The Magic Circle:best. reboot. ever. - Games Weekly

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Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Magic Circle:best. reboot. ever.

It’s rare to see a game with such a complex backstory as The Magic Circle. The  long-laboring development team is revamping a text-based game, and the drama trying to get it made is pretty incredible. There has been infighting, the usurping  of  positions, design changes, and all of the whiteboards have been made available to the public (though good luck figuring out what the heck is going on, there). From the outside, this is one of those projects that should have probably been put on the  back  burner when  the  first  major  argument  broke  out, but somehow, the team is continuing to trudge through. From the inside, the game is beautifully  broken. Yeah,  that’s  right “from the inside.” The entire development backstory is actually the plot of the video game, and so far it seems to be excellent.

Without actually playing the game, interested parties should either speak directly to the developers of Question Games, LLC, or watch demonstrations on YouTube in order to understand exactly what’s happening, as even the trailer lends itself to the game development’s legend of games past. Once this premise is pushed away and the truth is known, a much more complex and clever story emerges, rooted in a reality that most people not directly involved in the industry never give a second thought to: The struggles of game development. The Magic Circle’s lead developer (in-game, that is) is named Ishmael Gilder, who thinks of himself as almost a demigod (he calls himself “Starfather”). With a name that’s a combination of the eldest Biblical son of Abraham and the term for someone who covers things in gold, it’s not a stretch to see the sarcasm dripping from every facet of his character. How did Ish come to exist? Why is he such a jerk? What is the deal with the game’s name? One only needs to play to find out.

The actual developers of The Magic Circle are all veterans of AAA game development, with the initial idea being inspired by Jordan Thomas’s time in the creative driver’s seat of a little game called BioShock 2. The notion of how fragile a game actually is in the initial stages is the crux of his latest project, and everything has been set up to illustrate that in scathingly blunt detail.“Starfather” manipulates and blackmails his lead artist, Haze, to stay around; this has been going on for a decade. A newbie named Coda comes in and is so enthralled with Starfather that he promotes her due to his inflated ego. Throughout it all, the game remains starkly unfinished, the player somewhat left to their own devices to make it through, and make sense of everything/anything.

Well, players aren’t entirely on their own after the initial discovery by Haze that after death, the playtester is “ghosted” (the body is gone, the program controlling the player is not), she instructs them to keep going, and to discover what they can. It’s a sort of desperate cry of validation, a plea from the purgatory she’s found herself in, and once the player begins to advance, they find they’re not the only being trapped within the horrid whiteboard landscape. “The Pro,” a guiding voice, is stuck in the character-creation screen, and serves as an instructor, but he’s clearly sick of being involved, and wants to be freed in whatever way possible, even if it means breaking the game. How else, then, would one do that, than by putting on some game-dev shoes of their own ?

Amongst the bickering of the wayward colleagues, and the malformed creatures that crowd the terrain, there are items that can be manipulated. Rocks, mushrooms, creatures called “howlers” (they’re basically wire frames of dogs, colored horribly), and other environmental aspects can be edited by removing and shuffling commands. Is a howler chasing you? Invoke the power of development and change “THE HERO” from an enemy to an ally, and create a guard dog. Can’t get through a set of doors, but notice that a little robot can remove the force-fields? Figure out how to use that robot to your advantage. As long as a name appears above an item when you focus on it, you can check its abilities to be edited. This presents challenges, of course, and that’s the point. Puzzles can be solved in a variety of ways, and the developers have made a point of cataloging the ways in which actual playtesters solve them before integrating them smoothly into the experience. The Magic Circleis made to be accessible after all, and not just an in-joke.

As to the name, Starfather/Ish has created the entire game’s concept around his grandfather’s ring, spinning on a table. Whether or not it would fall down was a source of anxiety for the young Ish (see also: Inception’s spinning top), and with that memory, he began to imagine a world where a circle would hold all of the meaning of life, the power of the universe, and the wisdom of everything. If all that seems a bit self-absorbed and narcissistic, well...that’s the point. Players come to hate Starfather, but may begin to know a little bit of his struggle when they begin to make the same journey through The Magic Circle’s creation. It’s a delicate process, and while starting over is always an option, there is always the risk of having to destroy a good deal of past effort in order to move forward.

Initial reaction to the marketing campaign (where the Twitter accounts and website are also holding to the in-game characters and their story) has been positive, with excitement following the initial trepidation. With such a well-known development team behind it, expectations are high, and the team is doing all they can to ensure that, despite the purposely-broken scenario encountered by players, the game itself runs smoothly. Kain Shin (Harmonix Music Systems, Arkane Studios) and Stephen Alexander (Irrational/2k Games) join Jordan with their impressive resumes, and despite their backgrounds, they take time to not only listen to feedback, but actually implement changes based on suggestions throughout the development process. The success of the game lies in maintaining its facade, yes, but it also depends upon user satisfaction. CLU, these guys are not.

So long as The Magic Circle is not subject to the same bickering and power-struggles portrayed in-game, players can expect to see it on Steam during Q2 of 2015.

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