The Night Circus is a new game by Failbetter, the creators of Echo Bazaar, set in the fictional world of the forthcoming book of the same name by Erin Morgenstern. (I should say as a disclaimer, before I go any further, that I’m not a completely disinterested party — I’ve worked with Failbetter several times in the past, and hope to do so again in the future, and I also did some beta work on the game of The Night Circus.)
Structurally, The Night Circus is quite a bit like Echo Bazaar, but tighter and easier to get into. If you’ve ever looked at EBZ and thought that it was more confusing or more of a commitment than you were ready for, Night Circus is doing some similar narrative experiments in a more streamlined fashion, with a shorter lead time and fewer optional extras. (There’s no store to buy objects from, for instance, and no map to move around — just a set of storylets to choose from at any given moment.) Brief text passages let you explore the environment of the circus and make choices about what you’re interested in pursuing. As you go, you accumulate mementoes — an inventory of physical and non-physical rewards from your exploration, some of which are required to open up new possibilities. Because it’s about exploring the mysteries of a setting and making serendipitous connections, it’s light on plot and strong on imagery, but there are some gradually accumulating ideas nonetheless.
The art is disciplined and evocative. Night Circus’ commitment to a black-and-white-with-red-touches scheme means the iconic art fits together well, even when the images are of quite different things.
There is a diary, to which you can save the text of events that are most important to you, and there’s the option of adding your own brief comment to something you’re recording. (Here’s mine, containing some of my favorite snippets from play so far, and here’s another from someone who comments more extensively than I do.) The diary is something EBZ does also, but (IMO) less effectively: Night Circus lets you add things to your diary even if you don’t simultaneously choose to tweet them to your friends, which means that you can make decisions about what you want to include in your personal narrative record without agonizing whether you’ve annoyed your twitter list enough for one day. I’m keenly interested in this technique: it encourages players to think about which events are important and memorable to them, and cooperate in constructing a narrative for themselves. I’d like even more to be able to go back and change the tagging on past events, I think, but that might be a bit heavy-handed for this particular piece.