Have you ever ridden a subway? It’s strange thing where no-one talks unless they know the person in question, and sometimes even then they don’t communicate. In my opinion it is one of the stranger things humans do, and it begs the question what is happening behind the scenes. Subsurface Circular, the new game from Thomas Was Alone and Volume creator Bithell Games, hones in on this idea, and develops a compelling yarn as the characters ride the titular train system.
The main difference here is that the occupants of the train cars on the subsurface circular are androids called ‘Teks’. These robots are real characters, they have back stories, thoughts and feelings not necessarily governed by just programming, but look like more classical robot designs. There isn’t any of the ‘you can’t tell they aren’t human by looking’ nonsense that permeates so much of robots with feelings media. No, these are robots, they just think and feel.
You play as the geo-locked Theta One One (it is possible to change the name but I stuck with this), which means he can’t leave the train. Theta is a detective, who starts to investigate disappearing Teks after a passenger informs him a friend of his is missing. Thus, you embark on what is essentially a very pretty text adventure to determine the cause of these disappearances, and it will throw twists and turns your way.
It’s the writing that is the draw here. The developers previous games have all managed to create atmosphere and personal stories via tremendous writing, which transcends relatively simple visuals to create believable worlds and characters and it is no different here. Theta is a detective, he detects, using conversations to uncover new ways to talk to one character or another and slowly figure out the truth of the case.
Each character interacted with is a unique individual, not just in terms of the assigned job they have, but also their characteristics. One memorable character has an emotional connection to his partner, and I mean that literally. All his emotional comes from the other character, so by talking to that Tek and getting them angry, you then get the corresponding response from the other.
It might not sound like a big thing, but in a game as short as Subsurface Circular it’s these things that make a big difference. Whenever playing I was drawn into the world, and while you could argue the actual plot isn’t the most stunning thing ever made, and to be fair it isn’t, the things around it make for a fascinating version of the future.
I don’t want to talk too much more about the story as I would quickly head into spoiler territory. The moment to moment gameplay is you as Theta One One picking which nearby character to interact with, then selecting from a list of chat options. If those types of games aren’t ones you like, then perhaps move along because Subsurface Circular won’t change your mind.
There are small improvements to help you along though. A hint system is available from the get go if you get stuck, and it is possible to change the speed with which the text is displayed on screen, which helps with the pacing. The biggest thing it does, which again might not seem like much, is that what you select to say is what you actually say. Too often games like this will give you an option to respond with a certain thing like “I don’t like that”, but when you select it, what you actually get is a paragraph of dialog that can seem out of context with the conversation.
In this game, if you select “I don’t like that”, Theta will say that exact phrase, and get the corresponding response. More games need to do it like this, simply because if you’re anything like me then you already started to think about how that phrase would be said and how the conversation might play out, not always getting it right but sometimes. It is so simple, and yet such great a thing to have.
As I said if you don’t like text adventures, dialog wheels or robots, then this isn’t for you. If you want something to play on your switch for a couple of hours that will net you an interesting world and cool if not stellar story, then pick this up, it is definitely worth it.