Snow pile of feelings: South of the Circle
TL;DR: multilayered plot with great visuals and sound, but barely any mechanics. Walking sim with deep meaning. Highly recommend it to those who loves digging into morally-ethical dilemmas and grey zones. Enjoyers of social philosophy and British vision will love this one, too. Will not fit for fans of free will who don’t like predestined plots despite the given choice. Those who enjoy less narrative and more complex projects in terms of player engagement should probably sit this one out as well.
Pack your bags, we’re going to Antarctica. I’ll explain on the way.
So, South of the Circle. An entry in currently popular narrative drama genre. An alternative timeline, alternative history for topping, countless choices on your route from A to B. You’d say it’s borderline boring already. I’d you should still take a look at this.
SotC kicks things off with a parallel narration: two parts of the same story are told in different time periods side by side. The hero we’re supposed to be this time is Peter, a researcher in a respectable university. Peter doesn’t have the most adventurous life – he teaches, works on his scientific paper and has just began a relationship with a fellow researcher Clara. But that’s in the past. And right now he’s barely surviving on the harsh open of endless Antarctic fields after his expedition’s plane unexpectedly crashes. The pilot is wounded, the temperature outside plummets drastically. The ghost of Cold War hangs inexorably above his head. And the only hope is that Peter manages to find help on the planet’s loneliest continent…
That’s just first act for you.
To be honest, what bought me was the feeling South of the Circle provokes. I’ve seen the trailer and immediately thought about A Tale of Two Sons and Know by Heart – both very strong emotional titles. And I was right to trust my gut on this. In many ways South of the Circle is similar to these games. During your walkthrough you’ll experience the full spectre of emotions, from quiet happiness and serenity to hopelessness and darkest of despairs.
But what really makes SotC stand out is a sharp psychological nosedive. The title plays on popular and, you would think, obvious genre tropes. It just takes them, turns them inside out and presents to you, asking “How’d you like that one?” It plays right into its narrative that you and I – we are trained in these tropes. We see choice and think “Hey, it’s important, I better remember it”. And the game will give this choice back to you from a very unexpected angle. You’re not expecting that. It’s only after that it occurs to you what has – or has not – been done by your own hand.
And simplified visual style helps just right to hold that effect. What’s fascinating here is not the complexity and intricacy of designs, but the way the simplicity folds into strong multilayered visual forms. The mood is shaped by thoroughly thought-out, but not overloaded gamma. Colors in SotC have their own life, telling their own story. An awesome decision for a title with such themes.
Not to mention that the color work feed greatly into the torn, hopping about structure of the narrative. Bright colorful patches of summer forest unexpectedly jump to black and white of endless snow and stone abyss. It’s visual shock therapy, if I may, for a lot less money. And the further the story goes, the more the worlds collide, trying to overpower each other or even merge into one uncomfortable, but spectacular canvas. For the story you’re being told here, it’s just genius. You’re not simply watching a man fall into his despair – you’re plummeting with him.
The other side of South of the Circle is securely covered with a monumental sound design. It’s boasting a very proud choice of neo-classic, which seems to be the best soundtrack for these heartfelt stories. The sound design is so neatly put together that you can surely feel even the slightest of mood changes. What’s more important is that music here seems to know when there’s no need for it. It works greatly in terms of mixing disparate elements together. One moment you hear something light and gentle. The other – nothing but the absolute silence. Then the frame changes – and someone has surely sat down of the keyboards. All in all, it’s an amazing addition to the way the game is already executed, and it helps to shatter your expectations piece by piece by showing something entirely different.
It would also be foolish of me not to mention the voice cast. This is mostly the reason I could endlessly praise the narrative element. The characters are filled with life and sense, and it’s phenomenal. Shouldn’t be surprising, though: the cast is comprised of enormously talented actors and actresses who have lately been in the better, if not the best, projects from the furthest side of Europe. If you’re into the achievements of British acting school, you will surely not be disappointed.
Still, there’s something I would complain about. If you know me, you’ve probably guessed. It’s plot integrity. Missed opportunities.
South of the Circle entertains a very amusing idea which stands in its front. Promises. Those that we make and those that we have no intentions to keep. In terms of parallel narrative that’s obviously a goldmine turned mechanic. And, as you can tell by the placement of this paragraph in my article, this mechanic is so disgustingly underused.
Don’t look at me like that. I understand why it’s made this way, and I completely understand the whole point of SotC’s narrative. It does have, of course, a very deep emotional effect. But for a game – if we still want to look at this as a game – it’s borderline harmful. For me it seems half-empty and underdeveloped. You know, the same way as ‘choose your own adventure’ books lead to the same page disregarding different answers? This works better if you’re reading a book or watching a movie. But in the games, you as the player have to have some weight. When this weight is displaced and you as a player turn into a neglectable part of the story – it just doesn’t work. That’s a very effective storytelling element, I don’t doubt that. But mechanically? Mechanically that’s shock value. Something to shake you emotionally, even if it doesn’t make complete sense story-wise. Schrödinger’s element, if you’d like. It’s there, but it’s not, because Telltale’s philosophy is still a thing for some reason. Basically, the whole ‘choices and promises’ line could’ve been cut out. But that, sadly, would’ve left no game for us to play.
One more downside of this treatment is complete loss of replayability. I’ve always loved the abundance of options. You can be good or bad, you can save or ruin lives. And you, of course, bear responsibility for your decisions.
Here? It’s even rail. It’s a complete tunnel with only one exit, and no matter how you drive, you cannot change the destination. South of the Circle does one of those things I, as a games, hate the most: it gives you an illusion of choice, yet still pushes you towards the bad option and makes you feel horrible for that. Again, for any other type of media this would be a great decision. Strong. Emotionally moving. But for a video game presenting choices every 30 seconds it looks like something not entirely though-out. And in a video game with practically no other mechanics! However, this is not the first time I’m noticing this particular genre does this – the importance of the story drowns out the importance of the process. This is what the blurred line between games and movies looks like.
I would still recommend you to take your time and play South of the Circle. This is exactly a pill of catharsis all of us need from time to time. Despite its mechanical weakness, narrative-wise it is one of the best things I’ve seen in recent years. Deep detailed world hiding in a heap of small casual elements compensates greatly for the short playtime, and stylish visuals with well-designed sound help improve the ‘rails’ approach. You’ll probably be turned away by specifics of the genre, but keep in mind that SotC is meant to be thought-provoking first and entertaining later. Spend some time with it. You’ll know what I mean.
Have yourself a good psychological dig. Just don’t forget to pack your parka.
Detailed information about the game