Magic. Have you ever really considered what it means? We’re told what it means a lot, especially in games. We’re told it means fireballs and lightning bolts and turning people into sheep. But is that really magic, or is it simply a term used to describe something we’ve become accustomed to? It’s a thought that’s been nagging at me.
It occurred reading The Tombs of Atuan recently, the second Earthsea book by Ursula K. Le Guin. It’s a book about a wizard but something about the magic feels different. It feels incomprehensible. It’s not defined by dice rolls or numbered values or rules, but worked out somewhere outside of explanation, just past the edge of understanding. A climactic battle happens where you can’t see it: in the wizard’s mind. He holds off a terrible evil but there are no explanations to lay it bare, no parameters by which to understand it. You understand it only as something extraordinary. And it feels like magic.
Or, and you’ll know this one, the moment Gandalf the White rides out from Gondor to repel the Nazgul. I remember reading the book, many years ago, and thinking, ‘Yeah go on Gandalf, mess them up!’ And I expected a fireworks display. But all he did was produce a beam of light. At the time, I was disappointed, but now I’m delighted, because it works. It’s an epic confrontation, you understand that, yet you don’t really know what went on, only that Gandalf won. It’s… incomprehensible.
Maybe that’s it, then, maybe that’s what magic means to me: something that’s eternally unknowable, something close at hand but never quite understood. That’s the magic I feel in a film before the monster is explained, the magic I feel when I hear ghost stories, or think about aliens.
But then I talk to my partner and she’s got other ideas. I ask what magic means to her and she is whisked off to her childhood, sitting under a tree with a book (The Hobbit) surrounded by the mountains of Bulgaria, where she grew up. Magic to her is a bundled up feeling of childhood, of feeling safe, and free.
Have I got it all wrong?
I decided I needed some help. I needed other people’s opinions about what magic means to them. So, I asked some of the most creative people I could think of, and here’s what they, very kindly, said.
“Magic ultimately is a shorthand for a creative thought exercise”
“As someone who grew up playing Dungeons & Dragons and all sorts of video games, watching fantasy movies, and reading fantasy books and comics, magic means a lot to me! I think, at the heart of it, magic in fiction creates an opportunity to reset the rules of the world. When developing a fantasy world, whether magic exists in that world, how it manifests, and how it’s interpreted by society are all good questions to consider.
“For example, in our first game, Bastion, we decided early on that it would take place in a world of science rather than a world of magic, despite being a fantasy-themed setting in the broadest sense. There’s the famous quotation from science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke that ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’, which I completely agree with, insofar as advanced tech can fit the same exact role as magic in a work of fiction. Deliberately excluding magic from Bastion’s world helped reinforce the frontiersy feel we were going for.
“In our third game, Pyre, we decided magic would be a big part of it, as our goal was to create an ancient-feeling, mystical world. We wanted the magic in Pyre to feel uncommon, genuinely supernatural, and difficult to explain, more like something from mythology. The characters in the story could be surprised by it alongside the player. This helps give Pyre a more spiritual kind of vibe, and separates its fantasy setting from that of Bastion.
“There are limitless ways to spin magic in fiction. You have worlds where magic is relatively commonplace, like in Dungeons & Dragons or many other role-playing games. You have worlds where magic is fading away, like in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea novels. You have worlds where magic is forbidden. You have worlds filled with witchcraft and the occult, which can be seen as specific interpretations of magic. And even within any of these subcategories, there are infinite possibilities.
“Magic ultimately is a shorthand for a creative thought exercise: How could the world be different? How could people be different? I think the more deeply these questions are considered, the more powerful the magic.”
“I’m interested in magic in the way that it turns the known unknown”
Meghna Jayanth is best known for writing the award-winning 80 Days, but also contributed to Horizon: Zero Dawn and wrote Falcon Age. She’s the writer behind the exciting, desert sci-fi game Sable, too, which should be out this year. @betterthemask
“There are so many different ways of thinking about magic, each one dependent on the context. In fiction, I love intricately developed magical systems, with rules and rituals that open up entirely new ways of looking at the world. And I love magic that’s oblique and obtuse, resisting easy understanding, hinting at deeper truths and hidden meanings.
“I suppose I’m interested in magic in the way that it turns the known unknown, makes the world strange and somehow new, its working as evidence of things unseen, which makes you look more closely. Magic changes the rules the world operates by, what we think is possible, what we think is reasonable or true. That’s something I’m always interested in: exploring and opening up the possibilities of worlds and futures and ways of being that are different. I love disrupting the idea that the way things are is something fixed. I think it’s important to be able to imagine our way out of it, multiple ways out of it, and magic is one route into that kind of imagination.”
“I have never stopped chasing it”
Thomas Sala made last year’s Xbox launch gem, The Falconeer, by himself! An incredible personal achievement, and a deeply personal game because of it. He’s also the person behind notable Skyrim mod Moonpath to Elswyr. @FalconeerDev
“In some respects I had an unconventional upbringing, which is besides the point, but it did see me, at fourteen, travelling the Himalayan Country of Tibet together with my father. This is probably in 1990, a year after Tiananmen Square, and Tibet was a country locked away and hidden. But from that journey I took away something that has never left me. Within those mountains, its monasteries and the people who live and worship there, are landscapes that haunt me. It’s a feeling the Germans call ‘unheimlich’: of being so far from home it becomes unsettling.
“And those mountains, the atmosphere of that place, left such an impression of visual majesty and mystery, I have never stopped chasing it. It is certainly not a feeling of power, but a sense of being lost, dwarfed by nature. A sense there is more to learn, more to see; truths unknown, possibly forever.
“I started to write on the detriment of magic power on storytelling, on how I enjoy reading about ritualised magic that extracts a price and adds risk. On how the Hulk is a classic ritualized magic trade. But in the end magic, for me, isn’t those things. It’s that sense of wonder at the realisation you know nothing, that the mystery is in front of you, not behind you.
“For me, this has been the lasting reward of computer games, visiting those places of wonder, from Brittania to the City of Sigil, the Capital Wasteland, the province of Skyrim, all the way to the Ursee of the Falconeer. There are no spells or incantations in my games (that work anyway). There are very few particularly interesting heroes or protagonists, even. But there are landscapes from horizon to horizon, recreations from my mind, providing one thing: that feeling you are somewhere new, a place strange and unsettlingly far from home, a place of mystery and, in their intent, hopefully magical.”
“We wanted to get away from the idea of an altered mental state being somehow magical”
“In regards to Before I Forget, which is about a woman with dementia, we thought about magic in the sense of not thinking about it. We wanted to get away from the idea of an altered mental state being somehow magical or supernatural. We set about creating a house that felt very natural, light, airy and even familiar. It’s an ordinary house, rather than grand or ornate. And it’s a welcoming space, without any sense of being scary or spooky. That was a deliberate choice because our protagonist has dementia and that’s not magical. Her hallucinations and trips through time are just symptoms of a disease that’s heartbreakingly commonplace.
“The magic is in intentionally confusing or unsettling the player, while ensuring they are still grounded in the house the game takes place in. When the character’s memory plays tricks on her, and the player, we always bring them back to the house. Back to the present, or the timeline that appears to be Sunita’s present.
“If magic is about illusion, then games are the best tricks of all because they contain so many layers of illusion, creating virtual spaces and characters that players interact with in a way that creates a sense of agency and impact within them.”
“Magic is transporting people from this world”
Stuart Turton wrote the Costa Book Award-winning The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, which I interviewed him about for Eurogamer, because his lifelong passion for games shines through in it. His newest book, The Devil and the Dark Water, came out last autumn. Real page-turners. You should read them. @stu_turton
“For me, magic is transporting people from this world, which is pretty horrible most of the time, to another one, which is hopefully better – or, at least, horrible in a more interesting way. Magic is the ability to truly, one hundred per cent, convince a grown adult that they’re happy when they’re sad, or afraid when they’re perfectly safe. In my books, it’s about putting them in a sinister house, or on a long, dangerous boat ride, and making them feel the dirt on their skin, or sea spray in the air. I want people to come out of my books blinking, because they forget the story wasn’t their life.
“As adults, it’s very rare we get to leave our lives behind. Kids get to do it all the time, just by deciding they’re somewhere else. They can convince themselves of it so easily, which is a bit of a bugger considering they don’t have to worry about paying bills or anything. Magic is being able to throw a sheet over all the things haunting our psyche and making them vanish for a little while. In my experience, there’s not a lot capable of doing it. That’s why I love video games so much. The worlds are so rich they completely transport me.”
“Magic is essentially connected to childhood”
David Goldfarb tweets about deadlifting, but he’s better known for designing Battlefield: Bad Company 2, writing Battlefield 3, and directing Payday 2. He’s currently bringing a passion project to life, Metal: Hellsinger, which is an ingenious mix of Doom meets Guitar Hero. What’s not to like?! @locust9
“I guess magic for me is essentially connected to childhood, but not in a nostalgic way. It’s more that when we were kids the possibility that anything might exist made life beautiful and interesting, and surprising, and even terrifying sometimes. It’s the What If?
“In the context of games, magic is just allowing that wonder to appear again in whatever kind of expression is most meaningful to a player. That sense of being somewhere no one has been before, or being someone doing something no one has ever done before: those are all ‘magic’ moments.”
“Magic is […] an experience which gives you goosebumps”
“Magic is when you come across an experience which gives you goosebumps and gets your heart pounding. A positive experience.
“Magic is when you’re wanting to get back to something, without making an effort or thought about it. A passion, and being almost enchanted.”
“Magic is moments that define so much you feel that you have no words to express the feelings”
Shruti Ghosh is one of the other co-founders of Nodding Head and, besides being responsible for the delicate and defining art style of Raji: An Ancient Epic, somehow finds time to rescue stray dogs.
“That’s a very interesting question, it’s not often you get asked a question like that in this industry.
“For me magic has a lot of meaning, but more than a meaning I think magic is something you feel. It could be a little magic in everyday life. For instance, me and Ian rescue a lot of dogs and puppies from the street, like accident cases or dire health situations and a lot of other things. But when a dog almost has no chance but somehow makes it through, and the dog is back to being its lovely healthy playful self… The way the dog looks at us and showers us with love and licks to say thank you: that’s magic for me. That look in their eyes, full of love, says a lot even though they can’t speak. That love speaks volumes. That’s magic.
“I am a believer in small moments that make life magical or special. All these three years we’ve sacrificed so much as a team, spent days without money, yet did not give up on the dream of making Raji. There have been few instances I felt this is probably what magic is all about. We’ve worked in an apartment all by ourselves not knowing initially how this game, or this girl dressed in Indian attire, will be received worldwide. But when we went to events there were moments that defined what all we worked for was worth it.
“The very first time me and Ian went to London Rezzed with Raji. We were so nervous. I was sick to my stomach that people would laugh at us. Then this father and son duo comes to play the game. While the son plays the game, the father is listening to everything with the headphones. Everytime the son couldn’t understand anything, the father explained and smiled. After they were done he was so happy, and told us that he wanted a game like Raji for his son so he can tell him about the land where he grew up. That feeling when someone says something like that, to validate that what you imagined the game to do, is magic.
“Another instance is my favourite. This girl I met in Boston, she was in a wheelchair, and was watching others playing Raji. When I asked her if she would like to try she was so happy. All the while she was playing she had a big smile on her face, and watching her react to every small thing brought tears to my eyes. When she was done she held my hands tightly and said I love the art, please tell your artist I’m a fan. When I said I’m one of the artists, she was so overjoyed. She kept coming back to the booth with all her friends. That feeling your creation can mean so much to someone else is magic.
“To sum it up, magic is a mixture of feelings. [It’s what] my dogs make me feel when I have a shit day, and I don’t need to say a word and they come and sit beside me or hug me. Magic is me and Ian are still in love, even though we both are passionate artists working and running a company together, running a household of ten dogs. It can be tough. We argue but we both know we are always there for each other. Magic is what I felt the day our game released on Nintendo Switch Indie World showcase, because after all the struggle, selling my apartment, [it] was all worth it. Magic is moments that define so much you feel that you have no words to express the feelings.”
“Magic has helped me wake up”
Cissy Jones voiced main character Norah Everhart in one of my games of 2020, Call of the Sea. You might recognise her name – or, indeed, voice! – from her award-winning performance in Firewatch. @cissyspeaks
“I feel magic all around me – from meeting people for the first time but swearing I’ve known them all my life, to getting that call that I booked the job I knew I booked when I sent in the audition, to the gut instinct to zig when everyone else zags.
“Magic has helped me wake up. It’s helped me form some of my strongest friendships, and it’s taken me to places in the world that have changed my life. Not to mention the fact that I’ve had way too many unfounded ‘coincidences’ to ignore as pure happenstance.
“There are some things we simply cannot explain. Think of all the damage done, all the people killed – all in the name of explaining phenomena. What if, instead, we accepted that the unexplainable is magic, and if we work with it instead of against it… what kind of magic could we create?
“There’s so much more to learn. I think we’re all just starting to wake up to the possibilities.”
“Magic is anything that fascinates us but we don’t understand yet”
Mohammad Fahmi made Coffee Talk, a gentle game about making coffee for fantasy-inspired people and listening to their all-to-familiar problems. He followed it recently with What Comes After, a love letter to people who think they’re a burden to others. @fahmitsu
“Thank you, [your question] took my mind to places I didn’t expect to go today, almost as if the question itself was pretty… magical. I’ll see myself out.
“Personally, I have two definitions for magic.
“The first one is the standard fantasy stuff. When Vivi casts Firaga on an enemy, that’s magic. Whatever Solas did in [Dragon Age] Inquisition, that’s magic. It all depends on the world where the magic happens. They have their own explanations and I enjoy most of them, although my favorite would be from a visual novel called An Octave Higher, where magic is considered something very scientific, to the point the game even explained the formula of how magic works in the world.
“The second one is magic as I, personally, understand it. To me, magic is anything that fascinates us but we don’t understand yet, or maybe never will. That’s why a magic show is best when we don’t know the secret behind it. It explains the lack of magic in the world now. We are so advanced almost everything in the universe can be explained with logic or science. We will never have a grand, global-level magic, like when the people from medieval times saw eclipse for the first time.
“But, thankfully we still can experience some small magic that happens to us. Things like the first time you had a crush in school: that was magical. Or the first time I released a game and saw how people said the game helped them in various aspects of their life: that felt magical.
“A little side-story: a few years ago my former boss asked me, if I could be granted any kind of superpower, what would I choose? His answer was ‘all the knowledge that ever was, and will be, in the universe, and the ability to process and use those powers without losing sanity’. My answer was, ‘The ability to communicate with anything in the universe, from rocks, babies, animals, to things even beyond our understanding.’
“He said, ‘But my ability already covered your ability; your superpower is weaker.’ To which I said, ‘Yes, but your power won’t allow you to experience the joy of not knowing and learning something new,’ which, to me, is something magical.
“Knowing everything will remove magic from your life, and that sucks.”
Many answers, many threads. Magic as a feeling of awe, a feeling associated with powerful, formative experiences, a feeling of powerful intuition. Magic as a limitless way of exploring fantasy worlds, and in understanding them, perhaps challenging people’s perceptions of their own world. Magic as something that defies understanding. Magic as transportational, as alleviation. Magic as childhood. Magic as colour.
And above all, perhaps, magic as happiness. Because in thinking about it, and in reading other people’s thoughts on it, happiness seems to be a feeling throughout. Even thinking about what magic means seems to be a nice place to be. So why not?
Tell me: What does magic mean to you?
My sincere thanks to everybody who took part.