The wearisome nuances of programming are fairly obvious, but “The Magic Circle” also focuses on the creative aspect of development. It explores the unavoidable problems that arise when a variety of different game makers try to reconcile their distinct visions.
You see black and white environments that look like placeholder art, and you play by running around and editing creatures’ abilities like a game designer would. Early on, you come across a dog-like creature called a Howler who has been programmed to attack you, so a simple solution to avoid getting hurt is to edit the Howler’s abilities to make it your friend instead of your enemy (as seen in the tutorial video below). As the game goes on, you learn you can program the Howler to attack other creatures, you can earn special abilities, you can program other creatures and you can combine the abilities and creatures in creative ways.
It looks like a first-person action game, but you don’t shoot a gun or swing a weapon — you program other creatures to do the work for you. It’s more about solving puzzles than it is about combat. The idea is to give players a surface-level feeling of what it’s like to be a game designer.
Then there’s another layer to the game with a more direct commentary on game development — as you play through the game-within-the-game, you can hear its fictional developers talking in the background. It feels like you’re sitting at a desk in a development studio playing their game while you overhear them talking about each other and their design choices.
The game they’re making has been in development for many years with no end in sight, analogous to something like Duke Nukem Forever, or perhaps, BioShock Infinite. And the team can’t seem to commit to decisions, so the main character is simply “The Hero” rather than someone with a name or even a gender.