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My thoughts on The Magic Circle, or: How some game developers seem to missunderstand games.



So I ran across a very interesting game the other day on youtube. I only watched an LP of it but I may buy it myself soon (that is i my dinky computer can handle it, which I doubt) because besides it's story being amusing it's gameplay actually looks really really interesting, even if it seems sort of short. I think there is something that is sort of interesting that the game touches on, maybe even unintentionally, that it never really to my knowledge addresses completely.


So first of all, I am going to be mentioning some spoilers for the game. Nothing really groundbreakingly major I think but still, if you care about that sort of thing, well spoiler warring and such.


So okay. This game, it's about running around a unfinished gameworld being worked on by feuding developers that just cannot seem to get along. There are three developers that tend to show up as the main stars of the show, while most of the others just seem to show up in backstory lore (in the form of developer changelogs and commentary on the unfinished world). It is noticeable to me that none of these three main developers really seem to actually care that much about the game it's self, or even understand what a game is and what it's for.


First we have the head designer (voiced by Dr Venture of all people), who acts as the game's writer. He only really cares about the story, to the point where he is actively hostile to the players. Early in the game he decides they are entitled kill-crazy jerks who when given a weapon would just run around and kill all his carefully made NPCs. So he takes away their weapon. Despite the fact most of the game was designed with combat in mind (you never do get it back, but though shenanigans find another power that is actually a lot more interesting then using a weapon anyway).


Next there is the cynical second in command that has no choice but to follow the head designer's lead even though she hates it, but can't quit due to shady cooperate dealings. She actively hates all the story focus and wants more combat and killing things. She seems to be on the side of gameplay, but I think it becomes obvious she just wants something to master. She even goes on this long story about cavemen (or woman, whatever) called "Frag" and "Brag" that seems to really drive the point about how she views games as pure competition and sport.


Then there is the fan intern that flatters her way into the head designer's good graces and ends up doing a lot of the work. All she really cares about though is nostalgia, and resurrecting the past. In fact it becomes more and more obvious that her dedication to the past is much stronger then her dedication to the present. Her focus is on the exact set of symbols she remembers and the emotional responses they trigger.


It strikes me that none of these developers seem to have a clue about what games are actually about. To me, games are and always have been about the manipulation of data within a set of rules. To me it's always been just the pure joy of figuring out and using systems. Exploring them, exploiting them, figuring out how they work. Bit like programing I guess, or even life it's self, but maybe with more strict rules and a bit of story for context, just enough to make you want to work to something and to let the world you are exploring come alive beyond pure gameplay mechanics.


Ironically this is something that the real game (not the fake in-universe game) actually seems to do pretty well, at least for the main chunk of it's gameplay. It offers a simple, but pretty deep, mechanic and allows you to solve puzzles various ways with it. I hesitate to spoil the actual mechanic, but if you wanna know:

I would say it's a bit like a mix between the old game Cholo mixed with Pikmin and involves reprogramming your enemies, turning them into allies and swapping their skills around. You can't attack yourself and need to trap or kill enemies so you can reprogram them.



Thing is, I am not sure i that was an idea that the game's story ever really picked up on, or i they just threw a interesting mechanic to keep people interested and drive off the "not a game" crowd. There is a lot of interesting if heavyhanded commentary, and several long speeches, about games and why people play them and why and how they are made and so on and so forth, but I didn't see anything about this, at least not directly. It even, at parts, pokes at the old idea that video games are just escapism, which always rubbed me the wrong way, but I don't think it was supporting that view and instead using it as another example of how the head designer just doesn't get players.


I always thought games were important. All fiction is of course, beyond escapism. It communicates and discusses ideas, sets up scenarios, allows hypothetical to be explored. This is an important function of thought, one we need more they people are willing to admit it seems in our day to day lives. And games are one level beyond even fiction. They allow us to explore abstract models and conceptions, and allow a nuanced way to see how some choices will play out in an abstract setting. Escapism may happen sure, but people uses stories and games to enhance their minds, making them more effective for decision making in the real world as well.


I guess I am rambling at this point but those are just the thoughts this game brought out of me. Lots of games do that. I think it's a good thing, it means the time invested in the medium is worth it. You know just the other day, I was thinking of making a blog entry about how I sometimes think I should just leave gaming. When gaming news depresses me I think that sometimes. But it's still worth it, and I find examples why all the time. :3


(Also: Fun fact: The game's name seems to be a pun on this which is kinda like a gaming version of the forth wall. Clever!)


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A good analysis, but I doubt the original intention for video games was ever for players to explore and uncover the systems developers create - that is, not from the more technical way you portray it. Games were initially for children, and quite exclusively about fun, and competition - that escapism.

I think The Magic Circle is commentary on the state of games as things currently are, and about all the factors and mindsets that can go into making an extremely complex thing like a game. It explores the chaotic mess that somehow things have come to be in the state where "it's not just about fun" and "but is it fun to play?" are not conflicting thoughts for games. As you give the run-down, some developers strive for games that tell stories and will do their very best to say fuck off to the player if they so much as try to deviate from the story - and yet miss the entire point of what makes the medium so great for storytelling to begin with. Other games are purely based off the aesthetics, for the more visceral spectacle of things, or for the more complex understanding of the interplay of mechanics and dynamics - and miss the boat on meaningful experiences or any kind of commentary in the process.

Audiences can pick and choose what kind of game they want to play, and the game strikes it's comedic tone by having the developers try and do all these things at once - ironically almost going for that watered down, mass market appeal.

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I am not saying that's what "the original intention" for games was, because people create games for lots of different reasons, not all of which are very good or well thought out. Nor am I really saying that's why people really play games either, because again, people play them for lots of different reasons, not all of them make sense on a grand scale.


No what I am saying is, and this may be a really iffy statement to make, is that exploring systems are game's function in society, the reason why they are important to us, and ultimately the reason they are as successful as they are. Escapism doesn't strike me as an important function of games, at least not for society as a whole. It's debatable if people actually need or are any better off with escapism, and honestly it seems pretty easy to use just about anything to escape from your life if you really needed to with a little imagination.


People don't value their own little flights of fancy the way they do games and other media though, at least not usually. And the reason is I think is not because it's better escapism, but I think the exact opposite, because people see something real and true in the media they consume that can be hard for them to see all the time in real life. When your living in the middle of something, you don't often notice what is going on. It's only when art reflects some truth back at them that they start to really notice it. Noticing those patterns is important, and often art is the only way most people will ever be able to see it. Maybe they are just seeing random patterns in the chaos, but it's still something that is real that clicks in their mind. Games are especially good at that, because you use a program, a live set of rules that you can play with and that can have all sorts of interesting effects, maybe the most interesting are ones no one intends or expects, like this for example.


I guess all that is besides the point, and most of it is my personal view on it anyway. It's hard to qualify stuff like that sometimes, so it's hardly peer reviewed scientific truth. Yet. :P

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