Integrity in AAA Boxes

The Magic Circle Review, analysis, and Critique

The Magic Circle game skull cave Bioshock Infinite

One of the fundamental things about people is that we love a good story. We want journalists to follow their leads, get a scoop, and work on telling a great story. We also like to tell sports stories, to search for the human element inside a game, and track a player’s journey. And —of course— we like fantasy tales, works of pure fiction. All of these narrative devices are different, but individually we refer to them as stories all the same, because we literally articulate them the same way. None of this is especially different in film; for example, there are dramas and there are documentaries, but collectively we call them all movies. This speaks to another thing people love: we love putting things into boxes.

So what do we do with a medium like videogames? Games combine elements of every storytelling device that came before it in addition to principles of play that force us to learn new concepts with every new game. Well, we split the medium down the middle and systematically put everything we can into a box. In games, we academically refer to this dividing line as ludology versus narratology. The idea here (in brief) is that games can be studied in one of two ways: either in their own right, by principals of play (ludology), or within the parenthesis of all the storytelling devices that came before them (narratology). Of course, the obvious answer is a touch of both, and this is what The Magic Circle is about: the integrity of my box over here against your box over there.

The game has a soul, and it is an ugly, spiteful thing.

You play as a QA tester for a title stuck in development hell, specifically a sequel to an immensely popular game that was released almost two decades ago. As you move through the black and white —largely unfinished— world, you’re introduced to the creative forces on the fictional project — all of whom are represented as omnipotent floating eyes. The game’s writer/director/creator is hellbent on telling his magnum opus — a story about his failed marriage couched in an epic fantasy setting. The lead gameplay designer (of renowned multiplayer fame) is fed up with cutscenes and narrative in her play-focused design. Last but not least, a super-fan/community manager brought on for feedback, who brings her own array of expectations for what a sequel should be. The trinity of designers are all completely at odds about what direction to take the game, bickering and threatening one another trying to come to a consensus.

And the game hears them, and it hates them. Steering you through its world is the game’s inner-voice, a half-formed face galvanizing you to outwit its creators. The game has a soul, and it is an ugly, spiteful thing.

The Magic Circle game meta face head soul spirit

The whole thing is extremely meta; filled to the brim with industry allusions, from a service called ‘kickbacker’ to a big game show on the horizon named ‘E4.’ The Magic Circle is also one of the most cynical videogames I’ve ever played. None of these references to industry jargon are made with love, they’re spoken with utter contempt for everything in it, comically so. It hates journalists, business, story-based games, gameplay-based games, violence in games, even the people who play games. And I love it for being so candid about industry issues, because obviously —as a game itself— The Magic Circle holds them very near and dear.

On the subject of meta-commentary: some of the talent behind The Magic Circle is ex-Irrational Games —the team behind Bioshock (2007) and Bioshock Infinite (2013)— the latter of which by many accounts was a gruelling experience to develop. The game never belabours the point, but knowing the studios’ pedigree it’s satisfying just trying to line-up the mythos of Infinite with the fictional game being developed here. It’s a fascinating dichotomy to examine and actually works extremely well as a reference point for a lot of the game’s jokes and intrigue.

it creates a melting pot of criticism; in the end it takes no stance whatsoever

In keeping with the themes of uncovering what makes a game tick, The Magic Circle’s play is all about hacking and changing variables in the world to navigate deeper into it. As far as systems go, it’s not unlike Double Fine’s Hack ’n’ Slash (2014). The big difference between the two gameplay-wise is that The Magic Circle has a persistent area to explore, leaving room for self-expression in the game world— it also manages to have multiple solutions for single puzzles. The hacking and puzzling is inoffensive, which I know sounds completely backhanded. The truth is I found them surprisingly fun in the moment, but ultimately had a better time exploring to find snippets of writing than building up my firebreathing monkey-dog army. Which I understand sounds completely bananas.

The Magic Circle game floating eyes blue and red.

The Magic Circle’s finale, however, doesn’t quite work. Ostensibly, the game has three different endings played one after another, each of which condemns a single facet of the collaborative craft that is game design. These are all interesting perspectives on their own, but are still —for the most part— just logical extremes of the premises that the game has already established. The result is a conclusion that ends as cynically as it started. The issue with this approach is that it creates a melting pot of criticism; in the end it takes no stance whatsoever, which is disappointing given how rich the subject-matter and developer’s perspective is.

None of this is to say that I didn’t enjoy the game —l absolutely did— but it is hard to shake the feeling that the game never fully commits to any of its arguments or criticism. Like The Stanley Parable (2013), The Magic Circle fosters plenty of discussion about games, but never attempts to solve any of the problems it’s so quick to point out. I nonetheless want to stress how much I enjoyed the personal dramas that make up the game’s plot. I loved watching the various schools of game design relegating each other’s beliefs into tiny boxes, seeing people’s art crumble under the weight of their close-minded values. My box over here is better than your box over there.


Review Notes 

  • Markku Eskelinen illustrates my favourite example of ludology, "If I throw a ball at you I don't expect you to drop it and wait until it starts telling stories."
  • Normally, when I'm playing a game to review I take very organized notes. With The Magic Circle my notebook looks like the scrawlings of lunatic — such a densely packed game.
  • The word "integrity" is underlined four times in four different spots in my notes. 
  • The voice and presence of the game's 'soul' or inner voice reminded me a lot of Birdman (2014).
  • I continuously used the metaphor 'inside baseball' while writing this piece. So much so that I removed all instances of it.
  • A lot of the buzz around this game was very coy about how much this related to Bioshock: Infinite. I don't think the relationship is very subtle; even the music is filled with violin reminiscent of Bioshock.
  • Would love to revisit The Magic Circle to really dissect the game's finale.

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