The Magic Circle
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