Fantasy Games Are Better When They Don't Focus On Magic

I've been playing through Dust and Salt recently, and I've been struck with how much I enjoy a fantasy game when magic isn't the core focus of the narrative.

Dust and Salt is gritty. You start as a ten-year-old who watches his father get murdered by conscripts from the city of Murk, and after rescuing some prisoners, you start off on a life-long journey to enact revenge against the people who killed your dad, burned your village, and scattered your people.

You are not magical. No one you know is magical. You're good with a sword, and as you grow up you might get better at speaking or thinking on your feet. You don't learn any spells. Instead, you work at getting better and better at exacting material revenge against a city of warlords. And I can't express how refreshing that feels.

I'm tired of magic in my fantasy games. Look, I know that magic is often important for people to get into the feel of fantasy. It helps establish how this new world is different from our own, and it often creates a helpful set of "rules" that establish how characters interact with each other.

Dust and Salt is so excellent, though, because we can't lean on big lore dumps about priests and wizard orders and Red Cloaked Mysterious Figures Who Talk With Devils. Instead, we have to start learning the rules of how power operates in this world. Who are the allies? Where can we drive a wedge in order to unite disparate kingdoms against our enemies?

I've called the game a "power simulator," and I still think that's the best way to discuss it. It demands that players make choices about how they gain power and what kind of power they want.

Avoiding magic in the game means that we can avoid easy solutions to problems. There's no mode of charming our enemies or casting big spells that annihilate our enemies from orbit. In fantasy, magic is the great equaliser that can help the lowly hero fight against insurmountable odds. That big spell during the final battle will always make a brighter day possible.

There's none of that here. Like a Conan story, when magic appears in Dust and Salt, it's an evil that needs to be eliminated for the good of everyone. Mystical forces are not to be trusted. All you have here is your gut, and it means that the big decision points feel more poignant. Here's a section of writing after a betrayal, for example:

[The betrayer] looks at you with hatred, and the warriors gathered around you await your decision. You feel the rage they have accumulated against the traitor who tried to kill you. Many insist that he pay with his head.

You know that one day, when the Great Judgment comes and there is nothing left of your body but dust, the tears of the wounded and the slain will weigh against your soul. But you also know that your soldiers expect you to be just, even if that means being cruel. You have to be the ruler whom they want to follow.

That's some fist-pumping "hell yes" writing to me, and it's something that I think you can only access in a fantasy game when you make the choice to really ground the world without magic. I can't teleport this betrayer away, send them to a magical world, mind wipe them, or charm them. My problem is only solved with a sword or with mercy. And it's a very, very hard problem.

I think my love for this kind of low fantasy is why I can never really lose myself in Elder Scrolls or Dragon Age games. It seems like I am always chasing artefacts and doing big world-altering magical spells to defeat enemies who are playing dimensional chess against some wizard.

This is also probably why I like The Witcher series so much more than those other franchises. Despite being neck-deep in magic, those games at least make magic look risky and dangerous. It backfires as much as it works, and at the end of the day Geralt is as likely to use a mechanical trap as he is to use a magical artefact.

It remains grounded in a world with real cause-and-effect relationships. If we have to have magic, then this is how I want it to be.

In the rare event that magic crops up in Dust and Salt, it is most often as a form of contrast. A villain has put an entire village to sleep, just like something out of a fairy tale, and you have to use your decidedly non-magical skills to defeat the foe. A bunch of villagers and some smart thinking that win the day every time, so take that wizards!

So, please, give me more of these fantasy worlds where swords, fictional politics, and vengeful beings run the world. Fewer wizards and dark priests, please, because I want to sideline magic in favour of the machinery of arms and axes. More swords, less sorcery please.


Comments

    I get what the author is trying to convey, but then what makes this game "fantasy"? The fact that this character wields a sword and the setting is vaguely middle-ages-y? If the character had a gun and the game a modern setting, nobody would call that story "fantasy". They would call it a one-word participle adjective and have Liam Neeson star in it.

    Yes, fantasy is more than magic but also more than swords and shields and dialog boxes in faux parchment. Fantasy is an augmentation of reality (that's why magic is the easiest way to do it) and it really doesn't need to be anchored in medieval times; it is possible to do fantasy in the present or future... hell, Star Wars is more fantasy than it is sci-fi. Conversely, not every fictional story in a medieval setting is fantasy.

      Shrug. We get what he's talking about. Maybe it's a flaw in the language.
      Can you come up with a one-word genre label for what he's trying to convey?

      Sometimes we give words multiple meanings and have to rely on context to know why it's being used... which the author did helpfully provide.

        Hmm I dunno, maybe "historic fiction"? (Yeah, not one word.) How would we call this kind of story if it was set in modern times? Intrigue?

        Nevertheless, you're right. I'm probably being overly fastidious.

          Nah, historical fiction is it's own category. See the Lymond Chronicles (fictional main character), or Robert Graves' I Claudius & Claudius the God (nonfiction main character), and anything in between.

          The distinctive being that it's set in the real historical world with real characters, even if there's fictional characters interspersed.

          Fantasy, whether high or low, is normally set in it's own universe.

      It sounds like there is magic, it's just treated as a taboo and people who practise it are shunned and despised as vile or unclean or whatever discriminatory term they use. It also seems like it's not super-powerful, just able to create subtle shifts as a local phenomena. (The example shown was someone putting a village to sleep) If you've ever read Robin Hobb's Assassin books then it would be similar to Wit and Skill users.

      ...when magic appears in Dust and Salt, it's an evil that needs to be eliminated for the good of everyone.*ahem*

      Besides, author is not suggesting getting rid of magic entirely, just that fantasy works are better when the focus isn't heavily on the magical side the setting.

      Last edited 27/08/18 10:54 am

        Uh, I might have skimmed that paragraph. NVM, then.

      I agree with your statements, but may I offer a small correction.

      Starwars is Science fantasy i.e. unlikely to become true. Ray guns, near instantaneous FTL travel and magic force powers.

      Star Trek is Science fiction i.e. Tries to be based on reality and is more a projection of the authors thoughts about how our society could shape itself.

        Generally agree, though I'd argue that there's so little science involved in Star Wars that I really think is straight out fantasy (with a sci-fi coat of paint).

    I've been over magic in games and books and movies for years. I feel like it's often a crutch, used to make things happen as cheaply as possible, like insta-healing spells, instead of actually dealing with wounds; It's economical, but it also kills the sense of danger and tension for me.

    I prefer 'sci-fantasy', where you can have a world filled with interesting creatures and strange phenomena, but not have all this 'magic' stuff to take the wonder away.

    Take that fake documentary about dragons, how they spat fire by mixing chemicals. So you can have these fantastical things, but just ground them in reality a little bit, and get rid of the crutches in the story and gameplay as much as possible.

    Sadly we don't get enough of this, I think too many creators are too lazy and just go for the low hanging fruit.

      I felt the same about Game of Thrones. I like it best when the magic is left out of it, when you weren't sure if there were any Gods or not.

      Once the smoke-baby-assassin and magics started happening I didn't enjoy it as much.

      I liked the idea that the characters believed in magic and Gods, and that some characters didn't, I was cool with dragons, and weird diseases, and people having visions etc. but once magic enters the story, it brings a ton of problems with it. A really good writer can probably work with it, but I personally enjoy the stories more when the magic is left 'unproven'.

      There's this really influential essay by Brandon Sanderson (who completed Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time, and went on to write some insanely good fantasy novels such as Mistborn) about how magic systems ought to work.

      https://brandonsanderson.com/sandersons-first-law/

      I think the writing community has taken it to heart, in large part, but the game dev community, not so much.

        Man, the Wheel of Time is fine and all and obviously iconic, but it rubs me the wrong way that Sanderson is generally known first for that rather than from the Mistborn series which is just incredible. The mechanics of magic in that universe are my favourite magic mechanics ever.

        Second favourite, in case you are interested, would be "pymary" in the beautifully illustrated webcomic Unsounded (http://www.casualvillain.com/Unsounded/) where mages (wrights) manipulate temporarily "aspects" of reality such as heat, solidity, sharpness, etc. It is very well thought and the worldbuilding is amazing.

          Yeah, I'm with you on the Sanderson thing.

          Maybe in ten years time, once all the people who grew up with Wheel of Time have grown old and forgotten, we can leave that off his bio.

          Apropos of nothing: I've been listening to a podcast with Sanderson and several other writers called Writing Excuses, and it's really very good.

    I feel like the author is really just complaining about badly written stories that use crutches and hand waves to resolve conflict rather than exploring more realistic and believable outcomes. Fantasy has magic, Science Fiction has imaginary future-tech and "real-life" has... well I guess romanticised science and convenient plot items that would make even MacGuyver shake his head.

    It's the old debate about realism vs. believability. You can have a fantasy world full of magic and supernatural beings but if you have everything be conveniently resolved by it without consequences then it's not really that believable. If there are rules, consequences and facets grounded in reality then it becomes a lot more believable and doesn't feel like it's as much of a contrivance used to resolve plot issues.

    Historansy.... Historical fantasy without magic?

    High Fantasy - D&D, WoW etc
    Low Fantasy - GoT, Conan etc

    Mid Fantasy - something between the two extremes. Maybe LotR, though I'd put it down to more Low Fantasy.

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