Subsurface Circular on Nintendo Switch
Subsurface Circular was intended as a small project to keep Mike Bithell and his team busy while the planning and negotiation stages played out for their next big game. It was to be short – the kind of thing you can finish in an evening – and something different to the games they’ve developed previously. There was also little fanfare in terms of marketing for the game, with little more than a tweet from Bithell himself announcing that the game was available on Steam at that exact moment for just a few dollars, which is something you rarely see in the video game industry and almost never for quality titles. Much like its marketing, Subsurface Circular was something different and its somewhat surprising success has led to a release on Nintendo Switch.
The game immediately puts you into the shoes of a detective Robot who is geo-locked to a seat on a train that follows the path of the titular Subsurface Circular subway line. Within moments, you’re introduced to a passenger who is concerned about a friend of his that has gone missing, falling in line with some disappearances that have occurred recently. He asks you to take on the case, with you attempting to decipher what happened to his friend and uncover what’s behind these mysterious vanishing acts, talking to each and every Tek (the term everyone in the game’s world, human or not, uses to refer to a robot) you see during one lap of the circular.
Since the game is an alternative take on the text-based adventure game, there’s very little in terms of what you’d traditionally class as ‘gameplay’. As you sit in the train carriage, other passenger Teks get on and off, allowing you to talk to them and ask questions relating to the case and anything important that you discover along the way. Most conversations begin in a friendly manner (unlike similar situations in the real world) and the characters talk candidly about their experiences and thoughts on the recent events. You are able to choose between a couple of answers, moving the conversation towards something that’ll help with your investigations.
It’s impressive, then, that a game with such a basic premise is so engaging from start to finish. The characters, the writing, and the picture of the world above the train line that is created as you play are what keep you invested in the story. The characters you meet, which range from athlete Teks intent on selling you the robot equivalent of the next big energy drink, to a Nanny who’s just been relieved of her duties and is looking for the next step in her career, each have their own unique personalities. Some are more open to your questioning, while others are more wary of your role in the world’s management system. As you speak to them about their own lives, you need to get an understanding of how they are likely to act in certain situations so that you can gauge how to move forward with your questions.
Those characters are given life by Subsurface Circular’s excellent writing. There’s no audio dialogue, with you having to read every word of each interaction, but the writing is natural and witty enough that you sense a level of humanity in the other passengers, yet there are enough reminders running throughout the writing that keep you aware that you’re a robot talking to other robots. The quality writing also plays its part in developing an idea of the world you’re a part of. There’s more than a few parallels with the current political climate, with Tek and human relations being at the heart of almost everything.
There’s even a clear comment on the political landscape of the UK (where Bithell is from), with a research Tek saying “their political situation is difficult though, not a good place to be poor, or an outsider,” when asked what London is like. The way the writing develops not only the individual mystery but the world it takes place in as well makes for a thoroughly compelling tale. There’s some odd transitions that see the repetition of the last sentence a character has spoken, that often has nothing to do with the current topic, when you return to speak to them, but if you think of them as a robotic quirk they won’t be too distracting. Whether there’s plans to explore the world further with other games like this, under the Bithell Shorts banner, I don’t know, but it feels like somewhere that could be rife with stories to tell.
The game is also made more engaging by puzzles that are woven into the dialogue, making conversations feel more like investigations. One character will raise a point that needs answering, so you need to follow up with another character to get the information that the first requires. With three or so Teks at your disposal at any one time, the puzzles involve deciding what order to speak to each one and what to ask. They get a bit more sophisticated as you progress, asking you to be more precise with your choices and questions to move the conversations forward at all. There’s one or two examples of the game being a little overly self-referential in those latter puzzles, with one strangely drawn-out reference to one of Bithell’s previous games, Thomas Was Alone, feeling a little out of place. However, for the most part, the puzzles are welcome challenge that make Subsurface Circular more than a simple reading experience.
For a game that doesn’t move from a single, rather unglamorous spot inside a train carriage, it’s presentation is impressive. The neon lights in the tunnel flash as you speak, adding to the atmosphere the conversations are creating. Also, whether you’re playing in handheld mode or docked, moving whatever device you’re using to control the game up and down moves the in-game camera in such a way that it adds the sensation of being on a real-world subway carriage. In the Switch’s handheld mode, the game is also entirely playable with touch controls, allowing you to scroll up to see the rest of each conversation, check the Subsurface Circular map, or select what you want to say with no more than a touch of your finger. The small setting feels at home when playing portably and would be perfect as a distraction on a two-hour or so long journey.
Mike Bithell may have intended for Subsurface Circular to be nothing more than something to fill the time between other projects but his team has created an engaging text-based adventure featuring excellent writing, fleshed out characters, a compelling detective story, and a world with the potential to tell many more tales that would be perfect as a single evening’s entertainment. Its unorthodox marketing may have seen it slip under your radar when it came to PC and mobile last year but it’s definitely worth trying now that it’s on Nintendo’s console hybrid.
Score: 4/5 – Great
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