Subsurface Circular: Going Underground

I’ve always had a secret love of the London Underground. True, the Tube can be ridiculously overcrowded, confusingly laid out and a nightmare for tourists to navigate, but for the canny commuter or regular visitor, the Underground can feel like an old, reassuring friend. The usual familiarity of the stations with their varied designs; the ceaseless rhythm of the trains sweeping in and out like clockwork. The Underground is constantly changing, but all the while it says the same. In a weird way, this feeling of rhythm and routine is expertly captured in Subsurface Circular, a new adventure game from Mike Bithell Games, creators of Thomas Was Alone and Volume. Subsurface Circular is a neat little story that can be completed in a single sitting, and is admirable in the ways it manages to successfully reuse the hallmarks of the text-adventure genre for a more modern audience. Like Stories Untold earlier this year, Subsurface Circular combines great writing with excellent audio and graphical presentation to deliver an experience that is both enjoyable and philosophically interesting.

Subsurface Circular is set at an undisclosed future time in an unnamed City, where you inhabit the role of a robotic detective riding on the City’s mass transit system. Robots, known as Teks, have taken over most forms of employment in this future, and are assigned various roles such as childcare, psychiatry and so on. They also seem to be the exclusive users of the Subsurface Metro, as you never meet any humans throughout your journey. Early on in your loop around the Metro, another Tek boards your train and asks you to investigate the disappearance of Teks who have gone missing in recent months. Going against your core programming, you agree to investigate. For the rest of the game, you talk to the other Teks who regularly board and get off the train as it travels the Subsurface Circular line, trying to unravel the mystery of the missing Teks. The central plot of the game is generally solid but not fantastic, although it leads to a fitting conclusion which feels properly justified.

Another busy night on the Circular.

Subsurface Circular is a game all about talking (or more accurately reading), and this is the core and sole aspect of gameplay here. Your character is geo-locked to the train carriage they’re riding in, and as such cannot get up and wander around to question suspects. Therefore, all your investigation has to take place on-board the train. When a Tek boards the train, you can initiate a text-chat with them, which is basically like using a futuristic version of MSN Messenger. Whenever a character mentions something important, it generates a “Focus Point” in your inventory, which you can use to question them further and learn more. You do not type your own questions in, but rather use these Focus Points to steer the conversation. While this is more limited than a typical text-adventure, it does prevent some of the stereotypical weaknesses of text-adventures which came from having a freeform text parser. At any point, you may have several designated objectives listed in your UI, and completing any of these will remove any associated Focus Points from your screen. It’s a simple and easy conversation system, but it excels in feeling appropriately “robotic”, despite the fact that Teks clearly have at least some free will and freedom of thought.

The variety of characters you encounter on the train is wide and thanks to the excellent writing, they all feel appropriately different. Considering there is no voice work apart from the station announcements (done in excellently stilted fashion), this is perhaps the game’s greatest success. Rho Six Seven, who has just been fired as a nanny and is going to be reprogrammed, or the priest Tau Two Three who quotes the plot of Thomas Was Alone, feel like they have their own stories which you only catch a glimpse of while they sit with you on the train. The nature of their free will and their servitude to humans is explored in detail, including overtones to real world issues such as increasing automation and racism. These themes can sometimes feel rather ham-fisted in other titles, but Subsurface Circular neatly avoids this.

Just ordinary Teks trying to make an honest living.

The game is scripted in such a way that it is impossible to actually fail, much like a LucasArts game; characters will only leave the train when you’ve successfully completed your objectives with them, and the train will not arrive at certain stations before then. This is understandable for a short game with a limited budget, but it does mean that replayability is somewhat limited apart from to try for the alternative ending or to read some of the excellent director’s commentary, which you can turn on after your initial playthrough. There are a couple of puzzles in here but they’re fairly easy, apart from one logic puzzle which can be helpfully skipped if like me, your brain melts. The best puzzle involves altering the mood of another detective Tek to make them more amenable to answering your questions, which is also one of the funnier interactions.

Visually the game is slick and effective. Despite the fact that you’re exclusively looking at the inside of a train carriage, the lighting and atmosphere change gradually as your journey unfolds. You can always refer to the nicely designed rail map to see what station is approaching next, which is needed in a couple of puzzles. The robots themselves have a beautifully simplistic yet futuristic design, with utilitarian styling and blank featureless faces which nonetheless seem charming rather than frightening. Indeed, their lack of faces is discussed at one point in the game. In terms of sound Subsurface Circular keeps it fairly minimal, but there are some great pieces of electronic music which play occasionally whenever a Listener Tek is on-board the train, as well as the game’s main theme. Likewise, the sound effects of the train and the automated station announcements are excellently done and help to bring a lot of atmosphere to proceedings.

The world is far from a utopian idyll.

Subsurface Circular is the first so-called “Bithell Short”, a shorter experience which required less funding and development time than Mike Bithell’s previous projects. Judging by what we’ve got from Subsurface Circular, I cannot wait to see what other short projects he and his team will do next. Subsurface Circular is a memorable and well told short story. It doesn’t have the witty or sarcastic narration of Thomas Was Alone or Volume, but it still has a lot of heart. Between this and Stories Untold, it’s great to see more high-profile developers experimenting in the field of text-adventures, a medium many thought was destined for the dustbin of history.  Subsurface Circular shows there are still interesting ways that you can present a text-only narrative in 2017, and it does it with both confidence and dynamism.

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