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South of the Circle is an exploration of how your past decisions have lead you to where you are now, set against a backdrop of Cold War Antarctica.

Joel Couture, Contributor

March 15, 2023

15 Min Read
a person walking toward a ship as a snowstorm blows around
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This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. The IGF (Independent Games Festival) aims to encourage innovation in game development and to recognize independent game developers advancing the medium. Every year, Game Developer sits down with the finalists for the IGF ahead of GDC to explore the themes, design decisions, and tools behind each entry.

South of the Circle is an exploration of how your past decisions have lead you to where you are now, set against a backdrop of Cold War Antarctica.

Game Developer spoke with the director of the Excellence in Audio and Narrative-nominated work, Luke Whittaker, to talk about the real world stories from the British Antarctic Survey that would shape the project, how they harnessed games' unique ability to connect the player to the story in order to reflect on the past affecting the present, and how taking an actual trip to the Antarctic would capture the real feel of the place.

Who are you, and what was your role in developing South of the Circle?

I’m Luke Whittaker, creative director and founder of State of Play, an indie games company based in the UK. I was the writer, artist, and director on South of the Circle.

What's your background in making games?

I was making animations at art college and was later introduced to early version of Flash whilst at university. This gave me a way of making better animations and then, incredibly to me, allowed you to control them. Suddenly, it made the prospect of making only animations feel somehow lacking.

After university I got a job making Flash games and animations at a time when every website wanted a microsite or a game made for it, and that led me to head out on my own to make these things freelance. The Flash games boom felt like a great time to be making games; there were so many interesting small games being made by tiny teams, often just by one person.

As the games got more ambitious, my wife Katherine and I set up State of Play in 2008 and began to work alongside [other] developers and artists.

Flash games became a victim of their own success in a way—sites became flooded with them and I didn’t enjoy how they were becoming swamped in advertising. Plus, the budgets for the games were decreasing all the time. Then, the iPhone changed everything. Suddenly there was the opportunity to make and publish games independently, so we jumped at the chance to have this creative freedom and ported one of our Flash games to iOS—a game called Headspin: Storybook.

I’ve always focused more on the art and story side, and games we made like Lumino City, KAMI, and INKS have allowed me to make a lot of the art by hand. In the case of Lumino City, we built a whole model city three metres high. It’s a process I love, and although South of the Circle was created digitally, you can see the influence of the screen printing and handmade art.

a character walks in the snow towards a building

How did you come up with the concept for South of the Circle?

Going way back, it was a novel I read called The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Klay. It deals with politics and the identity of two migrants leading up to World War 2. There’s one section set in Antarctica where one of them comes across a stranger and is called upon to make a life or death decision, and I thought it was an incredible set up for a game.

The original idea was setting it in the age of exploration, around 1910-1920, but incredibly, I discovered a family friend was part of the British Antarctic Survey in the 1960s, and after seeing his incredible photos I knew we had to set it then. Many of his experiences have made it directly into the game; he survived a plane crash out there and and had to deal with wounded and sick colleagues along the way.

South of the Circle was also been inspired by movies like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In it, you delve into memories and piece together how you got there, stranded on the ice and confused about your role in it all. We also wanted to push what was possible with interactive dialogue, and games like Oxenfree and Firewatch were an inspiration here. We wanted to create interactive dialogue you really felt like you lived. I kept a review of the film Before Sunrise in mind as the kind of feeling we wanted to provoke: "It’s talking, but it’s as exciting as a thriller."

What development tools were used to build your game?

The game’s built in Unity and a combination of Flash and Photoshop were used for concept art. We used Maya for a lot of the 3D work.

The game has hours of motion capture in it, so that involved the team learning a lot about how to integrate that into our own project. I’m so proud of what we achieved. This wasn’t only our first motion capture project in Unity, but our first project in 3D, and the team managed to create something where the real essence of the actors' performances shine through.

What interested you in exploring the connection between past decisions and the present situation?

I think, in our daily lives, we're all interested in how our past got us here! We’re always trying to piece together how things fit, often asking ourselves the question "How did I get here?" And we’re probably so often wrong, or unaware of our motivations. And maybe the real reasons only reveal themselves to us much later.

I thought that it was a perfect topic for games to explore because you can make the player dive right into those memories and make them feel this life is their own. If it’s a film, a character is always more distant—a viewer can look at a character's past and say "Oh, I can see how they got there," but they won’t feel like they’d make the same mistakes. It’s always someone else’s problem.

Well, a game can make it your problem. I wanted to put the player in the position of someone slowly re-living their memories and coming to terms with the decisions they made in the past which they can’t change. I’ve heard that it’s made players think on their own lives in this way, which is great because it’s exactly the reaction I wanted to provoke.

What drew you to the art style for the game? What made it feel right for its themes and story?

I’ve always loved handmade art and I used to create screen prints, enjoying how you only get limited colors and you need to convey detail with this restriction. A lot of the poster art and illustration of the early to mid-century used limited color palettes due to printing technology and stylistic decisions. Even painters of the period like Edward Hopper—a big inspiration for this game—used a limited color palette (I would say) but one which is also somehow photographic and richly real.

One step closer to reality, the photography of the period also shows this kind of color treatment, the film of the day [gives] it a unique feel of time and place. It’s this sensation I wanted to create—a mid-century look and feel, but one which also felt timeless. I’m not that interested in photo-realism. Not only is it insanely difficult to reproduce real life in all its rough edges in a computer, but something’s lost. I felt like aiming for it would weaken the game—it would be a distraction and make the wonderful performances in the game less real. Somehow, I think because of the style we developed, you’re able to focus on the performances without the distraction of, for example, an odd shader effect, and they feel even more real as a result.

a character walks towards a train station, with a train on the nearby track

Likewise, what drew you to the 60's setting for your story? The cold war backdrop?

It was just a fascinating period in history in Antarctica and globally. The cold war was a rich setting and it felt like the perfect place to address other more personal stories. One of our themes is power, and the brinkmanship of the cold war nicely mirrors the kind of power struggles of our characters. In fact, you could even say it’s the power struggles on a global level which filter down and create the same struggles at a personal level. I wanted to interrogate how global power affects people power—how it can affect the decisions in their personal life.

Apart from its stunning visual impact, Antarctica was a fascinating place to drop our character, too. In the 1960's, technology was still hugely limited. They were using morse code to communicate and they were using WWI rifles to hunt seals. It’s a place which has always been spectacularly cut off, even moreso back then, and as a place where our lead character can go inward and examine his past, it was perfect.

What challenges came from setting the game during that time? What sort of research and work went into getting the fashion, architecture, vehicles, etc right?

We were lucky enough to have direct contact with John Dudeney, the family friend who was out there in the 1960's and went on to become head of the British Antarctic Survey. We did hours of interviews with him, and he was generous enough to give us access to all his old photographs, many of which inspired the game’s look and feel. In fact, the British base at the beginning of the game is based on his photos of Station F where he was based.

Even with this second-hand research, I felt strongly that we didn’t want to design this game via Google images. I knew we risked creating an idealized version of it: all soaring icebergs—the Discovery Channel Antarctica. So we decided to travel there ourselves on a research trip. Along with one of our artists Steffan, I travelled there on a ship from Peru which took us down into the Weddell Sea, landing where we could and climbing mountains and volcanoes, photographing and drawing everything we could. It really helped us get the feel of the place right, and directly inspired the latter part of the game where our lead Peter finds himself inside a sunken volcano of black sand, rusting oil drums just visible through the mist which rises off the shore. It’s a place I would never have known was in Antarctica, and was something I knew we had to put into the game.

Occasionally, the internet would turn up a wonderful nugget of detail about the time and place, too. The vehicle you drive in the game is the perfect example. I came across photographs and plans of the 'Mini-trac,' which was a Morris Mini-Minor—one of the tiniest cars imaginable—converted for use in the snow by adding tank tracks. As soon as I saw this, I knew we had to put that in. It was the perfect expression of how they had limited resources and were trying to hack technology to help them.

Cherylynn Lima did our character designs and did an incredible job. She’s a big fan of fashion of the period, so that really helped, and we ended up with literally hundreds of versions of the characters’ clothes and hairstyles. She produced so many great ones it was often hard to settle on one.

What thoughts went into the audio and music to capture that era as well? How did you take players back in time to the 60's through sound?

We actually did some sound recordings out there in Antarctica. The atmosphere is something else. I was there when part of an ice shelf the size of a building fell into the sea. The cracks you hear before it falls and the thunderous echo it creates when it hit the water were incredible.

That feeling of space was something we really wanted to replicate and Ross Stack did an incredible job with the sound, placing you right there. Ed Critchley’s score was similarly stunning. We discussed musicians like Nils Frahm, whose sparse pianos give this epic feeling of space, and Hans Zimmer’s score for Dunkirk and its otherworldly undercurrent of threat, and Ed created an incredible score which managed to be simultaneously subtle, sensitive, and also epic. You have to hear it to know what I mean!

The music and effects have to bridge between the current Antarctic expedition and several moments in Peter's past. What thoughts went into the music to capture the emotional moments in Peter's past, the desolation of the expedition, and the connection between them?

Clara, Peter’s fellow lecturer that he enters into a relationship with, has her own theme, delicately picked out on the piano and recorded with such fidelity you can hear the fingers on the keys. It’s so delicate and beautiful that it matches the way their relationship develops, and it’s worked like a thread—like some kind of memory—through the game. When we first played the scene where they’re both in a cafe along with that theme, we all had tears in our eyes. It just worked.

The music never crashes between "memory" music and "Antarctica" music, so that’s how the connection is made. You feel like there’s a thread connecting all of Peter’s experience. The themes blend and fold together, just like the memories appear to you in the game, and just like memories appear to us, I feel. We’re simultaneously in the present and in the past.

three characters stand on a city street

What thoughts went into creating/showing the connections between past and present through the visuals? Through showing players these direct connections in their decisions by transitioning into another time that's connected and similar to the previous one they left?

Often, we smash cut between an event in the present. Peter hurting himself on a switch match-cuts with a similar time in the past where he hurts his hand on a kettle, for example. I feel it’s often how memory works sometimes. Something is reminiscent of a past event and suddenly you’re there. And in the game, it gave a lovely thread. You are always Peter. We follow him like one long camera shot throughout the whole game. He’ll never be suddenly where your eye isn’t looking, like a film might do. He is you, and you have this past.

Other times, memories might occur more slowly, like the pulse of a red flashing light in Antarctica slowly forming the light above a station in rural England as you emerge through the blizzard. Again, this was to represent how memories can occur to us, first with a small detail and then slowly you’re reliving the whole thing. Whether or not you’re recalling it correctly is, of course, what the game is all about.

South of the Circle uses an intriguing dialogue system where players choose the tone of how something is said. Why did you choose to dialogue in this way? How did it affect how you wrote the story?

In our original concepts, the dialogue options were going to be written in words, similar to how a game like Oxenfree or Firewatch work. But when we tested it out, we discovered the limitations of the approach. The problem with it is that you’re never quite sure of the emotional content of those words. The sentence "What are you doing here?" for example, could be delivered inquisitively or angrily. You just don’t know what emotion is going to come out of your character’s mouth. It not only has a distancing affect, when we wanted you to feel like incredibly close to your character, but it’s confusing for gameplay.

On another level, it slows everything down. You have to read, interpret the language, and make a judgement, and it doesn’t feel like spontaneous conversation—something we wanted to achieve. In real life, [we] don’t plan every word we’re going to say in a sentence. We might begin a sentence with nothing more that the spark of an emotion or an idea. So we decided to set about designing that "spark"—what would it look like? What does panic feel like and how would it look if it was a symbol?

When we looked at it this way, so many things fell into place. Conversations felt far more realistic. They were intuitive and emotional rather than gamey and intellectual. And it didn’t mean that we needed to change our approach to the writing—we're already writing dialogue options which reflected the multitudes of emotions the character were feeling and on which the player could lean into. If we needed to reference something specific, like an object in the world, we could create a symbol of that object rather than use words. The best thing was that it all created this intuitive flow and brought you closer to your character, drawing you into that world and the mind of someone else.

What do you hope the player takes away from your work?

I hope people come away from it having been entertained and that they’ll take away interesting questions about their own lives. I don’t mean by setting specific questions, but by making them feel things they weren’t expecting to, and therefore thinking on their own life and the decisions they have to make. The game, in the end, is about kindness and understanding, and if we have made a game which makes people reflect on their own experiences then come away knowing more about what they find important in life, with the intention of being kind, I think we would have left the world in a better place.

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