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.