You step into an early build of The Magic Circle as a player getting a sneak peek, but even this demo is still in flux, and the world changes around you. It’s a joke at the expense of Steam’s controversial Early Access program, where players can willingly buy unfinished games to play them as they develop, paying in full even if they’re never finished. Early Access games can be trainwrecks, and The Magic Circle is no exception.
The “demo” only lasts a few minutes, additional quests are removed for budgetary reasons, and the boss fight is quite pointless considering the fact that Gilder took your sword away, afraid that you’ll use it to murder innocent AI characters. The developers are represented by gigantic floating David Bowie eyes, gods of this unfinished world, bickering over creative decisions and dramatic word choices.
But there is something deep inside the game calling for help, a lonely AI created for one of The Magic Circle’s earliest versions that needs you to break the cycle and end its living hell. As you embark on a new quest to save this AI, it gives you the ability to hack the world around you, reprogram enemies, and revive vapourware against Gilder’s will. If there seems to be a platform too far away, you can give turtles the gift of flight and hop along them. If you want to get real creative, you can steal a teleporter’s niche and warp around reprogrammed mushrooms. Catch a plant queen off guard by giving a rat a railgun. Revive a sci-fi DOS-era version of the game to send the mighty Gilder into a panic.
To give you an idea about how bad publisher influence can be, consider this: during production meetings, publishing execs often have someone—often the developer—“drive” a game so they can see how it is coming together. The publishing people all watch and then make passive, aesthetic appraisals of active, functional aspects of a game. This is because the bulk of execs can’t and don’t want to play or understand how games work. They don’t want to play. This would be akin to editors in literary publishing being unable to read or write.The relative ignorance of people in game publishing has been called out before. As Gabe Newell put it, gamers/consumers have a much better understanding of games than the management at publishers. It’s entirely and utterly true.
This game seems to lean heavily toward being a muliplayer solitaire puzzle at first glance, but once everyone is familiar with managing the feedback loops between reputation, population, and income, and with the scoring goals that are available, denying other players what you think they need becomes pretty competitive. Another nice mechanism is that tiles from the market can be played upside down as small lakes, which provides a cash infusion but also allows you to take a tile out of the game that’s useless to you but helpful to an opponent.
It’s also hard not to see some of the real-life sexism that pervades so many industries reflected in the games, but from a distinctly feminine perspective. You’re a woman, your friends are usually women, but the domineering corporate bosses from competing companies who try to undermine you, get you fired, or drive you out of business are almost always male. You defy them, of course, and leave them in the dust with your sheer excellence.
Even when the games suggest that you have a more white collar job, the work you end up doing remains far more “pink collar.” In the medical time management game Are You Alright?, you’re told that you’re a “famous doctor,” and yet you seem to spend most of your time taking temperatures, running tests, and dispensing pills—jobs that would more realistically be done by a nurse.
The strategy game was made available on Steam in November for Windows and Mac OS X, following an initial version released in 2013. It takes the fundamental mechanics of a 4X game — “explore, expand, exploit, exterminate” — like Civilization,Age of Empires, or even the classic board game Risk, wherein you are the protagonist in developing the world and ruling its terrain. However, you are very clearly the villain in Alter’s inverted version, which is played over a world map whose poles have been inverted — the Gall-Peters projection map, to be exact, whose landmasses are more proportionately accurate. In 12 turns, with up to six players, you parse through the world like it’s only there for your benefit, buying government votes, building mines and factories, and using your power to control regional parliaments. It always ends with the same message: “The world has been ruined. Game over.”
Videogames aren’t just buckets filled up with a certain amount of content. You don’t just walk into the Content Bucket shop and buy the bucket that is most filled up with content. But dramas like this imply that that is what videogames are. Next time you’re playing a game and you’re wondering why it has this arbitrary vehicle section or that terrible sewer level, remember that this is why. Because if they didn’t put that boring crap in, the press and the community forums would rip them to shreds for not filling the Content Bucket all the way up.