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Memory Leaks: The Magic Circle

🐿️ Ship it...

The Magic Circle is a 2015 sandbox puzzle game for consoles and PC that takes place in a vaporware adventure game that's been trapped in development hell for nearly twenty years. You are a QA tester who gets abandoned in the game after a dismal playtest that mostly consists of watching the two developers bicker. A rogue... someone... reaches out to you for help from inside the game. He teaches you how to hack the game's creatures and access new parts of the world and start manipulating things--so just maybe you can turn this game into something shippable before the developers figure out what you're up to.

How I Remember It...

This is a delightfully weird meta-game that derives a lot of humor from poking fun at the culture of software development and video game development in particular. The game-within-the-game The Magic Circle holds the record for getting the most rounds of crowd-funding for a single project without actually fulfilling it. The main writer and director is barely able to mask his contempt for players and how they might sully his artistic vision, and his frustrated co-developer is just trying to get something out the door. The world of the game is a confused hodgepodge of art styles and aesthetics that's been cobbled together and iterated over forever--at one point you turn a corner and find yourself in a 16-bit-era space shooter that the newer fantasy elements were glommed onto after the fact (is this a dig at Duke Nukem Forever? Good chance!). It's hilariously surreal.

The main gameplay element is a Zelda-style exploration mechanic wherein you find new abilities that give you access to new parts of the map. The gimmick here is that you're not applying those abilities to yourself. Instead, you "hack" creatures in the game, giving them abilities that you can exploit. You might turn a turtle monster into a flying stepping stone or some kind of teleporter, for instance. There's no direct combat--the game director explicitly refuses to give you a weapon for your playtest because you're just going to use it to kill the symbolic representation of his mother... or something like that. But there's a fair amount of hacking creatures to attack each other in order to clear the way for you. The game's black-and-white art style is used to great effect, as creatures and older game elements or glitches--read as: the things you interact with in order to actually play the game--are in color, making them quite easy to spot.

The story mainly plays out through commentary nodes (why, yes, I'm pretty sure they're making fun of Valve) that allow you to hear behind-the-scenes information from the two principle developers. Of course, these discussions quickly stray from the script and you get a glimpse of their increasingly fractious relationship, and you start to gain insight into how they started out with a shared vision that crumbled. In its final act, the game goes off the rails and abandons the game-within-the-game. For your final battle, you're engaging in.... level design. Trying to string together something shippable that an AI "player" will find compelling. It's... an oddly satisfying way to end the game, actually.

So yeah, this one is bizarre. Not quite The Stanley Parable levels of bizarre, but it couples its surreal journey to some solid gameplay and a little bit of biting satire that speaks to the frustration of everyone still waiting for Half-Life 3.


In MEMORY LEAKS, Kurt is going through his favorite video games. See more posts.

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