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

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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

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