The Magic Circle tackles game development with clever satire


It takes a lot to make a stew...

You ever wonder what it's like to be a character in a videogame? Most people would think of something pleasant like Mario or Sonic the Hedgehog, not someone from Resident Evil or Silent Hill. But what would it be like to be in a game that's currently in development? One that's constantly in flux, similar to the classic Daffy Duck cartoon Duck Amuck. Would you still be you one year from now after several changes have been made? And who the hell is making all these changes?

That's a scenario former developers from Arkane Studios and Irrational Games want to tackle. At PAX Prime 2014, the developers of the newly-formed studio Question brought an early build of The Magic Circle, a game within a game. Players got to experience the results of a chaotic game development period in all its gory details as they tried to set things right. It made quite an impression at the Indie Mega Booth, with attendees calling it "punk" and a neat "retro" title.

We've been keeping our eye on this title ever since. Given special access to the current beta build of The Magic Circle, Destructoid had the opportunity to experience a sizable chunk of Question's upcoming existentialist adventure title. 

The Magic Circle (PC [previewed])
Developer: Question
Publisher: Question
Release Date: TBA 2015

To say that The Magic Circle is quirky and unique in its take on the adventure genre would be an understatement. With independent games on the rise, many of which look to the past to stand out in the present market, it can be difficult to attract an audience -- especially as a brand new studio. Four guys with experience on such franchises as Thief, Dishonored, and BioShock figured their history and perspective on such high-profile titles would be a good place to start for an idea.

"We're three people (just now four with Pat Balthrop), trying to say something new -- in part because we're restless after years of very traditional games, and in part because finding some mutant platypus niche is our best shot at survival in the crowded indie market," said lead writer and designer Jordan Thomas, who served as creative director on BioShock 2. "So we decided to skew 'artfully imbalanced' in the player's favor -- both in the narrative and in the game design. Letting them not just inside the joke, but to an extent, inviting them to rewrite it."

Set in a fairly by-the-numbers fantasy role-playing game, you fill the roll of "The Hero," who's on a quest to vanquish evil. But you soon realize that you're one of a long series of ideas within the production of the longest-developed game in history. Its creator, Starfather, who is in reality a legendary game developer named Ishmael "Ish" Gilder (voiced by the always wonderful James Urbaniak), is seeking to release a follow-up to his old adventure title (The Magic Circle) from decades past.

Unfortunately, production has been plagued with uncertainty and madness. With major revisions and changes happening on the fly, and his producer planning a mutiny of sorts, Gilder's project has long been trapped in the dreaded development hell. Soon after having his family sword stripped away and being sent to the cutting-room floor, a long-abandoned character from the game's past makes contact with our Hero, and involves him in plans to get revenge on the "gods" of the world. Using the game's programming against its creators, The Hero will manipulate the design and code of the game to suit his needs and strike back against the Starfather. 

During The Hero's journey, he'll travel throughout the barren and clearly work-in-progress landscape in search of allies for their cause. Stylistically, the visuals resemble half-finished sketches or concept art by artists trying to figure out what they want. Not only does it look as if the creators are chaotic in their vision, but that anything in the world looks like it could be wiped away at a moment's notice. While exploring Gilder's game, players will discover the ruins and relics from past incarnations of the troubled title. One moment, you'll be trekking through caves and deserts of a fantasy land, then in another, you'll come across a door to an abandoned space station that transports you to a retro sci-fi world filled with robots and rogue A.I. programs, all of which are rendered in low-res 3D graphics.

The art style feels schizophrenic, but still thematically consistent with the tone of the story. As sci-fi and fantasy are two of the most common genres in gaming, it's no surprise that the "gods" tried their hand at both. It truly felt like I was in a world made by a fickle creator unable to stop chasing new ideas. But of course, that's exactly what The Magic Circle is going for.

If you're an enthusiast gamer, and I know you are because you're reading this, then the plot might have struck a chord with you. After all, our hobby is to discuss and analyze the workings of our escapist entertainment. I have no doubt that some are probably thinking of a few famed developers that might fit the bill for Ish. But make no mistake, this isn't some loose expose about a particular figure. At its heart, The Magic Circle is a game about unfocused ambition in the realm of game development. And that's something its creators can relate to.

"As an artist, I am constantly fighting with the part of me that wants to try another avenue, because you can always come up with another idea," said lead artist Stephen Alexander. "It is a double-edged sword, more time almost always results in a better end result, but you can talk yourself out of any direction when a newer one pops into your head. The game is kind of a vision of what it would be like if that impulse was indulged endlessly, which at least to my mind is what lies behind any of the famous examples of vaporware over the years.

The word that's often used to describe The Magic Circle's humor and its narrative design is meta. Meaning "beyond," TMC recontextualizes troubled game development as the backdrop for a 'world' in chaos. For the characters within the game, the 'talent' working on the game are referred to as the "gods" and appear as giant neon mono-eyes in the sky. Ish and his executive producer Maze Evelyn bicker constantly while observing their troubled creation in flux. Think of it as a mix between the themes of creation and creator from Frankenstein, the philosophical take on perspective from Plato's The Allegory of The Cave, and a dash of the batshit craziness of Too Many Cooks. It's one of the rare existentialist games we've had, and I welcome others to try their hand at it. I got a thrill seeing our hobby, and player agency, as the focus of satire.

The topic of game development is something that many enthusiast gamers, press, and of course actual developers are very familiar with. With hardcore gamers treating it as some sort spectator's sport where they worship 'celebrity' developers, how the press manages to latch onto a particular story of a troubled developer, or even the chaos surrounding game development with improper management, The Magic Circle covers the whole gamut of gaming. Its meta approach is something that's not frequently used as a major focus for games.

"On the meta front you touched on, the other thing that is constantly in my mind as a writer is that meta framework is so often used as a kind of cowardly pre-apology, a way of saying 'it's a joke, so please don't hurt me.' And I want no part of that," said Jordan Thomas.

"So most of the characters definitely don't know they're in a comedy, and as a script I've tried to make it earnest to a fault. What excited us when we started all this was the idea of devs as deeply flawed people with total creative control over an evolving world -- gods with feet of clay. And then, heh...there are the fans. This story is by no means 'devs: stupid! Players: smart / right / beautiful.' That would be too easy. So, the hope: while the premise is meta by nature, the execution -- for better or for worse -- is from the heart."

There's a lot of respect for the topic, and especially for the players as well. Though non-gamers might feel lost at the jargon and topics discussed, at its heart this is a story about ambition gone awry. And a lot of that is conveyed by the wonderful voice cast, featuring James Urbaniak, Ashly Burch, Karen Dyer, and Stephen Russell. Urbaniak in particular stands out as the delusional villain Ishmael Gilder. Imagine if BioShock's Andrew Ryan was a game developer who was in massive debt and resorted to several crowdfunding campaigns to keep his vision afloat, all the while chasing trends and upsetting his development staff. In one of many nods, you'll find several audio logs, referred to as Audio Commentaries, throughout your adventure, which illustrate Gilder's decline from respected developer to desperate hack banking on nostalgia.

Despite the characters' disdain and contempt for the "gods," I still felt a connection with them, especially the fangirl-turned-game-producer Coda Soliz, voiced by the always chipper and upbeat Ashly Burch. In many ways, her optimism and reverence for the product represents the perception of fandom within the gaming community, which I found refreshing considering how popular cynicism with the audience is. Her character not only shows how the audience has grown up with games, but how it has matured when it comes to the discussion of the medium.

"As far as accuracy and thoroughness goes, we do dive deep into the discipline of systems design, but there is a lot of tedium and complexity to game development that we gloss over in favor of focusing on relationships between creators, the audience, and the game itself," said lead programmer and designer Kain Shin. "As a result, we’ve hyperbolized our own flaws and wrapped it in a layer of situational dream logic in the hopes of bridging that emotional gap between the various sides of our developer selves and our player selves."

As The Hero has no means to defend himself against the enemies within the world, he is bestowed with hacking abilities that allow him to break the fourth wall and reprogram enemies and other objects to do his bidding. If you're devious, you can simply strip foes of their programming and leave them in a vegetative state, but if you're a forward thinker, you can reprogram them to fight for you and help solve traversal puzzles.

Initially, you'll be using common enemies known as Howlers to meet your needs, but hacking rocks and other objects in the world can give The Hero abilities to outfit the various creatures you've recruited. For instance, finding a simple rock allowed me to hack it and take its 'Fireproof' ability, which I used for my howler that served as the Hero's muscle. The Howler was able to barrel through Flamer enemies with ease. Keep in mind, these are usually the simple solutions --- with the amount of variety given to you, you can absolutely come up with clever solutions to puzzles. In one instance, I used a bunch of gecko-turtle creatures (all of whom were fireproof) to jump across a stream of lava. Not sure if that was the accurate solution, but it certainly felt like I broke the game (which is the point). That's always fun to do.

As you travel to different areas, from fantasy to sci-fi genres, recruiting monsters and other NPCs, you'll assemble an army of creatures so totally and stylistically different from one another (some of which are rendered in different graphical qualities), you'll feel like the game has completely lost its mind. Between fighting a giant alien hive queen with a squad of feral wolves and insects, and visiting a space station that seemed to be populated by the dumb robots from RoboCop, I can totally see why The Hero was recruited to put an end to this madness. With that said, I got pretty close to my Cyber Rat, which I found in the abandoned Space Station. Even though he's not much use in combat, it's always nice to have a mascot around.

I had a blast playing the beta build of the title, and with such a rich subject to explore, I'm excited to see what's in store for the final release. Though that's still a ways out, there's a lot of discussion to be had for this game. It's not too often we get to experience comedy games, especially ones that put the spotlight on the chaos of game development. As gamers, we've perhaps unintentionally added a layer of mythology to game creation, making them feel that they're more than they really are. While that's not bad per se, the human element can often be lost in that.

With The Magic Circle, the focus is placed on the humor and insanity that game development can inspire. Granted it's a very absurdist and surreal take, yet there's an inherent and relatable element to it. In this trek through a game world gone out of control, its refreshing to have a title that presents players the opportunity to take charge and fix the damage done by its indecisive developers. And to be totally honest, it might just be the game we need now. 

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Alessandro Fillari
Alessandro FillariStaff Writer   gamer profile

A San Francisco native, he's an admirer of the city's diverse culture and lifestyle. Prior to joining the staff, he was a contributor and an editor for his college newspaper where he wrote articl... more + disclosures



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