In videogames, magic is the sword with which I flay back the shades of ignorance, the rod with which I bend all Nature to my will. In real life, it's my third most successful ice-breaker at parties. (Number two is telling that joke I know about the monkey and the Scotch egg. Number one, of course, is letting on that I'm a videogames journalist.)
The same perverse urge that unfailingly has me selecting Indirecto Damagimus over Axel Melee-Killalot at any given class creation screen also drove me to learn sleight-of-hand tricks as a child. I can recall two today - the one where you make a card "disappear" by flicking it behind your fingers, and the one where you make a coin "disappear" by throwing it over your shoulder. Do me a favour - if you're ever hit by 20p in a central London bar, don't turn around unless it's to say "sweet Jesus, the handsome rogue's in league with dark forces!" Because that always does wonders for my pulling prospects. You can keep the 20p if you like.
I'm clearly no expert on the supernatural, but if you asked me what august motto I'd sear into the stone above the entrance to my very own College of Winterhold - an institution which now serves chiefly as a spawning vat for my necromantic experiments - it would be "magic is the art of the arbitrary". To cast a spell is to achieve a total metaphysical disconnect, to make respectable old Reality scream gibberish and hurl food around. It's kind of saddening, then, that magic in videogames is often the most predictable of things - hobbled on the one hand by the conventions of fantasy fiction, and on the other by a tyrannous insistence that even truly otherworldly events make a certain kind of sense.
Skyrim, of course, is a case in point. You've got your ice, fire and lightning elements, your heals and your buffs, your defensive this and your offensive that. It's rote stuff, and there's an explanation for pretty much everything thanks to the vast library of in-game scholarship. Magic in Skyrim is basically a fancy version of electricity, sourced from the Daedric realm (the ultimate dodgy utility company) and subject to familiar-feeling laws. You've even got batteries in the shape of potions and Soul Gems. Uncovering and mastering these arcane intricacies is engrossing, but once you've done the background reading, the act of performing magic itself grows tepid. You might as well be firing a gun.
Heck, the mechanics of spellcasting aren't even that dissimilar from firing a gun. It's point and click with a greater or longer delay depending on your level in that particular magical school, and much the same goes for many of Skyrim's peers. As a consequence, it's hard to resist clutching at the subtlest variations like they're the new sliced bread. I got ridiculously hopped-up about Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning's Mark of Flame spell, for instance, which is nothing more cunning in practice than a remote-detonated sticky grenade.
Often, the games that portray magic most excitingly are those that don't portray magic as "magic". Okami, to pick an especially illustrious example, is bonkers on toast. You're a wolf goddess who can flatten reality into parchment in order to scribble on it. Unsqueeze the shoulder button, and anything you've painted becomes a 3D object. Loony. Then there's El Shaddai, where for some reason you can peck triangle-headed angels apart with cosmic paper airplanes. Meanwhile, in Darkstalkers, a man transforms himself into an electric guitar so another man can't punch him with stone eagles.
I'm not asking that all magically minded games kick the possibility of interpretation to the curb. Magic needs to add up, conform to appreciable rules, if it's to form part of a narrative you can credit or a world you feel comfortable exploring. But a few new ideas besides Ice Bolt and Bigger Ice Bolt would be nice, and as I wrote in another blog post, there's nothing to be gained by answering every question. Although when I'm practising magic, the only question I'm ever asked is "what the hell have you been drinking?" Feel free to pass on a few of your favourite party tricks/lesser-known game sorceries below.