The Magic Circle
Developed by: Question
Published by: Question
Available on: PC
Satire is most successful when cultural practices are so ingrained that the satire immediately inspires one to think about how things are and how they should be. “The Magic Circle” conspires to challenge video game culture from the inside, taunting players and developers alike.
“The Magic Circle” is set in an incomplete fantasy RPG that is itself named…The Magic Circle. In this provisional space filled with musical sketches, placeholder art, and misplaced obstacles, the game’s fictional developers at TMC Games bicker over the scope and details of their creation. Hence, the irony of the title, which salutes the possibilities and limitations of artificial worlds. The narrative mines this rift from the perspective of the developers and an A.I. that, unbeknownst to its creators, has achieved self-consciousness. While the developers, a.k.a. “the gods,” fret over what sort of agency to give the player, the rogue A.I. taunts you with the idea of becoming a digital Prometheus by seizing the developers’ tools and eclipsing their vision.
Scattered throughout the world are notes and audio logs that record the developers’ fluctuating conceptions of their game in addition to detailing the personal repercussions of toiling on a piece of near vaporware that has effectively bankrupted the studio. The entries are humorous, plaintive, tetchy, deluded, paranoid, and altogether human — the outgrowths of a business culture reputed for long hours, harsh contracts, and heartbreaking artistic compromises. Case in point: Much to the lead designer’s anger, multiplayer along with the combat systems that she and others labored over have been cut from the game. But such is the project lead’s decision to avoid having to cater to the sort of player whose behavior he pithily sums up as “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Genocide.”
If this sounds a bit odd or even alien to your experience, I should say that if you have never experienced a glitch in a game before, like falling through the background scenery, then some of the game’s satire will be lost on you. After all, you, the player, are the glitch among glitches, an unscheduled explorer in a misbegotten game that’s taken ten years to approach its first public reveal, even though it’s nowhere near finished. Although you are powerless, you wield the ability to draw ”life” from what developers call BSP holes — flaws in the map or background. With this energy, you can restore life to deleted characters and trap half-finished or leftover adversaries in your personal BSP hole. Once trapped, you can enter their program files and alter their loyalties and antipathies, in effect turning them into your minions. Furthermore, you can steal their attributes and assign them to your motley band of followers that seem like they belong in different games where zombies and mushroom wizards make sense.
It may take you a while to wrap your head around how flexible the attribute-swapping mechanics are. Want to exchange the mushroom wizard’s ability to travel — by hopping — along the ground with a helicopter’s flying ability? Go for it! The mushroom wizard will sprout a propeller pack and the helicopter’s stand will transform into mechanical feet. The game’s opaque learning curve reminded me of “Transistor” — another relatively short game that’s possible to finish while remaining ignorant of many of its gameplay possibilities.
“The Magic Circle” is the first game from Question, a development studio located in Tiburon California and founded by a trio of industry veterans: Jordan Thomas, Stephen Alexander and Kain Shin, who between them have worked on “Thief: Deadly Shadows,” all three BioShock games, and “Dishonored.” Whatever their reasons for stepping away from AAA game development, their new game is a driven work of art that purposefully runs afoul of all of the worst programing sins. Unsightly looking backgrounds? Section with massive framerate drop? Yeah and yeah, and it’s all deliriously satisfying to behold. The game’s ending, which essentially transfers the developers’ problems to the player is indeed the proverbial ace up the sleeve. Late apologies if I strayed into spoiler territory.
In a talk at the EGX (the U.K. video game conference), Thomas noted that the “business of games has become the reality-alternative business.” He clarified this saying that it is in the interest of the big publishers and developers to keep churning out games that celebrate the player as a hero or offer the allure of a gradual sense of mastery over a world while the question of the player’s place in the real world lies off to the side. What does it say about our lives that we long for scripted adventures? I know I’m one of many who can’t imagine having survived middle school without video games.
“The Magic Circle” wants to confront you with its imperfections and make you consider why you play games in the first place. It may be the wiliest reflection on the medium to come out of a small studio since “The Stanley Parable” or “Fez.” It’s the rare sort of game that wants to amuse you, not pacify you.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer who has been playing video games since the days of the Atari 2600. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Barnes & Noble Review, Al Jazeera America, the Guardian and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.