The Magic Circle, created by Jordan Thomas (previously of the BioShock series), Stephen Alexander (likewise) and Kain Shin (Deus Ex: Invisible War, Dishonored), casts you as a video game playtester, exploring the innards of an unfinished fantasy epic. For 20 years, the eponymous game (within the game) has languished in development hell. Funding has run out, level designers have quit – Ish Gilder, the game's celebrity director, remains dogmatically committed, but his grand vision keeps changing and gaining complexity. None of the main quests are finished. The textures and assets are mostly placeholders.
Even the central mechanics haven't been pinned down: when you first arrive in The Magic Circle, Gilder, this week obsessed with story, insists that all combat be stripped from the game. Your sword disappears and the boss you were about to fight suddenly becomes impassable. "We'll fix it later," the developer says.
In a wilderness of his own making, Gilder has become lost. But it isn't his fault. Snippets from his personal life reveal a man, lacking the human relationship he so badly desires, trying to find it through his work. Likewise, Coda Soliz, a lifelong fan of Gilder's work and administrator of The Magic Circle's febrile fan community, has her heart in the right place – she just wants to play the finished game.
Where The Beginner's Guide and The Stanley Parable, which in their own ways explored the processes of game creation and the individuals behind them, can be taken as snide, The Magic Circle lends a sympathetic ear to everybody caught in the gaming industry's mess. It is never toothless – when Gilder finally snaps, one feels the unbridled heat of Thomas, Alexander and Shin's frustrations.
But the game also refuses to provide trite or concrete answers. The player is at fault. The developer is at fault. The industry, at large, is at fault. Behind these labels, however, are people, deeply flawed and earnestly working their hardest. Of the industry it depicts, The Magic Circle has great and careful understanding. In short, Thomas, Alexander and Shin know – perhaps all too well – what they are talking about.
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Towards the end of The Magic Circle, the player, having scoffed at and destroyed the world of Gilder and co., is challenged with building their own video game. By placing basic tiles, invisible trip lines to activate music and perhaps a few story beats, you can complete the first episode of the new Magic Circle, which promptly receives a review. "It'll do," the tester says. "6/10." And so the player, convinced they must do better, goes back. Further story is written, the music is changed from "moody" to "exciting", and collectable treasure chests and combat encounters are incorporated. "Now we're talking," exclaims the tester. "9/10!"
How quickly the player succumbs to expectation. How quickly one's original idea is compromised and caveated. On its surface, The Magic Circle asks players to empathise with game-makers, to understand the pressures of working in an industry where careers live and die on public opinion. But where The Beginner's Guide asked us to pity the game-maker, to idolise him as a misunderstood artist, shackled by committee, The Magic Circle defines Gilder and the player's creative struggle as part of a more serious inner conflict. Everybody in this game is searching for validation. Tragically, they have conflated personal fulfilment with The Magic Circle's success – if this video game is no good, then what do I have left? Uncertain of themselves (Gilder drinks, Coda has dedicated her entire life and self image to fantasy games) they require constant reassurance.
Ignoring video games, which in this story, broadly speaking, could be substituted for any endeavour, creative or otherwise, The Magic Circle empathises with human frailty. Everybody needs something to help fill up their soul. And when Gilder is quite literally killed by his own baby, the damage caused by chasing substantiation is painfully clear.
The Magic Circle is available now for PS4, PC, Mac and Linux. More information at the game's official website.