Magic or magiC — Do Culturally Specific Sources Inform Differences in the Representations of Magic and Its Uses in Western and Chinese Fantasy RPGs?

INTRODUCTION

Since the dawn of video games, we have been teleported into one wonderful imaginary world after another. In worlds represented by role-playing games in fantasy contexts, i.e. fantasy RPGs[1], players can harness and wield powerful supernatural magic which are almost unachievable in real life. The magic generally involves magic powers (sorcery, wizardry, witchcraft, etc.) and various magical items. As Eddo Stern pointed out is his essay (Stern, 2002), these worlds in western fantasy RPGs are identically set in pseudo-historical magical medieval realms. In fact, their oriental counterparts, Chinese fantasy RPGs also have similar world settings of such fictional universes, but in culturally different contexts.

Compared to western fantasy RPGs, the Chinese ones have a much shorter history and smaller quantity. While western players were immersed in the three classics—Ultima (first title release in 1981), Wizardry and Might & Magic series, Chinese players were still awaiting the advent of probably the first Chinese RPG—Xuan-Yuan Sword (first title released in 1990). As the evolution of video games continues, many more finely crafted fantasy RPGs emerged. In the west, Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) established a well-constructed and fully realised fictional universe (or multiverses) with a set of rich, strict and constantly evolving game rules and mechanics. Based on it, many of the fantasy RPGs such as Baldur’s Gate series, Planescape: Torment, Icewind Dale series and Neverwinter Nights series, helped bringing the world of sword and magic from pen and paper to the computer. Recent Dragon Age series succeed some of the best traits and elements from D&D and reinvented tactical role-playing games (TRPGs) and action role-playing games (ARPGs). Another series, The Elder Scrolls, defined the paradigm of open world RPGs in its vast world Tamriel, while alternatively, Diablo series innovated the gameplay form of “hack and slash” in ARPGs with its straightforward narrative and closed world settings. In China, by adopting the turn-based strategy combat form from Japanese RPGs such as Final Fantasy series, Xuan-Yuan Sword and The Legend of Sword and Fairy (Chinese Paladin) series continued to grow and became the most influential and well-received Chinese RPGs, mostly for their successful conveyance of traditional Chinese culture and impressive stories. Before the Chinese digital game market became dominated by online and freemium games, games such as Heroes of Jin Yong and Prince of Qin demonstrated that Chinese can make games of various genres and styles of cultural identity and high qualities. The hope of Chinese fantasy RPGs was relit by GuJian Qitan (Fantastic Tales of Ancient Swords), a brand-new fantasy RPG series that carries forward the Chinese cultural deposits.

Despite the differences in subgenres and gameplay forms and styles, these fantasy RPGs represent magic and its mechanics and uses in ways that are influenced and informed by culturally specific sources such as myth, religion, natural philosophy and fantasy literature. As is generally perceived, the western culture is inherently influenced by Greek and Norse methodologies, western legends and folklore, Christianity and Ancient Greek Philosophy, from which western high fantasy literature gains the foundation of birth and growth and keeps inspiring creation of fantasies of western identities in the form of video games. While on the other side, Chinese methodology, legends, folklore and hundred schools of thought of Ancient Chinese philosophy (including Confucianism and Taoism) give rise to the culturally unique historical fantasy literature genres—Shenmo (Gods and Evils methodology, 神魔) and Wuxia (martial hero, 武侠). And unsurprisingly, nearly all Chinese fantasy RPGs, whether partially or wholly, draw their sources from these forms of fantasy literature. Nevertheless, do these distinctions inform considerable differences in the representations of magic and its uses in western and Chinese fantasy RPGs even when this medium originated from the west and takes its shape totally from a western approach and perspective? The essay will select some notable culturally specific sources and look into this question from several aspects of the representations of magic in fantasy RPGs—its form, function, classification, uses and users. Continue reading

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Why Can Journey Be Considered as an Art Game in Terms of Aesthetics?

INTRODUCTION

Being one of the most critically and commercially successful video games on PlayStation Network in 2012, Journey (Thatgamecompany, 2012) received mostly high critical acclaims (Metacritic, 2012) among the video games press and players for its exquisite visual and audio art style and unique the experimental gameplay experiences unified with implicit narrative which engages the player with another player through the shared emotional experiences. There are views and discussions regarding Journey as a work of interactive art (Stuart, 2012). And as the debate of whether video games can be art goes on, Journey can be a living case worthy of attention and discourses. This essay starts by justifying the feasibility of video games as a form of art and continues to argue why Journey, based on the justifications, can be considered as an art game in terms of aesthetics, in which examination and analysis on the game’s aspects of visuals, audio, gameplay and narrative are conducted and presented.

VEDIO GAMES AS ART

It has been a controversial topic that whether video games, or more precisely, digital games, can be considered as a new form of art. There’s no doubt that video games are a form of medium with creative artistic elements such as story, visual arts and music in a similar way as they are presented in films. Although some notable figures do admit this point, they question the artistic nature of video games as they are goal and choice–driven, rule-based, and meant to be played interactively. Among these arguers, one most noticeable is film critic Roger Ebert, who at first stated in an online discussion (Ebert, 2005) that video games are works of craftsmanship that lack authorial control, inferior to film and literature and “for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilised and empathetic”. He continued to argue in an essay on the rule and goal-based nature of video games (Ebert, 2010). Other similar views were expressed by game designers Brian Moriarty (2011) and Michael Samyn (2011). Continue reading

Close Textual Analysis on Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes (PC)

Unlike the early exemplary role playing or the traditional turn-based strategy titles of the same franchise, Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes (Ubisoft, Capybara Games, 2011) stands out as a distinguishable spin-off which combines match-three battle puzzles, strategic role playing and fantasy adventure gameplay together (Todd, 2011). The recurring theme of the game is heroes’ conflicts in a fairy-tale-like version of fantasy world Ashan, a full-realised secondary world with inner consistency of fantasy-oriented reality (Tolkien, 2001: 71), contributed by the gameplay, aesthetics, graphic/ audio styles and the typical good-versus-evil story, which all revolve around this theme from the very beginning, conveying a meaningful gaming experience to the player.

The single player game begins with a cut-scene introducing the general background story of the five factions in Ashan with a history of demons invading the other four. As the narrator implies, the story of the game centres on the Blade of Binding—the plot device of the game and the demons’ covetousness for it is the source of the conflicts in this story. The real adventure (campaign) unfolds thereafter with a brief tutorial on the gameplay.

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Figure 1. A scene from the prologue of Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes (Ubisoft, Capybara Games, 2011), showing the start of the adventure.

The gameplay consists of two major parts: the adventure and the battle within it, with role-playing making up essential experience in both. The adventure is the medium that carries the theme and drives the game flow, in which the player plays the five protagonists to experience the game in ways of immersive storytelling and gameplay elements of fantasy adventure genre such as exploring, accomplishing quests, hero development, resource collecting, army management, engaging in the inclusive puzzle-form battles, etc. The player’s gameplay experience starts with Anwen, the elven huntress and her first few non-optional dialogues and adventure moves (see Figure 1). Notably, the finite routes which adopt the movement nodes in the adventure scenes confine the player’s exploration; nevertheless the limitation doesn’t reduce the player’s view on the whole adventure scene and also channels the player more into the highlighted story of the adventure rather than the exploration which in this particular story-driven world is less emphasised. Therefore, the game is mainly a game of progression (story-driven adventure) with certain emergent play (choice of quests and strategies in hero development and battles) (Juul, 2002). Before further adventure is on, the player is confronted with the first battle in the game.

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Figure 2. A battle scene from Chapter 1 of Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes (Ubisoft, Capybara Games, 2011).

The turn-based puzzle-form battle is the process of resolving the conflicts between two rival heroes (see Figure 2) and is encounter during the adventure. Based on variations of match-three puzzles, the battle requires the player to form offensive (vertical stack) and defensive (horizontal row) formations of troops by removing any unit or moving the unit at the bottom of a column in limited moves in each turn. To win a battle and then proceed to further adventure, the player must defeat the opponent’s defences and inflict damage directly to the opponent’s heath until it is reduced to zero. The puzzle form of the battle abstracts battle strategies from reality to create a unique combat system that accords with the fairy-tale theme, lessening the intensity. By gradually introducing combat rules such as same-colour attacking chain and fusion, more combat units, Anwen’s spell and bonus moves rewarded by completing multiple actions in one move, the battle starts to involve certain depth of strategies which also increases in complexity and difficulty as the adventure progresses. In the meantime, the player learns as he/she plays Anwen in a reasonably progressive learning curve, practicing new skills and being rewarded by achieving new goals (Sweetser, P. and Wyeth, P., 2005). However, to some degree the randomness of the positions the troops spawn renders the battle a bit more relying on luck as the complexity of the battle rises and decreases the player’s sense of choice and agency; but meanwhile the randomness also results in the variety of the battle, enhancing the player’s feeling about the impact of the decisions on the game’s outcome (Salen, K. and Zimmerman, E., 2004: 174), here, through the process of resolving the conflicts. Heroes play a very important role in the battle because they are the actors of the conflicts and specifically the player can utilise their special attacking and defending abilities along with various battle bonuses provided by artefacts equipped by heroes to alter the strategies and even the whole battle. From battle to adventure and then to another battle, the player plays through the recurring process of the encountering and resolving of conflicts, in which the hero as well as the combat units gains experience points while the player becomes more experienced with the battle puzzles. Therefore, through the puzzle form of battles and the role-playing as heroes that engaged in them, the player experiences heroes’ conflicts in an active way.

ClashOfHeroes Magic Portal

Figure 3. A cut-scene from the prologue of Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes (Ubisoft, Capybara Games, 2011), showing the protagonists being separated by the magic portal.

The overall fairy-tale-like cartoonish graphic style of the game is in accordance with its expression of violence of the conflicts in a non-violent way for its intended wide, especially young target audience since the game was rated as E10+ (Everyone 10 and older) (ESRB, 2011) and PEGI 12 (PEGI, 2011). From the title scene on, the game is presented in a visual style of relatively small scale, smooth texture, and mild colour palette achieved using cartoonish rendering techniques with soft lighting and simple shadows. In the prologue and the first chapter specifically, the adventure scene is set in a mysterious and harmonious elven forest where little golden magic sparks float in the air and exquisite tents are set up among lush trees, depicting a typical territory of elves (see Figure 1). Characters, their dialogue avatars and combat units all appear as hand-drawn fairy-tale-like cartoon figures while in the static cut-scenes they and the adventure scenes remain the same style but appear in different perspectives (see Figure 3). These visuals differentiate from those of Heroes of Might and Magic V (Ubisoft, Nival Interactive, 2006) from a more realistic version of Ashan. The game was designed to be immersive in a fantasy context as these graphic elements are still presented as explicit symbols with conventional links (Sebeok, 2001: 55) to the traditional western fantasy even though they are in cartoonish style. For instance, the delicately depicted forest scene (see Figure 1) indicates the good elves while the red burning skins are of the evil demons (see Figure 2). In contrast to the static adventure scene, the battle scene appears more dynamic as the actions of heroes and troops are expressed by using smooth and slightly exaggerated animations but the adventure and the battle are generally in consistency as the graphics of the battle environment are in accordance with the location where the battle takes place.

The game’s audio as well is in a fantasty style. The incidental orchestral music tends to be non-diegetic so that the music functions more vividly. It can be divided into three categories: narrative (theme) music, scene music and battle music. Narrative music appears when critical plots occur as an essential part of the narration. For example in the prologue, when the inferno army launches the sneak attack on the elven camp, the music suddenly becomes intense to cohere with the sinister turn. The title music also is of this category for it acts as the heroic “overture” of the whole story. Scene music plays along with the player’s adventure and in the beginning of the prologue specifically, is a soothing forest nocturne that implicitly immerses the player in the harmonious ambience. The highlighted battle music creates the major tension for the battle, in spite of the relaxed atmosphere created by the cartoon graphic style. Apart from the music, the abundant sound effects permeate the game and contribute to the completeness of the game world. Above all, the audio and the graphics work together in constructing a convincible fairy-tale-like fantasy world where the player engages in conflicts as heroes with active immersion.

In the aspect of story, the game is a prequel to Heroes of Might and Magic V (Ubisoft, Nival Interactive, 2006), which sets extra-diegetic narration (Wolf, 2001: 101) for players who are familiar with the latter. As mentioned above, the story begins because of the Blade of Binding and is supposed to be developed and resolved by it. Thus by setting the game’s action in a specific narrative context and by giving the player, through the protagonists, the motivation (the main quest), the secondary world gains diegetic depth and the meaning to play (Wolf, 2001: 101). In the game, the narrative is conveyed mainly by characters’ dialogues, game plot and the cut-scenes. Being non-optional, the dialogues narrate the linear story in a most simple, direct and effective way and are mostly in approachable fairy-tale narrative form. While the cut-scenes seem to be non-interactive, they serve as narrative episodes for exposition, causation and tension (Newman, 2004: 98), linking the diegesis (narrative) and non-diegesis (gameplay). The plot in the prologue rises to the climax, as shown in the second cut-scene, when the camp is destroyed and nearly all heroes are defeated by the inferno army in search for the Blade of Binding, which sets up the major conflicts between the protagonists and the daemons that lead the overall storyline. Anwen and the other four orphaned protagonists then have to evacuate to the magic portal through tough fights and finally it comes to a temporary resolution that they get separated by the portal (see Figure 3). Scattered across Ashan, their fate will be totally different now and handed over to the player, together with the hook: the whereabouts of the other four and the Blade of Binding.

Now, as the fairy-tale-like fantasy world Ashan and the on-going heroes’ conflicts are just beginning to unveil before the player, why would he/she click “Exit Game”?

 

References

ESRB (2011) Might and Magic Clash Of Heroes Rating Information, [Online], Available: http://www.esrb.org/ratings/synopsis.jsp?Certificate=26953&Title=Might%20and%20Magic%20Clash%20Of%20Heroes [17 Oct 2012].

Juul, J. (2002) ‘The Open and the Closed: Game of emergence and games of progression’, Computer Games and Digital Cultures Conference Proceedings, Tampere, 323-329.

Newman, J. (2004) Videogames, London: Routledge.

PEGI (2011) Might and Magic Clash Of Heroes Rating Information Search Result, [Online], Available: http://www.pegi.info/en/index/global_id/505/?searchString=Clash+of+Heroes [17 Oct 2012].

Salen, K. and Zimmerman, E. (2004) Rules of Play, London: The MIT Press.

Sebeok, T.A. (2001) Signs: An Introduction to Semiotics, 2nd edition, Torronto: University of Toronto Press.

Sweetser, P. and Wyeth, P. (2005) ‘GameFlow: a model for evaluating player enjoyment in games’, Computers in Entertainment (CIE) – Theoretical and Practical Computer Applications in Entertainment, vol. 3, no. 3, July, pp. 3-3.

Todd, B. (2011) Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes Review, [Online], Available: http://uk.gamespot.com/might-and-magic-clash-of-heroes/reviews/might-and-magic-clash-of-heroes-review-6308736/ [17 Oct 2012].

Tolkien, J.R.R. (2001) ‘On Fairy-Stories’, in Tolkien, J.R.R. Tree and Leaf, London: HapperCollins, pp.3-81.

Ubisoft, Capybara Games (2011) Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes.

Ubisoft, Nival Interactive (2006) Heroes of Might and Magic V.

Wolf, M.J.P. (2001) ‘Narrative in the Video Game’, in Wolf, M.J.P. (ed.) The Medium of the Video Game, Austin: University of Texas Press, pp.93-111.