It’s rare that a game will come along that doesn’t actually require you to do much gaming. But that’s just what Subsurface Circular asks of you. This is the first of a new series of shorts by Mike Bithell - the chap behind Thomas Was Alone and Volume - innovatively called Bithell Shorts. Just in case you weren’t clear that Bithell’s the brainchild behind these new games.
And I do mean brainchild, because Subsurface Circular is just a little bit brilliant. It’s a text-based adventure where you play as a detective robot who is geo-locked to a seat on a train going around the titular subway line. You can’t do anything except interact with your fellow passengers, asking them questions and generally discussing their day.
It quickly unfolds that your detective skills are going to come into play. One particular commuter asks you for help finding his missing buddy, a fellow Tek who’s mysteriously vanished - and it seems others have too. Before long you’re entwined in a robot mass murder mystery that tackles ideas of politics, class systems and even uncanny valley. It’s an intelligent story with several layers to it, and although I daren’t say too much about it for fear of spoilers, it’s one worth experiencing if you’re looking for something worthwhile to play on a Sunday afternoon.
It’s amazing that a game where literally all you can do is talk to other characters is as engaging as Subsurface Circular is. Harking back to the days of simple point-and-click games but without much clicking, this is a game that totally hinges on how good the story is. Thankfully, Bithell’s history is all about the story. It was the dialogue given to the cast of quadrangles in Thomas Was Alone that really helped its success, voiced by the brilliant Danny Wallace.
Interestingly, there’s no spoken dialogue in Subsurface Circular aside from the intermittent station announcements from the tannoy. Instead, your interactions are purely text-based, but the script is so well written that you’ll find yourself chuckling away or feeling desperate to get to the answers just as much as the protagonist is. It plays out a bit like a Phoenix Wright game, where the more you talk to the other robots around you, the more focus points will appear.
The way you choose to ask questions and interact with the robots is key to the way the story plays out, or at least that’s how you feel when you’re playing anyway. And the dialogue is all connected too in that you might need to talk to someone else before you can get all the information you need out of your original interrogation. There are plenty of twists and turns to the point that you can never quite grasp the whole story until it’s closing out. It’s only around four hours of gameplay, but it’s one of those games that keeps you guessing. I also like how the gameplay doesn’t just come in the form of moving from one robot to another to move the dialogue along. There are actual puzzles to be solved, moral dilemmas to weigh up and cryptic clues to untangle. The subsurface circular is full of more mysteries and enigmas than it initially suggests.
There’s no word on whether the stories will be linked across all these Bithell Shorts, but there’s plenty of intrigue in Subsurface Circular’s story to play out into a bigger narrative, perhaps making these more like a Telltale Series than isolated novellas.
The graphics are also particularly lovely, as despite the fact this futuristic text adventure only features one scene, the way the light pulses through the windows as the train moves through the tunnels, the detailing on the individual robots and the way the camera movement mimics the movement of the robot’s head is particularly impressive.
In fact, the only thing that really annoys me about Subsurface Circular is how self-reflexive it is. Well, self-reflexive when it comes to referencing both of Bithell’s previous games. Not only is there a discreet nod to Gisborne early on in the game, but the characters of Thomas Was Alone are treated as the robot Gods, with the entire opening scene becoming scripture. It’s almost funny, in a way, but it’s a little too self indulgent for my tastes - despite the appreciation I have for Bithell games. It may be an in-joke of course, with only those knowing Bithell’s previous work getting the laughs from the references, but still.