South of the Circle actually released back in 2020, but there’s a good chance you missed it.
This narrative-led game was originally made for Apple Arcade, but now, two years later, it’s available on other formats. And it’s about time: there’s nothing else quite like this politically-charged story of love, war and academia set against a backdrop of the Cold War. The story beats might not always hit the mark, but it kept us completely entranced from start to finish.
Players take on the role of Peter, a Cambridge University academic teaching climatology. South of the Circle constantly (and cleverly) flips between past and present, revealing Peter at Cambridge, as a child and, in the present, on an expedition to Antarctica.
This isn’t a very long adventure: players will see the credits of South of the Circle roll in around three hours. But for those three hours, you’ll likely be kept glued to your seat, mesmerised by the gorgeous, bold artwork and fantastic sound design. And, of course, its excellent storytelling.
However, calling South of the Circle an “adventure” in the first place may be doing it a disservice. This is more of an interactive experience than a fully-fledged video game, with player interactions rather limited. Peter’s story is very much linear and, with the exception of a few optional objects to interact with, there’s no room to wander off the beaten path. Often, there’s no room to wander at all, with the game taking control from you.
Dialogue choices are the main way that players will interact with South of the Circle. But rather than choosing lines of dialogue, you’ll make a choice between various symbols, each one representing a particular set of moods or emotions. A green circle, for example, is a positive, emotion-led response, while a rectangle is a more measured, logical response.
Despite a very serious undertone running through the belly of South of the Circle, lighter moments – typically scenes between Peter and Clara, a fellow academic – go a long way to keep the game from feeling too heavy. Peter’s story is carefully presented, doled out at a measured pace, with past and present merging into each other in clever ways. That car Peter is driving through the streets of Cambridge? Suddenly it’s a snowmobile, ploughing through the harsh snowstorm of the Antarctic.
The ever-changing environments keep players on their toes, but it never feels confusing – at least, once you understand South of the Circle‘s rhythm. You’ll be invested in Peter’s progress through the Antarctic, but you’ll also long to know more about his past, about his childhood, about his relationship with Clara.
It helps that the acting in South of the Circle is so masterful, too. Peter and Clara take up the majority of the screen time, but side characters – such as Peter’s professor, and his expedition partner – provide impactful performances, too. Every character is entirely believable – for better and for worse – and despite the stylised, unrealistic visuals, it’s still easy to see every character as a living, breathing person.
While not every part of the story hits the mark – we didn’t quite gel with the ending, for example – it’s still very easy to recommend South of the Circle. If you’re the type of person who enjoys interactive dramas, like the recent As Dusk Falls or Gone Home, you’ll likely find yourself engrossed in the narrative that unfolds here. It’s interesting, cleverly told and very intelligent – and, if nothing else, it’ll likely encourage you to learn more about the Cold War and the Antarctic Treaty. Any game that inspires us to educate ourselves more about the world around us is a win in our book.