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.
The makers of This War of Mine do not see their game as politically or artistically reactionary. “Our motivation wasn’t so much to create a natural opposite to many war games as to create a different kind of dramatic experience, something closer to a tragedy,” Pawel Miechowski, a senior writer at 11 Bit, told me. But tragedy is the natural opposite of Call of Duty-style triumphalism. In turning its focus away from the high drama of conflict, This War of Mine runs counter to a broader cultural project that, through the lens of entertainment, makes us more familiar with—and perhaps more readily accepting of—war itself. Drozdowski will admit that his team hoped to defy player expectation. “Video games have programmed us to see characters in games as enemies, or to believe that there is always a perfect solution, or even a riddle to be solved,” he said. “But, in This War of Mine, there is often no good or obvious choice. It’s always simply about trying to survive the night, in the hope that, in the morning, the guns will have stopped.”
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.”