In The Magic Circle by Jenny Davidson, friends and roommates Lucy and Ruth are joined by a neighbor down the hall, Anna, in putting together a virtual reality game designed to take place in the Morningside Heights neighborhood surrounding Columbia University as it appeared in the 1880s. Players will be led through a series of events and challenges, needing to accomplish each in order to receive the clue needed to move on to the next challenge.
Early on, however, the idea starts getting kicked around about what would happen if, instead of remaining a sterile online experience, the game was brought to life via live-action role-playing instead? Wouldn’t that make things more interesting, more absorbing? If people were playing “for real” instead of nestled behind their computers or smartphones, wouldn’t that raise the stakes? Perhaps, if the game was done well enough, even challenge people to question what was real and what was just role-playing?
More than they could ever possibly have imagined.
Perhaps I just wasn’t the target audience, but The Magic Circle didn’t do much for me. Though I’m admittedly not really into gaming of any kind, the premise sounded very intriguing and I had high hopes for it, but I just never really connected with either the characters or the scenario as it played out.
I found the characters to be fairly self-contradictory in their behavior. On the one hand, they are all post-graduate academics who are presented as very intelligent–a fact arguably overly demonstrated by their exceedingly formal speech patterns and liberal use of fifty-cent words even when having supposedly casual conversations amongst themselves. On the other hand, the dorm-like atmosphere of their living arrangements, complete with copious consumption of alcohol, played out like the young women were freshmen away from home for the first time run amok. It was too jarring a contrast for my liking.
I also never really bought into the live-action role-playing gaming aspect of the story. I had a hard time believing that supposedly highly intelligent people would get sucked so completely into a fictional scenario that things could go as far off the rails as they end up going, a problem I also had with Will Lavender’s Obedience.
I do appreciate what Davidson was going for–an exploration of how the darker aspects of human nature can cause lines between make believe and reality to blur when people have a chance to act out–and perhaps other readers will be more willing to let go and go with the flow with regard to the believability of the characters’ behavior. So if you’re a gamer and/or the premise sounds good to you, do give it go.
The Magic Circle is available from New Harvest (ISBN: 978-0544028098).
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