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Video games have the power to tell amazing stories through their very nature, interactivity driving narratives in ways no other medium can. They can also be a vessel for stories that could easily fit onto the page of a book, or into the running time of a TV drama, where the decisions of the player are only of minimal importance. That’s what Virgina, Firewatch, and even the likes of The Last of Us and Uncharted provide: compelling stories, absolutely, that keep you hooked throughout, directed by stick twists and button presses and ultimately only offering an illusion of agency. No, you can’t spare the doctors. Yes, Joel is kind of the bad guy.
Watch a trailer for South of the Circle below
South of the Circle is such a game, a narrative adventure with its setting split between the lives and loves of Cambridge academics and an unfolding conspiracy in the frigid extremes of Antarctica. Developed by State of Play, a British studio with BAFTA wins to its name, and published by 11 bit studios (This War of Mine, Frostpunk), its credentials are immaculate. Its acting talent has experience of major motion pictures and big-budget television productions and the dialogue is exceptional, each performance pitch perfect as every whisper of fear or flush of affection arrives with affecting sincerity. Visually it’s incredibly striking, bold flat colours and a kind of film grain mixing to mesmerising effect - even if the animation sometimes feels like ropey 1990s rotoscoping and there’s some unfortunately exaggerated clipping. And the plot of South of the Circle is fantastic, its Cold War-era mysteries unravelling at exactly the right pace across its four-hour duration.
And yet, this is still a video game - and what you do, as the player, in South of the Circle is extremely limited. Playing as Peter, exploring either a series of abandoned bases in the frozen south or picturesque public houses in the British countryside, you walk a little and talk a lot, with dialogue options not written out as specific reactions but based around different sentiments, each of which has a specific icon attached. When you’re asked a question, it might be that three options present themselves: a red circle means panic, concern and confusion; a grey-green rectangle assertiveness and strength; and a sun-like design enthusiasm and curiosity. Elsewhere there’s a caring option, and one for negativity, but you never truly feel in complete control of how Peter is conducting himself with this broad-brushstrokes interface.
On one hand this encourages some replay value as there are a handful of key decisions that impact scenes at the end, but on the other there’s no meaningful change to impress upon the story as it’s meant to end a certain way, at least in its present (and isn’t memory a funny thing, so eager to remember things too kindly). And that’s fine, not a complaint but more an observation for anyone looking at this and hoping for more in the way of their decisions meaning more than minor deviations. And while walking - stick controls are imprecise, betraying this game’s roots as a previous Apple Arcade exclusive (but Switch users can take advantage of the touch screen) - stepping off the beaten track is impossible. You move Peter to very clearly designated destinations, any poking around for Soviet secrets deemed unnecessary - well, it is bloody freezing out - and items to interact with designed so as to be easy to spot, popping with contrast against their backgrounds.
The most important person to Peter throughout the story is Clara, who he meets on a train and forms a relationship with - initially strictly professional, but it soon enough evolves into something else. Together they work on a scientific paper looking at weather patterns and how clouds move around the world; and from there Peter’s seniors at Cambridge and certain departments of the British government take an interest in the pair’s work, for reasons I’m not about to spoil here. With its 1960s setting, Peter’s peers and friends have a very cold appreciation of Clara’s contributions, to say the least; and flashbacks to Peter’s childhood are loaded with attitudes towards women and parenting that are outdated and offensive today. Some of what’s said and done is quite uncomfortable, but these cultural norms of the time help to centre the story in its historical place and give it greater emotional weight.
It says a lot about the strength of South of the Circle’s narrative that I found myself Googling for information about its events, to see how much was based in the truth of the time as global superpowers traded menacing glances and threatened a full-blown nuclear war. I even looked up the Mini on treads seen in promo imagery and found out it was a real thing, the Mini-Trac, of which three in total were made and only one used by the British in Antarctica. The deeper you play, the more concept art and research photos are unlocked as extras, which illustrates the effort the team at State of Play put in so as to get the atmosphere - oppressive, deadly, and beautiful - of the world’s only (mostly) uninhabited continent just right. Again, the dedication that’s gone into this game is there on screen, in the script, in the wonderful way that it all clicks in its final 30 minutes and the clues that you didn’t pick up on before blink into brilliant light-bulb-moment realisation.
But again, this is a video game. And it has its exclusively video game-y issues. Some will look at that four-hour length and feel it doesn’t represent value for money (even with the game priced at under £12), and that’s their prerogative, even if I’m very much not in the camp of games satisfaction being based on an hours per pounds equation. There are also a couple of bugs that I encountered, but State of Play is aware of these and patches will be released (plus, nothing was especially game breaking). The controls can be fiddly, no character can hold anything right (cups, pens, guns, these hands are all over the place, which does break immersion), and those sentiment-based responses are a design decision that will be divisive. I think it somewhat undermines how you want to play Peter - you might think you’re going to offer support to Clara only to accidentally put her down - although these exchanges always resolve themselves in the way that’s correct to the game and its outcome.
South of the Circle is a thought-provoking narrative adventure that fans of this genre of low-interaction-but-high-storyline-satisfaction will adore, and like Firewatch I would absolutely read the novelisation of it. (Can someone make that happen, please?) I took so many screenshots, so gorgeous is this game at times, and any release that has me seeking wider context for its setting and events is a good one. But it has enough fiddliness, enough tiny faults, for the overall impression to be of excellence fallen just short of. If you’re someone who enjoys a twist in the tail of a love story that you know is built on weak foundations, who relishes reveals that take their time but lose no potency in doing so, and don’t mind that the game side of the experience is a little patchy, then this is for you. Anyone else, know what you’re getting into before venturing out into these wilds - more so than our Peter ever does, anyway.
Pros: fantastic story, beautiful art, excellent performances
Cons: some fiddly and imprecise controls, dialogue system doesn’t always satisfy
For fans of: Virginia, Firewatch, If Found...
7/10: Very Good
South of the Circle is released for PC, PlayStation 4 and 5, Xbox One and Series consoles, and Nintendo Switch (version tested) on August 3. Review code provided by the publisher. Find a guide to GAMINGbible’s review scores here.
Featured Image Credit: 11 bit studios
Topics: Indie Games
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