Peter is a man with his head in the clouds. Literally. Well, sort of. As a lecturer in climate science at Cambridge University, Peter’s passion in life is cloud research. All he wanted to do was study the clouds: their different formations, their flight paths, their properties, everything. He couldn’t get enough of them, and found them interesting enough to be the subject of his 100-page PhD thesis. This is a poetic subject and one that fits his temperament as a childish and clumsy researcher and a somewhat ‘way of the most impervious’ man. But around him the world spins from the political tensions of the Cold War, and as much as Peter wants to escape to the clouds, current events keep him tied to the realities of the war to come.
This tension is what makes South Of The Circle such an exciting story. With player selection subtly pulling the needle of the game’s narrative in ways you might not expect, clear skies and strong winds for the game’s three-hour journey. But with the abrupt ending after the calculated slow-burn drama, it’s a rough landing.
When we first met Peter, he was not well. He sat in the passenger seat next to the unconscious pilot of a plane that had just crashed in the cold tundra of Antarctica. With the plane completely malfunctioning and the pilot’s leg broken, Peter must leave the safety of the plane and walk through the icy snow for help. The freezing winds of Antarctica are so far removed from the natural habitat of a Cambridge academic (an office full of stacks of papers, book towers and empty teacups spring to mind) that the game switches between Peter’s present and past, showing us exactly how he got into this dangerous situation and how he would escape.
The intersection between past and present is one of the best elements of this game. One time you will be guiding Peter through an ice storm, only for a very thick gust of wind to clear the tundra and suddenly you are guiding Peter through a beautiful train station in sunny Cambridge. Peter may be knocking on the door to the Antarctic outpost, but as he walks past, the scene cuts him into his professor’s office. Every time you bounce back and forth, there’s always a transition. It’s a great way to incorporate the past into the present and make things really visually slick.
There are also times when you’ll be exploring the neighborhood, picking up stuff, messing with radio signals, and rummaging around. They’re a bit far between the two, but together with the minimalist and colorful art style of South Of The Circle making every scene look like a gorgeous WPA travel poster from the 1930s, the creative direction is top notch.
Throughout Peter’s life, both in the present and in the past, you are given a number of small but life-changing decisions to make in conversation with the characters. Developer State Of Play doesn’t use your usual conversational system, and instead the dialogue options South Of The Circle presents a number of emotional responses that you can choose from to decide Peter’s reaction. It appears as a small QTE bubble over Peter’s head, which means you have to decide quickly how you want Peter to respond in a given situation. If you don’t select an option in time, the game will pick one for you and move on, which feels like you’re playing an interactive film rather than a branching narrative story.
Instead of deciding the direction of the game, it feels more like you’re refining some kind of personality profile
There’s definitely one storyline the game wants to convey, and your choices have little effect in dictating that. It’s frustrating at first, but the thematic weight behind the choices makes it that much more interesting. Rather than deciding the direction of the game, it feels more like you’re refining some kind of personality profile for Peter, and it’s closely tied to how South Of The Circle engages with themes of masculinity and toxic sexism.
Having grown up in ’60s England with an aggressive father, and his male academic peers making fun of his interest in weather patterns in his adult life (the man loves clouds, let him be. Yeesh), we see Peter constantly having to wrestle with him. masculinity at the personal and societal levels. In this way, it’s interesting that South Of The Circle encourages you to interact with and embrace Peter’s feelings at a time when, socially, male emotions are highly suppressed (echoes of which, of course, are still prevalent today).
I really appreciate this aspect of the story, and it’s one that extends to Peter’s friend and eventual love interest, Clara. A young woman working as a research associate at Cambridge, Clara faces a lot of institutional sexist bigotry, and there is a sense of camaraderie between the two as they both share a dream of escaping into the clouds.
This was all backed up by a looming Cold War paranoia, as accusations of being a soviet spy spread rapidly. It all accumulates in a slow-burn drama that builds and builds to the end. Where your choices might make a difference in other narrative play, however, in South Of The Circle they fail to be nothing, and instead of a satisfying conclusion it cuts everything, which left me feeling very disappointed.
Even if the game’s final moments don’t have an emotional punch, South Of The Circle’s story, presentation, and visual direction hit every mark for me with the biggest surprise being the feel and the way it handled the theme. It’s a shame about the ending – but it’s about the journey, not the destination, right?