It’s Magically Ambitious!
High: Finishing the prologue and discovering it has much more to offer.
Low: Clunky controls for the “strategy” section.
WTF: Mushroom Wizards?
Released on the PC in 2015 and now finally available on PS4, The Magic Circle explores the increasingly rapid and intimate feedback loop between game developers and players. It’s a title that sands off the polished veneer of a finished digital product and asks players to stare quizzically into the guts of the thing. Through clever writing, good pacing, and continually evolving mechanics, The Magic Circle becomes a meta-commentary on the process of making and playing video games today.
As it begins, the story posits that a fictional game company has been in development hell on the highly-anticipated sequel to their breakout game. Players start as a tester on this sequel after it’s been delayed innumerable times. While walking through unfinished levels, players are slowly introduced to a host of other development team members, from the megalomaniacal lead designer to the obsequious fan-turned-employee, each of whom is given exquisite personality through top-notch voice acting. Soon, however, the player stumbles upon a dark conspiracy buried within the game itself.
Along the way, The Magic Circle offers biting criticism and commentary on the nature of game design, the affordances and challenges of production and funding, audience expectations, and the tropes, dogmas, and traditions that govern contemporary and traditional development. It’s a tour-de-force of self-aware design and an absolute treat to experience.
Each new section of The Magic Circle introduces increasingly-complex mechanics and various aesthetic sensibilities. The early part limits player interaction to exploring a broken environment textured in a desaturated, hand-drawn, crosshatched art style. Luckily, this otherwise bland first-person walking is offset by captivating voiceover work. This intriguing narrative is provided via two omniscient designers that appear in-game as floating robotic eyeballs, perhaps as an allusion to similar designs from the Portal or Halo series.
The Magic Circle later introduces the idea of hacking the system. By setting up cracks in the space/time of the game, players can hack the properties of characters, objects, and items they encounter. For instance, after trapping a vicious dog-like creature, players can alter its protocols to recognize the player as an ally and other creatures as enemies. In this way, it becomes a first-person strategy game in disguise. As players progress, they can assemble a small army with unique combinations of attributes for combat and environmental hurdles. It’s a strange concept to introduce essentially out of nowhere, but it fits the themes here perfectly.
Without spoiling later events, it’s safe to say that The Magic Circle continually undermines player expectations. At times it delivers some truly unique twists, which rank among Hideo Kojima’s best attempts at trolling players. At other times, it simply pokes fun at standard practices in game development and play.
For instance, the script offers humorous excuses for why animations are absent on certain characters or why certain doors cannot be opened. For developers and players alike, the jokes ring true. In another gag, the industry-standard ice, jungle, lava, and sky levels are mentioned. However, rather than subject players to them, the game says they’re incomplete and spawns the rewards from each world for players to collect. The Magic Circle is awash with similar in-jokes and tongue-in-cheek sneers at what are now tired conventions.
For such a small title, The Magic Circle has a lot to say. This isn’t something most games can claim, and it sits comfortably along other recent indies like The Beginner’s Guide, which deconstruct traditional approaches to design.Whether read as just one long joke about game development, as an argument against visionary, self-involved creative designers, or even as a poignant thesis on the rights fans have to the properties they helped make famous, The Magic Circle offers much to consider.
Disclosures: This game is developed by Question and is self-published. It is currently available on PC and PS4. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PS4. Approximately 4 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated Mature and contains: violence, blood, sexual themes, drug references, and strong language. Players will see corpses, cartoon violence, and blood. The story refers to drug abuse and adult subjects like sex.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: Subtitles offset the need for sound in this game. The story and gameplay can be enjoyed without sound.
Remappable Controls: Yes, this game offers fully remappable controls through the PS4 system options.
Colorblind Modes: There are colorblind modes available in the options.
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