Shooting with the clarity of a drunk pissing into the brown-green water of a night club’s toilet bowl, my pool game has always been effervescent. While my friends seem to play on a smooth cloth-covered table, one primed for cue sports, when it comes to my single turn (for I will rarely, if ever, bring ball to pocket), it is as if I am trying to trail Noah’s Ark across the cataclysmic seas that churned up the Earth and all its beings. Balls are spat from the table’s perimeters at the end of my cue as if it were a magician’s wand. A friend brought his goalkeeper gloves to one of our pool games once. It was a mocking joke at my expense but the gesture wasn’t out of place.
Nerial, the London-based team that created Magic Shot, must be out of their minds, then. To offer me a go at their wild take on French billiards, which warps the edges of the table into splats and distressed polygons while you play, is to put dynamite in a room with nitroglycerin and light the fuse.
As with any game of French (or carom) billiards, the idea is to strike the white cue ball so that it makes contact with both the red and yellow ball. It’s a game of pared-down challenges; trick shots, perhaps. Doing this typically requires that you rely on the angles that the table’s cushioned edges provide upon rebounding the ball. Magic Shot, quite simply, allows the table to relax its strict, rectangular form as you make your shots.
With each successive shot you make—a tune of two beats with each ball hit—the outline fidgets, or wriggles, or stretches its perpendiculars into curly squiggles. The colors around the sprawled, violent geometry also flips to give a better sense of change and progression. The cherry on top is that each one of these new shapes is assigned a city’s name, such as Swindon, or Brazzaville. These are there, it would seem, to suggest that you’re on a journey. Your vehicle is billiards, and with it you are moving between abstract top-down views of metropolitan areas, fueled by each clinking ball-to-ball marriage.
This, however, is only the beginning. More specifically, it’s a description of Magic Shot‘s “Meditation” mode. Yes, this is supposed to be relaxing. To Nerial’s credit, it kinda is: there’s no restrictions on your shots, no score to chase, you only move through the levels and at your own pace. With 2763 levels in the Meditation mode alone, it bears some of the same qualities (and appeal) that last year’s Desert Golfing does. It’s a clean, consistent, and simple take on a sport; all that needs change from level-to-level is the terrain and the position of the goal. And you can play it in short or long sessions, over a period of time, it becoming a regular habit integrated into the rest of your busy life.
Where Magic Shot deviates is in its other two game modes: Purity and Insanity. Purity is the same as Meditation except that it gives you a limited number of balls to work with. With each wasted shot you come closer to the Game Over screen. There is a score to chase here too. But Insanity mode is where it’s at. This is the invisible, tumultuous form that the pool table takes when I attempt to shift spheres over its thrashing surface. But now you can see it.
There’s a countdown timer that issues you 100 seconds to gain as many points as possible in the same way as in the other two game modes. Except here the challenge escalates as the game seems to rip itself apart. At the start, you’ll notice that the shape of the playing space warps as before but without requiring your input. It begins its arresting dance. As the seconds fall away the screen emerges as a frenzy. The table tantrums as colors bleed into each other, its bold outlines fritz into screwed-up tangles that don’t know how to stay still. By the last seconds there’s nothing you can do: the entire screen is out-of-control, hitting the zenith of its angst as it shreds everything in its grasp.
Of course, it’s all glorious to me. This is my playing field. This is where I swim, and eat, and play pool. The chaos eats at my fingertip as I pull back a line that will hit the cue ball at maximum power. I let it go and it plummets into the noise. I have no idea where the ball landed, or if it hit the red and yellow ones along the way, and it doesn’t matter. Everything is out of bounds now. This is the point at which sport resigns itself to the wonder of magic.