One thing that irks me in narrative games is when you’re given only the broadest categories when selecting your character’s responses. Think LA Noir, where choosing a certain response could give you far more — or far less — of the emotion you were anticipating. South of the Circle is undoubtedly a fantastically written, absorbing story, but it actually gets the dialogue choices worse. However, it has a striking art style, brimming with memorable moments with events framed in ways that make the game almost akin to digital artwork. Wonderful motion-captured performances seal the deal.
South of the Circle is played from the perspective of Peter Hamilton, a Cambridge lecturer who finds himself stranded in Antarctica after his plane goes down. The pilot is injured, so Peter journeys out into the snow to find help. But things are more dire than he realized. These sequences only make up about half the game, however. The other half involves flashbacks dealing with the circumstances that led to Peter’s predicament, alongside important moments in his life he finds himself remembering. Both halves are equally compelling, and I found myself quite invested by the time the credits rolled.
A narrative adventure
The writing and acting in South of the Circle are both movie quality. Dialogue is topical and realistic, even if the game doesn’t have a particularly large cast. Most of this is between Peter and a woman from his past, Clara, who are both brilliantly realized by their actors.
An evocative use of color paints an enthralling picture whether you’re trudging in the snow in a valley, or standing and gazing out into the distance. Even though, sometimes the movement animations don’t always work with the environment. And shadows can be entirely wrong at times. On occasion, characters will awkwardly slide to their mark or walk strangely upon the ground as if they aren’t connecting with the terrain. Regardless, the aforementioned art gallery-appropriate visuals wonderfully compliment the story.
No, not that!
As South of the Circle is a narrative game, there obviously isn’t much in the way of gameplay. You’ll either be moving Peter through locations via fixed camera angles on foot or in a vehicle, or selecting how you’d like him to respond during conversations. Movement can feel slow and unresponsive, but that hardly matters here; it only exists to immerse. The game also typically calls for you to only move forward.
When it comes to Peter’s responses, there are five main types all illustrated with an icon. What these icons represent is only given to you at the very beginning of the game and never again, even if the icons themselves somewhat convey what they represent. But only somewhat. Even towards the end of the game, I was mostly shooting in the dark when it came to making my choices. As I said in the first paragraph, this frequently led to Peter saying things that I absolutely didn’t want him to say, which adds a bit of frustration to the proceedings.
Occasionally, more important choices will feature completely separate icons. Selecting them will stick them at the top of your screen for later, which comes into play at the end of the game. But these aren’t much better. For instance, the very first one shows up when Peter recalls his meeting with Clara. A response gives you two options: a man without a cap and a man with one. If you select the cap, Peter will introduce himself as “Doctor Hamilton,” which Clara will subsequently tease him for later. I would have never selected that one had I known.
It just slipped through my fingers
Granted, things like that have very little effect on subsequent scenes. The rest of this paragraph contains some mild spoilers, so please skip to the next if you want to know as little as possible. The thing is, none of your choices in South of the Circle matter. This is vexing, as you’d expect that a game that mainly focuses on choosing the protagonist’s dialogue would be the opposite. But alas. There’s a good reason for this, however, so it’s not out of laziness, nor is it an oversight.
While going through the game, one of my favorite things is the way that the present and past events seamlessly blend into one another. You’ll be walking along, only for the scenery to shift around you, oftentimes featuring one shared element occupying the same position on the screen. And it’s quite a nice touch. For example, at one point you’re driving a snowmobile, only for the setting to shift. You then find yourself driving a car in the exact same position the snowmobile was in. It’s particularly effective, even if it can feel somewhat contrived at times.
Stuck on you
South of the Circle only takes a few hours to complete. But seeing as it’s basically an interactive movie, that’s plenty. The game’s pacing is quick, but scenes still have plenty of time to breathe. The writing is also highly focused, so there’s very little wasted time. The ending wasn’t quite what I’d hoped for, but it’s completely appropriate given the story being told. I do feel that some of the game’s themes could have used a bit of additional elaboration, but things make sense if you think about what takes place all the same. Therefore, playing the game is similar to putting on a long arthouse movie.
If those are of interest to you, then it’s very easy to suggest that you play South of the Circle. Certain technical issues can sometimes mar the presentation a bit and the irksome conversation choices didn’t really gel for me. (Picking the forthcoming square icon was usually the best way to avoid Peter jamming both of his shoes down his throat). The narrative will stay with me for some time, I’d imagine, as it provides a lot of food for thought despite its breezy runtime. It has a lot to say about the choices we do (and don’t) make and, whether we personally agree or disagree, sometimes we just have to go along for the ride.