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Wot I Think: The Magic Circle

Wheels within wheels

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The Magic Circle [Steam page] is a game about an unfinished game. A first person puzzle/exploration/action game about a fictional game also called The Magic Circle, to be precise. After years of development hell, The Magic Circle’s fans look upon it with a mixture of breathless anticipation and derision. Those few staff who still work on it either desperately want out or refuse to abandon their impossible dreams. Now you are inside this half-made game, exploring what it is and what it was, how it ran aground, whether it belongs to its creators or its players, and perhaps either redeeming it or destroying it.

It’s out now. The real Magic Circle that is, not the fictional one. Here’s what I think.

As a mere spectator of the fallout, it’s hard not to see autobiography in the various post-Irrational, post-BioShock Infinite projects. The Flame In The Flood is about suddenly finding your life in tatters and trying to craft your own way out of the wreckage. The sadly-canned Black Glove seemed like a response to the perennial question of ‘why does something as thematically and aesthetically interesting as BioShock have to be limited to first-person-shooting?’

And The Magic Circle, from much-respected BioShock (and Thief) veteran Jordan Thomas, is concerned with what happens when developers’ ambition (or ego) gets out of hand, as well as chewing over how much agency a player should be given within someone else’s creation. Like The Stanley Parable, it’s a game about games, but it goes further – it’s a game about game-making.

Visually, it’s wonderful, and a true melding of theme with appearance and even mechanics. Its primarily monochrome world sells the idea of an unfinished, partially abandoned space well, and the many vast but purely decorative statues towering above its landscape speak to the skyscraping ambition/folly of its creators. Diversions into retro proto-3D worlds give it a sense of history, and your ability to add colour to certain parts and inhabitants of the bleached world make you feel like so much more than a tourist.

As for its commentary, if The Magic Circle has a precise target in mind for its barbs about creative over-indulgence, its swipe is broad enough that a relative outsider such as I couldn’t pinpoint exactly who or what it was. One minute I’d swear blind it was a reflection of lead designer Jordan Thomas’ time in charge of the potentially poison chalice that was BioShock 2 (which turned out solid but fearful in the end), another that it was about Ken Levine’s alleged perfectionist tendencies on BioShock Infinite, another that it was shooting the many fish inside a Duke Nukem Forever-shaped barrel, another still that it was about Richard Garriot’s propensity for making his games into living monuments to himself.

The Magic Circle is probably about all those things, and the many guises they can adopt in studios the world over.

It’s about how games development can go wrong if the goal is not clear, about the oft-dangerous conflation of a commercial project aimed at an audience of millions with a takes-as-long-as-it-takes creative accomplishment intended to be its creator’s lasting legacy.

In the main the tone and tale – provided via voiceovers in cutscenes and ‘hidden’ audiologs – is playful and comic. It also makes a point of ensuring that almost all its small cast have horrendous attributes as well as evident charm and intelligence. Everyone has a point but nobody’s right, everyone’s cause is just but everyone’s entirely deluded. Once in a while it tips into outright venom, however. If words could kill, by the time the credits roll there’d be as many dead players as there were developers. But for every implication that we’re violence-crazed, entitled monsters who can barely think for ourselves, there’s a counter-claim that developers are to blame for not trusting or listening to us.

The Magic Circle is purposely confusing – a game about a game that has become an intractable problem, a development stew with too many cooks but not enough accountability. It uses that to its advantage in some ways, trapping you in a world of conflicting opinions, encouraging you to ask your own questions. But it can also make it hard to discern when The Magic Circle has a specific point to make. At times the game seems to be lashing out in all directions, all scattershot frustrations which it then tries to downplay with comic or even openly absurd overtones.

For me, The Magic Circle is most effective when it’s a game about making games, rather than a game criticising the people who make and play games.

My previous references might make you think this plays similarly to the Stanley Parable or Gone Home – all exploration and info-gathering – but it’s a very different experience. Those anxious souls who seek to protect the term from having any wider remit should rest assured that this is indeed a ‘game. In fact, its game systems are by far the strongest link in this Circle.

You, as an unspecified incursion into a perpetually unfinished build of The Magic Circle, get to rewrite its internal logic in order to help grant you passage through it. On the most simplistic level this involves reinserting cut assets, such as a bridge across a ravine or a door which opens access to abandoned sci-fi version of the game.

Far more involved, flexible and triumphant is altering the behaviour of the various monsters or even inanimate objects in the world, via a simple in-game menu on each entity. Initially you’re simply preventing creatures from attacking you and making them fight on your behalf instead. It soon escalates, and a few menu tweaks can gift you a turtle-shaped flying platform or turn a rock into an ambulatory flamethrower. By the ‘end’ I’d combined attributes and powers into a huge and crazy army, and was basically a god. Or a developer.

The point is that you make this main section of The Magic Circle into the game that you want it to be, and it’s brilliant. You want an army of hivemind-controlled fighting rocks? You got it. You want your flying demonic dogs to attack inanimate mushrooms on sight just for the hell of it? Sure.

This stuff is half puzzle-solving and half sandbox experimentation, and it’s at its best when it meets in the middle and your what if? tinkering overcomes some obstacle. There are a couple of semi-fixed solutions, but most challenges can be overcome in multiple ways, and your rag-tag army of zombies, spiders, machines and fungi is highly unlikely to have quite the same make-up on another playthrough. The concept is ingenious and the outcomes frequently hilarious.

The great tragedy of The Magic Circle is how relatively short-lived this excellent section of the game is. It is the meat of The Magic Circle, but it’s book-ended by very different experiences and it feels as though it never quite reaches its full potential as a result. I’d presumed I’d go into a whole new area with new creatures and abilities to apply my new knowledge to after I’d navigated through the first zone, but no. At that point the plot firmly takes hold and you’ve effectively seen your last new creature.

This isn’t entirely a tragedy, however, as The Magic Circle then veers off onto new, no less inventive courses. There is a great, high-comedy pay-off to the creature-tinkering, and then there’s a seismic shift into something very clever. I can’t say too much about diversion without spoiling things, but it’s a good one, and although it’s even heavier on the meta-commentary and at times muddled in its message, it’s also very playful and in keeping with the aforementioned your world, your rules mindset. Despite being superficially parodic it goes some way towards making players truly understand designers’ dilemmas. While the characters themselves didn’t elicit sympathy in me, a moment of doing what they do did.

But as interesting as the final act is, the earlier beast-tinkering and attendant absurdist first-person strategy game is by far TMC’s finest hour, and I wish it could have been more fleshed out before matters raced to their high-speed conclusion. I can understand why it wasn’t. There’s a hell of a lot going on in what, despite lovely presentation, is very clearly not a big-budget game, so compromises had to be made in order to fit everything in. But I guess I wish it had dropped a couple of twists (and attendant new mechanics) in favour of another zone or two of on-the-fly Dr Moreau fun. But then, it’s someone else’s game, not my game, isn’t it?

The game-within-game shtick is a powerful get out of jail free card. Any underplayed or shonky feature can either be blamed on the unfinished state of the in-fiction game or be used as an example of player’s unfair expectations. By incorporating elements of a hugely interesting game within something that’s supposed to be a directionless disaster it might just be having its cake and eating it, but it’s both playful and bold enough that I don’t object to this.

There’s a lingering question over whether the game’s self-analysis is accessible enough to anyone who doesn’t have an interest in, or even knowledge of, how games get made. I think it will be a tough nut for some to crack, to be honest. I think it tries to say too many things at once, sometimes with a jerky pacing which makes the game seem to skip ahead before messages and meanings have had a chance to sink it. It’s short, and I can see why – to extend its many ideas over many hours would be frighteningly expensive, but potentially fatiguing to play too – but The Magic Circle would surely have benefited from more breathing space.

Its capable and charismatic voice cast turn in exaggerated, almost pantomime performances at times too, and I wasn’t sure if this was down to a determination to be a comic game rather than a navel-gazing one, or a fear of deeply offending former colleagues and fans should the pompous voices of The Magic Circle’s unseen designers seem that much more real-world. It’s good for quips for sure, but the consequence of this broad characterisation was that I didn’t sympathise with anyone. No-one seems plausibly human, and stereotype kept creeping in.

There is, of course, a strong chance that even this is intentional. There’s much to deconstruct here, and there definitely will be nuances I’ve missed, but some of that is because TMC feels a little awkward. It oscillates wildly between browbeating you with its concerns at sometimes excessive length and merely alluding to greater truths about the developer/game/player relationship.

In any case, whether or not its commentary achieves what was intended, the core of The Magic Circle is wildly inventive and impossible to second-guess. Even if it does sell itself a little short with its frequent switching, perhaps this is a far better than resting on laurels, turning its big ideas into mere repetition. There’s much to be said for not outstaying its welcome, and for understanding that almost any time we’ve been promised something revolutionary, the reality invariably becomes routine after a short while.

The Magic Circle has a very clear understanding of how games can be laid low, especially when high-minded ambition rather than practicality is in charge, but whether because of budgetary limitations or because it’s too determined to convey its message first and foremost, it seems to then make some of those same mistakes. I want to say that it’s bitten off a bit more than it can chew, but given that its very nature is discussing how games can bite off more than they can chew, I can’t be sure that this isn’t deliberate either.

That it successfully pulls off big ideas while ostensibly criticising the danger of big ideas is perhaps a better way to end, and a better reflection of the admiration and fondness I feel for The Magic Circle despite its shortcomings. Or are they?

The Magic Circle is out now. There’s a free demo too.

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Alec Meer

Senior Editor

Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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