At one point in the recent past, there was an enthusiastic debate regarding whether or not video games can be considered art. Personally, I always felt that the answer was “depends on the game”. Any title has a level of artistry to it, from visual design to sound and story. In practice, though, real art needs to convey a meaning beyond “blow them up real good.” So, some games meet this personal definition and some simply do not. This is not to discount blowing things up real good. That’s fun. This is mentioned because there’s no way to describe State of Play’s South of the Circle as anything but art. As an interactive narrative, the focus of the writers and designers was to create an experience that allows player agency while also making a point. The problem is that it fails to stick the landing.
The story centers mostly around Peter, who awakens to find himself in 1964 Antarctica with a crisis already underway. His plane has crashed and the pilot is crippled. It’s up to Peter to find a way out of the mess and get the both of them to safety. What follows is a tale told through flashbacks, detailing how his academic research into clouds has led him to this point, as well as how his budding relationship with fellow scientist, Clara, affects his life for the better. Peter needs to balance his professional life with his personal, which is useful when the two intertwine. Mix in a healthy dose of Cold War intrigue and there’s an interesting story.
While this praise will be qualified later, the writing is good. Under normal circumstances, a story about a fellow writing a research paper on cloud movement in the 1960s would not be interesting. It’s certainly a slow burn of a story. What helps is that the tale is mature in tone, focusing more on the foibles of human nature and politics, and less on whizz-bang explosions. It doesn’t talk down to the audience, while also taking the time to explain things that the player might not know, such as how the Antarctic is split and explored between rival nations. It’s about a man with writer’s block and an intelligent woman who not only breaks that block, but helps him soar. Combining these mundane, but engrossing, flashbacks with the dire circumstances Peter must overcome in the deepest, cold south keeps the tone “grown up” without being a bore.
Stylistically, the game hits extremely well. When booting it up, the Unity logo appears on the screen. This tends to be a harbinger of a subpar experience based on what I have consumed, but the artistry shows what the engine can actually do. The texture work is minimal, favoring bold shapes and colors to paint a vibrant and believable world. While not a one-to-one comparison, South of the Circle brings to mind the rotoscope animation style found in films like A Scanner Darkly when it’s in motion. Plus, the way footprints are left in the snow is impressive. When it works, it’s striking, and it does work most of the time.
This is why it can be frustrating when animation issues appear, of which there are a few. One consistent one seen throughout the game is the fact that characters often levitate about half a foot above the ground. While there are times when they seem connected, way too often do they float, like if a British version of Pennywise got his hands on 60’s era Cambridge. Clipping between characters is also rather noticeable, with hands going right through bodies and other seeming levels of violence from casual actions. Lastly, there was an occasion where Peter handed a stack of papers to a colleague. The colleague could not handle it, turning a rote action in a nightmare where the arms turned inside out and contorted in disturbing ways. If this were a horror game, it actually would have been an effective bit of creepiness. That’s not what this is, and a play through is only about three hours. As such, it seems reasonable to ask that some of the more glaring glitches be handled as these ruin the suspension of disbelief.
That suspension of disbelief is something that the designers seemed to care about. There’s walking, of course, but decisions are done through holding a button to select the mood of a statement or response. So, a symbol will pop up on the screen allowing the player to select answering shyly or enthusiastically. The onboarding is smoothly done, and the symbols are obvious to prevent errors. Further still, when the choices “matter,” there will be unique symbols allowing the player to know at a glance what they mean. For example, when Peter is introducing himself, he can choose an silhouette of a regular dude or one with a graduation cap, making the meaning obvious. This simplified system allows onscreen conversations to flow naturally while still giving the player input on how Peter responds. It works much better than the awkward pauses that can occur while the player reviews their choices, and helps make the narrative more immersive.
To hit at why South of the Circle misses its goal does require discussion of the ending. While care will be taken to avoid real spoilers, anyone who wants to avoid that type of thing should skip this paragraph. Throughout the game, players makes choices that are indicated at the top of the screen as having importance. How credit is given, the color of a house or how Peter takes his tea ends up displayed. When all of these choices come to a head, though, it turns out that none of the choices mattered. Peter is harangued as the choices disappear from the top. There are games, such as Telltale’s output, that have a similar issue with the choices not impacting the overall narrative, but the illusion is at least present. South of the Circle makes it amply clear that none of it mattered and the player might as well have been pouring milk on the controller and eating it like cereal for all of the difference it makes. This goes back to the personal definition of art established at the beginning: it’s trying to send a message. With that, I’m not sure what the message here is supposed to be. It’s likely meant to be about the conflict professional life and love can create, but the story is one where the two intertwine symbiotically.
With a short run time, South of the Circle isn’t meant to be for someone looking to stretch their gaming dollar. It’s meant to be an expression, a mature tale rife with grown-up themes. This is something that the gaming scene could always use, especially as the existing audience grows older, and newer gamers have their own titles tailored to them. State of Play created an interesting story, something that does pull the player through to the end. Despite the graphical hiccups, it would have been an easy recommendation. How the actual interactive elements shakes out at the end, though, drop kicks the experience in the teeth. If it was a sub $5 price, it would be worth checking out, as it’s intriguing even when it falters. Anything more than that will likely leave the player cold.