The Magic Cir­cle

EDGE - - GAMES - Pub­lisher/de­vel­oper Ques­tion For­mat PC Re­lease Out now


The Magic Cir­cle’s game within a game (bear­ing the same name) is a wreck, yanked this way and that by a pre­cious au­teur over years. Pixel­lated ’90s sci-fi spills onto a mono­chrome waste of RPG clichés; dark forests, skull moun­tains and hive queens are just some of the dis­carded ideas that will never be good enough to con­clude a hal­lowed se­ries and be stu­dio head Ish­mael Gilder’s legacy. Bills are mount­ing, the team’s ra­bid, and a demo must be shown at E4 in days.

You are handed the task of playtest­ing this mess, but an in­tro­duc­tory trek through a field of place­hold­ers – to a sound­track of bick­er­ing devs – gets you won­der­ing what there might be to test. Gilder changes his mind and deletes as­sets – and you, even as you at­tempt to make head­way. For­tu­nately, you’re not alone in try­ing to see the job through. This game wants to be fin­ished, and a dis­carded pro­tag­o­nist known only as The Old Pro chooses you as the tool to get it done. The Pro doesn’t care how or in what state the game gets shipped; he just wants it to be over. There are other in­ter­ests in play, too: Maze Evelyn, for­mer pro player turned de­signer, is gun­ning to get sacked and so es­cape de­vel­op­ment hell, while Coda Soliz, in­tern and devo­tee from the fan com­mu­nity, has very dif­fer­ent plans for the project.

The Magic Cir­cle is re­mark­able among games with some­thing to say for be­ing em­i­nently top­i­cal. The Stan­ley Para­ble gave the topic of player choice ver­sus nar­ra­tive de­sign a good thrash­ing, cer­tainly, but The Magic Cir­cle touches on al­most ev­ery cur­rent con­tro­versy in ad­di­tion to its ex­plo­ration of the roles of cre­ator and player. De­vel­oper re­spon­si­bil­ity when work­ing with much-loved IP, crowd­fund­ing, fan en­ti­tle­ment and deceptive mar­ket­ing: all are in its sights. And in a tes­ta­ment to de­vel­oper Ques­tion’s pre­science, events such as Peter Molyneux’s re­treat from the spot­light and Warner Bros’ hasty with­drawal of the un­der­baked Bat­man: Arkham Knight PC port en­sure The Magic Cir­cle’s mes­sage is cut­tingly rel­e­vant.

Th­ese asides are re­fresh­ing, en­ter­tain­ing and dis­tress­ing in turn, thanks to a ro­bust ar­ray of voice tal­ent, in­clud­ing Ashly Burch, Stephen Rus­sell and Ken Levine, who find sin­cer­ity in a script that can stray close to over­wrought. The irony is that the meat of the thing – a slap to au­teurs who as­sert their vi­sion at the ex­pense of playa­bil­ity – is un­mis­tak­ably heavy­handed, as if Ques­tion was un­will­ing to fol­low its own ad­vice and risk for a se­cond that any player might miss its les­son in good game de­sign. Straight-faced de­liv­ery by The Old Pro puts paid to the idea that it’s all part of the con­ceit: “If your way does the job, it’s more right than they’ll ever be.”

‘Your way’ means ma­nip­u­lat­ing the rem­nants of dis­carded ideas to take steadily greater con­trol of the fic­tional Magic Cir­cle. Af­ter the lin­ear in­tro­duc­tion hands you tools of sab­o­tage and cre­ation, you’re left with just one ob­jec­tive – hack the Sky Bas­tard – to achieve as you will in a compact open world. Draw­ing ‘Life’ from cracks in the land gives you the power to re­store de­funct as­sets and en­snare AI to mod­ify with be­hav­iours that you’ve col­lected at the ex­pense of their pre­vi­ous own­ers. Name, move­ment, at­tack style, spe­cial abil­i­ties, al­liances and en­e­mies can all be cor­rupted, echo­ing Scrib­ble­nauts in the ar­ray of ab­surd out­comes: fire-breath­ing Cyber-Rats that loathe the sight of Mush­room Wiz­ards, lev­i­tat­ing hive-minded corpses, or fire­proof quadrupedal Howlers with rail­guns.

Bot­tom­less wells of Life mean the re­source is far from lim­it­ing. If you want, great abom­inable hordes are yours for the re­con­struc­tion, and Ques­tion’s ser­mon con­flicts with it­self here. The Old Pro laments the in­cor­ri­gi­ble de­sign gods who pur­sue their vi­sion at the ex­pense of all else, but for the du­ra­tion the player is en­cour­aged to cre­ate to ex­cess. A de­light­fully in­ven­tive con­clu­sion, mean­while, cel­e­brates in­di­vid­ual ef­fort. The Pro ad­mits to an ul­te­rior mo­tive, but re­strict­ing your Life as an ex­er­cise in the kind of re­straint and abil­ity to com­pro­mise that Gilder lacks might have served both the moral and mo­ment-to-mo­ment puz­zles bet­ter.

In terms of length, the three-to-four-hour nar­ra­tive is ex­pertly judged. It says what it needs to, then rolls out a feel-good clos­ing chap­ter to buoy you up just enough to off­set the hol­low feel­ing of maybe hav­ing ru­ined a man’s ca­reer with a par­a­sitic air­borne baby Je­sus. The puz­zles, on the other hand, lack con­vic­tion. Even as you chase its bonus logs and ‘de­vel­oper’ com­men­tary, The Magic Cir­cle never asks you to test the lim­its of your cus­tom AI. The el­e­ments of a grey mat­ter work­out are there – ad­vanced sub­rou­tines such as Group Think and Shield Ally pro­vide the ba­sis for a range of mul­ti­step so­lu­tions – but it’s sim­pler to turn a half-dozen rocks into a rov­ing fire­wall than to ap­ply any fi­nesse. Maybe it’s jus­ti­fied by The Magic Cir­cle’s in­tent never to work against its play­ers, but the path of least re­sis­tance is a smooth ride in­deed.

The ves­tiges of the fic­tional Magic Cir­cle’s many dif­fer­ent in­car­na­tions clash mar­vel­lously, its unique and sur­real iden­tity set off by sim­i­larly ab­surd me­chan­ics that some­how man­age to find con­text in an earnest hu­man drama. It in­dulges in jabs at the in­dus­try that are un­sub­tle at times and mud­dled at oth­ers, but the most top­i­cal of th­ese hit home, and you will at some point find your­self nod­ding em­phat­i­cally in sup­port of the Old Pro try­ing to bring down the sys­tem, of Coda and the fan com­mu­nity, or per­haps of the be­sieged Gilder him­self. It’s per­haps not the grand lam­poon Ques­tion hoped and planned for, but The Magic Cir­cle is a valiant mod­ern para­ble that might also have been an ex­cep­tional puzzler, if only it had made its play­ers a lit­tle less god­like.

If you want, abom­inable hordes are yours for the re­con­struc­tion, and Ques­tion’s ser­mon con­flicts with it­self here

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