The Magic Circle, announced today, is a PC remake of a 1980s text adventure. The new game is being developed by the original game's author, Ishmael Gilder, who promises to "bring everything you have ever imagined to life." Except he doesn't actually promise that, because Ishmael Gilder doesn't exist. Neither does the 1980s text adventure on which the game is purportedly based. The Magic Circle isn't a remake at all. It's a game about game development, set in a half-complete game full of glitches, bugs, and remnants of half-formed ideas.
The (real-world) player controls The Magic Circle's hero. The hero is the only person left that can work toward completing the game's development, as its overly ambitious creators bicker and argue among themselves about the art style, assets, and direction of their game. You're helped on your travels by a disembodied head called "Old Pro." It's Old Pro, who assumes the frequent changes made to his world are the work of meddling gods, who teaches you how to interact with the environment by using a magic circle. Enemies and objects can be ensnared inside a glowing ring, an action that allows the hero to alter their programming.
Eurogamer describes a simple interaction in which the hero captures a small four-legged creature in their circle. The hero changes its commands, altering its behavior so "[THE HERO]" switches from "enemy" to "ally." Once reprogrammed, the creature follows the player around, attacking any threats it spots along the way. This interaction allows the hero to change the world they've been born to inhabit, but there's a finite limit to how often the magic circle can be used: each deployment drains some of the player's life bar.
Players reprogram enemies using a magic circle
This most meta of games is the work of Question Games, a group of three designers, all of whom have experience working on "immersive sims" — expansive, exploration-focused games such as Thief 3, BioShock, and Dishonored. Among their number is Jordan Thomas, who designed BioShock's standout level Fort Frolic, in addition to acting as creative director on BioShock 2. Speaking to Eurogamer, Thomas explained why the 3-man team decided to "remake" a fake game. "Candidly, it also just struck me as funny to engage in one of these quixotically ambitious, eternally revised projects from the game's eye view."
Immersive sims such as Deus Ex are characterised by their freedom of approach. Players can solve puzzles and problems in a variety of ways, a feature Thomas suggests will be carried over into The Magic Circle. Such games also well-known for their audio logs: diary entries strewn around the game world that offer some illumination as to the universe the player is inhabiting. Eurogamer describes one such log in The Magic Circle that explains the (fictional) remake has been in development for two decades. Thomas says it's clear the game's designers can't be relied upon to finish their game. "You are not in good hands, that the game's designers do not have your back this time. You're going to have to un-FUBAR the world yourself."
Everything about The Magic Circle relies on you as a player. Even the game's marketing efforts — its website, its developers' Twitter accounts, even its trailer — are angled as if the game is a bona fide remake. Thomas says he once saw game developers as "larger than life," infallible types who could conjure up an entire universe and convince him to live there for a time. "The truth," about which The Magic Circle intends to speak, "is far more flawed, far more human — and I would argue more interesting."