Some games are to be savoured like a fine wine. We don’t want to rush them: the quality of the craft is too good for that. So, we take our time, admiring them while they last.
BAFTA take note, because South of the Circle – in a few categories – comes preciously close to being best-in-class. Give yourselves a few hours to play it, and see if you agree. We wonder if there is a game out this year which trumps it on its naturalistic dialogue, voice-acting (oh me oh my, the voice acting) and sound design. Congratulations, State of Play, in these regards your game is superlative.
South of the Circle began life as an Apple Arcade game, and it is finally donning its snowboots to journey onto other platforms.Very broadly, it’s easy to describe: this is a walking simulator, with extreme emphasis on the ‘walking’: you are doing an awful lot of hiking in South of the Circle. But you are also holding conversations with people, picking dialogue options and watching the consequences of those choices play out. It’s a narrative game, and there’s very little other gameplay to colour it.
It tells the story of Peter, a quiet and reclusive climatologist, working as a professor in a Cambridge university. He’s feeling pressure from his immediate boss to become papered: to publish something that brings attention to the college. But Peter is a perfectionist and worrier, and there’s no chance of that happening in the near future.
Humming in the background is the affairs of the period. South of the Circle is set in the sixties, with the Cold War at the forefront of everyone’s mind. There’s talk of the ‘Cambridge Four’, a group of spies in collusion with the Soviet government. The radio buzzes with news about the Antarctic Treaty, a pact of non-aggression and non-competition in Antarctica, with Russia potentially breaking that pact. There are allusions to the college being a boy’s club, and the attached impossibility of a woman being successful there.
Peter seems adrift until he meets Clara, a fellow professor, in a rail carriage. They agree to attend each other’s lectures, and a friendship builds which soon becomes romantic. She presses him to complete his paper – a study of cloud paths, and the radiation levels within clouds – and they soon collaborate. Things are on the up for Peter.
What makes South of the Circle fascinating is that we’ve just described the flashbacks, rather than the core of the game. Because these are all moments in the past as Peter hikes through the Antarctic. He has crashlanded, along with an Australian pilot, and Peter is the only one who can find help. So, he is travelling from camp to camp, searching for rescue, all the while fantasizing about the moments that led him there.
South of the Circle is a beautiful game, but in a humble manner. It looks like a paint-by-numbers, with simple watercolour blocks. But it’s in the animation that South of the Circle sings. By keeping things simple, the characters can move in an extremely realistic fashion that can only have been achieved through motion capture. There’s evident humanity in everything Peter and the rest of the cast does.
But as mentioned, it’s in the script and voice-acting that we must doff a cap. Clara and Peter in particular are just sublime. Played by Olivia Vinall (The Woman in White) and Gwilym Lee (Bohemian Rhapsody), they are two of the finest performances that we’ve come across, capturing an intensely repressed Britishness. The supporting cast are also brilliant, but it’s these two, coupled with their stripped back but effective facial animations, that make the emotions sing.
With all this gushing, you’d be forgiven for wondering why there’s only a 4 sitting at the end of this review. If BAFTA needs to take note, why not a perfect 5?
It’s not why you might think. Walking simulators like South of the Circle get some bad press for a lack of gameplay, but that’s not why we have some reluctance to give South of the Circle the big marks. It’s in the dialogue choices and the overall plot that we found some real faults.
To make a choice in South of the Circle, you aren’t picking exact lines of dialogue or even small summaries of that dialogue. Instead, you’re doing ‘a bit of a Fable’, and picking from simple icons that are meant to represent the choice. There’s a blue square, a small droplet, a sun, a red dot. There’s an undeniable benefit of reducing it in this way: you can pick an option quickly, and the dialogue flows utterly naturally. There’s not that awkward Telltale pause as the other character waits for you to read the options in front of you.
But South of the Circle goes too abstract. It takes some time to figure out what each icon represents, and we’re still not convinced that we have a handle on it. The blue square, we think, is a logical, practical response, while a blue droplet is a meek one. We might be wrong. But too often, we felt betrayed by our dialogue choices. When a character wants a simple binary response, yes or no, suddenly seeing a water ripple and a red dot doesn’t really help. You can pick no when you meant yes. Perhaps there never was a yes.
But it’s the plot that stuck in the craw. Somewhat appropriately, you could plot our engagement with the story on a graph and it would look like a mountain. The opening moments of South of the Circle are in search of a subject, skittering between various topics and not quite deciding on what it finds interesting. But it’s the ending that disappointed us most. For a game that barely meanders with its choices – there aren’t a huge number of deviations on offer here – it snaps completely straight at the end, undoing the few choices we did make. We don’t want to reveal much more than that, but it had the effect of cheapening everything that came before.
But – oh – that middle section. When the peak of that mountain arrives, South of the Circle is stellar. It finds the strands it wants to tug on, including some that are political, others that are still relevant today, and yet more than are steeped in feeling and emotion. While there are plenty of people who have rose-tinted glasses for the post-war period, it was clearly a terrifying time to experience, particularly if you weren’t a white, heterosexual and middle-class man in Cambridge or London.
For all of our criticisms of the choice-light and skittish plot, South of the Circle is an earnest recommendation, particularly if the words ‘walking simulator’ doesn’t have you running for another round of Warzone. It’s sensationally acted, superbly written and an evocative period piece. For a large proportion of its short-ish runtime, it will have its icy grip around you.
Oh, and remind us never to go to Antarctica. At least, not without plenty of alcohol, a map and a shotgun.
You can buy South of the Circle from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S