We speak to Jordan Thomas about his game-within-a-game
How adventures in development inspired Jordan Thomas’s game-within-a-game, The Magic Circle
Jordan Thomas has been unwittingly researching his new game for his entire career. In The Magic Circle, players will explore the unfinished world of an abandoned videogame, and by using ‘life’ extracted from cracks in its wireframe models, they can attempt to either restore this land to its once-planned glory or bring it down from within. While development proper began in 2013, the idea began to form during Thomas’s first design role – creating the Shale bridge Cradle level for Thief: Deadly Shadows.
“In many ways, working on that game gave birth to my design-demon,” he says. “It tells me constantly how out of place any narrative element is in any simulation, how much of a waste of time traditional storytelling is in an interactive medium. That voice is in constant, bloody struggle with the person I had been up until I worked on Thief.”
Shale bridge taught Thomas to try to work with, rather than against, the player, a sensible philosophy that is entirely contradicted by the fictional developers of the unfinished work within The Magic Circle. They insist on having everything their way, and so are failing hard.
Further inspiration came from Bio Shock, onto which Thomas was recruited after the 2005 closure of Ion Storm Austin. He created Fort Frolic, the section where you encountered Sander Cohen, a frustrated, psychopathic artist who toys with the player, sending them on a series of to-and-fro quests. “I saw Cohen as what I could have become had I not worked on Thief,” Thomas tells us, “as this directorial force that says, ‘Do this, then this and then this, and then you’ll tell me I’m a genius.’”
Bio Shock was also where Thomas first met Stephen Alexander, the artist who, along with ex-Arkane programmer Kain Shin, joined him to set up Question LLC and begin work on The Magic Circle. But when Bio Shock shipped, Thomas was separated from his future co-founder and moved to Australia to assist on another 2K game, an XCOM spinoff that would later become The Bureau: XCOM Declassified.
“That project was mired from the off,” he says. “I was meant to be there as the missing narrative element, but nobody really knew who was in charge.” Frustrated by The Bureau’s lack of direction, Thomas soon accepted a different position inside 2K. Executive producer Alyssa Finley wanted to found a new studio, and had Thomas in mind for creative director. The studio Finley envisioned was 2K Marin. Its first game would be Bio Shock 2.
“I wanted to make something like Silent Hill in Rapture,” Thomas explains. “I was told we had to be in Rapture for the purposes of art reuse. I was also told that this was going to be their Gears Of War [equivalent], a massive, multimillion-selling shooter. I was also told we had to have multiplayer, so a lot of the mental resources were spent on that endeavour.”
Cutting, compromising and knowing your limits are lessons Thomas has learned the hard way, and intends to pass on via The Magic Circle. The game it portrays has been in development for 20 years, and still doesn’t work, because the creators are all busy chasing their dreams. Pulled in so many directions on Bio Shock 2, Thomas learned the value of self-awareness. “That game will always be for me, primarily, a lesson,” he says. “I kept saying yes. I’ve learned how important it is, from day one, to say no.”
After Bio Shock 2, Thomas returned briefly to work on The Bureau, but found the project still deeply troubled. By now, development on Bio Shock Infinite was in full swing and facing problems of its own. Ken Levine’s hand-picked team was struggling to find a sound direction and so Thomas, who’d worked magic under Levine in the past, was parachuted in.
“It was a little vindicating to see that even Irrational was struggling to answer all of the prayers that the first game had spawned,” he says. “After my two-year, sleep-deprived manic sprint on Bio Shock 2, it actually was as hard as it seemed.”
With all that experience – and now confident that all games, regardless of pedigree, face problems – Thomas sat down to write The Magic Circle. It’s a game about games, and what the people who make them are like, but taken broadly, it’s also the story of how frustration, compromise and cavalier attitudes permeate creative endeavours.
“The developers in The Magic Circle are a force that can never resolve themselves,” Thomas says. “Without the player, they’d be doomed to a purgatorial loop. Games are not choose-your-own-adventure books. They’re essentially various mathematical systems dancing. I bought into the auteur complex that games sold to me back in ’90s, but the reality is so far from that that you can’t help but laugh. That’s what I want to model for the player.”
“Games are not choose-your-own-adventure books. They’re essentially mathematical systems dancing”
Jordan Thomas, Question LLC