The Magic Circle is a satirical and fascinating look at what happens when developers don’t get along, causing their project to be stuck in development hell. Developed by Question, The Magic Circle is a game that could have only been made through Kickstarter by a truly independent studio. It’s as untraditional and eccentric as they come. The whole point of The Magic Circle is to essentially rebuild a broken game through the use of a few powerful tools. There’s no antagonist to fight or baddies to shoot in the head, and it is all the better for it.
Most of the time in the game’s well-realized and colourful virtual world is spent solving a deluge of (mostly) clever environmental puzzles. The main weapon you use can best be described as a quick-hacking tool, and it allows you delve into the programming architecture of game objects and reshape their features to your liking. For example, you can take generic corpses or teleporters and reprogram them to serve you. Or you can strip them of their powers and bind those powers to other allies. Using captured servants is key to solving puzzles.
In the game you come across lava and you have to find a way to cross it. There are a few solutions including forming a partial bridge with enemies that are fireproof. Other options also exist, and The Magic Circle continually offers you the freedom to discover the different solutions. They’re difficult to find, and solving the puzzles is no easy task. But the constant challenge feels gratifying, especially once you overcome them. When I did inevitably get stuck on a puzzle, I decided to explore other environments in which even more puzzles were awaiting me, as well as new creative tools to play around with. The setting is sprawling, with different paths and massive environments to get lost in. A lot of them are purposefully unfinished as a result of the incompetence of the developers.
The plot itself is nothing special, but the environmental storytelling is where The Magic Circle truly shines. You can discover a slew of audio logs and design notes that shed light on a civil war brewing between the developers. Whether it’s the artists, programmers, fans, designers, or community members, The Magic Circle all paints them as immature bigots arguing over matters both trivial and monumental. Design philosophy, the tone, the story, marketing, and branding are all points of concern, and the reasons behind the game’s demise. It’s great stuff, and further encourages exploration as you’ll want to find every last one of these diaries and logs.
However, when it comes to the way it portrays its satire, The Magic Circle stumbles a bit. A lot of the inside info is fascinating, and the obvious criticism pointed at the games industry and game development as a whole is admirable. Unfortunately, the game often makes it a point to hit you over the head with this information. It preaches and yells time and time again, with little nuance and effort at subtlety. On the other hand, that’s a minor issue in an otherwise terrific effort from Question. The Magic Circle proves that there’s still plenty of creativity and fresh new ideas left in video games.