Utility Spells in Video Games

I like utility spells in my video games. By that I mean spells that allow me to do things other than DPS. There is nothing about magic users as a RPG class that dictates that they should be pure damage dealers, but more and more modern RPG games treat them as such. Likely, this is an influence of MMORPG’s which must have rigid, and very clearly defined combat mechanics to allow for structured team work. For example in WoW mages are usually geared toward AoE DPS, warlocks specialize in DoT spells, priests and druids are usually pegged healers and etc. At least this was the breakdown last time I have played, and it made sense. In MMO games you spend most of your time either in combat, gearing up for combat, walking to a combat location or arguing with people over combat mechanics and strategies. Skills and spells that do not directly deal damage or aid your team are at best nice vanity perks, and at worst wasted XP and clutter that takes up space on your hot-bar.

Single player RPG’s however are different. They are often much more focused on storytelling or exploration. They ought to offer much wider variety of magic to the players. But more often then not, when you roll up a mage, and look at the available spell list you realize you don’t really have that many choices. There might be hundreds of spells, but the main difference between them is the color and shape of the particle effect that shoots out of your magic staff. That and the amount of hit points they subtract from the enemy health bar.

Yes, mechanically AoE, DoT, direct damage and debuff spells are very different and allow for a myriad of strategies and tactical decisions. But conceptually, they are virtually identical.

Most games use magic exclusively to hurt and heal and that’s really, really boring.

Don’t get me wrong, it is fun to throw a fireball from time to time. The more deadly it is, the more enjoyable the act. But that’s not all that magic should be about. Right now I’m playing Dragon Age: Inquisition and the only spell I really like is Fade Step. It’s basically a blink style ability that propels you forward much like the Vanguard charge in Mass Effect games. But you can spam it outside of combat – which is how I usually explore new areas. I run around hitting the search button while Fade Step is on cool-down, and mash it as soon as it becomes available.

Most Dragon Age Inquisition spells are DPS.

Most Dragon Age: Inquisition spells are pure DPS.

This is not really a critique of the game itself. I get why the spell system is the way it is: the game involves MMO style tactical combat, and the skills are geared towards that. The classes were designed to be balanced and complementary and with the way you issue combat orders, there is simply no UI space for frivolous spells. The game has limitations that are parts of its design, which were there (albeit less pronounced) since the beginning of the series so I’m not going to lose sleep over it. Skyrim did not have such limitations, but it’s magic system was also primarily concerned with shooting particle effects out of your fingers, buffing your own stats, or putting temporary debuffs or effects on enemies…

It did have Water Breathing though, which was neat. Yes, it was mostly useless, since the game never required you to do any extensive swimming or diving. But the two or three times you actually found a use for it it during the course of the 600 hours you put into the game, it made you feel a little bit like a superhero.

I like spells that have nothing to do with combat.

I hate to always keep going back to Morrowind (which is probably my favorite CRPG), but that game had a really great magic system. Not perfect, mind you, but interesting. It had a lot of really nifty utility spells were useless in combat but great outside of it. The entire school of Alteration was all about practical effects any adventurer would love to have in their toolkit.

For example, it had a spell that opened locks. Mechanically it was redundant because it did the exact same thing as the lock picking skill. From a purist game design point of view it was just useless clutter. But, I love the fact it existed. Think about it: why would a mage ever want to carry lock picks or learn how to use them? Morrowind gave you an option of role playing a mage who thought lock-picking was beneath him/her but still could effectively open locked doors using magic.

By the time Oblivion was released, someone invented mini-games, decided that picking locks must be one of them, that was the end of that useful spell. It got streamlined out of the Elder Scroll series.

In addition to the aforementioned water breathing, Morrowind had a water walking spell. It did exactly what you expected: it allowed you to run (or bunny-hop) across the surface of water as if it was solid ground. You might think it is a silly ability, but I remember learning this spell on every class because it was extremely useful. It allowed you to cross waterways much quicker and without having to do with annoying Slaughterfish and could be used to escape enemies. It was the extremely useful if you wanted to trade with the Mudcrab Merchant.

There was a spell that allowed you augment your jump height, in case you wanted to hop around the world like you were the Incredible Hulk. There was a complimentary slow-fall spell that allowed you to mitigate damage if you jumped to high. There was also a straight up levitation spell which would let you walk upwards or downwards at your normal speed. This meant that city walls, or steep mountain cliffs were not impassable barriers but merely temporary obstacles that mages scoffed at.

Utility spells in Morrowind offered the player an unparalleled freedom of movement that I have not seen in any other game.

The very existence of these spells influenced the game design. The world map was designed with the expectation that the player might be flying in from overhead, running over the ocean floor, swimming to the bottom of the sea and etc… Stationary in game assets were built to be explored from any possible angle. Some areas were specifically designed to be accessible only via application of utility spells or potions. There were side quests that required water breathing, and there were areas in the game that could only be reached via levitation. So if you never learned any spells or put any points into magic related attributes, then you simply had to scrape some cash and either buy or mix some potions to access those parts of the game.

If you were a spell caster or a hybrid class however… Well, it felt great to discover these little exclusive areas. Being able to nonchalantly float up into some stuck up wizard assholes mushroom castle made you feel like a bad-ass.

Inessential, non-combat, utility spells are always nice to have. They make playing a spell caster feel a little bit like being a super hero. Without them, wizards are just a boring damage dealers. I understand why sometimes boring AoE DPS class is what the game mechanics are calling for, and that’s ok. But more often than not, giving the player the ability to use magic outside of combat makes the game more fun. Not only that: they will often force the devs to design more complete, believable and robust game spaces. So next time you are designing a magic system for a single player RPG, consider adding levitation, water walking, or super speed to your spell list. Unless of course you hate fun, and you just want your game to play exactly like an MMO which is something no one ever asked for.

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9 Responses to Utility Spells in Video Games

  1. Federico ITALY Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    So you suggest using magic exclusively to hurt, heal and move around? (just joking – nice post)

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  2. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    @ Chris Wellons:

    I usually don’t survive long enough to learn spells in Nethack :P But Nethack is one of those games where magic actually feels powerful and scary. Finding a magic item or a spell book is always a gamble: you could try equipping it, or reading it but it might be cursed. And the curse will either kill you, or hamper your progress.

    In general I think cursed items are under-utilized in modern games. My favorite item in Morrowind were the “Boots of Blinding Speed” which would give you max movement speed but also make you blind. :P And then of course I figured out that the curse is applied when you put on the boots, and not continuously. And that the Resist Magic effect only resists negative effects but leaves buffs intact. So I crafted a 100% resist magic for 1 sec spell, and then I would cast it every time I put the boots on, giving me max speed without the blindness. Was this abuse of game mechanics? Yes, of course.

    But at the same time it made me feel like a clever wizard who has outwitted the curse. So meta-gaming does not necessarily need to break immersion. :P

    @ Federico:

    Heh, good point. But I think it stems from the fact that most video games give us so few ways to interact with environment. In Elder Scrolls games for example, most interactive actions that do not involve combat (either dealing damage, healing, buffing or summoning combat companions) involve movement or opening/closing chests/doors because there is almost nothing else you can do.

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  3. Tim UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Oblivion does have lock picking magic. The spells were tiered to alteration ranks, but they were there. I spent a couple afternoons spamming Right-Bumper on my brother’s xBox 360 maxing out my Alteration skill, and coincidentally gaining at least 10 levels.

    The way new kinds of movement influences level design was exactly why the flight and jumping spells were absent in Oblivion. Making sure locations were properly closed so that you couldn’t fly out of the world and making sure areas otherwise made sense with flying characters around increased the time required to develop the game, because they’d already set a visual quality target that was pretty high. I miss the movement magic when I play the later games, but Bethesda wasn’t going to compromise the pretty pictures so something had to go.

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  4. and i think all this is sad.

    you have magic! the strange ways of doing everything what you can imagine. How it works? Doesn’t matter! its magic!

    …and then it’s broken down to beeing just another weapon. :-/

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  5. Karthik Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    I second this notion. Reducing the function of magic to act as a gun or cannon is nearsighted design. And Inquisition, which I have put over seventy hours into, is infuriatingly backwards, conservative and streamlined in most of its mechanics. (As opposed to the narrative, which does a few subtle interesting things. Incidentally, I’ve been playing as a rogue assassin because I figured she would kill things fast enough to make combat less of a chore. And she does. I killed a dragon solo in ~30 seconds yesterday.)

    And it’s such a shame because Bioware could have done so much with Dragon Age’s concept of magic as channeling the essence of the Fade. The plot even revolves around it. But no: here’s your fireball and chain lightning. Go have fun.

    As you mention, this is an MMO mechanic now imported into Dragon Age, and RPGs more generally. I expect to see it continue in Pillars of Eternity and The Witcher 3, although the new Torment game might do something more interesting given its setting and ethos.

    I can think of at least two games (both non-RPGs) that handle magic much better. The first is Dishonored, where your powers are as utilitarian as they are martial. I had more uses for Blink outside combat than I can recount on ten fingers. Wind Blast could put out fires, topple things and subvert dart traps, Pull (from the DLC) could pull items to you, Possession was super useful to explore spaces, and you could Bend Time to evade traps and bypass those electric gates.

    The other fantastic aspect of magic in Dishonored was that the powers were composable, like Unix shell commands. You could pull off some spectacular combinations, like double jumping off a roof, blinking forward, possessing a guard at street level just before you crashed and walking away. (Incidentally, Dishonored has the problem opposite to Inquisition’s: Strong, inventive and varied mechanics and spaces but an ineffectual and emotionally vacuous narrative.)

    The other game I’m thinking of is Dominions 4, a 4x strategy game where high level spells can completely (and permanently) change the state of the world. Spells are events in this game. Here are a few from the wiki:

    Utterdark: A global enchantment that extinguishes the sun and plunges the world into an eternal night where only the undead and cave dwellers can see.

    Wish: A spell that allows the one who casts it to obtain whatever it is they desire, ranging from magic gems, to artifacts, to friends, to a swift death.

    Storm: Reduces the precision of most units on the battlefield, rendering all archers in play useless.

    I love this because this is magic by way of mutators or mods, essentially changing the rules of the game. And it’s fitting, because performing magic should be (i) about creating diffs in the source code of the world, and (ii) Dangerous to everyone, the user included.

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  6. Zekiel UNITED KINGDOM Google Chrome Windows says:

    Absolutely agree. I remember being disappointed by Dragon Age Origins because its spells were basically limited to “damage, stun, debuff, buff, heal” with a couple of summons. The game it was designed to be a spiritual successor to – Baldur’s Gate 2 – had all these and tons more – invisibility, knock, polymorph, contingency plus the various spell sequencers you could have fun filling up…
    Even that is much more limited than what you describe in Morrowind, but it was still a lot of fun being able to lots of stuff as a wizard.

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  7. Max NETHERLANDS Mozilla Firefox OpenBSD says:

    I liked levitation and water walking in Morrowind, too. I wouldn’t want to play the game without them.

    Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow on Nintendo DS has a couple of really funny movement spells. Like: Throw a doll, then switch places with it. Or summon skeletons to carry you on a stretcher.

    Dominion sounds pretty awesome. I was going to mention the various terraforming spells in Age of Wonders but it has nothing like Utterdark. (How does that not totally break the game, btw?) Changing the world from your wizard tower feels much more wizardly that just being fantasy artillery, but I can also see why developers don’t want that kind of stuff in a CRPG.

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  8. Samy NETHERLANDS Google Chrome Windows says:

    if and i say if you manage to get in and want to buy it also , you should try the magic system from Two Worlds 2. http://store.steampowered.com/app/7520
    the game itself was good but didnt got far. but for the creation system for magic in it was soo awsome. just pointing it out that i would still be playing it if the producer keep supporting the game. or just watch some made video of ppl that played it. am still waiting for a 3 part to come if it will.
    P.S sorry for the necroing of this post :P

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