For the longest time, if you asked me what I thought mobile gaming was, I would have reliably described it in a very specific way. Angry Birds, Candy Crush and Fruit Ninja would have been examples of the best of mobile gaming, while cash extracting digital casinos would have been the worst.
The latter are those games (Dungeon Keeper) which put barriers in place of progression which are so onerous players either give up or pay exorbitant sums of money to speed things up. This latter group has made ‘mobile gaming’ a dirty word but recently, I’ve had my eyes opened to the possibility of what ‘mobile gaming’ can mean.
State of Play, BAFTA award winning indie studio, has just released South of the Circle on Apple Arcade and speaking to the developers, I discovered the depth of passion and dedication that’s gone into the creation of this game.
South of the Circle
Set in the 1960s in both Antarctica and Cambridge, South of the Circle is a narrative experience similar to games like Firewatch and Gone Home. Playing as Peter, a Cambridge academic who’s crashed on Antarctica, South of the Circle unfolds by following his journey across the snowy landscape in search of rescue and help. However, as he makes his way across the landscape, Peter reflects on the decisions and series of events that led him to his current predicament and the game shifts between the present and the past through a series of vignettes that fade into one another.
Speaking with Luke Whittaker, Katherine Bidwell and John Lau of State of Play, I was surprised and even shocked at what went into making this “mobile” game.
“Originally as I started to write the story, it was set in the 1930s. I’ve been inspired by a book called The Amazing Inventions of Kavalier and Clay,” Whittaker tells me. “A family friend’s father was head of the British Antarctic Survey. He’s retired now, but he went out there in the early ’60s as a Cambridge graduate and the stories he had from that time were just amazing, like dealing with things like isolation, dealing with how we got there and kind of a fish out of water. And the more you know so many of his kind of anecdotes like made it into this.”
Before writing South of the Circle, Whittaker actually wrote the plot as a novel and he grabs it from a nearby bookshelf to show me. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never seen Candy Crush The Novel anywhere. It was at about this time I realised I was being prejudicial about mobile gaming and about even those lower-tier mobile games. Developers are incredibly passionate, dedicated and hardworking people who put everything into their games. It’s just that usually those games are for PC or consoles.
Demonstrating their dedication to the work, Whittaker and Bidwell actually travelled to Antarctica in 2018. Whittaker said it was to do “research and make sure we made it feel right. We couldn’t just look at the Google images and draw something,” he explained. The trip to Antarctica was essential for State of Play to create an authentic experience and as we speak, Whittaker, Bidwell and Lau all touch on the importance of authenticity in South of the Circle. State of Play wanted to make the player feel the isolation of Antarctica, to know what it’s like to stand on our planet but feel as though you’re on a different one entirely.
“We not only took pictures, we did sound recordings. It was a real artistic experience to get all that information and feed it through to this epic scenery you see in the game. The sound of the loneliness and isolation,” Bidwell told me.
Loneliness and isolation are common themes throughout South of the Circle and weave in and out of the narrative as it’s told. In the first moments of gameplay, Peter heads out into a snowstorm, towards what he believes is a British research base, alone. As he trudges forwards, the scene shifts and the game goes back in time to show a train station and Peter boarding to make his way to Cambridge, alone. However, on boarding the train, he meets Clara, a fellow Cambridge scholar. Clara represents one of only a couple of healthy relationships Peter has. Their relationship represents a time in which Peter isn’t alone and isn’t isolated and it’s clear, once you see their entire relationship play out, why his mind drifts back to her rather than face the reality of his circumstances.
Peter’s humanity is the basis of South of the Circle and is at the core of the gameplay. As a narrative title, South of the Circle is light on actual gameplay and heavy on dialogue. Like a walking simulator, South of the Circle pushes forwards and players spend much of their time in conversations, reacting and replying to what’s being said. Unlike most other games with dialogue options, South of the Circle uses shapes and colours to indicate the type of response. Rather than spell out exactly what Peter will say or a snippet of that, South of the Circle lets players choose how he’ll respond. For example, a red circle means nervous, scared and worried, while a blue cube means forthright and confident.
The first time each of these icons is displayed, the game explains what they are and over time, it becomes second nature. It’s a far more authentic experience as, in my experience, you’re far more likely to react with your gut then parse out the possibilities by reading each response in detail. Coupled with the fact that you only have a short window to make each decision, your reactions in South of the Circle feel far more in line with how humans interact than anything I’ve played before.
“When you reduce things down to symbols, you reduce the cognitive load that’s being placed on the player. You don’t have to read 3 dialogue choices in order to evaluate which one and then deal with the ambiguity of the phraseology. It’s like there’s an emotional spirit in which I kind of want to take this like I’ll just take this one.”
Playing on the duality of Antarctica and Cambridge and loneliness and togetherness, emotional responses during flashbacks are overwhelmingly more positive and forthright, while the more time Peter spends in Antarctica, the worse his emotional state becomes.
This emotional breakdown bleeds into his recollection of the past and makes Peter an unreliable narrator as his memories don’t necessarily jibe with reality and the denouement of South of the Circle makes it pretty clear that Peter has been wearing rose-tinted glasses.
Whittaker and Bidwell tell me that their favourite film is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and its influence is evident across South of the Circle. The way the past and present bleed into one another. The small diorama-esque scenes in which his memories take place have an otherworldly and unreal feeling. The view of them is narrow which contrasts with the wide, openness of the scenes in Antarctica. And Peter’s reflection on the past, dissection of what happened and how he could have changed things.
He can’t, of course, but reflecting on his mistakes is preferable to dealing with his present and so he retreats into his mind. However, as the past and present intersect and he remembers events less distant in time, the hope and happiness fades and we start seeing isolation and loneliness both in the present and in the past. South of the Circle, it should be made clear, isn’t a hopeful game. It’s bleak and emotionally charged but it’s a somber, subdued affair.
Whittaker tells me, “There are real nail biting moments in this game where your heart’s breaking because you’ve tried. You’ve tried to change it and you can’t.”
Speaking with State of Play and having played South of the Circle my opinions on mobile gaming have fundamentally changed. This is a passionate team of developers who have created an exceptional dramatic game which explores what it means to be human, the connections we forge with other people and what it means to be truly alone.
It’s set in the 1960s with the Cold War as a backdrop which only heightens the notions of betrayal, paranoia and fear. It’s not an experience players are used to seeing on the iPhones but it’s exactly where they’ll find it.
South of the Circle is exclusive to Apple Arcade and can be played on iPhone, iPad and Apple TV and across all three platforms, the impact of the story remains intact. I expected that the impact of the game would be diminished when playing on a smaller screen but it’s a fantastic achievement by State of Play that it isn’t.
The lesson for me here, and for anyone unfairly prejudiced against mobile gaming, is that there are dozens, if not hundreds of games across iOS and Android platforms that are worth your time. What’s more, Apple Arcade offers so many games and so many new games so frequently that it’s packed with quality titles like this.
South of the Circle is a remarkable title that uses the power of emotion to tell a personal story set against the backdrop of deep impersonality. For fans of narrative dramas, South of the Circle is a must. For gamers who turn their noses up at mobile gaming, give this a shot and have your mind changed.
South of the Circle is available on Apple Arcade.
Thanks to State of Play for their time.