The Magic Circle ReviewPrice:
You haven't played a game like the Magic Circle before. That much I'll guarantee right now. Yet should you decide to investigate the fractured, monochromatic blunderland of Ish Gilder (which I strongly urge you to do, the way) you'll instantly be as familiar with the virtual ground beneath your invisible feet, even as the game reshapes it beneath you. You'll understand its mechanisms and themes, chuckle at its sardonic, reflective wit, and watch aghast as its conniving, nauseating characters take part in a hotly contested "who can be the biggest arsehole?" competition.
This is because The Magic Circle is a game about games and how they are designed. It's a satire, often a savage one, of the games industry as a whole. But it is equally affectionate and optimistic about the future of the art. It muses upon what players expect from their games, while also experimenting with new ways of play. And it brings all these components together in a remarkably limited space. This has its downsides, but The Magic Circle is always captivating, even in its weakest moments.
The premise proceeds thus; you are a faceless play-tester on a fictional fantasy game called The Magic Circle, directed by legendary game designer Ish Gilder. The project has been languishing in development hell for over a decade as Gilder repeatedly scraps the design in search of perfection. He also constantly butts heads with his development team, their electronic eyes floating over the landscape, tearing it to pieces in their futile attempts to make it whole.
During a particularly disastrous play-test of the introduction, you are contacted by the Old Pro, an AI character who has grown tired of the ceaseless meddling by the "Sky Bastards" and wants out. He charges you with sabotaging the game from the inside however possible, so that Gilder will be forced to leave the project and, devoid of his toxic influence, the game can finally be finished.
The Magic Circle was developed primarily by Jordan Thomas, whose past credits include Thief: Deadly Shadows and all three Bioshock games, most notably as creative director of BioShock 2. Immediately there's a desire to expose the juicy truth beneath the satirical masque. Ish is Ken Levine. Ish is Warren Spector. Ish is Thomas himself. But the Magic Circle quickly proves far more than an allegory of any specific project or a critique of auteurship. It casts a wry eye over crowdfunding, fanboyism, let's players, pro-gamers, trade shows, early access; even the menu screen doesn't escape its critical clutches. As a parody, it is to games what early Pratchett was to fantasy, tipping established convention upside down and toying gleefully with whatever falls out.
And, like Pratchett, the satire is propelled by a tremendously written cast. Ish typifies the auteur brainwashed by the cult of personality that has evolved around him. Stupendously arrogant, dismissive and outright abusive of his employees, he's utterly unwilling to accept the realities of his project's failures. But he's also clearly still in love with his work, and as the project drags on and on, the desire to deliver something worthy of the protracted development creates a vicious cycle that he is unable to break. As the Old Pro remarks "People don't arc, they loop."