On the most recent episode of Shall We Play a Game?, my podcast with former NPR producer and correspondent JJ Sutherland, we review The Magic Circle, a game with a whole lot of BioShock alums in the credits: The Magic Circle’s lead designer, Jordan Thomas, was the creative director of BioShock 2, and he also led the design of Fort Frolic, possibly the most beloved BioShock level. He worked on BioShock Infinite, too. Ken Levine, the Irrational Games creative director, is listed as a voice actor. Scott Sinclair, the BioShock art director, is in the credits, too. I may have missed others. We also talk to Gavin Purcell, the supervising producer of The Tonight Show and an alum of Attack of the Show, about playing FIFA with Jimmy Fallon.
Talking about The Magic Circle may be more satisfying than playing it, much as I admire the game’s ambition. It’s not just a game about playing a game (which it is—-I’ll get to that). It’s also a game about the fascinating and possibly inevitable conflicts between narrative design and systems design in video games, as well as the tug of war between game creators and game players. It was once fashionable to refer to the tension between fiction and interaction in a game with the clunkily apt term “ludonarrative dissonance,” a term coined by Far Cry 2 creative director Clint Hocking in a critique of—wait for it—BioShock.
To cut straight to the heart of it, Bioshock seems to suffer from a powerful dissonance between what it is about as a game, and what it is about as a story. By throwing the narrative and ludic elements of the work into opposition, the game seems to openly mock the player for having believed in the fiction of the game at all. The leveraging of the game’s narrative structure against its ludic structure all but destroys the player’s ability to feel connected to either, forcing the player to either abandon the game in protest (which I almost did) or simply accept that the game cannot be enjoyed as both a game and a story, and to then finish it for the mere sake of finishing it.
This is also a fair statement of what The Magic Circle is about, at least thematically. Ish Gilder, the game’s auteur director—a Serpentor-like mashup of Levine, Peter Molyneux, Richard Garriott, and other wildly ambitious and deep-thinking designers—gets in fights with the designer of the game’s systems about how to communicate his narrative to the player. The player, who is cast as a QA tester in this fictional vaporware game-within-a-game, is specifically tasked with undermining the game’s creators, with subverting the game’s systems to interfere with the designers’ wishes.
The Magic Circle is, alas, not a ludonarratively dissonant game about ludonarrative dissonance. The interactions in the game dovetail with the themes: The main verb in the game is the player’s ability to trap the creatures in the world, harvest their verbs (how they move, how they fight, what special powers they might possess) and then remix those verbs into other creatures to solve exceptionally open-ended puzzles. I solved one of the game’s nearly final challenges by creating flying rocks and using a Borg-like “groupthink” power to convert a host of enemies to my side. For the same task, JJ used a different ability—a tractor beam—and an entirely different creature.
You can see why the game’s designers say that Twitch and YouTube streamers have taken to the game. Watching other players come up with solutions to the game’s riddles, and experimenting with new ways to combine the game’s verbs, might be more entertaining than the game itself, which is a little too long and a little too on the nose. Still, it’s not like anything else I’ve ever played. (OK, OK, I’ll go play Double Fine’s Hack ’n’ Slash. But from my understanding it’s quite different.) I recommend it.
Especially because, after you play it, we can talk about it.
(As an aside, the video-game blogosphere in 2008 was amazing. The comments section for Hocking’s post includes terrific contributions from Darius Kazemi, Michael Abbott, Frank Lantz of New York University and Drop7, Fullbright’s Steve Gaynor, and Damien Di Fede, a designer in Montreal’s Kokoromi collective who worked on Mountain, among other titles.)