Available On: Microsoft Windows
Developer: Mike Bithell
Genre: Text Based Adventure Game
Release Date: August 17, 2017
Where To Buy: Steam
The idea of robot sentience has always fascinated me. Be it in movies like I, Robot, games like Fallout 4 (Synths), or novels like I Dream of Electric Sheep, the idea that man made technology could develop emotions similar to humans is a captivating and slightly terrifying thought. So when I saw that the creator of Thomas Was Alone had created a game surrounding the subject matter, called Subsurface Circular, I was immediately intrigued.
Similarly to the mindset of Mike Bithell previous game, Subsurface Circular is a game with a simple premise, that holds a fascinating execution and structure. The game opens in the interior of an underground transit system filled with service robots, similar looking to the clone troopers droids in Star Wars, known as Teks. I was put into the role of a Detective Tek Theta One One, with no real knowledge of why at first.
After a few conversations the plot, and the game’s structure, started to unfold. There is no gameplay outside of conversation between the detective and other service Teks on the Subway. Options are given to advance conversations but most of the core gameplay revolves around logic puzzles. To progress, it’s necessary to ask different Teks questions and opening up new focus points, allowing Theta One One to revisit previous conversations with new talking points. Essentially, the conversational system in the game allows the ability to be either straightforward with those focus points or delve into deeper conversations, learning about the individual Teks and the world of Subsurface Circular.
The mysteries that are unveiled through these conversations explore a number of themes relevant to the idea of machines with a sentient nature. The complications and contradictions of Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, the plausibility of artificial memory, the Turing Test, and how sentient machines interact with humanity. They also unveil the worlds political infrastructure and how the techs fit into it.
While the information that is learned throughout in regards to its world is fascinating, speaking of the deteriorating world above and the need for Teks, it’s a shame Subsurface Circular doesn’t actually explore these places. The entirety of the game takes place in the same area, simply rotating stops and robots depending on the chapter. It’s an understandable decision, as a means of saving time only having to create a couple different versions of the same scene, but it would have been enjoyable to actually explore the world. Instead, the setting of the game had me stuck in the same infinitesimal loop (literally) while talking about the city instead of exporting it.
The lack of unique settings doesn’t take away from Subsurface Circulars real triumph though: it’s well-written, well-paced narrative and structure. Modern video games are filled with text based narratives that are labeled more as walking simulators than actual games. Yet this text based narrative is entirely focused on that aspect of the game, instead of trying to add in quick timed events or timed decisions for drastic alternative endings. Subsurface Circular manages to make a linear experience feel varied because of how its structures its conversations and the need to go back and forth between them.
The amount of variation with the dialogue is also impressive. Bithell manages to make each chat with different Teks feel varied and fresh. More importantly, the conversations feel relevant to the machine that Theta One One is talking to. An Elder Tek will converse in a lecture-like manner, with plenty of back in my day words of advice. A Psychiatrist Tek questions the detective’s dialogue choices in a way that assess the true purpose behind the questioning. And an advertisement bot who just wants to sell Theta sweet energy supplements.
I can really tell a lot of work went into the project, as Bithell even created a directors commentary cut of the game after going through the first playthrough. While I have yet to play it, due to time constraints, it will be fascinating to hear the creators inner thoughts regarding Subsurface Circular.
I highly recommend Subsurface Circular for anyone that is a fan of interactive narratives, or just damn good writing. The game is short, and while it had the potential to expand upon its premise, it’s still well worth the hours you will quickly lose playing through it.
Verdict: This is an amazing game for any narrative Sci-fi fans that enjoy a text based experience. Its well-written, well-paced story and fantastic structure are enough to engulf anyone in the mysterious narrative surrounding Theta One One’s investigation. While it could have been amazing, if it had explored more of the setting instead of simply talking about it, Subsurface Circular is still great, and is easily one of the best indie games of the year so far.
- Fantastic writing and pacing
- Unique narrative format
- Directors Commentary
- Varied conversation & Tek personalities
- Limited to one setting
- Talks more about the world instead of exploring it