Gaming - The Magic Circle

The Magic Circle title page

The Defective Inspector has been investigating some of the IGF Indie Award nominees. He conjures up his final nominee Case File for The Magic Circle...

This is it guys, the last time I am going to write “I’ve been playing an IGF nominee”. While I know there are more games out there to play I am but one person, a dangerously amazing person but still only worth single digits… Say 9? Anyhoo, I decided to leave The Magic Circle ‘til last, completely unintentionally I might add. But when playing the game I realised I actually did something really clever, and if you agree with that then it was completely intentional…

The Magic Circle is a completed game where you play inside an incomplete game. A cheeky bit of satire on how the gaming industry is slowly becoming a kingdom of the unfinished it provides a refreshing twist for both buyer and developer. While it could have been very easy to slate the creator of the never ending project The Magic Circle goes out of its way to be unique in gameplay, sharing game development understanding and overwhelmingly brilliant in almost every way.

Planet view with VR hand

Excellence in Narrative

The real scaffold of this game is the story, you play as… Well a play tester/computer sprite who is wedged into an unfinished game known as “The Magic Circle”. You must survive the whims of 3 floating digital eyeballs who modify and survey the world around them, making a metaphysical presence of the humans. Only problem is we humans are horribly fickle and thus The Magic Circle seems stuck in eternal limbo. With the aid of another lost character in a forgotten game you must travel through new and old projects alike to overthrow the oculus oppressors. Straight away you should be thinking “Wow… That’s a little out there” and it is! One of the beautiful things about the story is how fresh and new it is as it address a very real and recent problem in game development today. There is constant mention of kickstarters, forgotten promises, unreleased betas and just about every indie game cliché in the book, even the excessive fandom and expectation of us the buyers! But rather than BEING one of the sky lords you are… A small piece of a big unfinished world and that is a beautiful driving force for any game, the desire to exist and be complete.

It gets pretty metaphysical by the end, in fact my regular rule of “no spoilers” is enforced here as I found the ending with Ish both depressing and eye opening. What am I talking about? Who is Ish? Play the bloody game, I’m here to review it not give it away… Only thing I WILL tell you is this, search all the hidden rooms. There is a severely unappreciated backstory hidden in the extra footage and it is well worth the time searching!

Blue computer eye

Gameplay wise this game is rather unique. Rather than wielding a weapon, gun or spell scroll you are granted the ability to find creatures throughout the chaotic greyscale and rip their coding right out of them. By coding I mean their traits from how they walk, who they attack, what their attack is and everything else in between. You literally become a game coder without the horror of actually coding. Using skills found in these creatures you fight occasion monsters, solve tricky puzzles and find ways of completing tasks that were never finished to begin with. In fact the narrator of the story will address you at one point saying that the method you use to solve the puzzle is not important as the creators have not made the perfect solution yet. So if it works… Do it! That kind of freedom is appreciated in an old gaming soul like me where I have done the overly open sandbox as well as the corridor driven game. This was a good balance between the two; a final goal you must pursue but open ended ways of pursuing it. There are other aspects of gameplay worth mentioning but these are given to you as time goes on through the story and my River Song senses are tingling. So we’ll leave it at that eh?

Skeletal Castle with arms

How does the game look and sound? Great actually! The music is not as grand as some of the other nominees I’ve reviewed but that may have been intentional, it would be strange to wander an imperfect world with the perfect soundtrack. However the voice acting, all the voice acting, is really well done. It’s a strange thing to throw so much praise at but I felt like everyone was real, like these people merely had a name swap for legal reasons and it was a set of recordings from long days past. Also that speech Ish gave at E4… Oh it was beautiful, I loved every single moment of it, a triumph in both audio and story! Graphically the game sits in the same place as the soundtrack, purposefully incomplete. The cynic in me makes me wonder if this was a clever shortcut made by the developers but the giddy gamer in me lets them off as even in black and white the models were astonishing to look at.

The only criticism I have of the game is that it goes a bit too fast and thus skills are not exceptionally well utilized. I feel like there could have been a greater story to be told beyond what we saw, or maybe even just developed further and this would have given lengthier game time. This is one of the risks you take with a story driven game, without the story it doesn’t feel right so you must balance the gameplay time against the right pace for the narrative. So whilst I still want more, I understand why I didn’t get it.

Overall I think this game is unique in a good way. It did something daring by showing us the inner workings of game development and questions both creator and critic. While the gameplay is shorter than I want I can still say I enjoyed every moment! Now if only they could finish it…

Images from Steam

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