because it would be done often; it had to be simple, because it needed to be accessible to children; and the songs had to be memorable, because general console audiences would be playing.

In the end, his approach was to represent the magic songs (at least, the introductory and necessary ones) as repeated three-note patterns chosen from a limited pool of five notes. Just 125 melodies can be represented with that limitation, and of them only 6 were used in the game (plus 2 more in the sequel). The five notes he chose allowed him to write songs that contain many useful intervals, in order to ensure the songs can be written in different modes, lending variety and texture to the proceedings. But the real stroke of genius was to ensure that each of these six melodies was represented conspicuously somewhere in the game's score, in order to reinforce them to the player with or without their active involvement, as well as to elaborate on them musically so that a strong emotional attachment could be formed. Plus, as if to show off, he made sure that one of the six was a melody from an earlier game, in order to strengthen its consistency as a sequel.

And he did all this while inventing the system of dynamic music (the Hyrule Field theme) that's served as a model for countless other games. But that's a different story.
 

Beowulf

Son of The Answer Man
(He/Him)
Runner-up is probably Treasure of the Rudras, which does something similar, but much more robust, and with kanji in place of magic runes. Shame it's more or less impossible to translate into english, although fans have done an amazing job trying anyway.
I think Treasure of the Rudras gets high marks for both being an interesting system and also a wholly usable system. I hate having to load up on vendortrash reagents or try to combine runes/trace images during a fast-paced battle. (There were a couple of DS games that tried the "tracing runes" thing, and it generally turned into stopping the game you were playing to do a Cooking Mama minigame, which was a jarring break in the action every time.)

I think my other issue is that I know my brain works orthogonally to the way most game designers' brains do, so "creative puzzle" magic systems are usually just obtuse to me. We're still very far from capturing Mage: The Ascension as something you can do without a real human adjudicating it.
 

Regulus

Sir Knightbot
There's a kind of neat first person puzzle/adventure game called In Verbis Virtus which has you learning spell incantations that you're actually required to speak aloud in order to cast.

I never got very far into it, though, so I don't really know how deep the incantation system goes.
 

Olli

(he/him)
I like the system in Nahlakh. All spells consist of three magic words and each (or almost) letter of the keyboard produces a different magic word when placed in a certain placement. For example, the letter R in the first slot becomes "Rakh", which is the magic word for starting projectile spells - but you have to learn this from context and the mechanics. At first, you have only a small handful of full spells you get from the game's instructions or rare spellbooks, and you don't have any real understanding of what the magic words in the spells mean. Failure rates for amateur spellcasters are very high, so you're inclined to keep using the few easy spells that you know you _might_ be able to pull off. But nothing really restricts you from trying out any spell words available - it's just that most combinations are a waste of time and your strength (which is consumed by failed spellcasting attempts and restored by resting, which in turn consumes food).

Once you learn a couple of similar spells, like RIF "rakh im fyr" ("spark" - small fire attack) and RII "rakh im iz" ("freeze" - small ice attack), you start to get an idea of the meaning of the magic words, and you can cautiously start trying other combinations that might work. It's not a big stretch of the imagination to come up with a stone-based attack spell once you learn that the "xa" word in the last position from the spell means "stone" - and you might learn this from the priest spell GBX, which creates a stone obstacle in the battlefield. RIX throws a pebble at your enemies. Extrapolating from this knowledge and the spark spell, you can deduce that GBF creates a fire obstacle. Again, however, it's not just a matter of grinding out all of the possible combinations - spell failures have a cost. Luckily, there's a priest spell that creates food - assuming you can figure out what it is and are skillful enough to cast it.

While your skill level grows by casting spells so that eventually you'll be able to cast the easier spells successfully all the time, the more effective spells are hard to get right, so things keep on being interesting. I know that RMF is a strong single-target fire attack, and RMM is a spell that has a good chance of killing a single target (assuming they're not undead, a demon, a golem, or something). RLF is an area-effect fireball, a really good and difficult spell. Should I even try RLM - "death ball"? I don't know if it's programmed in the game. I know that it'll be really hard to pull off if it's possible at all, so it's a high-risk, high-reward gamble - should I stick to something that I know can work? It would be nice to wipe out all those mooks with a single spell before they reach melee distance...
 

Paul le Fou

24/7 lofi hip hop man to study/relax to
(He)
I like the system in Nahlakh. All spells consist of three magic words and each (or almost) letter of the keyboard produces a different magic word when placed in a certain placement. For example, the letter R in the first slot becomes "Rakh", which is the magic word for starting projectile spells - but you have to learn this from context and the mechanics. At first, you have only a small handful of full spells you get from the game's instructions or rare spellbooks, and you don't have any real understanding of what the magic words in the spells mean. Failure rates for amateur spellcasters are very high, so you're inclined to keep using the few easy spells that you know you _might_ be able to pull off. But nothing really restricts you from trying out any spell words available - it's just that most combinations are a waste of time and your strength (which is consumed by failed spellcasting attempts and restored by resting, which in turn consumes food).

Once you learn a couple of similar spells, like RIF "rakh im fyr" ("spark" - small fire attack) and RII "rakh im iz" ("freeze" - small ice attack), you start to get an idea of the meaning of the magic words, and you can cautiously start trying other combinations that might work. It's not a big stretch of the imagination to come up with a stone-based attack spell once you learn that the "xa" word in the last position from the spell means "stone" - and you might learn this from the priest spell GBX, which creates a stone obstacle in the battlefield. RIX throws a pebble at your enemies. Extrapolating from this knowledge and the spark spell, you can deduce that GBF creates a fire obstacle. Again, however, it's not just a matter of grinding out all of the possible combinations - spell failures have a cost. Luckily, there's a priest spell that creates food - assuming you can figure out what it is and are skillful enough to cast it.

While your skill level grows by casting spells so that eventually you'll be able to cast the easier spells successfully all the time, the more effective spells are hard to get right, so things keep on being interesting. I know that RMF is a strong single-target fire attack, and RMM is a spell that has a good chance of killing a single target (assuming they're not undead, a demon, a golem, or something). RLF is an area-effect fireball, a really good and difficult spell. Should I even try RLM - "death ball"? I don't know if it's programmed in the game. I know that it'll be really hard to pull off if it's possible at all, so it's a high-risk, high-reward gamble - should I stick to something that I know can work? It would be nice to wipe out all those mooks with a single spell before they reach melee distance...
I might be missing an explanatory line somewhere, but am I reading you right that even if you get the spell combination right, you might fail to cast it anyway because of...RNG or something?
 

4-So

Spicy
Secret of Evermore was also interesting in that it wasn't "magic" it was Alchemy, so you had to gather materials out in the field and spend them, in order to cast spells, with different combinations having different effects.

I didn't always like having to scour for reagents but alchemy in SoE has always been the gold standard for me in terms of magic systems.
 

Olli

(he/him)
I might be missing an explanatory line somewhere, but am I reading you right that even if you get the spell combination right, you might fail to cast it anyway because of...RNG or something?
Yes, exactly. Each spell has a (hidden) difficulty stat, and each player has a spellcasting stat. The spellcasting stat starts from very low and increases slowly with use. Even with a correct spell combination, the attempt may fail if your skill is low, or just by poor luck. The game is balanced so that you typically want to be casting spells that have some chance of failure - lower difficulty spells won't have a strong enough effect, and if you happen to know a very powerful spell word combination, you won't be able to pull it off reliably enough. When you're going through a dungeon, battles slowly drain your casters' strength due to casting failures and you can only recover it (as well as hit points) if you find a peaceful enough place for resting.
 

Purple

(She/Her)
I'm just going to say "Kartia," and leave it up to everyone else to go "oh yeah!" or to spend time they absolutely should learning more about it.
 

FelixSH

(He/Him)
The magic system in the DS game Lost Magic was fun. It's ages since I played it, but I think you got more and more runes, and could combine them in whichever way you wanted (well, two and later three at a time), and get a bunch of different spells that way. Unfortunately, the way the game worked was so that you were defenseless, and spells took forever, so there was a monster catching aspect to the game (a simple one, IIRC). Always felt kind of like the developer didn't know how else you would have the time to draw the runes on your DS.

I mean, it's 15 years or so, since I played it, so maybe I remember it wrong. But I think I had fun with this game, and enjoyed drawing runes.
 
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