The Amazing American Circus Review
(Note: During the reviewers time with this game, parts of it broke over the course of review and as a result could not be fully completed).
Often, their voices have been muffled by the passage of time, the legacy of others or the very nature of the sources. But we must confront these challenges head on: give attention to forgotten lives for which we have little direct or reliable evidence; negotiate and discuss the complexities of nuanced relationships between performers and showmen and audiences; and unpack sources that often dabbled in fiction, falsity and fantasy. Frequently, the moment you think you have found the performer behind the performance, they disappear. But in this search for the performer, the culture of the period stands out and new insights appear.
– John Woolf, The Wonders: The Extraordinary Performers Who Transformed the Victorian Age
The circus was a critical signal of Western capital development in the late 1800s. With the combination of free time becoming more common among the working/middle class, and colonial capital pillaging the world for value, a mass spectacle of the exotic and unimaginable, which historically was produced for the upper class, was now becoming a form of mass entertainment. Animals that were only read about in books arrived in a parade at each town, along with performers with talents and traits exaggerated to create an othering fantasy of the performers. The tents went up, music blared throughout downtown, and a vacation-like land opened up next door.
Like all forms of entertainment under mass accumulated capitalism, the circus is a business practice that has largely been under-scrutinised for the sake of romanticizing notions of “escapism”. So many books, documentaries, and interviews have been archived to capture the “magical” nature of the circus. Meanwhile, the exhibitionists’ and workers and the animals stolen through European colonisation were rarely documented. The little documents we do have hold cruel images and memories. Take for example, the way that P.T. Barnum got his start by brutally working an elderly Black woman he owned, Joice Heth, to death and then putting her post mortem dissection on as a show. Rarely do these stories about the circus provide details of the ways animals and people alike were abused for profit.
A Circus of Images
The newly released Amazing American Circus co-developed by Klabater and Juggler Games, is set during the heyday of this circus-trending time period, and puts the player in the position as a circus manager taking over the family business. Traveling across the recently colonised cities of Western America, the player is tasked with managing the troupe’s skills, hiring on new acts, and most of all, directing a successful show.
The Amazing American Circus touts itself as an exploration of gilded age America, setting the game’s theme as a video game historical exploration in line with other titles Klabater has published in the past (We. The Revolution, Help Will Come Tomorrow, The is the Zodiac Speaking). While the game doesn’t necessarily go out of its way with a deep narrative to explore this history, it does so through what is included in the game’s Western cultural representations of history and what is excluded.
A large part of the game’s imagery and mechanics surround the actual circus performers themselves. At the start of the game the player begins with a juggler, clown, and strongman then over the course of the game more entertainers join. Some that joined me during the course of my game were the counting chicken, a mime, a trapeze artist, a Chinese mask changer, and bigfoot. While some of these entertainers are either athletic/trapeze artists or what Barnum called “humbug” acts, other entertainers are incredibly out of date forms of entertainment from the time period with harmful implications in their name and/or act. One example I found specifically appalling was receiving a misfit named “savage” as a reward for playing a number of shows.
What’s frustrating about this representation of the circus’ foundations in exoticism and othering is that it doesn’t attempt to provide information as to why these forms of entertainment were popular at the time, and how they were harmful for marginalised entertainers. Most of these characters don’t have dialogue or stories aside from quest flavor text. The only information to take away from their representations are the names that the characters are given, and the ways their mechanics in the card game function. This is why presenting characters in ways such as the “savage” reward is harmful, because there is nothing being done to learn about the flaws of dominant history and its damages. It becomes another circus, perpetuating the harm through an uncritical historical reproduction.
Power in Performance
The gameplay itself is fairly obtuse, to the point that sometimes it’s hard to even read into what is happening. Following a fairly traditional turn-based battle system, the player manages three performers through circus acts as they “battle” the audience to a victorious show. It’s a bit of a strange mapping of performance onto a battle system, in the similar way that the WWE video games feel strange as a fighting game. Performance is such a complex, unique act between the audience and performer. Perhaps the most fitting place for this battle-style performance gameplay would fit at a stand up open mic comedy hour where someone is bombing. Yet, in the context of a circus show it feels that so many forms of emotion are lost. Whether someone is afraid of clowns, lustfully desiring the bodies on display, amazed by animals unseen before, or discomforted by the exploitation of the show is all boiled down to a health bar and some status effects.
After playing the game for this review, there are still parts of the game design I didn’t understand such as “sneering” or “transfigure”. A lot of this review is focused on the representation of the game’s historical themes. Part of the reasoning for that is because it provokes criticism, but another part is that the gameplay doesn’t provide much depth nor understanding to go deeper. At some point I started playing many of my performances with the same characters and the same strategies because it always resulted in a victory.
Who writes history?
Broadly, the game’s depths of history aren’t much different from the big top. A harmonica bristles over a guitar’s rhythm as the player gazes across the cities they will take their next show to. They are responsible for choosing what their troupe eats, and spending money to discover more of the states, yet the map is an empty plane only marking American governed cities. There is very little ecology or geology to see across the country, nor any notion that these states are anything other than American owned territory, which is surprising considering this time period was at the height of the US military’s violent plundering of land still inhabited by Native Americans.
Whether it’s on our phones or in video games, maps are always political. They are constructed symbols conveying ideological information about land and people. The expression of Amazing American Circus’ map communicates that this era of America was fairly empty outside of the American occupied cities and some outliers. Sometimes a random encounter may occur along a trail where a random traveler appears, but not much else happens.
It should be noted that despite my critiques, I want to note that The Amazing American Circus isn’t doing anything uniquely egregious in its engagement of history. It is a game that presents pop cultural history: one that isn’t attempting to reveal anything new, but reproduce a dominant understanding of a time period for atmosphere and entertainment. History is as much the past as it is the understanding of our present. A historical video game prioritises and engages with contemporary agency and understanding of the past over the historical document. The Amazing American Circus is not even a historical document, but a media text taking the form of a video game.