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The Magic Circle, A self-aware game within a game

There have been plenty of films set inside the movie industry, such as The Player or Barton Fink. There have been plenty of songs about the music industry, like Belle & Sebastian’s “Seymour Stein” or The Sex Pistols’ “EMI”. But games is a field that’s mostly escaped the satirical art of navelgazing, save for isolated incidents such as Game Dev Tycoon. The Magic Circle aims to change that.

Magic-Circle The Magic Circle, A self-aware game within a gameYou play as a tester, wandering through an unfinished game that’s been delayed since time immemorial due to the ego of its legendary lead designer, Ishmael ‘Starfather’ Gilder, a diva who hasn’t released a title since text adventures were the peak of tech. But a public demo needs to be ready for the big E4 conference, so that Starfather can satisfy his fans and release something, anything.

With that backstory in mind, much of the game is placeholder, from the landscapes to the commentaries, and from the art style to the setting. Your task, set by Pro (a disgruntled protagonist left over from an abandoned science-fiction prototype), is to finish the game. But Starfather seems determined to make it as dreadful as possible and put off the release for as long as possible, while his fangirl intern Coda and blackmailed pro-gamer Maze both have their own agendas. All three appear in the world, as they debug and change it around you.

Playing God

You play the game from a first-person perspective. Early on, you’re given the power to trap enemies and edit them – that is, go into their code and alter their default behaviours – whether they fly or run, attack with melee or a railgun, regard you as a friend or foe. Even whether they’re fireproof or share a group mind, or can teleport others or open force fields, or… well, you get the idea.

Magic-Circle-2 The Magic Circle, A self-aware game within a gameIt’s a great mechanic, and turns the game into a kind of action strategy, as you wander the small world, using your growing pack of bizarrely edited monsters to defeat other creatures and acquire their abilities, and bypass puzzles. The world itself has a variety of attractive art styles, from monochrome sword-and-sorcery to the abandoned science-fiction version to dungeon-editor. There are collectibles, if that’s your kind of thing. There’s a section where you redesign the game, and watch an AI play it for you. It’s all tongue-in-cheek and hugely self-referential, if a little trite.

Despite that, the game feels like it was intended to be more ambitious than it is, as if it suffered cuts itself. The explorable world is small, the number of actual puzzles limited. A comprehensive run-through took us just seven hours, and there was little we felt the need to return for. Despite that, the well-written satire, the customisability of the world, and the knowingness of the game make it an enjoyable ride.

Games don’t do humour well. Perhaps only the LucasArts adventures and Time Gentlemen, Please have been laughout loud funny in recent years. TMC is smarter than it’s witty, but it is a knowing, acerbic and fun look at the big egos and failures in big game development.

Recommended Specs

  • AMD X2 5200+/Intel Core 2 Duo E6420
  • 4GB RAM
  • Nvidia 8800GT/Radeon HD4830.

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