Games about games are usually terrible. They’re usually a collection of memetic in-jokes and corny parodies designed to cover up the inadequacies of uninspired third-person shooters and platformers, existing more as quick gags to punch up trailers and marketing materials rather than real tributes to the medium of games. Martin Scorsese’s 2011 film Hugo was a tribute to movies, but it wasn’t a collection of jokes about cinematography and editing, or barely subtle references to characters of great movies past. It was about people. It was about the relationship between people who love movies and the people who make them. The wonder and joy in how Hugo portrayed that relationship reminded me of my passion for games, and made me wish there were a game that so artfully explored its own medium.
The Magic Circle is a game about the relationship between the people who love games and the people who make them. But where Hugo was joy and wonder, the Magic Circle is fear and paranoia. It’s about the love of a medium turned to dangerous possession. It’s about the digital identities we create out of our own insecurities. It’s about the void that the act of creation fills in us. It’s about the control that we have inside digital worlds and the vertigo of having that control taken away.
The core of the game is the relationship between four characters. There’s Starfather, the aging creative behind a beloved old-franchise, who is now desperately trying to hold together his vision its long-in-development sequel–called, of course, the Magic Circle. There’s Maize, a pro-gamer turned game designer who wants to get a vertical slice of the game done in time for a major press event. Coda is a recently hired intern and a rabid fan of the original game. Finally, there’s an ill-defined spirit born of the code itself, who encourages you through a seemingly drunken stupor to raise chaos and tear the game to pieces in a mad act of spite toward his world’s gods.
The “you” there is you, the player, the missing variable in between control and the game. The Magic Circle itself is an unfinished prototype, and you have the ability to change the parameters of the objects within the world. Trap a basic enemy, and you can hack it to change yourself to its ally and others of its kind to enemies. Alternatively, you can strip the parameters of that object and apply them to others. A howler, for example, moves by ground and attacks by melee–apply those things to a mushroom and you can have a loyal attack fungus. The game flows as a series of stepping stones–trap a creature to take its abilities, use them to access the next creature, and so on. The world is pretty open and the hacking tools are broad enough that there are a variety of solutions to every problem, including a few that seem totally broken and that shouldn’t actually work, but end up being valid solutions. Your spirit guide tells you early on not to worry about what seems designed to work and just focus on what does work to get you to your ultimate goal.
As you explore the prototype, you’ll find the drama of the game’s development documented through design notes and bits of developer commentary attached to specific points in the world. The main human characters are displayed in-game as floating, digital eyeballs, and while this initially makes no sense, the explanation of their in-world appearance plays wonderfully into the game’s conclusion. The final third of this three hour ride pays off beautifully on the relationships developed up to that point, and your role in this third act is completely different from what precedes it. It’s a smart, satisfying exploration of the trials of game development, and it works so well in part because it has the sting of reality about it. The Magic Circle–that is, the real game, not the imaginary prototype inside the game–was made by former developers from titles like Bioshock and Dishonored, folks who know the uncertainties of building a multi-million dollar spectacle for a base of rabidly invested fans.
And the situations, beliefs, and identities that make up the Magic Circle would seem absurd if there weren’t that sad feeling of truth about them. We’ve made death threats over missed release dates. We’ve started campaigns of harassment and slander when our identities were questioned. We’ve driven people from the industry because they didn’t have the saintly patience necessary to not respond to anger with anger. They’re all words, just words, spoken over the internet. But for us, our lives defined by the digital environments we inhabit, the attacks on our virtual identities are real. A threat of violence causes the final turn in the Magic Circle, as Starfather is forced to consider the question–What if one, just one, of those threats were real? What if one person so conflated their digital and real identities that they were willing to act with total finality to achieve what they wanted?
It’s not a spoiler to say that the Magic Circle ends in a cycle. It’s a cycle of the people who make games and the people who play them endlessly hating, fearing, and distrusting each other. It’s frightening because our identities are so strongly defined by the virtual parts of our lives that we’ll defend them with religious fervor. When the game is over, and that brief moment control is taken from us, we’ll next try to exert control over those who created it. The Magic Circle isn’t a parody so much as it a dark satire, funny because it’s real, and fun because it cuts so deep.