The Magic Circle: hands-on with ex-BioShock devs' game about making games
The Magic Circle is a game about making games. I sampled it back at GDC 2014, and it was, quietly, the most fascinating project I got to see at the event. I've thought about it a hell of a lot in the months since then, and I'm certain there’s nothing quite like it in terms of premise or execution. It comes from new studio Question, formed of Jordan Thomas and Stephen Alexander who are best known for their work on all three BioShock games, along with Dishonored’s Kain Shin, and it employs a not-dissimilar balance of first-person interactive narrative with deep systems.
BioShock fans will certainly see a through-line—it won’t have nearly the same broad appeal, but that’s exactly what I like about it. The Magic Circle is the best kind of weird, and at this early stage has the feeling of a true original.
I started in a black-and-white village from every high fantasy RPG, where, wandering first-person through without much in the way of interaction, I was sold a hokey revenge narrative by a thoroughly unconvincing narrator. The village is on fire, loved ones are dead, and so on. I figured out that this guy doing the voiceover had made the game-within-a-game that I was playing, here, also called The Magic Circle, and at this point I assumed that maybe the entire story is a parody of or homage to fantasy RPGs both good and bad. I also wondered if The Magic Circle was a passive narrative game, that I’m looking onto a world rather than affecting it.
After a few seriously clever context shifts, it became clear The Magic Circle is something else. This is, it’s eventually revealed, a game about programming objects and NPCs to help you through a setting that’s actually being created by the game-within-a-game’s developers while you’re playing. If that’s hard to grasp, initially, it was for me too, but piecing that together through the dialogue and unusual environments is a far better way of absorbing that premise than having it telegraphed to you. Besides, this is a funny game, and the bizarre humour that comes from these in-game developers’ creative struggles in pulling their problematic project together is compellingly odd. “We know the concept itself is weird—that first moment of, 'it's not me, it's them,', we're trying to get that across,” Thomas tells me.
I’m leaving a lot of early story beats out, here, because like BioShock, the way this backdrop and its narrative tension is introduced is a surprise you deserve to see for yourself (it relates to some long-standing videogame staples in a very cool way).The title itself at least partially refers to your character’s ability to draw around enemies in first-person using a special power. With a left click, you draw onto the black-and-white world, meant to be deliberately whiteboard-y, leaving a colour imprint you can then reel back in with the right (you can only expend so much of this on the world at once).
Drawing around an enemy incapacitates them. From here, you can open their ‘inventory’ menu, which lists all of the AI properties of the enemy and lets you alter them. You can turn an enemy into a friend, or change the way they move through the world, along with loads more adjustable parameters. I only saw a handful of possibilities, but since you can’t kill enemies yourself in The Magic Circle, you’ll have to reprogram them to help you battle foes, solve puzzles and progress. This feels like the main component of the game, while the oddball game developer narrative hangs above it. It's actually something I only really got a taste and understanding for at the end of the demo, as the world began to open up, but it was speaking to Question about the potential of reprogramming NPCs that made me understand how far reaching this power actually is.
I played through the opening hour in front of Alexander and Thomas as they analysed (and occasionally laughed at) the way I was playing. Your first experience of changing a foe's AI behaviour will likely be as entertaining and silly as mine. I made one of the basic dog-like enemies—the Howler—into an ally, and he saved me twice from other rival Howlers. I did that! My choices shaped what happened in that scenario, and that's just the start of how you can strategically collect and rewrite creatures. “That’s where I’ve seen the most joy with people,” explains Alexander. “When you get your first little bodyguard, and he starts acting on their behalf, they’re like, ‘oh yeah, I get it.’ It’s really gratifying when that happens.”
There’s a lot to learn to reach that point, but that path has a lot of payoff, as Thomas relays to me after the demo. “Pretty early on, we cemented that our pillar was editing AI and helping you make a solution to a puzzle as opposed to there being one solution that you must find. And, as you can see, there's a huge tutorial burden in that, but we want you to feel creative and we want you to feel like you're stealing game design from the designers.” Want a make a Howler fly? That’s one of the fields you can adjust in the inventory screes, and there’s loads more funny examples of objects you can define in impossibly amusing ways. They also mentioned the possibility of being able to name your creatures. If I could make my Howler fly and call him Bertie, that’s just another bonus level of attachment for me as a player.
“The insides of a Howler and very different to the insides of a Doorbot, and so on," says Thomas. "The solutions to practical problems...are abilities you make out of creatures you've stolen from all over the map. Some of them work better together, some of them have to be used in combination, like multiple pets. There's no one right way to do it."
Creativity in the way you edit AI has to be factored into how the game reacts. You’re fashioning minions, essentially, using them to compensate for your own lack of traditional powers as a protagonist—the developers of the game-within-the-game can’t decide what it is you should be doing, so it’s an extension of the premise in that sense. “We want to ratify anything that seems reasonable within our systems...If, in your head, it makes sense and we agree the systems should do that, it should." While right now, with no tutorials and temporary voiceovers, it feels like early code, the AI stuff already feels like it will appeal to a lot of players interested in system-based player expression, or travelling around with a motley crew of creatures that defy the laws of the universe because you told them to do so.
There's connective tissue with BioShock, here, but the difference in context speaks to how much the two of them are enjoying independence. This deliberately half-formed world they've built is gorgeous, and like Rapture, you're absorbing story details just from being within it and observing what's going on around you. Thomas and Alexander collaborated on all three BioShock games, while Thomas is also well-known for having created The Cradle in Thief: Deadly Shadows, and both were ready for a break from big game development before work began on The Magic Circle. “I had decided I wanted to have my own game,” says Alexander. “I wanted to leave what I was doing, and Jordan and I had worked together a lot in the past on the BioShocks..."
“...Fort Frolic, the beginning of BioShock 1, a bunch of level stuff, [and] Infinite, especially the ending,” interjects Thomas. The two reconnected on Infinite, and the collaboration grew organically out of that. They’re making something that they personally and passionately think is cool, and if you think it is too, that’s great. Not everyone will, and that's fine too. "We're not trying to sell this game to everybody under the sun. That, I think, is where you get milquetoast bullshit,” says Thomas.
I’m of the belief that The Magic Circle being made for a specific audience is only of benefit to the game. It’s proudly esoteric. I can’t wait to uncover a little more of a game that I openly describe to the two developers as batshit. “We didn’t go independent to become more sane,” says Thomas. “I think we would’ve been doing it wrong.”