The Magic Circle opens both game design and game function as narrative elements, in a structure that encourages players to deconstruct game mechanics at the same time as they use them to their advantage. In these terms, it is a singular achievement in modern gaming and the broader discipline of storytelling, as a whole.
The Magic Circle
As you can probably tell from some of my previous reviews (The Beginner’s Guide, Her Story, and Firewatch), I tend to be interested in narrative-focused gaming experiences; this is especially true for games that merge gameplay mechanics and storytelling practices in ways that highlight the unique narrative experiences intrinsic to video games as an artistic medium. As a result, writing that uses gaming itself as a way to tell meaningful stories about people who make, play, and love games is, for me at least, a hole in one.
What can I say? I love a good story.
Although these features aren’t what initially drew my attention to The Magic Circle, published by Question Games in 2015, they are what make this game such a special narrative experience, and they are why I currently count it as an overlooked masterpiece of last year. The Magic Circle is the kind of game that does more than simply relate a frame narrative in which you, as the player, can progress by accomplishing a certain number of objectives or checking a few conversation boxes. Instead, it opens game design and game function themselves as narrative elements, in a structure that encourages players to deconstruct game mechanics at the same time as they use them to their advantage. In these terms, it is a singular achievement in modern gaming and the broader discipline of storytelling, as a whole.
Your “character” in the story is a little difficult to identify: sometimes you seem like a play tester who was left in the system, while later, some of the game designers consider you simply a hacker who has gotten into the early build of their work in progress. Regardless of your exact role, you play as a character who has gotten loose in the incomplete build of a game called The Magic Circle, and as you move through the unfinished game world, you hear the game’s developers Ishmael Gilder (James Urbaniak), Coda Soliz (Ashly Burch), and Maze Evelyn (Karen Dyer)—represented as floating eyes—arguing over the game’s delayed development cycle, head designer Ish’s constant reworking of the project, and general discontent amongst the staff. Within moments of the game’s opening, however, the player is contacted by a rogue AI (Stephen Russell) hidden in the game’s code, and by scouring the backstage elements of video game design, players discover that there is more at work in this studio than meets the eye. And, once Maze, a mega-fan of Ish’s earlier work, comes on board the project, the story goes in unexpected directions, and players soon learn that fandom itself can be as toxic as it is rewarding, depending upon the context.
Even though the quirky characters are cleverly written, and the voice acting only intensifies the humanity of people who appear only as digital floating eyes (a feat of raw talent in itself), what gives The Magic Circle its own personality is how the game’s narrative uses its own broken and buggy nature to its advantage. After all, the entire plot revolves around players experiencing an incomplete version of a game, so holes in the scenery, developer comment bubbles, and looped AI all become portals of discovery, rather than mistakes for players to avoid. Moreover, as players encounter NPCs in the world, they are can take those NPCs apart, strip them of their processes and behaviors, and subsequently use them to traverse the story world. It is essentially a game that asks players to break it apart in order to discover the treasure hidden inside, and the more ingenious the player, the more story tidbits and extra information that player will find scattered across the fractured landscape. Though I have never participated in any professional playtesting, I couldn’t help but feel that I was living that experience as I purposefully tried to find ways to fly over scenery, get behind locked doors, or enter places that game designers typically would not want me to go.
Despite this focus on design, in terms of themes, at its core The Magic Circle is as much about gamers and game designers as it is about processes of game development. While much of this game is lighthearted and funny, there is a dark undertone critiquing gaming culture that, unfortunately, serves as the foundation on which the entire story is built. Although these more sinister tones are not fully heard until the game’s conclusion, The Magic Circle develops a tension between the sometimes infantile demands of immature gamers and the overbearing, auteur-style personality complexes of developers—one which never reaches a satisfying resolution. Ishmael Gilder is a send-up of the hero worship surrounding such game director figures as Hide Kojima in the present, or Tim Schafer in the not-so-distant past. He is cocky, arrogant, and demeaning, while he struts and scratches around his employees as if his work has altered the tides of human history. Coda and Maze fill their own stereotypical roles as well, and while the game makes good points concerning everything from design ethics to professional accountability, I couldn’t help but leave it all with a sour taste in my mouth.
On that note, perhaps the most disappointing element of The Magic Circle is its tone. Instead of using this space as a way to engage with some of the more difficult issues surrounding video game culture, it instead, in this reviewer’s opinion, turns into an opportunity for game designers to complain about both the nature of video game fandom and the difficulties of getting a game to market. Those who criticize games (ahem…), regardless of motivation, are often painted as infantile whiners who, like toddlers with a new toy, want a thing only to break it, to ruin it, to destroy. Criticism as a form is tossed to the side and considered as only a thin veneer for critics’ innate desire to be game makers themselves. At points, especially toward the game’s ending, it seems that The Magic Circle‘s real world designers took such facile statements as “those who cannot do, teach” and treated them as though they were pure truth, instead of ignorant fantasy. For a game that is so creative and intelligent in so many other ways, by its end The Magic Circle unfortunately spirals into a bitter cycle of berating the very players it needs in order to stay afloat, and that is sad fate for such an initially brilliant creation.
Despite these issues, I still recommend The Magic Circle, especially to those who are interested in not merely experiencing new directions in video game narratives, but also supporting them as well; Question Games has produced an original achievement in narrative video game experiences, and for that alone, this game deserves your time and, at some points, your patience.