Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Magical World Building that makes sense, vs. stuff that doesn't, using examples from Pirates of the Carribian

The first Pirates of the Caribbean movie had magic in it that, in general, made sense.  It was simple, straightforward, and accounted for pretty much everything.  Not quite everything, but close enough.

The island could only be found by those who knew where it was.  Jack had a magic compass to point the way, so it was easy for him to triangulate the island's position.  After the position was found, he shared it with Barbarossa (big mistake) and Norrington.

Thus everyone who found the island did so by following the simple magical rule: you've got to know where you're going before you get there.

Presumably if someone didn't know where it was, and took the same route (at a different time since following someone who does know where it is probably counts as being led) they'd find open ocean.

The giant major magic thing, though, was the cursed treasure.

Cortés was an asshole so the gods placed a curse on the treasure.  The treasure and the stone box it is kept in are now magical.  Take any treasure out of the box and you're cursed.  The curse isn't lifted until all of the treasure is returned to the box along with blood from everyone who took treasure.

The stone box has writing on it explaining the curse and what needs to be done to lift it.

The pirates took the treasure, realized the curse was real when they were unable to experience anything pleasurable ever again and noticed that in direct moonlight their bodies and clothes had turned to something resembling what would happen if you left a dead body out for crows to feed upon.

In order to lift the curse they had to translate the box.

Their early translation revealed that they had to return all of the treasure.  At this point Will's dad thinks they deserve to be cursed and sends a piece of the treasure off to his son.

Since he can't be executed, Barbosa ties him to a canon and dumps him in deep ocean.

Additional translation reveals they needed that guy's blood.  Oops.

They collect all of the treasure save Will's piece and all of the blood save Will's dad's before the main action of the movie begins.


This has set up all of the magic seen in the entire movie.  They need to return all of the treasure but they're one piece short, they need a substitute for Will's dad's blood, that being Will's blood, but they've already contributed the rest of the needed blood.

It's short, simple, complete, and it makes sense.  The god's cursed the treasure and stone box, explanation for the how it works is written on the box.

There's no major problem.  No, "Wait, what?"  It works and makes sense.

* * *

Pirates of the Carribian: On Stranger tides, a movie I really wish I hadn't seen because as much as I might like certain characters, good fuck did that movie suck, revolves around the fountain of youth.

Here's how the fountain works:
  1. You have to find the fountain in which requires smacking two silver Spanish chalices together and having their resonating sound set off a magic thingy.
  2. You need a mermaid tear.
  3. You need to fill the two previously mentioned silver Spanish chalices with fountain of youth water, put the mermaid tear into one of them, and have two people drink at the same time, one from each chalices.
  4. One person dies, the other gets the dead one's life force.

How the fuck does that work?

I'm completely serious here.  The only purpose of the chalices is to be used in a fountain of youth ceremony, implying they were made after the fountain was discovered, but you can't find the fountain without the chalices.

And even if we are to assume that chalices were somehow made pre-fountain with all of the fountain specific magic within them, what then?

Are we to believe that that someone traveled every nook and cranny of Florida smacking the chalices together every step of the way in hopes they would magically lead to the fountain?

And once they got there, how did they figure out that you needed two people to drink for it to work, how did they figure out that there was need for a mermaid tear?  Did they try adding a drop of every fluid not to mention a sprinkle of every possible soluble thing?
"Well, buffalo piss and sea salt doesn't do anything, what's next?"

"We're going to try buffalo bile and sea salt.  Then buffalo brain fluid, then buffalo blood, and so forth until we've exhausted every single sea salt / buffalo combination."
Remember how easily these questions were resolved in the first movie.  The stone box and cursed coins were created by the same entities for the purpose of working together and an explanation of how they worked was carved into the sides of the stone box.

There certainly could have been something like that here.  Pictograms would have been enough, mind you there still would have been a question of why the fucking Spanish chalices.  But if that were the only problem we could handwave.  Maybe the original drinking vessels were damaged beyond repair and the Spanish chalices were created to exacting specifications to replace them.

As is, though, we have:

Fountain - can only be gotten to via land unless you can breathe under water (mermaids can get in, but don't expect them to just show up and give you a tear.)

Mermaid tears - very hard to get if you have a mermaid, and mermaids are even harder to get than the tears.  generally found in a cove where the fountain most definitely is not.

Chalices: From Spain which is nowhere near the other shit.

Ritual: Doesn't appear to be recorded anywhere, requires all there of the previous things, and seems very, very unlikely to have been arrived at through trial and error.

Absent Tiresias himself showing up and telling you how to put all of this shit together, it seems like the connection between the fountain and mermaid tears would never have been discovered, the chalices would never have been made, and none of this would ever happen.

We need all three things to, by extraordinary coincidence, appear together just for anyone to have the slightest inkling something might be going on.
Did she just cry in your silver chalice --created by order of the prophet who can see all things even the end result of self-fulfilling prophecy-- and then swim away?
I think it was the smell of my onion sandwich.
Whatever, lets have some spring water and toast to our continued partnership.
Yeah, lets do that.
*they clink, they drink*
*horrible magic starts killing him*
Oh God, what's happening to me?
[partner]!  Oh my God, what can I do?  Tell me what to do!
*he dies*
Hey, I feel reinvigorated.
I don't buy it.  The whole thing is bullshit.

* * *

In Curse of the Black Pearl (the first movie) it was clear they'd put thought into how to make the magic make sense.

Why didn't the pirates need blood from everyone with whom the cursed treasure had changed hands?  Because the treasure and the stone box were linked and only taking the treasure out of the box cursed you.

Will got his piece of the treasure so the curse wouldn't be lifted and then the people pissed off about it disposed of the blood they needed every bit as much as that piece of the treasure?  How does that make sense?  Because they still hadn't fully translated the explanation of the curse and how it was lifted.  Will Sr. (Bootstrap Bill) sent away the piece as soon as he learned they needed to return it, he was tied to a canon and thrown overboard shortly thereafter, then, later still, they realized they got further in their translation and realized they needed his blood.

So on, so forth.

Watching On Stranger Tides, on the other hand, it's clear that no one even considered how any of it would work.

It's possible that this is a result of On Stranger Tides being a kitbash that takes elements from an '80s book of the same name and attempts to make them into a Pirates of the Caribbean movie.  Or it could be no one gave a damn.

In large part what makes Curse of the Black Pearl work is that the creators thought about the first time.  The cursed treasure was still there to be taken meaning that Cortes put it back.  Cursed Cortes isn't marauding all over, meaning he put it back right.

As soon as you've answered why he put it back and how he did it right, you've basically got all of the magic in the movie figured out as much as it needs to be.  Not quite all because Jack has his compass which has no explanation in the movie, but a compass that points toward what you're looking to find is pretty self-explanatory.

It's clear that no one did the same, "What happened previous times?" thinking regarding the fountain of youth stuff, because they've created a system where nothing outside of absurdist magical slapstick (with dark undertones) could possibly result in the first time ever actually happening.

* * *

Magic makes it easy to have character's collecting plot tokens: This ritual requires mystical ingredients X, Y, and Z.  A story can be made out of needing to collect X, Y, and Z.

But it needs to be thought out.  Often times ingredients can be made general, that can reduce the "What the fuck?" factor of how people figured out these things in combination did something of note.  If it had been "water from a sacred spring, the tear of a magical creature, and twin goblets of an alchemist," then it would be a lot easier to believe that someone somewhere somewhen discovered that the given result was produced.

Other times the ingredients are specific, but in a set.  (For example, the unbreakable sword, impenetrable breastplate, and invulnerable helmet.)  Again, this can make sense because the things are designed to work together.

Where it doesn't work is when you do random asspulls (water from this one specific fountain, in these two specific chalices, and a mermaid tear in one of them) without ever asking, "Ok, how did someone find out that combining these seeming unrelated things in this rather random and counter-intuitive way, would produce the desired result?"

Magic lets you get away with a lot of shit, but there has to be sense rather that nonsense.  Even if someone's magical power is THE POWER OF NONSENSE it's going to have to be applied in sensible way.

* * *

Have I mentioned that I have no heat and it's cold in here?  The oil's coming today so I seem to have survived, but as I was out re-shoveling the path so it can actually be delivered, the absurdity of the On Stranger Tides magical system popped into my head (again, this is hardly first time) and demanded I write a post about magic that makes sense and thus works as a narrative element, vs magic that doesn't.

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