For me, cinematic games aren’t always a favourite to be honest – I thrive off platforming, jumping, and pressing buttons with wild speed. However, the description of South of the Circle drew me in, and that initial draw paid off – the story is engaging, the graphics are quite lovely, and the journey was heart wrenching, but absolutely worth taking.
Brought to us by the developers at State of Play, South of the Circle follows Peter – a young Cambridge professor whose professional dreams are becoming slowly overshadowed by the threat of the Cold War. When we first meet him, he and his colleague are crashed in a snowy wasteland with little explanation. As Peter struggles through the ice, snow, and haze, we jump back and forth between his current predicament, and the chance meeting that starts a cascade of life changes – the start of his relationship with another young Cambridge professor, Clara. As the two explore their love of science together, the player is forced to make choices between love, career, and even country.
The game does an incredible job at capturing the uncertainty of life in general, much less life in a time when everything is politically charged and any wrong move – no matter how innocent – can paint a target on anyone you know. Even the gameplay reflects this – every once in a while you’ll have more options to choose from if you don’t fall for the trap of immediately hitting the first response that comes up. Sometimes the choices you make are choices you can’t truly act upon no matter how hard you try.
I found the mechanics around choices in the game to be really interesting. Some choices that I thought might really matter down the road didn’t seem to be marked as major moments. Meanwhile smaller decisions – like how much sugar to have in a cup of tea – were recorded along with my list of major decisions so far. One of the particularly poignant moments was when my previous choices in the game were even misremembered by a character – what was the point in trying so hard just to have it all left behind?
However, I do have to be fair and say that it can also leave the player feeling a bit cheated. So many of the dialogue choices are unclear – do you remember what a small red dot means versus a big blue square? That’s how the choices will be presented to you. In a way I liked the artsy feeling of it all and I have to score South of the Circle highly for a beautiful story and the strong emotional impact it had as I played through. But I am still somewhat reserved about the ending I faced – one that seems like it may be the only ending, as I’ve looked at other reviews and impressions today.
Of course, I won’t reveal the ending I experienced, but I will say it was bittersweet and familiar. I honestly have no idea if making different choices would lead to any drastically different storyline or events – in a way that actually made it even more relatable. I ended the game wondering “Could I have changed anything? If I had said just one thing differently, would we be here now?”
South of the Circle is a wonderful story of a difficult time, told in exactly the right way. I enjoyed my playthrough thoroughly, and if cinematic games are your style, this is one worth experiencing. And if they’re not? Maybe consider this one anyway.