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The Magic Circle Hands-On: Visiting Development Hell

Ghost in the shell

The Magic Circle is the first game from Question, LLC, the new studio from Jordan Thomas, he of Thief 3's The Cradle, BioShock 2, BioShock: Infinite and many more. It's a systems-driven first-person exploration adventure about a years-in-development game of uncommon ambition, and it's about rewriting its rules from the inside while trying not to attract the attention of its developers. I've played a couple of hours of an early build.

"Attack them, my spider-army!" A horde of chittering polygonal arachnids skitters surges towards a pack of flamers at my command, while I hang back to let them do my dirty work for me. Every single one of them burns to death. Oh, right. Forgot to set the 'Fireproof' attribute. I summon their 'leader' - in fact an arbitrary member given the Groupthink attribute, which duly shares its traits with all similar entities - and edit its properties. Let's try this again. "Attack them, my flame retardant spider-army!"

My eight-legged chums fare rather better this time around. When the fighting's done, I approach the ghostly bodies of the fallen Flamers. I edit their properties. I take their Flame attacks. I spy a mushroom. I give it the flame attack, as well as the ability to walk, and orders that I am its ally. Now, it is my bodyguard. I also distort this world's logic and have a rock, a rat and a corpse join my crew.

For I am god.

I'm god until I'm caught playing god, at any rate. In reality, I'm an unknown factor in someone else's videogame, quietly wreaking havoc by rewriting its rules. After years in development and multiple reboots, to the point that it's widely considered vapourware, The Magic Circle - that is, the fictional The Magic Circle which the real-life The Magic Circle documents - is already so full of glitches and unfinished features that I can fly under the developers' radar for the time being.

So, with simple clicks, I can alter code. I can make the game's mutant dogs fight for me, I can reanimate corpses and have them deactivate forcefields, I can turn giant turtles into heat-proof platforms to ferry me across lava lakes, or I could simply remove the Movement - Ground attribute from any foe and render it unable to come after me. In what I played, there was never one fixed solution (although in some instances it is simply a matter of giving a specific ability to a creature of your choice), and it was highly systems-driven rather than purely plot-driven.

This also makes The Magic Circle almost as much a strategy game as it is a first-person puzzle adventure. There may be specific goals and navigational puzzles, but The Magic Circle also encourages you to form and manage an ever-changing army. There are even resources, of a sort, in that you must spend your own life force to take control of or reanimate a unit. You can always absorb more life force from an enemy (or ally) that you see no purpose for, however.

I'd been concerned that The Magic Circle - aka 'what Jordan Thomas did after assorted BioShocks' - might disappear too deep down the self-referential rabbit hole. A game about games development, made by someone who'd been in the Ion Storm trenches, who'd steered difficult sequel BioShock 2 into being, who'd tried to get the multiply-rebooted jenga tower that was poor old XCOM: The Bureau back on track, who'd been drafted in to somehow get the out-of-control ocean liner that was BioShock: Infinite to its final destination. Someone who'd seen games reach dizzy heights and tortured lows. Someone with scars, someone with stories they can't share, someone who probably cannot ever be someone who simply plays a game again. Would The Magic Circle be closed and baffling to anyone who'd never been inside the system themselves?

Thankfully, it appears not, at least in the couple of hours' worth of demo build I've played. The dev stuff is fairly light of touch and errs towards black comedy, not reliant on jargon and self-reference, so that the drama and tension as unseen game-makers bicker and worry broadly finds universal concepts of hubris. A game hyped beyond all measure, but yet to appear years after its announcement. A lead designer who's poured his own money in to keep the project alive, now at risk of poverty as a result. Great creative thinkers forced to compromise, their dreams of convincing artificial life dragged down to simplistic attack-on-sight behaviours. The stage may be behind-the-scenes game development, but the theme is humanity. Specifically, pride, and what invariably comes after it.

Perhaps more importantly, at least if you're for any reason put off by the idea of unseen developers' booming voices agonising over the world you're adventuring through, The Magic Circle also manages to be a power fantasy. No guns, no specific player identity (at least, not yet) and no permanent death for anything (at least, not yet), but it's still very much playing with concepts of conquering. Almost any creature can be trapped and reprogrammed, whether to do your bidding (e.g. tell it that The Player is an ally, or that a specific enemy is its enemy too), to be neutralised or to have its abilities - movement, attack type, special attributes such as force field neutralising or a just pretty glow effect - stolen to be later applied to something else.

You don't ever fight directly, other than to 'trap' creatures in a third type of magic circle, one that freezes them and enables editing, but make no mistake - this is power. Were I a betting man, I'd wager the power will at some point be subverted when the true gods of this place finally cotton on to what's going on in it.

Something which should also be said, in defence against any misconception that the The Magic Circle is a slice of lo-fi shoegazing, is how impressive it looks. This is a game of scale, populated by misshapen monochrome architecture and sinister statues (or are they characters yet to be animated?0 which tower above you, of chopped-up floating roads and mighty volcanoes, and of glitches and placeholder messages that somehow look less like graphical errors and more like another universe seeping in. It also visits other places, more familiar places that it would not be fair of me to reveal now. In short, what I played was full of visual surprises, in addition to the novelty of rewriting AI behaviour.

The Magic Circle is about games, and about how games can go wrong, and about the agonies of making them, but it is very much a game. Quite a special one, I think.

There's no release date for The Magic Circle as yet, but next year is likely.

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Alec Meer avatar

Alec Meer


Ancient co-founder of RPS. Long gone. Now mostly writes for rather than about video games.