South of the Circle – Game Review

South of the Circle is a surprising little narrative gem that’s been tucked away on Apple Arcade for nearly two years. Set in the Cold War panic of the 1960s, the game follows Peter, an academic and researcher pursuing a thesis paper on the prediction of cloud patterns. He quickly falls for another grad student, Clara, and the two pursue a cautious relationship in an era where higher education is dominated by men.

The game bounces between two timelines. Peter’s past with Clara and his research pursuits, and his present, where he is stranded in the Antarctic. With his plane downed in the middle of nowhere, and a pilot with a broken leg, he sets out in search of help, unaware of the political tensions of the region.

There are a lot of different ideas at work here. South of the Circle explores feminism, political tensions of the era, academia, science, a foreboding mystery in the Antarctic, and a love story. It would be easy for a story, especially a video game story, to fall apart under the weight of all that. Not to mention the fact that the setting and circumstances seem pretty dry and grounded when compared to the over-the-top genre fiction that most games operate within.

It works though, and it is enormously compelling, primarily because of the voice performances and the visuals. South of the Circle has the vibe of a full-cast audio book or a radio play. The voice acting is uniformly excellent and it goes a long way toward making this game immediately engaging. The visuals, in line with that, have a terrific minimalist feel, with animation that invokes the rotoscoping style of Flashback or Prince of Persia.

The gameplay is simple, and certainly not the star of the show, but it is an important part of the overall narrative. For the most part you are making decisions between two or three different emotional responses for Peter. These responses are illustrated through symbols and words tied to the symbols. A sun symbol denotes enthusiasm, interest, or curiosity. A red dot denotes panic, confusion, or concern. You can’t choose what Peter will say, but you can choose the emotion behind it.

Otherwise, most of the gameplay is simply pointing the stick in a direction and making Peter walk to the next storybeat. If the gameplay was all there was here, it would be too slight to take seriously, but South of the Circle is all about the total package. In that context, there is the perfect amount of interactivity for the story being told. I was too busy following the story and taking in the scenery to criticize the gameplay too heavily.

Importantly, your choices do end up mattering in a unique way, and the story definitely goes in some unexpected directions. It’s probably best to not go in expecting a wild supernatural twist, but the plot certainly has its share of intrigue.

What impressed me most though was just how much storytelling and dialogue South of the Circle packs into a relatively short runtime. Over the course of what could be an extra long movie, you’ll have long moments of characters just having extensive conversations. There is a lot of space for character building, because the game doesn’t pad itself out with puzzles or excessive wandering around.

South of the Circle manages to be both incredibly efficient and packed with more pure storytelling than most games. Even other story-heavy games like The Walking Dead or Until Dawn can have a lot of padding. These kinds of games will introduce gameplay mechanics for better or worse, to prove their value as more than a glorified movie. South of the Circle seems much more comfortable leaning hard in the other direction and letting the results speak for themselves.
While South of the Circle is a game, it has little in the way of friction. You won’t see a game over screen here. That gives it the forward momentum of a good dramatic movie, pulling you in and never losing the pace to retry a missed jump or failed button prompt. If you’re someone who prioritizes storytelling in games, or just enjoys a solid drama, you owe it to yourself to give this a shot. It’s an easy recommendation.

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