The phrase “the game is making itself as you play” is one I’ve heard used in a joking manner when a game shows unusual quirks, like textures loading in slowly, or AI characters not noticing you properly. This phrase was the catalyst for my discovery of an odd little chestnut by the name of The Magic Circle, developed by Question.
In a rather meta example of storytelling, The Magic Circle is a game about a game called The Magic Circle. Originally a popular text-based sci-fi adventure, the newest addition to the series has been trapped in development Hell for years due to the hubris of its creator and the reluctance of his staff and colleagues. Despite a devoted fan following and an announced appearance at a convention, the developers have absolutely nothing to show for their work. As a beta tester, you are contacted by a sentient AI character trapped in a previous version of the game, who grants you access to the game’s inner-workings and code, encouraging you to finish the game so he can finally leave, or at least break it to the point that he won’t be trapped in the code anymore.
In order to progress, you’ll have to literally break the game in any way you can think of. You can hack NPCs and objects to change their behavior, ability, and parameters to create a variety of minions to do your bidding. Any command can be picked up from an NPC and placed onto another one to modify them. For example, by lifting a movement command from a dead NPC and applying it to an inanimate glowing mushroom, I brought it to life, and by making it loyal to the player character, I got it to follow me, essentially creating a mobile flashlight. And that was just something I did for giggles. The puzzle structure is so open-ended that any solution you think you can get away with is probably feasible, based on the logic that you’re hacking the game and doing things you shouldn’t be able to to begin with.
Obviously, designing a game doesn’t really work like that, but it’s a good metaphor for how difficult building a game from scratch can be. Aside from having genuinely fun and clever puzzle design, The Magic Circle (the real one) has impressive storytelling through audio logs and leftover dev notes. Admittedly, audio logs isn’t always the best way to convey a story, but it definitely works here, showing the rapid descent of excited colleagues at the beginning of a project to bitter rivals desperate for a way off the staff. There’s nuances here I can’t really convey well without telling the entire story, so I’ll just say give it a try yourself. since the game is currently available on Steam. The game is a bit on the short side, but if you’re feeling ambitious, you can try a second run to see if you can devise other ways to solve puzzles.