I first encountered the idea of the “magic circle” at a games studies conference, where it was described as the boundary between what happens in a game and what happens in the real world. The things you do inside a magic circle are assigned special meaning and special rules that they wouldn’t have if you weren’t playing.
If you want to learn more about the magic circle, search engines may be confounded by the existence of The Magic Circle, a video game about video games. And yes, that’s what I’m here to talk about as well. I do not aspire to write games reviews, so this is in the realm of commentary, including spoilers.
The Magic Circle is about making video games, or failing to. You’re dropped into a game that has been trapped in development hell for decades, and suffered through multiple crowdfunding attempts. It’s impossible to get anywhere by following the rules, because the project director and lead designer had an argument over whether there should be combat, and now you don’t have a sword. Instead you get around by reprogramming enemies and objects, trying to get them to do what you want them to.
The main conflict is between the needs of the story and the needs of gameplay. Gameplay requires player freedom, while story requires more of a script. Video games often resolve this by alternating between the two, giving players freedom sometimes, but eventually funneling them through a series of story checkpoints. And if you give players too much freedom (for example, by giving you a sword with which to kill important NPCs), the checkpoints won’t make sense.
However, the story/gameplay conflict goes beyond the freedom/script conflict dealt with in The Magic Circle. I also see the same conflict in board games. In the world of strategy board games there are two big genres–American-style games and Eurogames. American games emphasize what we call “theme”, meaning that they’re all about what they represent (e.g. fighting elder gods or space battles). Eurogames are all about strategy and replayability. American-style games (sometimes called Ameritrash) are criticized for being overly complicated and sacrificing a sense of balance and good design just to provide a little atmosphere. Eurogames are criticized for having thin and bland themes that could easily be exchanged for any other.
But it would be wrong to say that American games suffers from too little freedom, and Eurogames too much. Quite the opposite. Usually American-style games have so many branching choices and paths that they don’t really seem balanced properly. It’s the American board games which give players the freedom to bring up their sword and eliminate other players, even though player elimination is a terrible game mechanic. Based on this example, it’s tempting for me to say that the dichotomy between freedom and script is entirely wrong.
With that aside, The Magic Circle operates under the assumptions that are typical to western video games and their players. That is, better play means more freedom, and better story means more constraints, and a better game is all about negotiating between the two. Thus the glut of gigantic open world RPGs in the industry. Within these assumptions, the players and the writers are locked in a power struggle, as each seeks to control the virtual world. This is represented literally in The Magic Circle.
The player eventually wins, because of course they have to. This involves embarrassing the project director at his live demo event, and taking the project out of his hands. He delivers a spirited rant against the power-hungry player, but he’s a terribly unsympathetic character that we’re not inclined to agree with.
Then, players are given the ultimate freedom. They are given the task of designing the next game. I thought this was brilliant, because it gives players a taste of what it’s like to be on the other side, and allows them to form their own impressions.
Perhaps some other players felt it was awesome, but I was taken aback, and then dismayed (although I thought it was great that the game evoked these feelings so well). I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on at first, so I tried programming in a few (not really) clever puzzles that I imagined the player would have to think through. Instead, the player is controlled by a simplistic AI who enjoys mindless combat more than anything else. I eventually coaxed the AI to enjoy such things as exploration and teamwork, but mostly I felt the player was kind of stupid. This is by design, of course, but no doubt real game designers often feel the same way about real players.
What does this say about player freedom? Maybe I don’t really want freedom?