It’s that time of day again, folks: The time where I try to lure you away from that cardistry practice that you desperately need with the forbidden fruit of distraction. In this case, video games.
“So what do video games have to do with magic?” I hear you ask. Well, aside from being another topic where I pretend to know more than I actually do, quite a bit, actually. Not only are video games inherently deceptive (there’s no such thing as blue hedgehogs or plumbers who work overtime), as explained in this really cool article on Kill Screen, but there’s also a thriving subgenre of games that use the visual language of illusion as an aesthetic, or even a core gameplay mechanic. It might be best not to think of them as games at all, but more as magic tricks you can play. Here’s some of the best ones:
I can’t really do justice to Gorogoa with words – you have to play it to really grasp its elegant complexity – but I’ll do my best. Imagine four images arranged in a square, with their positions on the grid denoting both their temporal and spatial relationships with their neighbouring images. An apple in one image can fall into the image below, or an event that starts in an image on the left can continue in the one to its right. Now imagine you can rearrange those images, changing the sequence, creating new threads of causality on the fly. You can also layer the images on top of one another; a man in one panel can stand in the doorway of another, teleporting across a city in an instant. Oh, and the images aren’t really images per-se, but more like bite-sized worlds you can scroll through, looking for objects, spaces, or icons that can be used in other panels. The game operates on the same kind of bizarre dream logic as a magic trick. You can use an atlas to change the logo on a can of nails to a can of clouds, and cans of clouds float, because of of course they do. That’s what clouds do.
You know what, just watch the trailer.
Gorogoa is available on a whole bunch of different platforms, but my advice is to pick it up on a tablet if you have one. If not, then the iPhone or Nintendo Switch are your next best options. The game works fine on the other platforms, but it’s best played with a touch screen rather than a gamepad or mouse.
Don’t let the fixed, isometric camera fool you, Monument Valley is a game that’s all about your point of view. If those two blocks look like they’re close enough to form a bridge, they do, physics be damned. Making your way through the gorgeous, puzzle-box-like levels is immensely satisfying, as a moment of inspiration can see you discovering a visual link between two planes that can put you on the other side of a humongous structure in seconds. Much like in magic, the secret to accomplishing something great in Monument Valley is often incredibly simple. You just have to look at it the right way.
Short, sweet, and about four years old now, Monument Valley can often be had for less than a dollar on the app store of your choice. It’s also a game best enjoyed in bite-sized chunks, making it perfect for playing on the go. There’s a sequel too. It has a 2 on the end.
Johnathan Blow’s long-awaited follow up to Braid (which would also be right at home on this list, to be honest), The Witness, is a hugely divisive game, so you’ll have to bear with it (and me) for a little bit.
At its most basic level, The Witness is a series of mechanically simple maze puzzles scattered around a beautiful, yet oddly sterile, island paradise. Myst, the puzzle game of yore and destroyer of dads, is definitely a clear influence. Now I could go on for literally hours about how the arrangements of those puzzles, their slowly escalating degree of challenge, and the way they introduce and iterate on concepts of play is evidence of Blow’s game design genius, but you probably don’t care, so here’s the rub: As you put more hours into The Witness and start really getting into those maze puzzles, many of which are oh-so-sweetly in-tune with the environment in which they’re presented, you’ll start to notice that the world in which the game is set isn’t as sterile as it first appeared.
You might, if you’re observant, notice that the way that cloud and that river meet, when looked at from a certain vantage point, kind of looks like a line. Perhaps even a maze. And Boom! the game hits you in all its splendour. You’re pulled into examining every square inch of the island. Looking for shapes, looking for relationships. Every corner, every rock, every errant branch is part of a larger, more elaborate puzzle than you can imagine. Some people came away from The Witness completely cold, I came away seeing patterns in the sky. Give it a shot.
My suggestion is to pick it up on PC, Mac, or one of the consoles, if you have access to one of those. The game is iOS port is decent, but the game is meant to be played in long sessions, and tablets just ain’t the venue for that kind of play.
Antichamber basically does everything the last three games does, but harder, longer, uglier (it’s not a pretty game), and with less concern for your mental well-being. The game has some of the most mind-bending, brutally difficult perspective puzzles I’ve ever come across, and absolutely loves wrong-footing you at every turn. It even features little inspirational messages and illustrations that occasionally offer insight into the game’s puzzles, but more often seem to be there entirely to put the boot in when you reach one of the games’ many dead ends. The real genius of Antichamber is also the thing most likely to put casual players off. The game keeps you on your feet by swapping between hard logic puzzles and trippy illusory challenges which require intuition and an open mind rather than deductive reasoning.
It’s not that frustrating, thanks to a quick map system that lets you teleport between points on the map with ease, with the idea being you should be pushing in several directions at once, working on the practical elements of one puzzle while your subconscious chews away at another. A brilliant game, but not for the faint of heart.
In The Stanley Parable you play a dissatisfied office worker following the instructions of an omniscient narrator. Or, you play yourself, playing the role of a dissatisfied office worker pointedly ignoring the instructions and suggestions of a narrator who has no idea what he’s doing. Or you play both.
Or neither. It’s an odd game.
While The Stanley Parable might not have the mind-bending visual illusions of the other games in this list, it’s easily the smartest of the bunch when it comes to playing with assumptions and tricking the player. When The Narrator presents you with an instruction, it’s almost invariably a choice, and every time you think there’s a choice, there’s likely a third option that requires you to think well outside of the box. Only it turns out that you’re just thinking in a bigger box, and the game is already there, laughing at you.
With 18 different endings, the game is designed to be played multiple times, and it often gives you a knowing wink every time you knowledge from a previous playthrough in a current one. Did you memorize the door code from your last attempt so you don’t have to listen to a long spiel before being told what it is? The game will call you out in that, and it might just change the ending you get. The more off the beaten track you venture, the more bizarre the game becomes as the narrator loses control, or punishes you for being a “bad player.” The genius of The Stanley Parable is that, like a good magician, it’s always one step ahead of you. You may think you’re getting a glimpse behind the curtain, but all you’ll find is more curtain.
This is just a small selection of the mind-bending games that might appeal to magic fans. If you think there’s a game that’s conspicuously absent from the list, let me know in the comments.