Narrative-focused games have always been a favorite of mine, whether the gameplay involves shooting space aliens or the dramatic opening of doors and picking up of everyday household objects. I’m drawn to story first and foremost, which made South of the Circle, with its Cold War era love story, an easy game for me to enjoy.
South of the Circle has you play as Peter Hamilton, a sometimes awkward, sometimes flirtatious, always nerdy climate studies researcher. The game bounces between the present tense where Peter is fighting for survival in Antarctica after a plane crash and Peter’s past, which mostly revolves around his relationship with fellow Cambridge lecturer Clara. After a meet-cute on a train, they develop a relationship that forms the crux of South of the Circle.
While the narrative is mostly linear – you won’t have to worry about numerous branching pathways – there are still key moments where you, as Peter, can make decisions that direct the course of Peter and Clara’s relationship. The main conflict that arises is a classic dilemma plenty of couples will face – career or love? Me, being the giant sap that I am, placed Clara over everything during my roughly three-and-half-hours playthrough. I enjoyed putting the focus of the game on the burgeoning love between Peter and Clara and exploring both the complex and nuanced emotions of the two academics in the 1960s.
There’s a lot of emotional intelligence in South of the CIrcle, which really endeared me to the characters. One of my favorite examples of the emotional complexities on display in the game is in a scene where Clara opens up to Peter about the death of her brother. While still mourning his passing, she also admits to a gratefulness at him being gone. With her now being her father’s only child, she was able to receive the love, attention, and passion for academics her father wouldn’t have given her had her brother still been around. It was a startling revelation, and a prime example of the type of emotional storytelling State of Play excelled at in South of the Circle.
The setting of South of the Circle plays a great deal into the narrative of the game as well. The tensions of the Cold War in the 1960s permeate into everyday life, making even the simple studying of clouds relevant to the conflict with the Soviets. The recent discovery of the Cambridge Four has Cambridge on edge, with Clara’s friend Molly suspected of being a possible fifth spy. No one is safe from suspicion, and simple association between acquaintances can have lasting impact on the course of one’s life.
Gender dynamics of the period are also crucial to the telling of South of the Circle’s story. Clara speaks to the plight of women, especially to the intersection of their personal and professional lives. She helps Peter develop his research method and work on his paper, but Peter’s mentor and friends make it abundantly clear that if he keeps Clara’s name on the paper – giving her her due credit – he may be stalling his academic career before it truly begins. Ultimately, it’s up to the player to determine how that storyline – the battle of career advancement versus enduring love – plays out.
The actors truly bring the game to life. Gwilym Lee, best known for roles in The Great and Bohemian Rhapsody, brings an earnestness and awkward charm to Peter, while Olivia Vinall as Clara really stole the show for me. She gives such depth and emotion to the character, and the game wouldn’t be a success without her superb performance – and that of the rest of the cast. They truly carry the game because its art style – which I do like – doesn’t allow for much emotion to be displayed by the characters as they’re limited to very little facial expression.
South of the Circle has a simple and sleek look to it, with bright colors, deep black silhouettes, and great lighting combining to add to the emotion and narrative. With its use of empty space and loosely defined rooms, South of the Circle often comes across looking like a stage drama with its actors performing for a live audience. I greatly enjoyed the look of the game, and the sound of it as well. The score, composed by Ed Critchley, pairs beautifully with the art style of the game. Together, they enhance the emotion of the narrative and help to tell its story.
Discussing a video game’s gameplay so late in a review may feel strange at times, but I think it’s appropriate here. There isn’t too much to really do in South of the Circle. If you’ve played a Supermassive Games or Quantic Dream offering, then South of the Circle will feel very familiar. You’ll stiffly and awkwardly walk through different environments, often the snowy tundra of Antarctica or the Scottish countryside, and interact with objects that sometimes elicit memories and other times simply grant trophies.
Dialogue and narrative choice are the key gameplay elements present. During conversation, you’ll have the ability to choose how Peter responds to what other characters say and feel. My nitpick with the game’s choices is that I wish what Peter was really going to say was more obvious. There are five different emotional responses to choose from, with either one to three being present at a time, and they each cover a subset of emotions. Peter can be panicked, calm, stern, negative, or overjoyed. However, during the first act of the game I had to consistently pause the game to refresh my memory of what each color/shape represented. A short description, perhaps even one-word, present with the choices given on screen would have gone a long way to fully knowing how Peter would respond when I selected a black square or green circle to respond with.
While I enjoyed role-playing as Peter, I often felt like the choices were mere illusions. There were many times during conversation that only one option was presented, which took me out of the role-playing element as I felt like I was simply following a script as opposed to influencing the story. With so many moments like this, the line between cut scene and film was blurred, leaving me sometimes wondering if I was really just watching a film instead of interacting with a video game. However, the narrative South of the Circle tells was so strong that I can’t complain too much if I wasn’t given much influence over it.
South of the Circle‘s narrative-first, gameplay-last approach may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but for those of us who love narrative-focused games, its a must have. A few minor gameplay quirks aside, South of the Circle excels at what it sets out to do — tell a beautiful and layered love story you’ll surely enjoy.
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