Deconstruction, the Player, and the Played Pt. 2: “The Magic Circle”

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[SPOILERS FOR THE MAGIC CIRCLE MAY BE FOUND BELOW!]

Last time in this pseudo-series I talked about The Beginner’s Guide and how I felt it’s personal nature and sincerity worked against it on the whole; it’s narration trapping the player into an ambiguity that robs them of a real connection to the game. After playing the game, I looked into some reviews to see if there were any revelations or theories that would adjust my interpretation of the work. There wasn’t a lot that changed my mind, but I did find a (similarly critical) review by Bob Mackey on USGamer where he compared it to another game I’d never heard of:

“The recent—and woefully underappreciated—The Magic Circle also gives players a tour of unfinished games by a frustrated creator, but works legitimately interesting and fun play into this concept, all while looking at the creative process from many different angles (and without committing to a single interpretation).”

I looked up a bit about the game, and was intrigued by the concept of a game satire more focused on the game industry and the culture of games than, say, just making fun of overused mechanics. Admittedly, I’m not someone with first-hand experience of the industry, and my indie efforts to make games are mainly produced for my own sake with little input from anyone else, but as a person with interest in game design and (just a little tiny bit of) experience making games on their own, The Magic Circle seemed like a fascinating concept.

It took me a little while to finally get Magic Circle, it’s about $20 on Steam which isn’t a bad price, but I knew it was supposed to be short. Finally, I got it over the winter break at a discount to play it. I beat it in one sitting. Then I played it again.

In the universe of The Magic Circle there was another (fictional) game known by the same name, a text adventure, that was ground breaking for its era. Now, thirty years later, the series creator Ishmael “Ish” Guilder is struggling to finish the sequel he has promised for years. Ishmael is a writer, a good writer, but also a stubborn one, and he is unable to rewrite or revise his story to accommodate the gameplay. On the other hand, we have Maze Evelyn, an ex-professional gamer and lead developer. Maze has been butting heads with Ish for so long that she is actually trying to get fired (but can’t quit because Ish owns the rights to her name & professional identity as a gamer). In the middle is Coda, an ardent Magic Circle fan promoted to designer, who is plotting to finish the game no matter the cost.

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Then there’s you: a QA tester stuck in a glitchy, half-finished game world where the developers can’t even agree whether you should even be allowed to interact with the world.

While you’re trapped in this development limbo, you are approached by a mysterious presence: an NPC from a previous iteration of The Magic Circle that gained sentience and is tired of laying around. This AI (the “Old Pro”) gives you the ability to ‘re-program’ parts of the game, mixing and matching the characteristics of  creatures and objects in the game. Your goal: take down one of the “Sky Bastards” (the in-game avatars for the developers), take control of the game … and that’s it. That’s the goal. How you accomplish that goal is up to you the player, but you have free reign to explore the game world until you come up some means of doing this. There’s plenty to discover in the game: audio logs of the developers talking, different creatures, old artifacts from previous versions of the game, and even a whole secret storyline to reward super nosy players.

There have been plenty of games that play with the nature of control, I’ve already talked about some of them on here, but what makes The Magic Circle so interesting is that you make the game play for you. The only ability you, the player, has in the game (aside from movement & jumping) is the ability to re-write parts of the game. You can zap a terrible beast, and take its legs, and put those legs onto a rock. You can take a mushroom, and rewrite it to be your ally. This mostly comes into play to solve puzzles, and do some combat, but this is a mechanic that gives you, simultaneously, very limited and almost unlimited control. On the one hand, you have very little direct control, you can’t even fight on your own. On the other hand, you have plenty of influence over things around you. The Magic Circle is a game that blends elements of game play with game design and development (this is especially clear at the end, which is one thing I wont spoil because it’s too good for that), and it does it in a way that works. Of course, The Magic Circle is a satire of game development, not a documentary or a how-to. Several members of development team at Question had previously worked on triple-A games like Bioshock and Dishonored. The experience is obvious. And the frustration is obvious too. Whether that frustration is more directed at the developers or the players is a little more uncertain.

On the one hand, the developers Ish, and Maze are both too pretentious and headstrong to really consider what the players want. On the other hand, Coda and the fans let their desires for a new game eclipse their lack of skill or consideration. And while Ish’s final speech has self-loathing in spades, I can’t help but feel, as a player, like he’s got some good points.

Consumers consume lazy games: give us the same violence, the same hero’s journeys, the same mechanics, and we’ll buy it. Even if we complain we’ll buy it. Just so long there are enough gimmicks or some top-of-the-line graphics we’ll just get it anyway. And designers make lazy games. Not only that, producers demand lazy games. Games that are grinding to design, and grinding to play. We’re turning games into chores.

Where did this cycle begin? With players or with designers? I’m not sure that Magic Circle can answer that, but it is righteously angry.

The Magic Circle has its flaws. It’s definitely too short – there’s only really one level with one mechanic, which is a little disappointing. And for all the incentives to explore it can be kind of boring to scour the map for documents when there’s no mechanical reward. But at least it is willing to really be angry, and to be funny, and to ask questions, and (most rare of all) to offer a solution.

Make a game.

We, as players, need to start making games. Games that mean something to us. It isn’t easy. Like any task worth doing it takes time to learn, and it takes time to develop, but it is worth doing. And it is necessary if we want things to be better, both in and out of the industry.

Because, to use the words of the old pro, “there’s a zillion to one chance that maybe now fun ain’t enough.”

Cheers,

-PH

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