Today Thomas Was Alone and Volume designer Mike Bithell dropped a surprise game on Steam called Subsurface Circular. It’s a short robot detective story set entirely on a train beneath a futuristic city, and it’s pretty cool.
Bithell sent us a code for the game earlier this week, so I sat down and spent a couple of hours playing through it. The setup is straightforward: You’re a detective “tek,” which is what robots are called in this world, riding a train called the Subsurface Circular. A passenger tells you a troubling story about a missing tek, and you begin an unauthorised investigation to find out what’s going on.
At each stop, robots get on or off, and you’re free to talk with any who sit near you. Over the course of seven chapters you gradually learn more about the case, as well as what’s happening in the city above you.
Subsurface Circular is mechanically limited, and your character never even gets out of its seat. The whole thing plays out in dialogue exchanges with other robots, which you’ll have to navigate using a growing number of key phrases and ideas you unlock as your investigation progresses.
There’s some light puzzle solving, and occasionally I had to slow down and think through how to get a tek to give me the information I needed. But for the most part Subsurface Circular is a laid-back experience closer to reading a pleasant short story.
Like many good short stories, Subsurface Circular keeps things simple. Each character you speak with fills in some small bit of information about the city above, but you never actually see it or head out into it. The city and its inhabitants are painted in broad strokes, which is probably for the best.
It mostly exists as a backdrop for Bithell to further explore ideas about artificial intelligence he first poked at in Thomas Was Alone, while at the same time pondering the social and existential questions raised by an automated citizenry.
The big thematic questions Subsurface Circular asks aren’t new or even all that profound, but add a touch of social weight to an otherwise by-the-numbers sci-fi tale. The script also has a dry humour that I liked, and it knows when to stay serious and when to crack a joke. I like the idea of this sort of low-commitment, short-story-style narrative game, and would love to see more.