If that’s hard to read, here are the first couple of sentences:
The gods of this world don’t know you, boss. But they’re scared of what you might do. They have to treat you like some reptile with a credit card, who can’t stay awake without watching something die…
The Magic Circle is a first-person puzzle game that recently left Early Access for full release on Steam. The premise is that Ish Gilder, a game designer with a massive cult following, has been trying for decades to follow up on his early text adventure success. He’s been promising exotic features for the sequel with Molyneuxian abandon, and he’s held something like five separate crowdfunding campaigns, but the game never quite comes together. In fact, a nearly launch-ready version gets totally scrubbed at one point, a complete space-station setting buried in favor of something more fantasy-oriented.
There’s a whole website dedicated to documenting the sad history of the game development.
(Disclosure: I received a free review key for this game.)
You play as a tester who has gotten access to this desperately broken thing, and you’re trying to get it to function for you. Early on you meet the Old Pro, a self-aware AI of the protagonist who has been waiting all these years for his game to be released so that he can get out into the world. (How exactly he came to be a self-aware AI is not deeply explored and neither are the ethics of releasing him.) You don’t have a sword because Ish has decided late in the process to remove combat, but you do have access to debug tools that allow you to meddle with the flags controlling NPC behavior. When you’ve learned about a skill from one NPC, you can apply it to others.
You thus spend the bulk of the game play time — I’d estimate about four and a half hours for me — exploring both the space and the fantasy areas of the game, which are linked, and solving puzzles in order to get close enough to creatures to yank their skills out of their bodies.
This is an elegantly designed puzzle space: consistent and comprehensible mechanics, lots of fun bits where you can combine different character skills to produce useful or funny or horrifying results, and a non-linear design that lets you tackle problems in the order of your choosing. It is possible to find solutions the devs didn’t specifically anticipate. I did once waste a lot of time trying to solve an enemy, the Securitron, because I hadn’t yet picked up the skills that would have made it easy to kill, but eventually I remembered that I had other options and went off to try something else first. Most of the time I was challenged enough to have to give situations a bit of thought or experimentation, but not all the way to stuck, which is what you want.
Lots of nice work has also gone into making an easily navigable map with clear signs of where you will find new puzzles to solve, so you’re not wandering around this big space desperately looking for doors and triggers.
So that’s fun. And while you’re doing it, you get a bunch of diary-page style storytelling in the form of change log notes and director’s commentary and other scattered text and audio clips, messages from the Old Pro, and the occasional scene of avatars interacting in-world. This is how you learn about Maze, the expert player who has come on to work for Ish as a designer, who loves high-difficulty gameplay and hate hate hates cut scenes; Coda, the long-time fan who has grown up waiting for Ish’s next game; references to Ish’s ex-wife and to other QA testers and designers who came and went over the years. From time to time you hear music, overlaid with instructions from the composer about what it’s supposed to sound like in this context.
Eventually – but let’s have some spoiler space.
Eventually, you manage to approach Coda’s avatar, which has world-editing abilities, and take it over. Once you do so, the nature of the game changes again. Now you’re interfering with the live demo at E4 — again by editing the behavior of enemies, but this time in such a way that it wrecks what they were planning to show off. In my case this involved ruining a messianic nativity scene Ish had planned by giving the baby the ability to fly, breathe fire, and infect its enemies with parasitic worms. Then I set it to aggro against every other creature in the game world. It was viciously fun watching this play out, and it’s a good in-story way to pay off the mechanics you’ve been learning up to this point.
Then there’s a long, over-the-top scene between Maze, Coda, and Ish, in which Ish finally yields control over The Magic Circle game and code to the fans, making it open source but reminding them that it’s going to be up to them to pay the server electricity bills which are, by the way, coming due next week.
It feels like we’re nearly done now, right? We’ve had both story and gameplay build-up, intensity, and payoff, so this must be just about the end?
Now we go to a level design section where you have to create your own small episode to sell, both to preserve The Magic Circle and to (finally) get the Old Pro released into the world. I’d say I spent maybe half an hour in this space, which was both too much and too little.
Storywise: we’ve already seen the climax of the story. The big yelling cutscene with Ish at E4 is the confrontation we were building up to all this time. From a story perspective, all that remains is a bit of clean-up to do with the Old Pro (who is a less developed character) and with yourself taking over the studio. There’s almost nothing to find out during the level design phase and the narrative stakes are also much lower than they had been up until recently. It’s hard to make the player-avatar the narrative center of anything, given that they’re a total AFGNCAAP, we know almost nothing about them from earlier in the game, and this scene doesn’t change that fact.
Gameplaywise, on the other hand, the level design section gives us a whole new gameplay mechanic, which takes time to explore, and which plainly has received a good bit of work. You can lay out rooms that are supposedly part of The Magic Circle‘s assets and then fill them up with creatures (which you can, again, edit at need). You also get to place healing potions and treasures, story and music cues, patrol paths, all that good level design stuff. There’s a resource limit based on how thoroughly you explored the earlier part of the game – this felt narratively arbitrary to me, but I suppose they have to limit you somehow or else you might cram your level with a frame-rate-defeating number of flamethrowing Howlers and let them go to town.
When you’re done with setup, the Old Pro plays through the space you’ve created (which is forced to be quite linear), comments on how much fun he is or is not having, and ends by giving you a score out of ten. This is run dynamically, of course, because you could have set up the level in any of a wide variety of ways, so you get to watch someone trying to take on the monsters that you have yourself been fighting all this time.
That’s all pretty neat. I want to emphasize that I did enjoy this as a stand-alone experience. But it takes a bit of time to get acquainted with all the controls and tinker with it. And while it’s partly a puzzle (how do I make a level that the Old Pro will find fun enough to be worth shipping?), it’s also partly aesthetic gameplay, something that hasn’t been present in The Magic Circle up to this point. You get to choose where the music goes and what kind of music it should be. You get to write in the text of the story cues, which could be anything. You get to decide whether you care about picking creatures that seem to fit with the environment you’re building or whether you want to make it a wild buffet of science fictional and fantasy critters, since you’ve got this wide palette to choose from. The Old Pro does not (as far as I can tell) react to those kinds of considerations, beyond “am I receiving a variety of stimuli at a fairly even rate throughout the level,” so it’s up to you, the creator, to decide what you care about.
So I played quickly through this while simultaneously being sad about not leisurely exploring the creative playspace. I could have played more slowly, but then I would have been sad about distending the story. The good news is that there’s a sandbox mode after the end of the game that lets you keep playing with various things if you want to, outside the narrative framework.
I came away from that part feeling that the designers had really really really wanted to incorporate the “you are the designer” portion even if it made the story pacing a bit lumpy. And I can see that it mostly supports the game’s themes, but I think it’s not flawless there.
Here is one of the last things the Old Pro says to you:
So I wanted you to play god for a day. But not out of some great kindness of spirit. Heh. It’s ’cause there’s a zillion to one chance that maybe now, “fun” ain’t enough. Maybe now you want a world of your own, enough to carve it by hand. And maybe in your story, I won’t see the end coming.
The thing is, though, the level design portion was precisely about putting together a prefab type of experience, judged by how much fun it was, in which any messages you might add would go unheard. Nothing in the game is parsing those story texts I typed in, so far as I can tell; no other player will ever read them. The protagonist is being indoctrinated into a form of game design we’ve already been told (repeatedly, explicitly) is dissatisfying and unhealthy, for the benefit of an audience incapable of aesthetic engagement.
I spent a lot of last night reading the Twine commentary-and-playthrough anthology Videogames for Humans. When I got to this point in the story, I half wanted someone to say, “Here, use this instead,” and hand the protagonist a copy of Twine. Altgames and IF already include many games that provide experiences other than fun, games that restrict the player’s control, games that demand more (emotional, political, intellectual engagement) or less (time, money, ability) than AAA games usually do; games that go in surprising directions and often treat the player as something other than a “reptile with a credit card.”
Thus the most interesting message in this game, for me, was not this sermon I already basically agree with, but the how-not-to-live message implicit in the characterization.
The Magic Circle, especially towards the end, focuses on the unhealthy relationship between Ish and the players, both condescending and pandering. He sees himself as a god, as a parent, as a visionary, as a failure, as a victim; he gives pompous lectures and self-pitying monologues; he resents the players’ demand for control, first inside and then outside the game world; but he never ever regards himself and his players as equals. Maze and Coda aren’t hugely likable either, and have invested far too much of their lives in something other than living, a point which the script again explicitly calls out. They’re all unhappy, and none of them has real friends that we see. Coda marshals a bunch of anonymous forum members, but in service of a coup, and they don’t regard her with any special loyalty afterward. Even the Old Pro talks about “the gods”, what the gods do, how the gods should relate to their creation, how you too should play god and eventually own a world.
If not that, then what? There’s something to be said for creative humility. Your players are fully rounded humans, and so are you, your family, your coworkers, and all the other participants in the culture in which you’re working. Your game matters inasmuch as it serves that reality.
This thesis supports many useful lemmas, like “crunch time hurts more than it helps” and “you should consider the cultural context of your work,” as well as “if making games is ruining your life then for pity’s sake quit making games.” It also raises the possibility of making games not as an expression of your personal “godhood,” but as connection and – if I can use this word without a specifically Christian connotation – ministry.
Once I saw Leonard Cohen live. He made his stage a sacred space. He treated his music as a gift. He included his audience as respected and necessary in his work. I’m not sure I could explain how he accomplished this, but the person I was with described feeling the same way. I remember that he knelt at least once, but there was more to it than this gesture. The songs were about love between imperfect people, about belated wisdom, about how much can still be salvaged in a broken world. That was a good concert.