A little less conversation, a little more action, please. Lyrics don’t get more popular than that, and yet it’s this Elvis Presley quote that Subsurface Circular flies directly in the face of. From the mind behind Thomas Was Alone, Mike Bithell’s latest outing is all about the spoken interaction, and it makes for one very special experience.
The entirety of Subsurface Circular takes place inside a single train carriage, with you assuming the role of a robot, who is referred to as a 'Tek'. Every android is programmed to perform a specific role, and after a fellow passenger tells you about his missing friend, it’s a good job you’ve been wired up as a detective.
This only scratches the surface, however, as you begin to uncover a conspiracy of multiple disappearances. To say much more would step into spoiler territory, but it’s fair to say that things escalate magnificently. You’ll take great care in your dealings with every Tek you come across, as you question them on anything they’ve seen that could be deemed suspicious, or influence them into revealing a secret. Twists and turns also keep you on your toes, with genuine surprises turning proceedings on its head. This all culminates in a final chapter that has to be some of the best storytelling we’ve come across.
Presented with a choice, you’ll have to deal with the consequences no matter which side you pick, as what started out as a simple inquiry turns into a situation you feel is way over your head. This is an incredible plot that grows and grows from the word go, with curveballs thrown into the mix that you would never have guessed to be tackled by a seemingly simple game such as this, as well as a conclusion that had us both mesmerised and feeling a little bit too guilty because of our actions.
Carrying out your detective work is done by interviewing the various Teks that join you in the train carriage. The gameplay loop is based around the conversations you have, as you select who to talk to, choose between dialogue options and then react to what they say. It’s simple, but it works flawlessly.
Some depth to the interactions can be found in the fact that due to you wanting to extract information out of someone, they’re going to want something in return. This sets up the conversational puzzles, where giving correct responses or gaining a piece of information from someone and then incorporating it into a separate discussion is the key to victory. The driving force behind these puzzles are the focus points, words or phrases that can be used as a topic of conversation to turn the chatter in your favour. You’ll gather so much more knowledge from using these after all other avenues have been exhausted, if a Tek is refusing to budge on some important intelligence, a focus point is most likely going to get what you want.
Thanks to never getting too complex, this conversational system is so much fun to engage with. Watching a focus point change the course of the communication is a joy as you uncover something meaningful, while the general chit chatter of the Teks is funny and engaging. With simple side objectives that seamlessly intertwine with the main plot, Subsurface Circular’s systems allow you to interact with and help the many just as much as the few.
The other robots you meet all come with their own personalities and traits, and they’re a bit of an odd bunch to say the least. One Tek will have you playing the role of a priest as they confess their sins, while another will only talk to you if you can convince their lover to leave the train. They’re all endearing in their own ways, and it’s entertaining to speculate just who you’ll meet next.
Subsurface Circular looks and runs like a dream in both docked and handheld mode, as we didn’t experience a single glitch or graphical hick-up during our time with the game. We were too busy being distracted by the thumping electronic soundtrack produced by Dan Le Sac, which goes a long way in setting the mysterious but exciting tone that pulsates throughout the entire experience. This is one you’ll want to have playing on your chosen music device long after you’re done with the title.
A single playthrough can be completed in two hours, and with the conversational system sticking to a linear path rather than allowing you to branch out, there isn’t much reason to return a second time for the core plot. However, completing the game unlocks developer commentary, which actually slots itself into the experience seamlessly in the form of an ever-present BithellBot on the train with you. You can talk to it just like any other Tek, asking it questions about the game’s development. Delving into the title’s code, design, art, and mechanics, you can get into the nitty-gritty of how it all came together.
Subsurface Circular is a landmark moment in interactive storytelling. The elegance of its escalation is simply unmatched, as it tells a story that makes you feel like you’re in completely over your head, and yet still perfectly believable. The characters you meet along the way all feel unique with their own personality, which makes interacting with them a test of wit and cunning as you use the conversational mechanics to their full effect. There’s nothing quite else quite like Subsurface Circular, and when that uniqueness is combined with the phenomenal narrative at hand, you have all the ingredients for a simply unforgettable and very special journey aboard the subway.