At first wind-chilled blush, South of the Circle doesn’t stand apart all that much from other narrative-driven games of its ilk. This Cold War-era tale owes its spareness of design and emphasis on emotional reactions to quiet yet powerful predecessors like Firewatch, Tacoma, Gone Home and What Remains of Edith Finch. But what London developer State of Play excels at is taking a well-known model of narrative games and, instead of reinventing the wheel, elaborates on what its predecessors accomplished so well. Namely, the way that narrative mechanics can underscore core themes (political or otherwise) in both expressive and literal ways.
It gets off to a rocky start. Pivoting between Antarctica and pre-Antarctic Treaty Cambridge University, its first scene takes place after Peter (our protagonist/POV character) and Floyd’s plane crash in the Antarctic circle. It tasks you with the kind of timed button presses found in quick-time events, and it’s difficult to distinguish if these are critical to the game’s themes or superfluous. Arguably this is the weakest part of the game, which doesn’t bode well for persuading players who are easily irritated by quick-time events. You can’t initially tell if the QTEs are only there to keep the game from being perceived as just one long cutscene (a la David Gage’s games), or if they actually contribute to what the game is trying to say. South of the Circle focuses on Peter’s psychological profile, and the quick-time events and their lack of direct action might be an extension of that.
This game (if we strip away its extra contextual trappings) is essentially a coming-of-age story about a man reckoning with his masculinity: how it’s defined by society at large and how it’s expected to be performed both publicly and privately. Peter is a gentle climatologist who has been bullied by his peers and brow-beaten by his father growing up in ‘60s Britain. He learns early that vulnerability and preferring a scholarly life over a life of action in the military is frowned upon. Yet he is encouraged by the women in his life, like his mother Irene and his fellow researcher and eventual love interest Clara, to lean into his more empathetic side in spite of the majority’s opinion.
At Cambridge, Peter continues to be haunted by figures who echo his father Reg’s toxic views of what being a man means as he pursues a paper about tracing weather patterns via clouds. (He is quite literally a cloud-chaser.) Peter’s supervisor Professor Hargreaves urges him to treat Clara like an expendable secretary while his “friends” Joseph and Sam encourage him to seduce undergraduates and reduce Clara to merely Peter’s exotic Scottish muse. Even the pilot Floyd parrots the same “stiff upper lip” language as Reg, pressing upon Peter in every moment of exhaustion that he has to man up or face the consequences.
This inner conflict is illustrated by the emotional reactions that color most of Peter’s interactions with key characters in the secondary plot of surviving a plane crash in Antarctica during the paranoid politicking and bomb-testing just a handful of years after the signing of The Antarctic Treaty. Peter isn’t a man of action and this is reflected in the way that his responses, even when choosing the most affirmative option, merely influence how he responds emotionally but does not necessarily change his mindset of preferring the path of least resistance.
There are key decisions of import to be made aside from the QTEs, however, and interestingly these are almost always decisions made during Peter’s remembrances of his recent past at Cambridge before he journeys to Antarctica. There’s a brilliant twist with this mechanic, but it hinges heavily on the player’s perception of the present plot. (I will hint that there’s a throughline that connects the dots in a clever manner via environmental storytelling.) .
South of the Circle’s dedication to its subject is admirable. While it uses broader strokes than Kentucky Route Zero, psychogeographical details are very evident throughout Peter’s journey as he realizes who he wants to be and whether he stood his ground enough on what mattered most to him. He climbs uphill (both literally and figuratively), pushes against the elements of hostile weather and an oppressive system, traces patterns in the clouds with Clara and observes where their dreams intersect, and cautiously navigates the toxicity of patriarchal society, shady political theater and the radiation physically present in the Antarctic. Even the title of the game, South of the Circle, denotes not just the setting but Peter’s position in academia (just on the outside of the upper echelon) and his attempt to travel outside of his comfort zone and confront himself and his past decisions.
With beautiful graphics inspired by the graphic design of modern Britain and the stark contrast and minimalism of Cold War propaganda posters, an evocative soundtrack, and a star-studded voice cast, South of the Circle has spared no expense with its creative direction. The Behind-the-Scenes feature included with the game also reveals that the team made a research trip to Antarctica. This attention to detail isn’t really a surprise, because it’s clear that the game seeks to give the player a convincing sense of what the world felt like back then. Like the best Cold War thrillers, there’s an underlying sense of paranoia in almost every word and interaction, and a constant need to reassert one’s personal politics and perform in a way that marks oneself as an ally to one’s nation against communism.
Despite this game being a historical one, it’s very timely given that Antarctica is still a significant area for the now 54 parties involved in the Antarctic Treaty. For instance, in May of this year Russia surveyed the melting Antarctic for massive fossil fuel deposits, in spite of a mining ban. And in the wake of the rising tension between America and Russia, and the latter’s invasion of Ukraine, fears over Russia are still running strong decades later. Given the use of QTEs which are mostly about choosing Peter’s emotional perspective of his predicaments possibly involving the Russian presence in the Antarctic, it seems likely that the game also aims to give a broader context to our current political climate.
How much you enjoy South of the Circle will be determined by how much you like to engage with games on an intellectual and emotional level. It’s a tricky balance to strike, but once it’s beyond the first scene, South of the Circle has a lot more substance than its first impression lets on. It might be light on traditional gameplay, but it knows what it wants to say, and stays focused on that throughout.
South of the Circle was developed by State of Play and published by 11 Bit Studios. Our review is based on the PlayStation 4 version. It is also available for the PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X|S, Switch, PC, and Xbox One.
Phoenix Simms is an Atlantic Canadian writer and indie game narrative designer. You can find her work at Unwinnable, Videodame, Third Person, and her portfolio. Her stream-of-consciousness can be found at @phoenixsimms.