The Magic Circle: Review

The Magic Circle is another game in the growing games about games genre. Whereas games like Beginner’s Guide focus on the reception of games, and the Stanley Parable ridicule the illusion of choice that games promise to bring, The Magic Circle is about game development, and the people who make or break it.

As a play-tester, you are thrown into a barely completed game that has been abandoned by all except the lead creator and those who he forces to remain. It looks like it to, with incomplete assets, sections of the game world clashing both in style and completeness, and random assets and objects thrown about. It doesn’t always look good, but that is the point.

Within this world, you find another entity, some…thing that has been trapped within this game because it has never been finished in the ten years of development. What this entity was never really made sense to me. A rogue code? Another play-tester trapped in the game from a previous time? This entity directs you to sabotage the game so they can escape. What follows is a half-puzzle, half-sandbox experience, where your job is to help bring the game to completion in one form or another.

Within the half-finished game, the game’s developers float around with giant eye avatars. They bicker and snap at each other and don’t seem to get anything done. Sprinkled among the broken world, you will also stumble upon notes left by the former employees, often complaining about missing features of the lack of proper project management.

The core mechanic of the game is finding objects and absorbing their “classes.” For anyone who has tinkered with game editors or scripting, the coding layer of the game will feel familiar. You can then assign these classes, or attributes, to any other objects you find in the game.

Want a mushroom that can fly? Give it the flying attribute. Want your hell hound to be immune from fire? Give it fire immunity. Half of the puzzles center around finding and gaining the attributes, which you gather from items and creatures in game. Following the sandbox nature of the game, most puzzles seem to have multiple solutions. While this section of the game works well, it is short and I feel more could have been done to explore the game’s core mechanics, before proceeding to the second half of The Magic Circle.

The last act is weaker than the first because it focuses on the narrative. Gone are the code experiments and the exploration, and we are instead given a front seat to exposition and narrative. Save for one, slightly humorous use of the game’s code mechanics, the last sections heavy narration feels jarring. You go from this wonderful sandbox to what is essentially a long cut scene with one unclear puzzle.

Can The Magic Circle teach us about game development?

…the magic circle of a game is where the game takes place. To play a game means entering into a magic circle, or perhaps creating one as a game begins.

Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals

Among a lot of “gamers”, there are many incorrect assumptions about how game development works. Every year, we see this play out in Twitter rants and on Steam forums. Just fix that bug, just add this feature, how hard can it be? Despite journalistic pieces on the developmental history of games like Mass Effect: Andromeda and The Bureau: X-Com Declassified detailing the challenges and managerial mistakes that resulted in a poor release, game development still seems like magic.

The Magic Circle tries to pierce the veil and give some insights into some of the worst aspects and challenges of software development. However, without any related experience, I am not sure the game is able to educate a player. The conversations between the developers are too humorous, losing any lesson they may contain. It doesn’t help that the characters are caricatures. We have the auteur who will give anything and everything to create a masterpiece. He is haunted by the success of his first game and doesn’t have the confidence in his follow up, which of course needs to be a bigger succes. Then we have the pro gamer who has been intimidated and manipulated to work on the game, but which wants to see it fail due to being forced to work on it. Finally, we have the super fan who wants to help the auteur complete their work but secretly wants ownership of it.

There are metaphors here for sure, but its never clear what the essential message is supposed to be, except games are hard, which isn’t really enough. After breaking the game, the auteur goes on a long rant about the impossibility of pleasing the fans, the super fan takes control of the game and opens it up to the modding community, which promptly takes the whole game apart because there is no direction. Is the answer somewhere in between?

Presenting these two extremes as methods of game creation, and having both of them ending in disaster, doesn’t tell us much about what good game development looks like. Is the ownership of the game in the auteur, who has no single vision and is crumbling under the pressure to create a masterpiece? No. Without a definite vision, a game (or any project) can’t be completed and be successful. This doesn’t mean the vision needs to come from one singular source, but some decisions need to be made and stuck to. Does the game belong to the players and modders? No, they will rip the game apart and use the bits and bobs for their own end, lacking a similar direction and structure for their work.

Does this play out in real life? Sometimes, but there are examples of games under a single auteur vision that gain critical acclaim and economic success. On the other side, there are plenty of games that have also received critical acclaim and economic success as a result of dedicated modding efforts.

This is my biggest gripe of the game. While its amusing to see the bickering and jabs at game development, fans, crowdfunding, and other areas of game development, the entire arc of the game is completely negative. I couldn’t decide if the game was being sarcastic or pessimistic. Any lessons of how games are made will most likely be lost to those who may need them the most.

Despite of this, the first part of the game is clever, entertaining, and allows the player great freedom in expressing themselves through the game’s mechanics.

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