Ishmael Gilder, an enigmatic game developer with the self-given rank of "Starfather," has been working on The Magic Circle for two decades. The magnum opus follow-up to a text-based fantasy adventure has gone through several prototypes, playtesters, platforms, and genres, and it still can't find the balance between wild expectations and realistic goals. The production is torture, similar to the Duke Nukem Forever nightmare, and you might be the bullet that finally puts it out of its misery.
You should know that Ishmael Gilder isn't real, but you can experience this sad tale of development hell by playing The Magic Circle, a work of metafictional satire and a cry for help.
You step into an early build of The Magic Circle as a player getting a sneak peek, but even this demo is still in flux, and the world changes around you. It's a joke at the expense of Steam's controversial Early Access program, where players can willingly buy unfinished games to play them as they develop, paying in full even if they're never finished. Early Access games can be trainwrecks, and The Magic Circle is no exception.
The "demo" only lasts a few minutes, additional quests are removed for budgetary reasons, and the boss fight is quite pointless considering the fact that Gilder took your sword away, afraid that you'll use it to murder innocent AI characters. The developers are represented by gigantic floating David Bowie eyes, gods of this unfinished world, bickering over creative decisions and dramatic word choices.
But there is something deep inside the game calling for help, a lonely AI created for one of The Magic Circle's earliest versions that needs you to break the cycle and end its living hell. As you embark on a new quest to save this AI, it gives you the ability to hack the world around you, reprogram enemies, and revive vapourware against Gilder's will. If there seems to be a platform too far away, you can give turtles the gift of flight and hop along them. If you want to get real creative, you can steal a teleporter's niche and warp around reprogrammed mushrooms. Catch a plant queen off guard by giving a rat a railgun. Revive a sci-fi DOS-era version of the game to send the mighty Gilder into a panic.
For a game making fun of taking on more than one can chew, The Magic Circle sometimes takes on more than it can chew. Between your personal army of reprogramed allies, manipulating your surroundings, and sleuthing around as a ghost (when you die you can choose not to revive in order to look for secrets) it can feel cluttered. That feeling intensifies as the game starts to choke on all the jokes it's telling, trying to lampoon hopeless game productions, annoying YouTube personalities, death threats, unforgiving technology, and motion control fetishes all at once.
But for a finale that, without spoiling too much, includes inappropriate fire-breathing, an E3 keynote and a baby, these are forgivable sins. There are a few refreshing nuances within a premise that's entirely ridiculous. The graphical changes between the prototypes is a delight, the anachronistic space-station a convincing throwback. Gilder (voiced by James Urbaniak, best known for similar wormy egoist Dr. Venture) might be more of a bad person than a villain, some audio-logs revealing he can pleasantly surprise his staff, as long as they're expecting the worst.
The Magic Circle is a video game for people who adore video games but have also have come to hate everything about them—for players and makers who sometimes wonder if this is all worth the migranes. It's an overdue, back-handed compliment to the weird worlds we get to visit, and the sleepless stressful nights of those who make them.
You can get The Magic Circle from Steam.