If you, like me, play a lot of video games, are familiar with their intricacies, the people who make them, and the culture surrounding them, then you need to give The Magic Circle a shot. Not only does this first-person puzzle/action game satirize the relationship between player and creator, but it subverts your well-trained expectations about how games should work.
Not hooked yet? Let me try to explain this surprisingly complex game in three points.
1. It recognizes that humans make games
This is one of the most, for lack of a better term, human things I found in the game. One of the things I was able to empathize with much more than when it has been presented in other games. The Magic Circle repeatedly demonstrates that humans make games and, as a result, they are often revealing about themselves. The game makes it a point to show you the layer beneath the sci-fi and fantastical environments, where people coded and designed the underlying systems.
There’s a moment where you need to stand in front of a security scanner to open a door, but the door to access it is lowered too far for you to get in. You eventually break the game (intentionally!) a bit and are able to send in a minion to stand in front of the scanner while you walk through the door. The scanner was intended to scan the player but the developer didn’t specify, assuming nobody else could have gotten in there.
Yes, it’s very meta, but it’s also a good reminder that games are not created by machines and have faults just as you and I do.
2. It’s intentionally janky
You know in Assassin’s Creed you sometimes clip through ledges or your stabbing animation plays when the enemy is already lying dead on the floor? These little glitches/hiccups are what we call jank. The Magic Circle has some too, except it’s intentional, or at least narratively consistent and actually satisfying as you play.
You are paying an unfinished game inside of The Magic Circle, so not everything works great. There are ways around its puzzles that I don’t think were the only way to solve them. Many times I would defeat enemies or reach an area by doing some strange things, and I wasn’t always sure how I even did it. The key is that they were never frustrating and actually pretty funny most of the time. And it felt right for how much the game hammers home that everything in the fictional game is unfinished.
3. The ending
Okay, no spoilers, but the ending to The Magic Circle is incredible. It takes its satirical themes and fuels them towards a whole new goal that not only fits story-wise but gameplay-wise. It’s brilliant and entertaining and hilarious and good. Trust me, it’s worth playing the game until the end, even if there are some spots that take some patience. The game delivers on its characters’ trajectories and its ultimate message and commentary on the player-developer relationship. It’s an ending that’s still rolling around in my head.