Game News In the middle of a heat wave, I went to Antarctica in a narrative video game that plays with emotions
This week came out an independent narrative game with atypical tunes that I was looking forward to discovering. So I’ve put on my warmest suit to present South of the Circle, a contemplative game that’s simple and complex at the same time.
There are times in life when you find yourself thinking about everything you’ve been through, everything that has made us where we are today, at this precise moment. We then say to ourselves that we should perhaps have acted differently, that everything would have changed, that life would have been better… Every human being living on this Earth has one day had fun rebuilding his life, in his head, Hoping for a better conclusion. It is on this familiar ground that South of the Circle proposed to take us, a narrative game signed State of Play and co-published by 11 bit studios. Immediately, my brain clicked. Seeing the studio behind the charming and award-winning Lumino City join forces with those who created the overwhelming This War of Mine, it could only pique my curiosity. So when the title originally released on Apple Arcade finally made itself available on other platforms, I had every reason in the world to give it a try. Add to those already mentioned an original artistic direction and well done and here I am ready to go on vacation between Antarctica and Cambridge at the time of the Cold War. But it was above all for a trip to the heart of human emotions and the chaotic life of Peter that I embarked for an hour. A journey of which here is the story.
This is an indie review on JV:
There’s Wanted, your new column about quirky and fun indie games, and there’s this column. It is dedicated to the narrative games that we want you to discover, in a slightly more personal register, like a post and with a few video extracts.
The simple pleasures of life
In the middle of a scorching summer, seeing a snowstorm pass before my eyes is strangely good. I would have almost forgotten the danger that this meteorological event can represent. Fortunately, the game is there to put my ideas in place. Little by little I see a plane taking shape which has sunk in spite of itself into the snow of Antarctica. On board, I find Peter and his pilot, Lloyd. Immediately, panic and worry take over. Thus appears one of the five sets of emotions that will accompany me throughout my hour of play. The choice system of South of the Circle is indeed very particular. Forget the precise sentences, it is the emotions and other feelings that interest us in this narrative game. Each response from Peter will indeed depend on the set of emotions you choose (enthusiastic, pessimistic/worried…). If at the beginning the latter are indicated, over the course of the story they will only be represented by symbols which you will therefore have to keep in mind to choose, and choose quickly. Confused at first, I finally get the logic and when my brain plays tricks on me I can always go to the menu to refresh my memory. Some may say that this mode of operation can be confusing, but I personally find that it pushes the player to be totally focused on the story unfolding before their eyes, inviting them to make it their own.
So my role is to direct Peter’s emotions. And between the pressure he is under for his thesis, his meeting with the beautiful Anna or even the societal and political upheavals of his time, the boy has something to be emotional about. But if he looks back on all those times while stranded in Antarctica, seeking help on his own, it’s because it was his past choices that led him to get on that plane. Unsurprisingly, some more important choices will allow you to influence Peter’s story, although I haven’t been able to see how yet. But from what I’ve seen, South of the Circle isn’t encumbered with excessive branching. The game is made in simplicity and sobriety, whether through its system of choices, the first themes addressed or even its artistic direction which had seduced me so much. But beware, simple does not mean tasteless, far from it. The sleek graphics of South of the Circle give it a touch of its own that is a pleasure to see. The games of color are mastered, the atmosphere well rendered and the soundtrack, although discreet, always sounds right to accompany each moment. Artistically, South of the Circle is a gem. As for the game, the actions are limited to a few moves and the choices described above. This title relies more on the narration than the game, you have to know that. Personally, I accepted the terms of the contract and let myself embark on seeing where this story will take us, Peter and me.
Like in the movies
Let’s put the story back in place if you don’t mind. Peter is therefore with Lloyd in a plane which crashed. The pilot’s leg is stuck, impossible for him to get out. It is therefore Peter who will have to face the freezing cold of Antarctica alone in order to seek help from the nearest base. Two periods therefore intertwine: on the one hand this present quest for survival and on the other a not so distant past reminding Peter why he came to this. The idea of advancing over several time frames scared me a little, I must admit. Playing with time can quickly become confusing or affect the rhythm of the story. But this is absolutely not the case in South of the Circle. The transitions are beautifully done, whether in terms of colors, lighting effects or the story itself. I let myself be transported from Antarctica to Cambridge, from an abandoned base to a crowded train, from a car moving through the snow to a university office, without batting an eyelid. At times, I even felt like I was pushed into a movie theater seat watching a film from a particularly skilled director.
South of the Circle is actually all about a movie, and that’s what makes its story so gripping. Despite graphics far from the realism sought by some, the characters, their conversation and their stories are believable and we can identify with them very quickly. No secret, dubbing has a lot to do with it. State of Play has hired actors such as Anton Lesser (Qyburn in game of thrones), Gwylim Lee (Brian May in Bohemian Rhapsody) or Richard Goulding (Edward Adeane in The crown). Admittedly, these are not big names in cinema, but all the same more than qualified actors who always know how to find the right tone on such and such a line. Auditorily speaking, I almost thought I was back at the University in the middle of a discussion with a professor after a symposium. I felt the pressure in the way of my thesis tutor, the interest carried by that of the young Anna, the anguish in that of Peter after the crash… If the few translation errors at the level of the subtitles make sometimes wince, no complaints about the dubbing which allowed me to completely immerse myself in the story. A story that presents itself without pretension, without fantastic or particularly breathtaking events. Just the story of a man who has to lead his life despite the pressure and the disappointments… Work, love, demonstrate… Make decisions and find your place in society, with others or at their expense. Issues that will not fascinate all players, but which managed to grab me and ignite in me the desire to continue.
Lovers of atypical narrative experiences and simple stories, South of the Circle has something to bring you a pleasant parenthesis in your life. The game has just been released on PC, Nintendo Switch, PS5, PS4, Xbox Series and Xbox One.