Expanding the "Magic Circle"
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The “magic circle” presents this idea where video games build a world that the player engages with to the extent of blurring the line between our world and fictional ones. Whereas everyone understands the fundamental aspects of the real world, such as the rules of physics, the digital worlds we create often contradict those rules (with exceptions). This is one of the core reasons why people enjoy playing games. They offer escapism in ways that our own world could never truly achieve. This begs the question then - as game designers, how can we improve the magic circle?
The first solution could be improved graphics like what we see in modern AAA titles. By adding those strikingly realistic models and environments, the line between worlds easily dissolves. This improvement has occurred for decades though in the industry, as seeing better graphics has become more of an expectation than a method of innovating the magic circle experience.
The next solution could be found in new gaming technologies such as VR/AR. Placing the player into the world through spatial means causes us to easily get lost in the magic circle. It is even more fitting that you can look in all directions in these games, granted it is more of a magic sphere, but the idea still stands! The issue though is that not every game can (or should) translate into VR/AR. It is a new tool for developers to explore and has opened up some incredible opportunities, essentially an entirely new art form. It should not be needed for every game to expand on the magic circle.
This leaves us with a final solution - digging into the “meta” magic circle. Picture it as a magic circle within another magic circle (circle-ception). One solid example is “Stardew Valley,” where the player takes on the role of a farmer and develops relationships with the town’s inhabitants. In this case, the first magic circle that you, the human, enter is a foreign countryside land realistically made by pixels and ripe for exploration. We enter this magic circle by controlling the character with physical devices and interacting with the in-game world, which is largely a one-way communication.
A meta magic circle approach then, aims to create smaller magic circles within a larger one. In Stardew Valley, the player can opt to play mini-games inside a community tavern through arcade machines. Here, the fictional character enters its own magic circle within that fictional universe. This creates a level of abstraction where the character can dip in and out of the smaller magic circles to give additional depth to the world. At the real-world level, our physical controls not only move around the environment now, but also seamlessly work to transition between in-game moments. In other words, we the player are the ones who decide what inner magic circles the in-game character enters.
Having games within a game is not the only option though, especially as it has been present in dozens of games over the decades. Another option is to make worlds feel more “lived in” by the characters. This leans into the topic of believable NPCs as many of these characters appear to exist around the player. It is difficult to make them feel like they have their own lives and agendas. To achieve a meta magic circle, we would not just assign schedules to NPCs. Inside each random list of tasks there would be a multitude of ways that the environment changes. Note that these changes are not initiated by the player since that is already a core part of gameplay.
Going back to the tavern example, we could have NPCs that place cups and furniture in different parts of the tavern. Then, based on where items are there the next day, the owner of the tavern has a new list of potential actions caused by other NPCs. When the player finally enters the tavern again, both them AND the in-game character have meta realizations that something has changed.
Indeed, this adds a ton of complexity for developers because it presents dozens of states to account for over time. The changes can be small though. Maybe when a player enters an NPCs house at different times of the day, various dishes, bedsheets, etc… have moved around. The player gets to enjoy additional depth to gameplay, and the in-game character finds themselves in a world that does not necessarily revolve around them. None of these concepts are necessarily new, but I think they are important to consider if we want to continue pushing the boundaries of game development.
Games offer an escape by allowing us to extend what is possible within our own world through the abilities, emotions, and experiences of digital worlds. To take this further as developers, we can consider how the ties between our physical actions allow our in-game characters to escape into their own worlds. Our characters can have feelings too and we have the potential to shape how they view their digital worlds through our own actions!