Player agency has often been at the center of gameplay design in a creative choice that seems conducive to an interactive medium. But that decision has resulted in formulaic approaches that often sacrifice story and character development. While the growth of independent studios has helped challenge that formula, games that resonate on an emotional or intellectual level are still the exception.
State of Play's South of the Circle is one such title, as it forgoes the current obsession with action-adventure gameplay to craft a journey that is measured, thoughtful and more intimate than your average gaming saga. The game, published by 11 bit studios, is described as a narrative experience and cinematic story, and it succeeds on both those measures. But is it an unqualified success?
South of the Circle follows the relationship between Peter Hamilton and Clara McKirrick as they navigate global, collegiate and gender politics during the turbulent 1960s and the tumult of the Cold War between the West and the Soviet Union. As junior lecturers among their Cambridge colleagues, they face pressure from friends, Peter's mentor Professor John Hargreaves, outside forces and past internal conflict.
The pressures exerted on their relationship are mirrored by the threat presented by the global conflict between the superpowers. Both are existential crises that risk emotional devastation on the one hand and physical destruction on the other, and require those involved to weigh the consequences for themselves and others as they try to manage all the conflicting influences past and present.
The narrative flows between present and past in ways that are organic and entertaining, using common elements like a road or bed to shift back and forth from 1964 Antarctica -- where the story begins -- to Cambridge to Peter's childhood (though Clara's youth also is addressed). In this way players learn of current dilemmas and past traumas while avoiding the confusion that can result from such transitions.
The catalyst for such introspection is a fateful plane crash involving Peter and pilot Floyd, who was taking his passenger to a British base during a period of international tensions over the polar ice cap. The two are forced to find a way to survive, which triggers memories in Peter of his relationship with Clara, his time at Cambridge and the influence of his father.
It helps that the dialogue is well written and the voice acting is excellent. Characters in turn are believably earnest, vulnerable, funny, caring, desperate, threatening and manipulative. Authentic portrayals of every character but especially Peter and Clara help immerse players in their relationships and the romance at the heart of the story, which makes the drama more effective and the consequences more profound.
This effect is more pronounced and even startling considering that game design relies more on a stylistic, almost minimalist (but still stunning) presentation in mostly vibrant pastels instead of a realistic, detailed design including a broad color palette. That this world feels alive is also due in no small measure to excellent motion-capture animation, dramatic but subtle camera work and a beautiful score that enhances each scene without overwhelming.
Supporting elements also come together to help create a believable world circa 1960s Antarctica and England. City, rural and natural settings are well designed, support cast like Clara's friend Molly and Peter's friends Sam and Joseph are well portrayed, and radio and paper reports add to the setting and story. All elements come together for an effective, involving and entertaining story about our choices, our influences and our resulting successes and mistakes.
As successful as the game is in that regard, it still could disappoint some gamers if they expect the kind of gameplay associated with a more traditional action format. As a narrative experience and cinematic story, South of the Circle unwinds its plot to dramatic effect instead of relying on player agency and choice to entertain. There are controller inputs throughout the game, and while they help immerse players, they do little to impact what transpires on screen.
A help menu shows dialogue symbols though I didn't access this until I questioned how the controls work. Each symbol has three reactions associated with it, i.e. panic, confusion and concern; forthright, strong and assertive; or enthusiastic interested and curious. It reminded me of Quantic Dream games where reactions emerge in the air and players choose one, affecting how the discussion unfolds. Only in this game, one selects a group.
I effectively played through a couple times, choosing what I thought were opposite groups, and detected subtle changes in replies but no real impact on how dialogue or scenes played out. The same is true when presented with images as dialogue responses (i.e. suit, tie or shoes). And when one option is presented, there is no consequence to not selecting it (the comment just comes later).
To be fair, State of Play has described the writing as nuanced, and this is an apt description for the dialogue options and their consequences, at least in my experience. Likewise, players can control Peter, whether walking, driving or interacting with items. But I didn't notice choices that deviate far from prescribed actions or a predetermined path. The overall impact is increased immersion, but within the constraints of the narrative.
Of course, this isn't uncommon in many video game stories, but there is less latitude in South of the Circle given the very specific story being told. So if one approaches the game with that expectation, I think they'll enjoy the thoughtful, poignant and entertaining story much more. It's rare to find a well-executed narrative where the writing, acting and overall design makes for a compelling experience, and can be recommended on that level.
I also can guarantee that the ending will make you think carefully about everything that transpired before -- about Peter's choices, about his relationships, even about memories of his childhood and more. Part of my second play-through was revisiting those things. It's a relatively short game at about four hours for me, but has an impact beyond that time. If you enjoy such contemplative stories, then check out South of the Circle.
(This post is based on a review key for the Nintendo Switch version of South of the Circle, which releases alongside PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series S/X, Xbox One and PC versions on August 3, 2022.)
(Be sure to check out additional images here: Screenshots.)
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