iPad, PC/Mac •
Subsurface Circular exists primarily because of a willingness to experiment during a lull in the developer’s schedule, but it also seems to suit the needs of a maturing game-playing public. While its gameplay is aptly described as “text adventure”, the game deserves credit for establishing an atmosphere and an aesthetic using high-quality audio and visuals. This is possible in such a short window largely because it’s a single-room mystery: the game is played entirely on a train for robots, with the player taking the role of a robot detective smart enough that humans have rendered it unable to leave the train as a precaution.
Bias warning: Bithell Games employs a friend of mine, whose new book The GameDev Business Handbook I offered to blurb. Admittedly, the blurb I offered was “Mike Futter is the man who taught me how to properly plunge a toilet. Demonstration of the relevance of toilet expertise to indie game dev finances is left as an exercise for the reader.”, so it’s understandable that he didn’t go with that for the back of the book.
From the first scene, the game reinforces that precautions are necessary, and that you as the player won’t be doing a lot of personal expression through your choices. A robot offers you a case you aren’t authorized to take; you can choose not to accept, but then the narrative halts entirely as you and your interlocutor continuously approach the next station, but never arrive. Eventually, you have to relent, accepting that the character you’re playing isn’t strictly limited by its directives.
Mechanically, the only minor innovation is the addition of “focus points”, topics which, once encountered, can be raised with conversational partners until they’ve accomplished their goals. But, as the developer commentary indicates, this is basically just a conversational inventory. What elevates it above the more tiresome text adventures is that the writing is both sensible and witty, so the unpleasant experience of blundering about to no effect is absent. It’s sufficiently uncommon for a robot to repeatedly respond with the equivalent of “I have nothing to say about that” that, when it occurs, it’s a useful piece of characterization.
And that is where Mike Bithell excels, seemingly deliberately seeking high degrees of difficulty in order to delight players by succeeding anyway. Thomas Was Alone, the game for which he originally became well-known, was distinctive principally for its well-developed characters represented by rectangles. Yet Upsilon Seven One, as faceless as the rest of the robots, may be my favorite character in a game since Mordin Solus, and many of the others have unmistakeably varied personalities. Leavening a tale fit for film noir is Bithell’s taste for a touch of profound silliness.
Though the story in Subsurface Circular is interesting enough, and it has a few satisfactory puzzles for variety, the great promise of games of intentional brevity is they’ll make ideas which only merit a couple hours’ attention accessible. But sentient AI in anthropomorphic robot bodies is both somewhat limited in technological imagination and yet also very open to exploration. One of the subplots hints at what it would mean for malware to run on sentient individuals, but there isn’t time in a subway chat to get far (John Barnes has explored this in his Century Next Door series, but I’d love to have another thinker’s take). Similarly, there’s just a taste of intersectionality, with a robot from another culture with very different limits on AIs visiting; but again, the conversation just brushes that issue before moving on.
I like the idea of shorts, and it’s surprising that the first game I’ve played which aspires to that role feels so polished. Perhaps it would be better to view it, not as small meal, but a menu. Taken in that spirit, I’d like to order a game which explores the consensual and near-consensual installation of malware into computer intelligences as a metaphor for our own willingness to expose ourselves to memetic sources which predictably cause us to behave in ways we want not to behave. Or perhaps it would be even better to think of Subsurface Circular as a pile of invitations to make our own art, riffing on the themes within.
I should get to work.