Magic doesn't have to be the workaday, taken for granted thing it often becomes in games, a mere tool for a purpose, not really any different than a sword or a key. In the Night Circus, a game advertising the new book of the same title, players are encouraged to appreciate the wonder, the enchantment of a world where an illusionist's cloak becomes ravens and a dragon on a carousel just might be alive, all entwined with the lure of the circus. Made in a collaboration between the novelist Erin Morgenstern and Failbetter Games, the team behind the similarly text-based and Twitter/Facebook-linked Echo Bazaar, the Night Circus is a trip into the dazzling black, white, and red world of the rêveurs, those who follow after a mysterious circus which vanishes and reappears all over the world, and a brief tour of the possible stories lurking there.
Compared to Echo Bazaar, the game is much more streamlined. Because the game is paid for by Random House as an advertisement for the novel, there are no microtransactions or turn limits. The Night Circus is entirely played with a deck of cards, which has a limit of six cards at a time and which refills at a rate of one card per four minutes. Simply click on the deck to deal a bank of up to three cards, and click on those cards to make choices and explore the first performance.
You'll be given goals of things to find, and as you progress, you'll collect mementos, a fittingly ambiguous term as they can be either items or memories, things like a feather from an angel's wing or a chunk of iced gingerbread, but also sweet sorrows, shivers down your spine, and even profound joy. Occasionally mementos themselves can be used; if that's the case, they'll have a red border. You'll eventually find a card that will allow you to leave the first performance if you choose. At the time of this review, only two performances are available, but it appears that at least four will be available eventually.
You must connect a Twitter or Facebook account in order to play the game at all, including one forced Tweet or status update. The only way to increase in rank is to invite people to join via your diary, and some choices can only be taken by those of a certain rank, so those who cannot entice roughly ten people to join via that link will be completely shut out of a certain amount of content. Since their goal is to increase exposure of the book the game is based on, it's an understandable decision, but they might have considered the ill-feeling it might cause in players who don't wish to spam their Twitter or Facebook friends with invitations to apps. Of course, if that's the case, you can always create a dummy account for either Twitter or Facebook solely for playing, just as many chose to do with Echo Bazaar. (Feel free to post your username in the comments if you're looking for friends!)
That major drawback aside, the world of the Night Circus is a place well worth exploring. The artwork is striking in its engraving-like simplicity, enlivened here and there with a touch of color. Yet fittingly for a book-inspired game, the true beauty is in the prose and the imagery that you create in your own imagination. By turns elegant, mystical, adorable, fantastic, ornate, and even delicious ("That popcorn needs eating more than any popcorn in all the histories of all the kingdoms of the earth."), it will pique your curiosity as effectively as it satisfies your craving for the most beautiful imagery of all: that which you see with your mind's eye.