Thursday, January 12, 2006

Magic as Art and Science

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." -- Arthur C. Clarke

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from a rigged demo." -- Anonymous

It's an old question, but it's still a good one: When developing a concept of magic for a work of fantasy (whether a book or a game), should it be presented as a form of science with consistent laws? Or should it be described as an ineffable thing that simply works because it does?

In other words, should magic be represented as a science or as an art?

Some fifty years ago, C.P. Snow (The Two Cultures) described a widening gulf between the artistic and scientific conceptions of the world. We don't seem today to be any closer to resolving that tension. I have trouble deciding it for myself (in general, and in how magic is implemented in computer games) because I can see both sides too well.

On the one hand I'm one of those crazy INTP "Architect" types. I make sense of the world by building taxonomies and cause-and-effect structures to see how well observed reality fits within that model. If some model doesn't match reality in some way, I try to change the model to achieve a closer fit with reality. Life is a quest for a better model of the world.

To someone like me who reads science fiction and fantasy, then, this "build a better model" attitude makes the temptation to try to construct some set of foundational principles for "how magic works" almost irresistible. It's even worse when I play a game or read a book in which no thought appears to have been given to how magic works, in which the creator just threw something together that seems to get the job done. That drives me nuts. Where's the logical consistency? Where's the coherence of effects? Where's the control point that allows for controlled experimentation? Where's the system that suggests opportunities for new forms of magical expression? (I said I was one of those crazy Architect types. ;-)

I naturally think of magic as a system, with rules governed by physical reality of some kind that can be described and understood. And then I want to explore those rules to see where the interesting exceptions live. That's what science does.

But on the other hand, something in me rebels at exposing beauty to harsh lighting and a microscope. Why can't art simply be? Isn't something of value lost when you analyze a thing down to its component molecules?

In his stories, Lord Dunsany liked to refer to the world "beyond the fields we know." Tolkien was going after something similar in his concept of "Faerie." These artists and others have shared a concern that once something becomes familiar, it loses its power to inspire. Without an incomprehensible and inexplicable Other beyond our power to understand, without a bend in the road beyond which anything could exist, without the possibility of joy and hope despite pain and loss, the world becomes a gray and dusty ant-hill of soulless mortals scurrying this way and that to no purpose.

For an artist, that's an unacceptably bitter thought. Existence in a world without beauty is unendurable.

I don't think of myself as an artist, but I respect that part of the artistic temperament that tries to ennoble human nature. Like the artist, I also want to think of magic as tapping into the power of a world of brightness that can't even be perceived by the gray bureaucrats of our world. Maybe it's possible to learn how to control this otherworldly power; maybe such power can only be requested in an extreme circumstance and is never certain. But what it can't be is understood, because it simply is. To understand it would be to crush the very quality of ineffability that gives it its power. You may use it, but you may never possess it.

I find this concept of magic strongly appealing as well.

So I'm stuck. I love the idea of building systems of magic, but I know that to do so risks squeezing the glamour completely out of magic. You probably have to build a system if you're designing a game that allows player characters to do magic... but when you do, it's no longer about beauty, it's about numbers, and a spark of something larger than ourselves is lost in the pursuit of cold game mechanics.

I'm still trying to resolve this dilemma, and I'm curious to hear what others think about it. Does the tension between art and science matter in general? Can it ever be resolved in a computer game?

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