The late, great Garry Shandling didn't invent meta humour, but he did perfect its two primary forms. In his '80s sitcom It's Garry Shandling's Show, which was so meta that even the theme song was about being a theme song, he played a character named Garry Shandling, who was aware he was in a sitcom. Then he upped the self-referential sophistication, Muppet Show-style, with Larry Sanders, a TV show about the making of a TV show.
Such meta-comedy has been percolating through pop culture pretty much ever since, most recently in the film smash Deadpool. But even that brilliant Marvel movie's deconstruction pales next to the most meta videogame ever, The Magic Circle: Gold Edition, which uses both meta tropes to comment on gaming from the perspective of a developer.
Migrating to PS4 after last year's Steam release, the polished-up indie goes beyond fourth-wall-breaking by making the player a play-tester and setting itself inside an unfinished game, with the end goal of literally finishing it so that it's not another vaporware corpse.
The Magic Circle was created by Question — a micro-studio comprised of apparently traumatized triple-A vets from the BioShock series and Dishonoured — as a razor-sharp satire about the challenges of game development. The whole industry takes its shots, including ego-driven designers and entitled gamers — we are told in the story that they don't care about story.
The game-within-a-game, also called The Magic Circle, is an open-world RPG "reimagining" of a cult classic text adventure series — totally coincidentally like how BioShock was a spiritual successor of the early '90s game System Shock — that has been trapped in development hell for almost 20 years.
According to the fake game's fake website, creator Ishmael "Ish" Gilder (voiced by The Venture Bros.' James Urbaniak and possibly riffing on their BioShock boss, Irrational Games' Ken Levine) wants The Magic Circle to be "a genre-obliterating first person epic" and "a cutting-edge 4D graphical re-imagining." (The 4D part is a crowdfunding-mocking stretch goal.)
But once the game starts, with a cold open to a white-board presentation where Ish is explaining the game's artsy cold open, we realize that the alleged genius, who refers to the game as his "life's work," is actually an emotionally unstable egomaniac. That's why pro-gamer-turned-creative-director Maze Evelyn just wants to make something people will actually play, albeit mostly so it's finished and she can get the hell away from her former idol. Meanwhile, intern Coda Soliz turns out to be a purist superfan working surreptitiously with the original game's fevered following to keep it as close to the original as possible.
These characters appear as in-game eye avatars squabbling over art style, level design and creative direction and diminishing the odds of getting a demo ready in time for an E3-like game conference called E4.
You play a QA game-tester going through an unfinished, still black & white build of Magic Circle when what appears to be a rogue AI from an earlier version wanting revenge on designers, the "Sky Bastards," gives you access to the dev tools. And that's the actual game, an environmental puzzler.
You become a meta developer trying to hack together something playable by reprogramming the various parts that have been coded over the past two decades. You can reassign attributes so that, say, an attack dog becomes your BFF, or a mushroom can fly and shoot fire. You actually learn how to program by leaving the fantasy world to enter an old, 32-bit-era sci-fi build that's basically the game's back-end.
There have been other games about the games industry, most notably Kairosoft's But if you pirated the game, then your game-within-a-game will lose money to piracy. Or games that know they're games, like Tearaway, which has the tiny protagonist addressing you directly — as "the You" — and allows your fingers, and even your breath, to appear in the game itself as part of the control scheme. And BioShock Infinite gets pretty meta at the end as you discover that your player has less agency than you believed, in a dig at linear game design.
But Magic Circle also adds in some well-earned irony. Despite being about rebooting a retro franchise — and meta-fiction's reliance on referencing itself and/or its making being often criticized as unoriginal — Question's game is one of the most creative and unique experiences you can play right now.