Asking AroundThoughts on Subsurface Circular by Mike Bithell
I’ve lately been enjoying short, story-driven games like Gone Home, Virginia, What Remains of Edith Finch, and Firewatch. Subsurface Circular fits that bill, although it’s no walking simulator, either. Just the opposite: the protagonist is seated for the duration of the two-hour experience. I was going to make a joke about the nascent “sitting simulator” genre of games, but it turns out that Chair Simulator is blazing trails here. (Careful, though: you die if you sit for too long in that one.)
Playing as a sentient robot (a.k.a. a “tek”) who works as a detective on a city subway, you’ll be advancing the story solely through conversation. The game isn’t voiced (the teks apparently don’t vocalize to communicate, anyway), so this means reading and choosing between provided responses.
The setting and gameplay (such as it is) support each other well. Characters enter and exit your car ostensibly according to the origin and destination of their subway trip, and the game tailors the travel duration so that these events line up with the progress of your investigation. You’re never cut off or subjected to awkward pauses, but the experience still gives the impression of an impromptu investigation (though the pacing is a bit too scripted to feel entirely natural).
Then again, Subsurface Circular doesn’t try very hard to make the interaction seem rich. It’s easy to imagine plenty of mechanics that would make your sleuthing feel creative, but this game has very few. You can get very far by simply exhausting all dialog options without bothering to read them.
This is sure to disappoint players looking for logic puzzles, but it would be an oversimplification to say the game isn’t engaging. Like any mystery story, there’s something to be said for the experience of collecting information and reshaping your hypothesis, regardless of the agency you have over the action.
Although Subsurface Circular could have been executed thirty years ago as a text-based adventure, it offers surprisingly strong visuals. It simulates a physical camera to impressive cinematic effect, and the composition is strong. The teks’ designs are minimalistic but distinctive enough to make the appearance of new characters interesting. The interface doesn’t need to do much, but its crisp, futurist style fits the setting.
Subsurface Circular is way more approachable than games that require precise control, but the story and gameplay still make it something of a niche title. Sci-fi readers will probably find it a nice diversion, provided they aren’t expecting a long one.