South of the Circle LadiesGamers

South of the Circle Review

Game: South of the Circle
Genre: Adventure, Indie
System: Nintendo Switch (also available on Steam, PS4 & PS5, and Xbox One & Series X|S)
Developers | Publishers: State of Play| 11 bit studios
Age Rating: US Teen | EU 16
Price: US $ 12.99 | UK £ 11.69 | EU €12,99
Release Date: August 3rd, 2022

Review code used, with many thanks to 11 bit studios.

Intimate and Melancholic

Picking up South of the Circle for the first time, I was reminded of the painting Nighthawks, by Edward Hopper, which depicts a diner from the outside. Oblong windows reveal a man and a woman sitting at the counter. The brushstrokes are minimal, almost surreal. As viewers, we exist on a darkened street rather than within the diner’s yellowish glow.

South of the Circle LadiesGamers

Video games accomplish what passive viewership cannot; namely, they allow us to be both outsiders and participants in an aesthetic experience, so when our South of the Circle protagonist, Peter, sits in a tearoom called “The Piccadilly” with his love interest Clara, we are emotionally inside but physically outside, involved in a conversation but excluded by its script and visual framing. This contradiction characterizes not only our experience as players but also Peter’s status as an outsider in his own life. You see, he is not actually drinking tea with Clara. He is in Antarctica.

The Coldest War

The roughly 3-hour game takes place within a framing narrative. Peter, a climate scientist and academic, has crash landed in Antarctica during the Cold War. Without food or medical supplies, he and his pilot face almost certain death. Having no other options, Peter must venture into the blistering cold in search of help.

South of the Circle LadiesGamers

Those first tentative steps outside the plane initiate flashbacks that knit into complicated craftwork of love and loss. Snowfall swells and thickens. Reality shivers. Suddenly Peter is on a train, standing in front of a lecture hall, or in his childhood bedroom. Like most good pieces of art, South of the Circle deals with more than one theme. Its complexity is virtuosic.

South of the Circle LadiesGamers

Delving too much into any single aspect of this game might spoil its deliberate beauty. Suffice to say, it handles its material so vividly and delicately that at times I almost believed the characters were real. I will admit I am probably the target audience for this type of game. As a graduate student, I can say that South of the Circle captures aspects of academia with impressive precision: imposter syndrome, the pressure to produce groundbreaking research, and institutional barriers to name a few. We witness a young and brilliant woman denied opportunity in a male-dominated profession. We see Peter, a budding professor, struggling to navigate “publish or perish” culture. These challenges are complicated by historical context, with women’s rights, nuclear disarmament, and the looming threat of war underlying every interaction.

Decisions, Decisions?

Some might call this game a walking simulator. Despite its achronological narrative, progression is linear. Sometimes you control Peter sloshing through the snow or hiking up an incline. Sometimes you twist the knob on the radio in search of a signal. Dialogue is the main gameplay element. Faced with difficult career decisions and a burgeoning relationship, Peter must choose how to react: with fortitude, trepidation, generosity, or cheerfulness. On rare occasions, your choices will involve pictograms. Other times, you are given only one option. Your agency is limited.

South of the Circle LadiesGamers
A dialogue option, represented by shapes rather than words.

The entire game is masterfully voice-acted. Your choices will dictate what Peter says, including whether he is playful or forceful, apologetic or confrontational. He wrestles between being the meek “cloud man” and the assertive “woodsman,” searching for a compromise between his peaceful nature and cultural notions surrounding masculinity. Dialogue adds texture and nuance to his character without fundamentally altering the course of the game. Peter cannot change the trajectory of his memories, and neither can you.

Conclusion – “Bigger than Clouds!”

South of the Circle LadiesGamers

As Peter steps into the Antarctic snowstorm, he is suddenly an active participant in his own survival. South of the Circle triumphs by interweaving hopefulness and impending doom without feeling emotionally manipulative. It suggests that life is a culmination of sad and spectacular moments, promises, people, and conversations, all inevitably misremembered. It’s the kind of game that could have made me cry, but instead, it led me to a place of sombre tranquillity. Through Peter, we are advised not to judge stories by their destination, but by their precious in-betweens: a sugar cube plopped into a cup of tea, a train ride, a shared summer sunset, and a cumulonimbus cloud stupendously blooming.

Final Verdict: Two Thumbs Up: Two thumbs up

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