Subsurface Circular Review
A two-hour subway journey may sound like a commuter’s worst nightmare, but Subsurface Circular manages to make it both engaging and enlightening. Though to be fair, the game casts you as a robot who doesn’t seem to be capable of boredom.
Developed by Bithell Games, creator of Thomas Was Alone and Volume, Subsurface Circular is intended to kick off a new series of short, experimental narrative games. Appropriately known as “Bithell Shorts,” they’re meant to be both developed and played quickly. The series’ first outing is a roughly two-hour text adventure dressed up with fancy art and music and was developed in just four months.
In it, you play as a detective riding the rails between assignments. Over the course of the game, you don’t once move from your seat, which the game tells you is because humans aren’t comfortable with a machine of your intelligence wandering freely. Bolting a detective to their seat seems like a strange way to get crimes solved, but I’m no roboticist. In the game’s opening sequence, you’re approached by another robot, or “Tek” in the game’s parlance, who enlists you to investigate his friend’s disappearance.
From the outset, Subsurface Circular makes it clear that you aren’t calling the shots. You’re immobile, for one, and you have no choice in whether to take this stranger’s case. Throughout the game, you’re constantly held hostage to others’ emotional whims. To get answers from your fellow passengers, you’ll generally need to do them favors or find other ways around their stubbornness.
The game is divided into discrete chapters in which you must gather information to advance your case. In each section, a number of Teks will board your train car and you’ll question them using a simple conversation menu that designer Mike Bithell said constitutes the game’s “levels.” The UI is sparse and clean, letting you focus on what’s being said rather than fussing with menu selections. It also affords you a clear view of the train car and your conversation partner. While Teks are all faceless, their designs and movements do a remarkable job of imparting them with personality.
Most of that personality, however, comes from the game’s fantastic writing. Even the best games sometimes slip into stereotypes, but Subsurface Circular skillfully molds its characters into individuals. Likewise, your dialogue options do an excellent job of letting you flesh out your protagonist without resorting to the hero/asshole binary that plagues so many other games. The game doesn’t make progress contingent on your behaving a certain way; your options are there for you to shape your character. I found myself considering my words deliberately, not because I had something to gain, but because I cared about what kind of person my character was.
When someone says something that might be pertinent in the course of your conversation, you’ll unlock a new “focus point,” which you can then explore with them or other Teks. These focus points basically serve as keys used to solve the game’s conversational puzzles.
Sometimes you have to solve literal logic puzzles, but most often you’re dealing with the much subtler challenge of piecing together information gained from a dozen different dialogues to get what you want from another character. There isn’t a lot of deep interaction involved, but some of these encounters can go in unexpected directions much in the way real conversations do, which may be even more satisfying.
My favorite conversation in the game involves manipulating a Tek’s emotional state to get multiple responses to the same focus points. It’s an inventive way to solve a puzzle and it rings true emotionally. I wish that more of the game’s stages did as good a job of combining mechanics and story.
Most of the time, while you are free to choose your responses, they have no almost bearing on the game’s outcome. You could get through a lot of the game by going through focus points in order and responding randomly to NPCs’ reactions; choosing different dialogue options just colors the way other Teks speak to you.
How you feel about will have a huge effect on how you feel about the game. Some players will undoubtedly feel slighted by its linearity, but if you interpret it as a tale about the boundaries of free will, your lack of agency is in some ways necessary.
Subsurface Circular isn’t concerned with branching paths or epic plotlines, instead focusing in on character development, expert worldbuilding, and extreme narrative efficiency. From your humble seat on the train, you’ll glimpse an automated world steeped in fascinating characters and hidden turmoil. The game touches on job automation, worker alienation, the inequities of capitalism, and the human tendency to distrust the unfamiliar, without ever feeling like a lecture. At times it borrows from the rhetoric of real-world issues, most notably immigrant rights, but it deftly avoids turning into an allegory. Where lesser storytellers would use the Teks’ struggles as stand-ins for modern-day woes, Bithell is careful to avoid equating them in a way that might seem crass or dehumanizing.
The story is a mystery at its core, so I can’t give much more than the broad strokes without diminishing your experience of it. It takes some genuinely surprising turns without ever relying on cheap twists or shock value, and even its more prosaic elements held my interest. The last third or so of the game contains some brilliant mechanical and narrative inversions that left me absolutely floored and made me question whose interests I was serving and why.
While Subsurface Circular tackles weighty subjects, it usually drops its plot points with a minimum of fanfare. Camera angles generally stay fixed throughout your conversations, and animations are ambient, reflecting the train car’s jostling and Teks’ fidgeting rather than conveying action. Its sound is similarly subdued. Chapters are punctuated by a great synthy score -- the opening song in particular is a banger -- but the game’s sonic landscape mainly comprises the rhythmic hum of the subway and the clicks of your interface selections.
In the Switch port, your controller rumbles in time with the train’s movement, adding an extra link between you and the game world. Playing in handheld mode also allows you to peek down the train car by turning your Switch left and right, and to select dialogue on the touch screen. There’s some strange synchronicity between the Switch and Subsurface Circular’s interface that enhanced the experience, however subtly.
As another bonus, you unlock a developer commentary after finishing the game. This mode cleverly inserts a Tek representing the game’s designer into your train car, who you can talk to using the game’s existing dialogue interface. It won’t change your perspective of the game too much, but it contains plenty of interesting insights and offers a good excuse to immerse yourself in the game’s atmosphere again.
While the isn’t perfect, it’s closer than you might expect and it packs an incredible amount of depth into an unassuming package. If you’re even remotely interested in narrative games, you owe it to yourself to play Subsurface Circular. It’s an engrossing experience in its own right, and it feels like a herald of things to come for the genre.
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