Game news In the middle of a heat wave, I went to Antarctica in a narrative video game that plays with emotions
This week saw the release of an indie narrative game with atypical tunes that I was excited to discover. 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 think about everything you’ve been through, everything that has made us where we are today, at this very moment. We then tell ourselves that maybe we should have acted differently, that everything would have changed, that life would have been better… Every person living on this earth has had the fun of 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 team up with those who created the mind-blowing This War of Mine 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 holiday 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 Peter’s chaotic life that I began an hour. A journey that 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, as a post and with a few video excerpts.
The simple joys of life
In the middle of a scorching summer, it’s strangely good to see a snowstorm pass before my eyes. I had almost forgotten the danger that this meteorological event can pose. Fortunately, the game is there to put my ideas into place. Little by little, I see a plane taking shape, which, in spite of itself, has sunk into the Antarctic snow. On board I find Peter and his pilot, Lloyd. Immediately, panic and worry take over. Thus emerges one of the five sets of emotions that will accompany me through my playtime. The selection system in South of the Circle is very special indeed. Forget the exact sentences, it’s the emotions and other feelings that interest us in this narrative game. Each answer from Peter will really depend on the set of emotions you choose (enthusiastic, pessimistic/concerned…). If the latter are indicated at the beginning, during the story they will be represented only by symbols, which you must therefore keep in mind to choose and choose quickly. Confused at first, I finally understand the logic, and when my brain plays tricks on me, I can always go to the menu to refresh my memory. Some might say this mode can be confusing, but I personally think it pushes the player to be totally focused on the story unfolding before their eyes and invites them to make it their own.
So my role is to manage Peter’s emotions. And between the pressure he is under for his thesis, the meeting with the beautiful Anna or even the social and political upheavals of his time, the boy has something to be emotional about. But if he looks back at all those times while he was stranded in Antarctica where he sought help on his own, it’s because it was his past choices that got him on that plane. Unsurprisingly, some more important choices will allow you to influence Peter’s story, though I haven’t been able to see how yet. But from what I’ve seen, South of the Circle isn’t plagued with excessive branching. The game is made in simplicity and sobriety, whether through its system of choices, the first themes treated 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, which is a joy to watch. The color plays are mastered, the atmosphere well rendered, and the soundtrack, while understated, always sounds right to accompany each moment. Artistically, South of the Circle is a gem. In terms of the game, the actions are limited to a few moves and the choices described above. This title relies more on the narrative than the gameplay, you should know that. Personally, I accepted the terms of the contract and let myself go to see where this story will take us, Peter and me.
Just like in the movies
Let’s set the story straight again, if you don’t mind. Peter is therefore with Lloyd in a plane that crashed. The pilot’s legs are stuck, impossible for him to get out. It is therefore Peter who must face the freezing cold of Antarctica alone to seek help from the nearest base. Two periods therefore intertwine: on the one hand this current search for survival and on the other hand a not-so-distant past that reminds Peter why he came to this. The idea of progressing over multiple time frames scared me a little, I must admit. Playing with time can quickly become confusing or affect the rhythm of the story. But that is definitely not the case in South of the Circle. The transitions are beautifully executed, whether it concerns 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 being pushed into a cinema seat when I was watching a film from a particularly talented director.
South of the Circle is really only about a movie, and that’s what makes its story so poignant. Despite graphics far from the realism that some demand, 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 i Bohemian Rhapsody) or Richard Goulding (Edward Adeane i The crown). Admittedly, they are not big names in the cinema, but still more than qualified actors who always know how to find the right note on such a line. Auditory, I almost thought I was back at university in the middle of a discussion with a professor after a symposium. I felt the pressure on my thesis supervisor’s path, the interest of the young Anna, the anxiety of Peters after the crash… If the few translation errors at the subtitle level sometimes make it cringe, no complaints about the dubbing, which allowed me to fully 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 live his life despite the pressure and 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 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 give you a pleasant parenthesis in your life. The game has just been released on PC, Nintendo Switch, PS5, PS4, Xbox Series and Xbox One.