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The Magic Circle
Bar Harbor
alexx_kay
This is a really hard game for me to write about, on many levels.

It’s a small budget independent game, but takes as its subject matter AAA game development. This is perhaps unsurprising, as about two thirds of the creative team were powerhouses on the Bioshock franchise.

I’d been looking forward to it for some time on that basis, but by the time it came out, I was terminally unemployed and broke :( However, a friend of mine recently gifted me a copy, so now I have (mostly) played it.

The main meat of the game involves wandering around in the side an unfinished game world, trying to fix (or sabotage) it, while the developers bicker and fail to accomplish much, like a particularly dysfunctional pantheon of gods. It’s delightfully meta-. Most of the story content is ABOUT the nature of story content in an interactive medium. Similarly, most of the gameplay requires the player to actively engage in thinking about how gameplay systems interact. Playing this main portion of the game felt a lot like being a QA tester again, reminding me how much fun I had when I first entered the industry.

The writing and voice work are both very good. Those not in the industry might be inclined to think that the satire was a little over-the-top. I have to say, not really. Compressed, maybe; you experience, in the course of a handful of hours, a range of craziness more typical of an industry year. But the extremes of what happens are all too accurate.

There were parts of the game that seems to speak DIRECTLY to my personal experience. Though I think they probably weren’t drawn from literal shared experiences, as these patterns recur across the industry. I felt similarly when reading Austin Grossman’s recent novel, _You_, based partly on his early years at Looking Glass. Several scenarios in that book were eerily familiar, despite the fact that Austin and I had completely non-overlapping time at LG.

I made it to (what felt like) the final segment of the game, but couldn’t actually bring myself to finish it. (Spoilers.) In this section, the player is dropped into what amounts to a simplified game editor, and tasked by one of the characters with building a small level and populating it with gameplay. I interacted with the editor for a little while, and then was suddenly hit with an overpowering emotional reaction. “I’m working on a gameplay design task, with no clear mandate of what I’m supposed to accomplish, and which will eventually be evaluated by standards I have no control over. I’m in HELL! AGAIN!” Just a horrible, visceral flashback to the worst periods of working with Ken Levine. Quit to desktop.

I’m reasonably sure that the game devs did not INTEND to spur that reaction. I can hardly be considered a typical audience member in this regard. But I’m unlikely to pick it up again anytime soon.

That said, I do strongly recommend the first three quarters or so of the game to anyone who is interested in the ins and outs of game development.

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Well...that would explain why it sounded like...some of your stories? (And those of others in your cohort.)

Sad to hear about the inadvertent trigger! FWIW, the AI that "grades" your level is kinda a jerk about it, so it's probably best you skipped that part. I mean, he's _super_ over the top with praise when you get it 'right' (which wispfox was good at helping me do). So, basically like a game critic, I guess.

(There's a tag at the end where if you succeed in pleasing him; you are forced to become the creator, which mostly means you have the option to go back and finish bits of the (main) game you might have missed, and otherwise interact with credits and stuff via an Amiga-resembling desktop, but I think that's it.)

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