Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a video game released in 2011. Why talk about a video game on a magic blog? Because this game is the occasion to make a parallel between the two worlds and to find inspiration in the bridges that are created. But before I start, here is the trailer for the game:
When I saw the trailer months ago, I was fascinated by the music, the protagonist’s voice (a kind of Clint Eastwood in a film noir) and the interesting discrepancy with the modern aspect of the game’s universe. When I played, one of my old ideas was confirmed: the world of gaming (video gaming in particular) and magic, despite their apparent differences, actually have a lot in common. If you’re looking for inspiration, you can find it anywhere, and these links between video games and magic can teach us a thing or two.
So I will talk about Deus Ex and from these reflections I will form some conclusions that can be applied to magic. If you plan to play this game and you don’t want me to spoil any surprises, don’t read this article.
Select your level
Right from the start, an idea presents itself in the menu, during the selection of the difficulty level. Depending on his experience, the player has to choose the difficulty level of the game, usually entitled «easy», «normal» and «difficult». In Deus Ex, the easy level is called «Tell me a story», followed by the explanation «You play games for their story and experience, not for their challenge or competitiveness. Enjoy the Deus Ex experience!»; the normal level is called «Give me a challenge», followed by the explanation «You enjoy a good story and a good challenge. This is how the game is meant to be played!»; the difficult level is called «Give me Deus Ex», followed by the explanation «Hardened enemies and tougher situations will make your experience quite challenging and give you a good adrenaline rush. You are one with the machine!». I’m not a great gamer, so I took the easiest level.
Then I asked myself: if my magic was a video game, how would a spectator describe his experience? «Tell me a story» would be effects during which the spectator only watches passively, with little or no interaction (for example, a manipulation act on stage, or an oil and water routine in close-up); «Give me a challenge» (This is how the game is meant to be played!) would be magic during which the spectator participates, all the while staying in his role as a spectator (for example, pick-a-card tricks in close-up); and «Give me Deus Ex» (You are one with the machine!) would be when the spectator loses himself in the magic experience, interacts with the artist to create an experience that is meaningful for himself and the audience.
I think that magic too often limits itself to the «Tell me a story» level, sometimes reaches the «normal» level, but rarely the «Deus Ex» level. Of course, in a full-length show, one must alternate the level of participation of the audience, to let them breathe. That being said, think about your own repertoire: is the spectator too often passive? Or is he asked to participate? And even though he is participating, is he really engaged, really an actor of his perception of your magic?
Example of classic magic: cut to the aces. If you show that you can cut to the four aces in a shuffled deck, that’s the «Tell me a story» level; if you show a spectator that he can cut to the four aces, that’s the «normal» level; if you show a spectator that he can cut to the four aces and this has a deeper meaning for him, that’s the «Deus Ex» level. Of course, it is possible that playing cards are not the perfect tool to facilitate your access to the «Deus Ex» level.
Create a universe
Once the game starts, you discover a universe whose technology is futuristic, although the social, economic, cultural and political structure remains similar to that of today. Unlike linear games where the gamer follows a straight line, Deus Ex offers a branching experience. You can choose to finish a quest and not another, and this will affect your relationships with the various characters, as well as the future events of the game. Therein lies yet another common point with the world of magic.
For now, magic and video games are the only two forms of entertainment where the spectator is also active. With his actions, a gamer can influence the narrative of Deus Ex. It represents a challenge for the programmer, who must create a gaming environment that appears to be large and open (so that the gamer feels free), but closed and controlled enough so that the narrative can follow its course. In the same way, a magician must create an environment in which he welcomes the spectator, to discreetly guide him toward the final denouement; if the spectator suspects one of the elements of the environment (objets used, actions undertaken, interactions enacted), he will cease to enjoy the moment and will start to question everything. Steven Spielberg doesn’t want you to admire the technical prowess of the 3D Tyrannosaur in Jurassic Park; he wants you to be afraid for your life or at least for the characters’ lives.
Examine the universe and the experience that you offer to your audience: is the environment consistent? Does it seem open enough to relax the spectator? Is it closed enough to allow you some control?
Example of classic magic: the book test. If you have a page selected in a book by having a deck shuffled or by doing some calculation, it is not consistent and the spectator will start to suspect something. If he can choose any book, any page, any word, he feels like he is free. But you remain within the controlled limits of your environment, because all the books are secretly gaffed and the spectator doesn’t realize his choice of the word is limited.
Guide the spectatorA few minutes inside the game, you start your first quest and must secretly enter a building to rescue hostages. Of course, the vast majority of gamers will have no experience in terms of stealth or even combat. Fortunately, most games contains tutorials, explanations integrated in the game, to show the gamer the basic actions that will allow him to keep moving forward in the game.
It is an area where magicians, especially in close-up, are not very good. If the spectator has to do actions, and the success of the effect depends on these actions, it would seem logical to insert a clear and quick tutorial in the effect’s structure.
Look at those effects of yours that require the participation of the audience: are the actions required clearly expressed? If they are difficult or new for the audience, did the spectators receive a quick explanation, maybe even a demonstration? Are these tutorials seamlessly integrated in the structure of your effects?
Pay attention to the words chosen to guide the audience, to the gestures done to illustrate what you expect of them, to the time you allow them to assimilate their role and actions. Rehearse these elements as much as you rehearse your effect. The audience doesn’t know the effect, doesn’t know what you expect of them, and may be nervous or distracted.
Enrich the experienceThe different stages of Deus Ex are expressed through the graphic design of the environment surrounding you, its rhythm, its story, its music and sound effects, and the types of actions the protagonist does... In the same way, the more you enrich your magic universe, the more you enrich the experience of the spectator. For some years now, video games directors have understood the importance of music to immerse the player in the game. The music of the Metal Gear Solid video game has been composed by Harry Gregson-Williams, a member of the famous Hans Zimmer team, and to whom we owe musics such as Shrek, Man on Fire, and many others.
Does your magic need stage design, music? If yes, what kind? What is the rhythm of the effect, and is this particular rhythm the most appropriate to obtain the best impact?
Transcend the genreConsider this: video games have long been thought of as a form of entertainment for the young, without any ambition of quality; a product to be consumed without any deep impact on its audience, almost a waste of time. Nowadays, the trailers of some video games have more views than some of the greatest movies, and games themselves represent an industry whose revenues outweighs those of cinema. A video game, when it’s done well, transcends its condition of futile entertainment, and allows itself to even question the gamer on his social role, his personality, and to make him come face to face with choices whose consequences outgrow the virtual world to enter the real one.
In Deus Ex, you spend much of your time fighting enemies and following missions. But you always have a choice, and this choice will define your gaming character as much as it will define yourself: will you use light force and stun your enemies, or will you prefer heavy artillery and systematically kill everyone who crosses your path? Some missions in Deus Ex are clearly illegal and dishonest, others are mort idealistic: will you choose to start a war between street gangs, or will you rather send a corrupt politician to prison?
At the end of the game, an important change appears. All those who were enemies until now become crazy, because of an electronic chip implanted in their brains. They attack you, mistaking you for the demons of their hallucinations. Will you choose to kill people who are a danger to you as much as to themselves, or will you be more merciful? Worse, if you do not have the tools of your mercifulness and your arsenal only contains deadly weapons, how will you deal with your responsibility in the massacre of innocent people?
After having invited the player to reflect on his behavior throughout the game, the final scene of Deus Ex goes even further, and simply put in your hands the fate of all humanity. The three options that are offered to you are all justifiable, but all have very different results. However they have in common the fact that they give you absolute powers on the world population. Each of these three choices triggers a different end for the game; more importantly, your choice will reveal a lot, not about your gaming character, but about yourself.
Therein lies the strength of a game such as Deus Ex (or Metal Gear Solid, or Silent Hill): the video game transcends its condition and becomes an experience with a deeper meaning for the gamer. Therein also lies the ultimate bridge between magic and video games: if video games succeeded, despite prejudices and tough conditions, in impacting their audience to such a level, what about magic? What about your magic?