Games are becoming increasingly experimental in terms of form and narrative.
And as a game that tells the story of a video game stuck in development hell, The Magic Circle represents an interesting exploration into the complexities of game development. The eponymous game that The Magic Circle is about started life as a celebrated text-adventure. And for around twenty years, a sequel’s been in the works. The characters of the game represent a few of the archetypal forces and the tensions that can play out behind the scenes.
The premise of the game is, on the face of things, pretty simple. You play as a QA tester hired to help prepare a live-demo for an E3 surrogate that’s scheduled in just a few days. It’s within a few minutes of stepping into the world that the reality of things becomes clear.
Stepping into it, this is a game that looks as if it’s in the earliest stages of development – the scenery is constructed of sketched backgrounds and assets. It’s ironic that the game looks lovely from a player’s perspective; in-game it indicates something’s gone badly wrong. It’s immediately apparent that your job isn’t as simple as it seems; and neither is The Magic Circle. As befits a game that’s been two decades in the making, the setting you start off in isn’t the only one. There’s another, mothballed version of the game from years ago. It’s strikingly different and the stylistic differences are impressive, with the entire atmosphere of the game transforming when you cross between the worlds. The music and art style of the older one are authentically retro, and it makes for a convincing virtual graveyard.
There’s three main perspectives in The Magic Circle – Ish, the creative director, is the mastermind of the game and committed to complete artistic purity above anything else. Maze Evelyn, originally a design intern, is concerned only with playability, with little concern for anything else. And finally, there’s Coda, representing the fans of the original text adventure and determined to ensure the game is totally representative of the fans’ vision. The developers are present as you navigate the demo (and beyond). And they’re in fierce conflict about the most fundamental aspects of the game throughout. They’re making changes even as you progress, to mechanics such as combat. That’s removed when the creative director decides it compromises his vision, seemingly on a whim.
The Magic Circle’s main focus is its narrative. Through exploring the troubles of a game beset with serious development issues, it explores a few themes relating to the creative process. The tension between creative vision and playability is a famous one, and both sides are represented here. Neither side comes off particularly well – there’s no compromise on the part of either side, and at times each makes good and bad points. The characters come across as unsympathetic, but as the player you don’t have an investment in their struggles. Your commitment is to the game.
The demo swiftly gives way to the game proper – after completing a short canter through this shadow of a level, a rogue element is introduced. This character hacks the code and pulls you back into the world; only now you too have the ability to manipulate the world. Instead, your goal becomes the resurrection of the game and the attempt to bring it to some kind of conclusion. You suck ‘Life’ from ‘Cracks’ in the game’s code. This fuels both your power and health bars. Run out or die? There’s an unlimited source of the stuff. These abilities form your means of interacting with the game. With traditional combat giving way to the purity of the vision, your avatar can’t take a hack ’n’ slash approach to things. Instead, you have the ability to edit the attributes of the creatures and objects of the world. You’re able to edit or acquire their abilities; you can make yourself their ally and change aspects such as how they move, and attack.
The gameplay, then, is a mix of puzzles and exploration. Obstacles are placed in your way as you make your way through the world, and it’s up to you to use your new powers to construct solutions. One example is overcoming a chasm filled with lava; I solved this by giving rocks the ability to float and making them fireproof. Et voila – a bridge to my goal. That wasn’t the only solution. A strength of the game is the way the variety of your abilities allows an expansive approach to solving problems. One of the pleasures of bestowing creatures with new abilities is the way it shapes them; a little robot that I gave a flame attack to received a small flame-thrower attachment on top of its head.
The game facilitates and encourages adventurousness and exploration through allowing you to fast travel from and to anywhere and summon allies from wherever to your location. There’s no penalty for striking into dead ends to hunt down new information – if you get stuck, you can fast travel to just about anywhere you’ve already discovered. Unfortunately, this open-endedness can result in frustration. The game isn’t interested in hand-holding when it comes to working things out, and that means a lot of trial and error.
On your travels, you’ll discover change logs and recorded clips of game commentary. This sheds a lot of light on the game’s narrative – it paints a picture of a team too entrenched in their conflicting positions to allow any progress whatsoever to take place, and meanwhile the team and the game suffer. The first half of the game proceeds like this – you explore and manipulate the game, finding out what you can and searching for a way to bring an end to the madness. All of this leads to the game’s initial conclusion, which takes place live on the stage at E4. It’s a smart, tense set piece that plays out in real time and while it’s flawed, represents a distillation of the narrative’s questions. Things shift gears again in the second half. Here, your time getting to know the tools and discovering the world really come into play. It’s an inspired idea that’s a clever exploration of the theme of the vagaries of game development.
In conclusion, The Magic Circle is an ambitious piece of work. The developers set themselves an interesting challenge in developing a game that deconstructs the process of game development and the player-developer relationship. The game’s writing is extremely witty, and, largely, the narrative is an incisive analysis of the competing factors involved in creating a game that satisfies players and stays true to the original vision. The two halves of the game contribute to this: the first half allows the player to make their way through the partially completed world, finding out how it all came to be. The second half turns the tables on the player and allows you to explore the argument from the other side.
The game does have its flaws. It’s a short play, easily completed within a matter of hours. And while it’s largely deft in its deconstruction of game development, it can get heavy-handed at times – the concluding scenes at E4 being a case in point. Nevertheless, it’s still a game worth experiencing. It’s an intriguing and amusing game and is a smart analysis of the game industry’s concerns and how they relate to players.