To where do games go when they are left unfinished? Apparently, not as far away as you’d think
Let’s be honest here; playing video games can be pretty hard work sometimes. Between lengthy storylines, countless collectables, and long lists of achievements (and we all know that the list doesn’t stop there), gamers can really have their work cut out for them whenever they dig into a new adventure. It seems that, on top of all of that, we always want more; more stories, more levels, more abilities, more games in general. It’s easy for us to quickly tire of what is set in front of us and demand something new (sometimes without even finishing what’s already on our metaphorical dinner plate) and, while in the midst of this excitement, we just kind of expect it to happen without really thinking of the whys and hows. When games are finished they are neatly and proudly presented to us, yet what we are viewing is but the pinnacle of the development process. That new game didn’t come out of nowhere; it was only created because a team of individuals decided to dedicate a countless amount of time, money, and sometimes even personal sacrifices in order to create something from the ground up. The creative process is a painstakingly long one, any many games end up never seeing the light of day. What exactly happens to those games, anyway? Why do some games succeed while others fail? Why does it sometimes take so long to develop a video game? There are many things in the world of video games that we as gamers take for granted that we perhaps should not, and many things that we do not consider. Enter The Magic Circle: Gold Edition.
The Magic Circle: Gold Edition is an updated version of Question’s 2015 game The Magic Circle, and before I get any further into the review I’m going to clarify a few things for everyone’s sake. The game The Magic Circle: Gold Edition is about you the player playtesting a game. This game that you are “playtesting” is also known as The Magic Circle. For the sake of clarity I will be referring to The Magic Circle: Gold Edition, the game that you can actually purchase on the PlayStation 4, as Gold Edition from here on out. Likewise, I will reserve the use of the title The Magic Circle to exclusively refer to the game within the game; the metagame, if you will. I really hope that all of that makes sense.
Gold Edition puts players in control of, well, themselves (the game will actually refer to you by your PSN name, which is a pretty cool feature) as they playtest The Magic Circle; a game that has been in development so long that it beats out Duke Nukem Forever in terms of development time. Though excited at the prospect of what 20 years of hard work has lead to, you soon find out that it hasn’t really lead to much of anything; the world’s largely unfinished, nothing’s colored in, there aren’t even proper characters and animations implemented, and the list goes on. There isn’t much time to ponder that though, because you are soon given a sword by your dying… mother, I think… and are set out vanquish the evil that has rained down destruction upon your unsuspecting town! At last, you can playtest The Magic Circle; the game that has been in development for so long! …Or so you think. Before you can even get out of the burning building in which you were given your trusty sword, two giant floating mechanical eyeballs come down, take your sword away, and begin arguing with one another. It seems as though you have found the reason behind this game’s lack of progression. You see, these floating monstrosities aren’t new monsters in fact, they’re not even an actual part of the game. No, they’re developers; and it seems as though they can’t agree on anything long enough to even let a player play their game.
Though The Magic Circle is set up as a Fantasy RPG (with some Sci-Fi here and there), Gold Edition is, in fact, a first-person puzzle/platformer. Sure there are creatures here and there, some puzzles, and a bit of lore, but none of it actually works properly. Rather, as a playtester-turned-hacker, it is up to you to take apart and put back together various parts (namely the creatures within the world) of The Magic Circle in order to see just exactly how it works and, ultimately make the game your own. Early on you are given the ability to hack into the data of each creature within the meta-world and rewrite any and all basic processes as you see fit. Need to get across lava? How about making a creature both loyal to your command and fireproof? Is there something cool-looking on that ledge way up there? Slap on a propeller or teleporter to a creature, and you’re golden. Gold Edition is all about solving orthodox puzzles in rather unorthodox manners. Most of us have had those “oh if I could only just jump over there” moments; those moments when we come up with a new solution that almost works, or does work but perhaps shouldn’t. The ability to design and create your own solutions to the problems-at-hand is incredibly enjoyable, perhaps a feature that isn’t utilized as often as it should be. Fortunately, Gold Edition utilizes this feature both often and well.
Apart from the creature creation-based puzzle solving, the rest of Gold Edition‘s gameplay involves exploring the fragmented world within The Magic Circle. Though there are a fair amount of puzzles, much of the gameplay involves making sure to search every single nook and cranny in order to get as much of the story as possible. The story is fed to you through conversations and monologues in a steady stream of bite-size pieces that satisfy you, but always still leave you at least a little bit hungry for more. More of the backstory can also be uncovered through things such as development diaries and staff notes and are usually quite entertaining, which is a good thing because the exploration can get a little boring at times. The creature hacking was such a unique and enjoyable feature and was well-done whenever it was implemented, so it was kind of a shame to see the game dip into “walking simulator” territory at somewhat frequent intervals.
Gold Edition is very much a story-driven game. While gameplay is, of course, an integral part of it, it’s pretty safe to say that some of what may end up driving you to finish this adventure is to see just exactly what happens. Though definitely quite satirical, the story of Gold Edition ultimately follows the game development process from the viewpoints of five different characters with each character representing a large portion of the gamer community and consisting of the player (you), the developer, the Superfan, the “Pro Gamer”, and the game itself. Each vantage point is not only unique from every other, but also does a fairly good job at accurately depicting how a typical member of that community may feel and act. Unfortunately, the game does get preachy at times, and even seems to attempt to dip into political correctness here and there. The game, above all else, is intended to be satirical. While it does successfully portray this most of the time, I must say that it did seem to cross out of the realm of satire here and there in what appeared to be an attempt to “get real”. Fortunately this didn’t happen too much and was largely something able to be ignored and, while I won’t spoil anything, getting to the ending makes everything worth it. Being a largely cerebral game overall however, the “getting real” moments could even be cleverly-disguised satire; it’s just hard to say. Any way you look at it though, the writing of Gold Edition is definitely an example of “not being able to make an omelette without breaking a few eggs”.
While there may be some dispute here and there on the nature of the game’s commentary, I would guess it safe to say that the way in which it was delivered was absolutely phenomenal. Gold Edition features an all-star cast of voice actors that includes James Urbaniak, Ashly Burch, Karen Dyer, and Stephen Russel. Even if you don’t know those names by heart, I can guarantee that you have heard most, if not all of them at least once. Developer Question spared no expense when it came to the quality of the voice acting, and it really shows.
While not as “all-star” as the voice acting, the audio within Gold Edition also held up quite well. While many of the tracks were relatively standard (though pleasant, nonetheless), it was what the game did with some of the tracks that made things interesting. Rather than sticking to entirely synthetic soundtracks many games, especially those in Fantasy genres, tend to feature live recordings of artists or orchestras. Gold Edition also did this, but did so with a wildly clever twist. Nothing within The Magic Circle is finished, and that includes the audio. While music would begin quite normally with strings and brassy swells all befitting of a Fantasy game, it would soon come to a halt as a member of the band would begin talking about someone coming in too early or a song not sounding right. While it caught me off guard, I very much appreciated what the soundtrack ended up doing as it definitely made the “incomplete game” feel come full circle.
The visuals, of course, were as equally befitting of that “game-in-progress” feel as the audio. While all designed well, nothing had color, and much of the world did not have proper textures. While on paper this may come across as sounding lazy, it was actually implemented within the game quite well. The seamless transition from “current-gen Fantasy game” to “Sci-Fi game of the 90s” was also done very, very well. The ability to mix and match creatures and parts from both genres seamlessly was also quite enjoyable.
Gold Edition is a very unique experience overall, and is not without its faults. I would definitely not say that this is a game for everyone. It is largely artistic, and takes a very dry and satirical look at the video game industry; that isn’t something that everyone is going to like. Yet, despite any shortcomings, Gold Edition is definitely a positive experience overall, with its unique puzzle-solving mechanics, clever audio/visual experience, and excellently-voiced narrative all coming out on top. It tried to be something unique, perhaps something that had never been done before, and seemed to largely succeed – all without being apologetic.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: PlayStation 4 (Reviewed) ; Publisher: Question ; Developer: Question ; Players: 1; Released: April 26, 2016; Genre: Adventure ; MSRP: $19.99
Full disclosure: This review was written based on a PS4 review code supplied by the game’s publisher.