Apple Arcade's South of the Circle redefines the adventure game
The newest game on Apple's subscription service raises questions about humanity during a time of isolation.
Shelby BrownEditor II
Shelby Brown (she/her/hers) is an editor for CNET's services team. She covers tips and tricks for apps, operating systems and devices, as well as mobile gaming and Apple Arcade news. Shelby also oversees Tech Tips coverage. Before joining CNET, she covered app news for Download.com and served as a freelancer for Louisville.com.
She received the Renau Writing Scholarship in 2016 from the University of Louisville's communication department.
South of the Circle, a new narrative adventure from State of Play Games, is coming to
growing catalog of over 135 games on Friday. You play as Peter, a Cambridge scholar, who finds himself stranded in the vast wasteland of Antarctica after a plane crash. While trying to survive and ultimately escape, Peter's memories begin to creep into his present.
Using a midcentury screen printing-inspired aesthetic, South of the Circle is set against the backdrop of the Cold War era of the 1960s, and features a love story between Peter and his Cambridge colleague Clara.
The game immediately drops you into the action after the plane crash, as Peter and his co-pilot try to assess their injuries. "Don't lose yourself out there," the pilot warns before Peter embarks on a quest for help in subzero temperatures.
Ahead of its launch, State of Play co-founder and designer Luke Whittaker and creative designer John Lau spoke with me over video chat about the game. Whittaker said that while South of the Circle is ultimately about what it means to be human, the game was inspired by the novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon. The book follows the story of two Jewish cousins before, during and after World War II. At one point in the story, there's a standoff between two characters in Antarctica.
"There's these two people, completely removed from the structures in which they live. What does that mean? What do they do?" Whittaker says. "It poses a really interesting philosophical question and I thought it'd be fascinating to explore."
To get a feel of the environment, Whittaker took a research trip to Antarctica. He said he wanted to avoid the game looking like someone had just Googled images of the area.
"You encounter memories, with all that expanse and only yourself," Whittaker says of his trip. "You remember things that you'd forgotten."
Retiring the masculine adventure hero
For Lau, who has a philosophy degree, one of the draws of the project was how Peter's character responded to the challenges in the story. Instead of playing to masculine adventure tropes, South of the Circle tries to be more realistic -- a trend among many Apple Arcade games that have diversified their characters.
"Not everyone is going to respond to [a situation] in the way that they would like to," Lau says. "And actually, in trying to live up to a particular myth of the hero, you're liable to do more harm than good."
And while the team seemed to actively work against a Jason Statham-esque protagonist, they remained cognizant of the masculine "elephant" in the room.
"One thing I like about the story is that it tries to understand the role that the idea of masculinity can play in people's decision making and how there are certain qualities that you associate with this," Lau says.
State of Play also secured an accomplished cast for the game, using motion-capture technology. Talent includes Gwilym Lee (Bohemian Rhapsody), Olivia Vinall (The Woman in White), Richard Goulding (Belgravia), Anton Lesser (
Game of Thrones
), Adrian Rawlins (
Chernobyl) and Michael Fox (Downton Abbey). While Whittaker's writing mostly shaped the characters, the collaborative aspects of the team and room for flexibility added an extra layer, Lau says.
Soul-searching in isolation
Just as temperatures have begun to drop, coronavirus cases are climbing for most of the US. The approaching winter means another season of adaptation now that it's getting too cold to see friends outside and potentially too dangerous to have indoor gatherings.
Since March, when COVID-19 began spreading across the US, people have been finding ways to cope with isolation. While it's not to the extreme that Peter faces in Antarctica, the emotions are still the same.
Whittaker said he hopes the game will be a means of self-reflection for players, just as Peter has to closely examine himself.
"I think this game allows you to understand thought processes and be sympathetic to -- or not -- someone's thought processes, and may help you with yours," he says.
Whittaker's hope is that players will be surprised by the emotional realism and depth of South of the Circle. Lau says he hopes players approach the game with an open heart.
"Go willing and able to open [yourselves] to the emotionality of what's going on," Lau says. "If as the credits roll someone says, 'Yeah, I really cared about those people,' then we'd have done our job."