After almost two years since his last game, indie developer Mike Bithell has re-emerged with a new narrative game, Subsurface Circular (SC). Having already proven himself a compelling storyteller with his first two indie games and his penchant for trying new styles, fans were keen to see what direction the new game was going to take.
The (rail)road to Subsurface Circular
In 2012, Bithell rose to prominence with his critically acclaimed indie side-scrolling platformer, Thomas Was Alone (TWA). Although its protagonist was stretchy rectangle, TWA was propelled into the spotlight by its expertly narrated storytelling. The narration earned TWA and its narrating actor a 2013 BAFTA award.
Buoyed by his success, he set about a new project with a much more ambitious scope, resulting in 2015 with his second major release Volume, a much more graphically polished game based around heists. This time, it was narrated by a number of excellent VO artists including Hollywood’s Andy Serkis (Gollum, Snoke, etc). Like its predecessor, Volume received broadly positive reviews, with its clean futuristic visuals and storytelling being hailed as its finer attribute.
Given the time that passed between Volume and Subsurface Circular, it’s clear that he’s used the time well to learn from his experiences. Fans were pleased to find a brand new story to rival TWA with graphics to knock Volume into a cocked hat.
A story worthy of Isaac Asimov
Imagine a futuristic world where humans have finally managed to create semi-sentient robots, ‘Teks’, which have the ability to perform almost any task a human could, sometimes better. The Teks themselves are programmed to be happy with their existence allowing humanity to relax its way into the future. But to hand over the tricky jobs requires some Teks to have a high level of cognition and reasoning… To be able to think for themselves…
The game takes place as dialog between Teks in a futuristic ‘subway car’, as it rattles its way through tunnels and between stations on the Subsurface Circular, an underground transit system for the teks. The only voices you hear are the occasional public announcements above the rattling of the train, which work to perfectly counterpoint the private conversations through which the story is told.
The game’s story is wholly without narration and is reminiscent of the Isaac Asimov stories featuring Elijah Bailey or Susan Calvin. Given the subject matter and quality of writing, I’d be surprised if Bithell wasn’t an Asimov fan himself. In fact, the format of the Susan Calvin books resonates particularly well, as they typically take the form of an dialog between a robot which appears to have malfunctioned and the investigator, Susan herself. Susan asks it a series of questions to determine how it reached its errant logical conclusion, the answers adding detail and colour to the story.
SC’s story follows a very similar pattern, however the interrogator role is performed by a ‘detective’ tek rather than a human, and the evidence provided by a steady stream of ‘interviewees’, also teks.
James (what I decided to call my tek) sits quietly, awaiting an assignment when a tek passenger boards the train and we initiate a short-range text-based IM chat. He hints at a possible crime and asks for help. As James, you are faced with your first dilemma: Ignore him (it *may* a crime, but it hasn’t been assigned to you), or break protocol and dig deeper by asking questions.
Each question opens up new dialog options and new decisions on how to progress the narrative. Some replies can become ‘focus points’ you can raise with other passengers (aka clues). Once the conversation ends, the passenger sits quietly, and leaves at their stop, replaced by new teks.
In this way, you have a steady stream of ‘people’ to chat to. So progressing from one witness to another, you’ll receive a different ‘flavour’ of the evidence, which may ultimately affect your decisions…
Interactive fiction was a huge thing in the 80s with text adventures and choose-your-own-adventure books. SC feels very much like a modern-day return to those halcyon days.
The dialog trees are well crafted and feel logical: The amount of truth or falsehood, staid or humour you inject into the conversations is purely up to you, allowing you to elicit a variety of responses.
As the story unfolds all of the pieces you’ve learned start to slot together although a lot of the inference is left up to you from the text itself… In the end, it comes down to your choice of how you see the situation, and I can promise you, the choice isn’t an easy one to make.
The clues feature works really nicely, and feels just how a computer would store them, as a ‘hot link’ to be brought up later, adding a little non-linearity to the dialog tree.
Graphics and sound
The graphics are pleasing, and although they’re circumstantial, don’t distract from the story at all. The camera makes heavy use of depth-of-field and bloom to provide a wonderful focus on the main characters. The subway car is wonderfully lit, and rattles along, jerking a little just like one would expect it to.
One thing that’s nice, is the way the teks turn their heads, use their bodies when walking and sit. The sitting positions are all very natural, and the sudden switch from robotic walking to human-like slouching is brilliantly done.
The sound is also great. I played with headphones, and the clacketty-clack, the PA system and doors whooshing all create a perfect soundscape of an underground train.
The sum of its parts
As a social commentary on the plight of humanity’s future, subsurface Circular works very well, and like a lot of Asimov’s books it forces you to think about humanity’s future. Worryingly, the scenario is all too plausible, although how the robots react to it is pure science fiction.
If I had to find a fault, I’d say that the game started to feel a little ‘manufactured’ at points, and the random nature of the passengers suddenly didn’t feel random any more. Without saying too much, I understand that the breakdown in randomness is probably intentional, but I can’t work out whether the sudden “A needs B which coincidentally is right here” is meant for the player to notice, but I don’t know.
From start to finish, I found myself on the edge of my seat trying to work out what was really going on. Like any good mystery movie, your assumptions and experience lead you to a conclusion, but the narrative steers you elsewhere. The ending was unexpected, delightfully logical, but emotionally hard to experience.
The storytelling is very well done, and the many thousands of lines of interrogative dialog are extremely well crafted, which I’m sure Mr. Asimov would be proud of. The sound and graphics are not AAA studio quality, but in fact work much better thanks to their clean looks. The length of the game, while only a few hours, is about right for a something which is meant to be a short story. The little details like the adverts in the train carriage and the length of time the “…” animates for, showing that the tek is “typing” its response are all calibrated to make it feel just like a chat between two passengers on a subway.
In my opinion, the game suffers a little in the later stages by having only the one location… A little variety would not go amiss, for example waiting in a station for another train. Also, after the third or fourth ‘episode’, the passengers start to feel less-than-random, which at the time detracts a little from the experience: I’d have preferred a few more ‘ringers’ to get on and off to obscure the fact that the teks are being provided in a specific sequence.
If you enjoy more relaxed cerebral games, especially ones focused around science fiction, or the what-if of future humanity, I think Subsurface Circular works very nicely. If you’re like me and like to try and work out the identity of the murderer of a whodunit before Poirot does the reveal, you’ll definitely enjoy it. Let me know what outcome you chose, and if you figured it out before the end!