The Independent Gamer: Team Behind 'Lumino City' Talks Inspiration for New Cold War-Set Narrative Title

'South of the Circle'
State of Play

'South of the Circle'

State of Play's creative director, producer and head of development discuss 'South of the Circle,' which launches Friday on iOs platforms.

The Independent Gamer is a curated roundup of news from indie gaming, landing here every other Friday.

This week saw big news from publisher Annapurna Interactive, known for the romantic and emotional visual novel Florence and the story-driven What Remains of Edith Finch, which revealed that it is preparing to make its own games in a new internal development studio in Los Angeles.

As The Game Awards inch closer and hotly anticipated title Cyberpunk 2077 moves further — it was delayed yet again this week — many indie games have continued to make a splash at launch this month. The Hollywood Reporter spoke by phone with three members of the tiny team at BAFTA-winning U.K. based studio State of Play to learn about their upcoming Apple Arcade game South of the Circle, which boasts a huge cast of recognizable names.

Escape a Plane Crash Using Your Thoughts in South of the Circle

Set in the 1960s during the Cold War, South of the Circle was made by a very small team at State of Play, known for the puzzle adventure game Lumino City. Through an immersive storytelling style and visuals inspired by mid-century screen painting, the narrative game follows a Cambridge academic named Peter, and his journey to escape a plane crash in the Antarctic.

"The seed of this started about seven years ago, reading a book called The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay [by Michael Chabon], a story of Jews who have to escape Europe just before the war," Luke Whittaker, State of Play's creative director and co-founder, tells The Hollywood Reporter. Writing the game as a novel first, he drew inspiration from a section of the book set in Antarctica that summoned the questions of who we are as people and what are we when we're removed from the structures we live in.

State of Play head of development and co-founder Katherine Bidwell explains how the team quickly arranged an interview with one of her childhood friend's fathers — who had been head of the British Antarctic Survey and provided color to the creative team of devs based on his experiences. "Some of the anecdotes he told us ended up in this story; his plane crashed and he had to fix it to fly out," she says.

Whittaker says that the story, which takes about three hours to play through, focuses on Peter and fellow academic Clara. "They’re equals, but they’re working in this structure which may not be as equal as they would like it to be," he says, adding that the game explores that effect on both their characters. Alluding to some of the action, Whittaker points out that "Peter is thrust out onto the ice and he has to escape, but just with his thoughts. So he goes back into his memory; him as a child to explore how he became the character he was and how his parents behaved to him. We asked whether or not that is really him, and you can play out this things."

The game uses a symbol-based mechanic, which Whittaker explains is intended to create the most intuitive and spontaneous way of interacting with characters by taking an emotional response to the conversation. He adds that the game was executed in a very naturalistic way, taking inspiration from Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise and Before Sunset films. "With the nature of the touch screen mechanic, we want people to be lost in the performances," adds Bidwell, explaining that the idea is to work on instinct rather than overthinking decisions.

Creative producer John Lau, who joined State of Play two years ago when this project was kicking off, says that the game could be seen as a slight genre departure for State of Play, though perhaps more for audiences than for the creative team themselves as they frequently discuss influential story-based games such as Oxenfree and Firewatch.

Bidwell adds that she and Whittaker grew up on puzzle adventure games, which Lumino City pays homage to. "In terms of telling a narrative story through a game, in Lumino City there's a real heart of a story about a child and working with their grandfather that we wanted to tell. Of South of the Circle, she says, "This game goes to the next level — and working with actors, we've never done that before."

The cast includes Gwilym Lee (Bohemian Rhapsody), Anton Lesser (Game of Thrones), Adrian Rawlins (Chernobyl), Michael Fox (Downton Abbey), Olivia Vinall (The Woman in White) and Richard Goulding (Belgravia).

"I think it's a really exciting time for interactive narrative," says Whittaker, who journeyed to Antarctica for research during the making of this game. South of the Circle releases on Friday exclusively through Apple Arcade.

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