All gamers have an idea of a game they want to make. It could be anything from a novel mechanic through to a fully fleshed out story, but it’s there hanging around in the back of our minds. However for those of us who’ve attempted to bring that idea into reality we often come crashing into the cold hard truth of the games industry: making games is hard. For the precious few that make it through the process (and fewer still who see success from it) the scars of game development are forever burned into their psyche. The Magic Circle is a game that chronicles this journey, with all the dark humour and self-loathing that permeates much of the game industry.
To its fans The Magic Circle was a brilliant example of interactive fiction, a game deserving of the title of cult classic. The sequel however has been one of the most beleaguered projects in the history of gaming, having been in development for some 20 years with little to show for it. The creator’s perfectionism has kept the sequel in a perpetual state of unfinishedness, never being satisfied enough to ship anything. You are one of the games’ long time fans who’s been hired as a playtester for the current iteration of the game. Whilst your experience confirms that yes, there is a game, it’s no where near complete. However when you finish the small section you’re contacted by an AI from a previous generation of the game who shows you how to take control of this unfinished world.
The Magic Circle looks and feels like an unfinished game, although under the hood it’s anything but. The choice of a bleak black and white aesthetic for one world (and a low-res, 8-bit colour palette for the other) reinforces that unfinished feeling. Interestingly though the whole world is properly textured as evidenced by the fact that your character brings colour wherever it steps. It’s the kind of stuff you’d expect to see in a pre-alpha or similarly beta indie game although there’s an obvious layer of polish that would otherwise be missing from such early stage games. Suffice to say Question Games have done a good job of creating a “finished-unfinished” world.
Like most early stage games The Magic Circle is a mishmash of different ideas that are all cobbled together. The initial game starts out as something of a walking simulator with you just viewing the scenery. However it quickly transforms into a kind of puzzle game where you can modify the behaviour of enemies and objects within the world. This can be something as simple as making something your ally instead of your enemy or completely changing the way an object moves or interacts. This is how you start breaking the game, changing things around so you can access more areas that you shouldn’t be able to. Finally at the end you’re put in charge of actually developing a game level and you’ll get reviewed on how fun it is. This is all the while you’re privy to commentary from the game’s developers, giving you an insight into the creator’s vision and why it’s never quite managed to be released.
The initial game modification section of The Magic Circle is quite fun as there are numerous different ways to approach many of the puzzles when you first start out. These start to thin out a bit as you get towards the later puzzles as most of them really only have one solution. Still the rudimentary control you have over the NPCs does present some rather fun opportunities like sending wave after wave of rats at the Hive Queen in an attempt to defeat her. Of course there’s only so much mucking about you can do before you’ve found all the secrets and want to move on. Thankfully that’s not hard at all and it’s at that point the game takes on a very meta twist.
It’s at this point you’re thrust into a demo game for E4 and given the choice of whether or not to muck with it. This then leads onto you watching them playing the demo live on stage whilst all chaos breaks loose. Then after that you’re given the task of creating the sequel with a rudimentary level editor. It’s actually pretty interesting to try and figure out how to maximise the review score at the end and the commentary given to you by Old Pro is quite entertaining. You’re then thrown back to your desktop where you’re able to replay the game, redo your level or simply click around to find out some more details about the game.
It’s interesting to see a satirized version of events that are familiar to many gamers, namely sequels that seem to be forever in development due to its creator’s perfectionism. Indeed it feels like a game more for developers, industry insiders and observers more than anything. If anything the story is more like a 3 hour long treatise on the pitfalls of developing a game and the potential boons for those who manage to stick it through. Whilst I enjoyed it, even Ishmael’s long rant about how it’s all about the player and their destructive wishes, I know that kind of story isn’t for everyone.
The Magic Circle demonstrates in a beautifully satirical way the agony that is game development. The world is expertly crafted to resemble a pre-alpha game that’s a mash of too many ideas, all coexisting in the same code base which end up mashing together in unintended ways. This is reflected in the game play which is based around messing with things and changing up behaviours so you can access things you otherwise wouldn’t be able to. The story is one that definitely has a specific target audience in mind and, whilst it might not be for everyone, definitely plays to its strengths as a piece of commentary on the industry. It might not meet my criteria for a must-play game for everyone but if, like me, you feel like a part of the greater games industry, then there’s definitely a lot to like in The Magic Circle.
The Magic Circle is available on PC right now for $19.99. Total play time was approximately 3 hours with 36% of the achievements unlocked.