Simultaneously cynical and sincere, The Magic Circle is a postmodern critique of video games that comes in the form of a neofuturist video game. Filled with a holy trinity of conflicting views from the in-game creators (an idealistic intern looking to fulfill the vision of the “Kickbacker” fanbase, the once ingenious and now fallow and shallow original creator, and a realist looking out for the consumer), there’s rarely a moment that goes by without sly commentary. As a literal trip through Development Hell, The Magic Circle merges the gameplay of Hack ’n’ Slash with the comic theories of The Stanley Parable. That said, it’s also more of a traditional game than either one: Players will need to debug “ghosted” triggers in the environment and reprogram the AIs in order to create (often inventive and seemingly infinite) solutions.
The Magic Circle emphasizes the “fun” in “profundity,” for even though players can literally see how everything under the hood works, most of the game still comes across as magic. Some of this admittedly stems from nostalgia, as when players stumble across the abandoned (and low-resolution) textures from the ’80s-style sci-fi game the in-game developers were originally working on. In other parts, the sharpened satire helps to hide the linearity of a sequence in which players must recode on the fly in order to sabotage a live demo presentation being held at an E3-like convention. One section of the game literally has players build their own demo out of a set of tiles and collected logic-based abilities, but unlike crass and commercialized sandbox creators like Disney Infinity 2.0, it then turns around and critiques the player’s work, with the AI attempting to go through the game players have created, a “Bored” meter indicating how well they’ve done.
“Beating” the game—getting it launch-ready—isn’t particularly difficult, and only takes about three hours. Then again, as the game suggests, tongue firmly in cheek, it’s not particularly hard nowadays to ship a product, good or not. But as the infinite shape of The Magic Circle suggests, a game like this is less about winning than it is about playing. (In fact, the first thing one of the developers says, interrupting a pretentious whiteboard-illustrated cutscene, is that “It"s just a game; let them play.”) Instead, The Magic Circle gives players just enough freedom to break the game without actually breaking it. It’s the video-game equivalent of skydiving.
Question’s The Magic Circle is available now for Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux.