Having talked about The Beginner’s Guide and The Magic Circle individually, I want to talk about them in conjunction. In many ways these games are synchronous, but also quite disparate.
I don’t really like being so harsh on The Beginner’s Guide, partly because it did move me when I played it. I don’t want to criticize games that function as “walking simulators,” because observation itself can be an interesting mechanic, and I don’t want to imply that the game didn’t have an effect on me, because it did. But I can’t really tell where the Beginner’s Guide intended to go because it gets so wrapped up in itself. The game pulls out its revelation much too late, with too little chance to digest or reflect. The game becomes a trap: on the one hand, to relate and interpret based off of the designer’s intent seems to go against the message of the game; on the other hand, playing the game without interpretation or interaction with the characters seems nihilistic.
The Magic Circle has a few traps too, but they exist on a more aesthetic & mechanical (rather than ideological) level. In The Magic Circle you are supposedly playing a broken game full of glitches and bugs. To some degree this lets the designers save face with shortcuts and other potential bugs: if the player finds a bug, or something doesn’t interact quite how it is supposed too, then it is entirely appropriate within the game world. But to assume that this produces true laziness on the part of the developers is a misunderstanding: just check the still-active update log.
This is what resonates with me: The Magic Circle seems to be willing to give us – the player/critic – a solution to the stagnancy and frustration of the games industry. The Beginner’s Guide just leaves us with a nervous breakdown. This is the problem: while The Magic Circle, with all its comedic bluster and snark, may seem like a lazier or more superficial game when compared to the quiet intensity of The Beginner’s Guide, I actually think that The Magic Circle does a superior job of commenting on the interactions of developers and fans. As cliché as it might seem, I am reminded of the apocryphal T. Roosevelt “quote”: “complaining about a problem without proposing a solution is called whining.” Perhaps that’s unfair to Davey Wreden, but after the emotional sting of The Beginner’s Guide wears off, and I’m left to think about the game with a clear head, it occurs to me that there’s nothing I can relate to. I mean really relate to. Sure, I’ve felt creative frustrations, and I’ve felt like people misinterpret my work, but there’s nothing I can really do about that. There’s only so far you can go trying to justify a piece of art, but plenty you can do to explain art. It’s like it never occurred to The Beginner’s Guide that someone could just shrug and keep going on as they were before. It demands revelation but only points out symptoms of the problem. The Magic Circle’s solution is, perhaps, far-fetched. Not everyone will be able to just make a game, but it is still a solution and it is a solution that is empowering.
I still wont say that The Beginner’s Guide is a bad game, but I think it thinks too highly of itself for it’s authenticity and honesty. It tries to add depth, but it doesn’t seem to hold up under close scrutiny. It sticks with me, but it doesn’t really change me. If anything, I walked away feeling more certain of my methods of interpretation and analysis.
The Magic Circle is overly ambitious, short, and a bit too snide sometimes, but it’s message is perhaps even more honest than The Beginner’s Guide because it speaks candidly. It doesn’t get wrapped up in its own ambiguities and narrative deconstructions. It has more faith in the player as a person and as a member of the gaming community.
Both of these games have traps, but, all things considered, I like the trap of The Magic Circle a whole lot more. At least in that trap, I can change the game for myself.