In ‘The Magic Cir­cle,’ you are a glitch in an un­fin­ished fan­tasy world

The Washington Post Sunday - - VIDEO GAMES | ON LOVE - BY CHRISTO­PHER BYRD style@wash­post.com

Satire is most suc­cess­ful when cul­tural prac­tices are so in­grained that the satire im­me­di­ately inspires one to think about how things are and how they should be. “The Magic Cir­cle” con­spires to chal­lenge video game cul­ture from the in­side, taunt­ing play­ers and de­vel­op­ers alike.

“The Magic Cir­cle” is set in an in­com­plete fan­tasy role-play­ing game that is it­self named . . . The Magic Cir­cle. In this pro­vi­sional space filled with mu­si­cal sketches, place­holder art and mis­placed ob­sta­cles, the game’s fic­tional de­vel­op­ers at TMC Games bicker over the scope and de­tails of their cre­ation.

Hence the irony of the ti­tle, which salutes the pos­si­bil­i­ties and lim­i­ta­tions of ar­ti­fi­cial worlds.

The nar­ra­tive mines this rift from the per­spec­tive of the de­vel­op­ers and an A.I. that, un­be­knownst to its cre­ators, has achieved self-con­scious­ness. While the de­vel­op­ers, a.k.a. “the gods,” fret over what sort of agency to give the player, the rogue A.I. taunts you with the idea of be­com­ing a dig­i­tal Prometheus by seiz­ing the de­vel­op­ers’ tools and eclips­ing their vi­sion.

Scat­tered through­out the world are notes and au­dio logs that record the de­vel­op­ers’ fluc­tu­at­ing con­cep­tions of their game in ad­di­tion to de­tail­ing the per­sonal reper­cus­sions of toil­ing on a piece of near va­por­ware that has ef­fec­tively bankrupted the stu­dio.

The en­tries are hu­mor­ous, plain­tive, tetchy, de­luded, para­noid, and al­to­gether hu­man — the out­growths of a busi­ness cul­ture re­puted for long hours, harsh con­tracts, and heart­break­ing artis­tic com­pro­mises. Case in point: Much to the lead de­signer’s anger, mul­ti­player along with the com­bat sys­tems that she and oth­ers la­bored over have been cut from the game. But such is the pro­ject lead’s de­ci­sion to avoid hav­ing to cater to the sort of player whose be­hav­ior he pithily sums up as “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Geno­cide.”

If this sounds a bit odd or even alien to your ex­pe­ri­ence, I should say that if you have never ex­pe­ri­enced a glitch in a game be­fore, like fall­ing through the back­ground scenery, then some of the game’s satire will be lost on you. Af­ter all, you, the player, are the glitch among glitches, an un­sched­uled ex­plorer in a mis­be­got­ten game that’s taken 10 years to ap­proach its first public re­veal, even though it’s nowhere near fin­ished.

Although you are pow­er­less, you wield the abil­ity to draw “life” from what de­vel­op­ers call BSP holes — flaws in the map or back­ground.

With this energy, you can re­store life to deleted char­ac­ters and trap half-fin­ished or leftover ad­ver­saries in your per­sonal BSP hole. Once trapped, you can en­ter their pro­gram files and al­ter their loy­al­ties and an­tipathies, in ef­fect turn­ing them into your minions.

Fur­ther­more, you can steal their at­tributes and as­sign them to your mot­ley band of fol­low­ers that seem like they be­long in dif­fer­ent games where zom­bies and mush­room wizards make sense.

It may take you a while to wrap your head around how flex­i­ble the at­tribute-swap­ping me­chan­ics are.

Want to ex­change the mush­room wiz­ard’s abil­ity to travel — by hop­ping — along the ground with a he­li­copter’s fly­ing abil­ity? Go for it! The mush­room wiz­ard will sprout a pro­pel­ler pack, and the he­li­copter’s stand will trans­form into me­chan­i­cal feet.

The game’s opaque learn­ing curve re­minded me of “Tran­sis­tor” — another rel­a­tively short game that’s pos­si­ble to fin­ish while re­main­ing ig­no­rant of many of its game­play pos­si­bil­i­ties.

“The Magic Cir­cle” is the first game from Ques­tion, a de­vel­op­ment stu­dio lo­cated in Tiburon, Calif., and founded by a trio of in­dus­try vet­er­ans: Jor­dan Thomas, Stephen Alexan­der and Kain Shin, who among them have worked on “Thief: Deadly Shad­ows,” all three BioShock games, and “Dis­hon­ored.”

What­ever their rea­sons for step­ping away from AAA game de­vel­op­ment, their new game is a driven work of art that pur­pose­fully runs afoul of all of the worst pro­gram­ing sins. Un­sightly look­ing back­grounds? Sec­tion with mas­sive fram­er­ate drop? Yeah and yeah, and it’s all deliri­ously sat­is­fy­ing to be­hold.

The game’s end­ing, which es­sen­tially trans­fers the de­vel­op­ers’ prob­lems to the player, is in­deed the prover­bial ace up the sleeve. Late apolo­gies if I strayed into spoiler ter­ri­tory.

In a talk at the EGX (the Bri­tish video game con­fer­ence), Thomas noted that the “busi­ness of games has be­come the re­al­ity-al­ter­na­tive busi­ness.” He clar­i­fied this say­ing that it is in the in­ter­est of the big pub­lish­ers and de­vel­op­ers to keep churn­ing out games that celebrate the player as a hero or of­fer the al­lure of a grad­ual sense of mas­tery over a world while the ques­tion of the player’s place in the real world lies off to the side.

What does it say about our lives that we long for scripted ad­ven­tures? I know I’m one of many who can’t imag­ine hav­ing sur­vived mid­dle school with­out video games.

“The Magic Cir­cle” wants to con­front you with its im­per­fec­tions and make you con­sider why you play games in the first place. It may be the wil­i­est re­flec­tion on the medium to come out of a small stu­dio since “The Stan­ley Para­ble” or “Fez.” It’s the rare sort of game that wants to amuse you, not pacify you.

Byrd is a Brook­lyn-based writer who has been play­ing video games since the days of the Atari 2600. His writ­ing has ap­peared in the New York Times Book Re­view, the Barnes & Noble Re­view, Al Jazeera Amer­ica, the Guardian and else­where. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @Chris_Byrd.

QUES­TION GAMES

“TheMagic Cir­cle” is a role-play­ing game about a role-play­ing game. Although you are pow­er­less, you wield the abil­ity to draw “life” from what de­vel­op­ers call BSP holes — bugs in the map or back­ground.

Ques­tion PC THE MAGIC CIR­CLE

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