Mike Bithell released a surprise new game today. This happy event is notable because Bithell’s previous work includes the inventive platformer Thomas Was Alone as well as Volume, one of the best stealth adventures ever made.
Today’s release is called Subsurface Circular, a short game that takes place entirely in one location and which relies on dialogue trees for progression. In essence, it’s a text adventure.
Bithell’s plan is to release a series of such games, which are designed to be played in single session and priced accordingly. It’s a great idea, and I can’t think of a developer better placed to create what amounts to a series of interactive novellas and thought experiments.
Subsurface Circular is the story of a near-future robot that spends its entire life on an underground metro line. The robot is a detective that works on behalf of the city's unseen human masters. The detective-robot’s job is to chat with fellow passengers in order to solve crimes. These passengers are all robot-slaves, whose jobs vary from construction to the clergy.
As the detective, I agree to take on an unusual case and spend the game chatting with a variety of robots that come and go. The train wends its way around the city’s circular line. Some of these robots require help in personal or practical matters, which means I must solve puzzles and riddles.
These puzzles often require me to dig out a pencil and paper, which is my idea of a good time. The puzzles are neither repetitive, maddening nor perfunctory. They strike a balance between challenge and pleasure, like a really good crossword.
Bithell’s work has always sought the core attractions of the genres he’s tackled, stripping away unnecessary fat. At the same time, he augments the experience with witty writing and a feeling of underlying political or personal relevance. Subsurface Circular is no exception. It’s a sparkling adventure in dialogue, personality and interrogation.
The characters and environments are competently rendered in a minimalist style not dissimilar to Volume. Each traveler looks like variation on a basic robot model. Once again, Bithell has opted for visual simplicity.
Yet the dialogue — entirely delivered in the form of text — manages to create a cast of misfits, do-gooders, cynics and scumbags. This is a rich narrative landscape of ambition, disappointment, naïvete and oppression. It is often funny, and sometimes sad.
With each encounter, I choose from a menu of potential answers, but it’s almost always clear to me which direction I need to take. Many alternative answers lead to the same destinations, or merely exist for the sake of comedy.
This is not a criticism. Subsurface Circular is an excellent linear story that offers a little diversionary entertainment and the illusion of choice, right up to the point when it turns on me and demands that I make a real and very difficult choice indeed.
In the end, the game asks serious questions about the issues we face right now: whether or not our workforce model is sustainable in the face of growing automation, and the conflict of ideas this problem is likely to spawn.
Subsurface Circular is part of a growing trend of experimental games from developers who do not feel obliged to work inside the confines of standard commercial game development. It is born of an interest in other forms of art and literature. This game is not merely a noirish detective story; it's a part of gaming culture, peppered with wry little references.
Subsurface Circular extracts maximum entertainment from limited resources through the admirable trick of great writing, excellent pacing, sparkling dialogue and bang-on story beats. It’s a lovely little game, the fine work of a developer whose main skill differential is neither coding, art nor level design, but good old-fashioned storytelling.
Subsurface Circular was reviewed using a pre-release “final” Steam download key provided by Bithell Games. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.