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What is Xbox game South of Midnight, and who’s making it?

Xbox’s mysterious new exclusive, explained

A confident young Black woman looks into the camera with a smirk, while weaving white magical strands between her hands Image: Compulsion Games/Xbox Game Studios
Oli Welsh is senior editor, U.K., providing news, analysis, and criticism of film, TV, and games. He has been covering the business & culture of video games for two decades.

The spooky, blues-inflected South of Midnight was one of the more arresting trailers revealed at Sunday’s Xbox Games Showcase, but also one of the more mysterious, and easily lost amid noisier fare like the reemergence of Fable, the reveal of Star Wars Outlaws, and the gargantuan Starfield info-dump. What is it about? How will it play? What’s its pedigree? And how will it navigate the tricky waters of its American Deep South setting?

Some, if not all, of these questions are answered by an official developer interview on Xbox Wire. The short version: It’s a magical realist occult adventure from the makers of We Happy Few that will explore the folklore, music, and rural environments of a fictionalized South — but the studio, Compulsion Games, isn’t saying much about how it will play yet.

When is South of Midnight’s release date, and is it an Xbox exclusive?

No release date has been announced. Microsoft dated several games for 2024 at its showcase, but South of Midnight wasn’t one of them — like Fable, it could be even further off. As an Xbox Game Studios release, it’s coming to Windows PC and Xbox Series X, Game Pass, and Steam.

Who’s making South of Midnight?

This is the easy part. Compulsion Games is a Canadian studio based in Montreal founded by ex-Arkane Studios developer Guillaume Provost. As an indie, it made the pretty but slender 2013 puzzle-platformer Contrast and 2018’s We Happy Few, a dystopian, first-person, survival-horror game with roguelike elements set in a twisted 1960s England. Compulsion was acquired by Microsoft and became a first-party Xbox Game Studios team in 2018.

Compulsion’s website says it aims to make “hallucinatory adventures in worlds strange but provocatively familiar,” with rich storylines and world-building and a “handcrafted” feel. Its games are built around strong art styles and notable literary and pop-cultural references (George Orwell and The Prisoner for We Happy Few; William Faulkner, Night of the Hunter, and the blues of Robert Johnson for South of Midnight).

There’s also some hands-on involvement from Microsoft: Narrative producer and creative specialist James Lewis is moonlighting from his day job as head of ID@Xbox’s Developer Acceleration Program to work on the game. Lewis, who is Black, is helping ensure the Canadian developer is handling the setting and characters sensitively.

A giant, spectral bluesman plucks on a guitar in front of a young black woman Image: Compulsion Games/Xbox Game Studios

What’s it about?

In a magical version of the modern, rural South, protagonist Hazel is on a quest to repair a broken world by taking on mythical creatures drawn from Southern folklore. Creative director David Sears, who spent his childhood in the region, said it’s “loosely inspired by me tramping around forgotten farms and abandoned places in Mississippi.”

Hazel is a Weaver, who can use magic for combat and traversal. Her Weaving magic allows her to “take the strands that make up the universe and weave or spin them into useful forms for the player to use,” Sears says. The effects are “full of fractal geometry expressed as knitting and doilies — everything is themed after textiles.” Hazel is powerful and wisecracking, but will also have a flawed, human side influenced by her family and the world she grew up in: “She has many of the same issues as real people have,” Sears says.

As well as the creatures from folklore — like the monster that appears vaguely in the trailer (an Altamaha-ha), or Haints (evil spirits that fear the color blue) — Hazel will encounter more ambivalent figures like Shakin’ Bones, the wizened, singing giant from the trailer. He’s an immortal Archon, partly inspired by Charon, the ferry boatman of Greek mythology, and partly by the bluesman Johnson, who, legend has it, did a deal with the devil at the crossroads. It’s not clear if he’s on Hazel’s side or not, and Sears hints that there may be threats in this world other than the monsters Hazel faces.

How will South of Midnight play?

Sears and Lewis give away very little about this, but we do know some basics from an earlier interview given before the game was revealed. In a 2021 French-language interview with Xbox Squad (as reported by VGC), Compulsion’s PR and community developer Naila Hadjas said the team was working on third-person narrative single-player game. It won’t have We Happy Few’s roguelike elements and, unlike that game, it won’t debut in early access. “The next game is a story, we know where we are going,” she said.

A dilapidated shack in a swampy area Image: Compulsion Games/Xbox Game Studios

How is Compulsion handling a game about a Black woman set in the South?

In the Xbox Wire interview, Sears appears proud that South of Midnight will feature a setting and lead character that are underrepresented in gaming, but aware of the pitfalls of doing so from the outside. That’s where Lewis, who works with developers from marginalized groups, comes in. Compulsion has also sought other outside help, including internal Microsoft resources like Xbox’s Black Employee Resource Group and external consultants. But, as Lewis says, representation at Compulsion itself, particularly on the writing team, is crucial: “The approach to this had to start by having just proper representation on the team, ensuring that we had Black women and women of colour on our narrative team is key for understanding and writing Hazel’s voice.”

Will the game deal with the bitter, racist history (and present) of the South? Lewis makes it sound as though it will be acknowledged, but it’s not the main thrust of the story.

“You don’t actually have to be from that area to attest that the American South has a history that makes it difficult to use as a setting without its difficult past, which we can still feel the impact of today.” But, he says, “Hazel’s job is not to fix racism or the South’s troubled history. Those challenges are not fair to her. Her job is to be seen as a person coming of age in a scary and beautiful world. Making her an authentic person that people like my wife, my daughter, my mother — who all look like Hazel — will hopefully recognise and relate to.”

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