If you've followed video games for more than five minutes, you've seen players and creators clash.
The constant tug-of-war over what devs think is best and what players want, the tremendous aid an active fan community can provide versus the volcanic damage that can come from miscommunication (or something worse), the floss-thin tightrope dangling over the pits of fanned flames — it's the modern era of video games embodied. Hardcore players rage as passionately as they love. They're not afraid to go full blast when they feel like their time or money has been squandered. That's Kickstarter, that's Steam Greenlight, that's post-release updates and DLC, that's (portions of) GamerGate, that's Twitter arguments, that's Steam review bombing, and on and on and on.
The new PC game The Magic Circle is a first-person adventure about a game that's been stuck in development hell for a decade. Despite this, a contingent of fans adores it. They watch the skies for scraps of news, write endless reams of fan fiction, and dote on each piecemeal demo. The game's main creator, Ish (played well by James Urbaniak, aka Dr Venture from The Venture Bros), insists that it's not perfect. He says he can't release it until it is. Each time it's nearly finished, he sends it back to the drawing board. Born a text adventure, it eventually evolved into a graphically primitive space opera and then a modern fantasy adventure mixed with an overwrought personal narrative about daddy issues and messiah babies. Urbaniak's character is a man on a mission, even if he doesn't know quite what that mission is. You never meet him face-to-face — at least, not physically.
The Magic Circle takes place entirely within this failed game world, among its lonely peaks and grey valleys. You are a tester gone rogue, largely in service of a mysterious character who claims to be trapped within the flaming ruins of this overambitious project. Your main power? You can hack into characters and objects in the game and rewrite their basic properties. Spiky dog creature chomping you like a chew toy? Simply jump inside it and immobilize it. Or take away its ability to attack. Or make it your ally. Or make it your ally, turn it fireproof, give it a tractor beam for an eye, and rename it "fuzzums." It's not like I've done any of these things, mind you, but hypothetically, if I had, you can't stop true love, dad.
It's a pretty sweet idea. It allows you to solve puzzles in a variety of ways. Problem is, you don't get to do it often. The Magic Circle is short, just a few hours long, which doesn't do its ambitious mechanics or story much of a service. At times they feel trapped, constrained. I'm all for short and sweet, but The Magic Circle sometimes feels full to bursting.
The Magic Circle bills itself as "darkly comedic," but when the fictional game company hires a new intern named Coda plucked straight from the fan community, things turn hyperbolic. The game had good jokes, like a gag at the beginning where you gain a cliche Sword of Destiny and then combat is removed from the game seconds later. Those jokes slow to a trickle, replaced by lengthy melodramatic speeches about the nature of auteur-like creators and chaotic fan communities.
It's clear that The Magic Circle's creators are passionate about these topics, but their story feels cynical and heavy-handed.
For instance (WARNING: SPOILERS), one big scene sees Coda's scheme to wrest control of development away from Ish finally come to fruition. They're on stage at the industry-famous "E4" conference, and you hack into the demo and sabotage it. You then get to watch as Coda confronts Ish with a prop gun based on an item from the game universe. A bunch of her allies in the fan community stand up and join her, resulting in this striking moment:
Clearly outnumbered, Ish agrees to make the game open source and let the community finish it. But then, like a mega-villain with one last ace up his sleeve, he gives the player a truly epic earful on topics like control and our hunger for it (whether playing games or not), creativity, life, and time. It felt a lot like confronting Andrew Ryan in the original BioShock, which fits, given that Magic Circle's development was headed up by Jordan Thomas, who worked on all three BioShocks.
For me, though, the idea of the wannabe auteur as the fallen BioShock Machiavellian mastermind — while a powerful image — stumbles in the same place BioShock often stumbled: nuance. He was half-punchline, half-melodramatic auteur pastiche — not an affecting depiction of either. I couldn't really laugh (he was too pitiful), and I couldn't feel sympathy (he was too over-the-top and hammy).
Similarly, the next scene saw the mega-fan-turned-intern-turned-dev-lead experience her own dramatic downfall. Back in the game (read: no longer at E4), she gives a big speech to her legion-like fan developer community about how they are finally gonna do this thing justice, and then — dev tools in hand — the fans immediately explode into a crazed mob. They tear the game world to shreds until the frame rate struggles to hover above 1. The apparent moral? Not just anybody can make a game, and communities are fucking crazy, irresponsible, and power drunk. Once again, I couldn't really laugh or embrace the message. Something didn't sit right with me.
The Magic Circle does attempt to end on a slightly uplifting note — at least, where the actual act of creation is concerned. (WARNING: BIG SPOILER) You get to build your own game level and have it evaluated. Then you get to hear a Magic Circle Big Speech (TM) about how hopefully you've been bitten by the creation bug. Hopefully the welt has popped and gushed into a full-on disease, and you've got to create games because it's in your blood. Make stuff, the game seems to say, despite the fact that you'll have to deal with batshit fans and obsessive tendencies and all sorts of other baggage.
I can understand how and why someone might make a story like this. There are kernels of truth in it. Making anything — whether it's a game or a story or a song or a video or what have you — is difficult, nerve-wracking, and sometimes terrifying. Nothing's ever perfect enough. And let's not beat around the bush here: while I've hardly had it as bad as a lot of people, I've experienced firsthand what incensed gaming communities can look like. I've also covered creators who thought they knew better than their communities, even when compromise might have been more advisable. I've seen the bad on both sides, and it's not pretty.
But I've also seen plenty of good. Developers like my friend Rami Ismail of indie studio Vlambeer have told me time and time again that their games have been improved immeasurably by interactions with involved, well-informed community members. Heck, I've even witnessed communities take over entire games when their developers moved on — from officially endorsed community dev teams on games like PC FPS Natural Selection 2 to long-running efforts like the ones to polish up Vampire The Masquerade: Bloodlines and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II. And that's not even delving into modding efforts, which have completely transformed games like Fallout: New Vegas and Skyrim and Team Fortress 2 (and the list goes on) in some degree of conjunction with major developers.
Communities can do great things and driven creators can do great things, and the modern era of games — at least, the idealised version of it, the hope — continually seems to be about them doing great things together. Have there been stumbles along the way? Absolutely. Will there be more? Oh definitely, from now until the end of time. And certainly, I'm interested in seeing people create things about those struggles — honest looks at the bad as well as the good.
I guess I just found The Magic Circle's main plot beats to be a little disheartening. In it, two groups of passionate people collided, and the end result was that they tore each other down, did more harm than good. Perhaps that was the point: to serve as a cautionary tale, or a story glorifying the pure act of creation despite all the baggage that might come with it. But I don't feel like gaming communities have to be baggage. When you've only got one game on the block approaching this subject matter, and its appraisal feels like a plate of doom with a side helping of gloom, it comes off as skewed. So I felt like I understood what The Magic Circle was going for, and I felt like the developers cared intensely about what they were saying, but it didn't quite speak to me.
I feel like I already know what they'd say in response to that: "Well then, go make a game that does."