We are entering the age where artificial intelligence and androids will be commonplace among our society, serving a variety of roles and positions. With the growth of any intelligence, there is the possibility of sentience and self-awareness. How would a robot feel about their role and what their role entails? Would they desire to change their role, their functions, or perhaps the way things work?
This and many more questions are explored in Subsurface Circular, a text-driven detective story from legendary video game designer Mike Bithell, the creator of Thomas Was Alone and the stealth-action classic game, Volume. Subsurface Circular is a very different game, especially for the audience on the Nintendo Switch, but it’s it an engaging and refreshing one that asked thought-provoking questions that even now, still get me thinking.
The game takes place in dystopian London in the near future, where computers and robotics have become vital for a functioning city and economy. The robots in the city are known as Teks. London is a city of mixed statuses everywhere you look. There are some struggling with homelessness and crushing debt, while there are others that have gotten by. In this future, London was involved in a significant conflict in Europe, which deployed Infantry Teks designed with advanced combat A.I.
After the war, London changed, with supreme political figures gaining power and control, establishing a flawed society where the rich benefit and profit from warmongering and weapons manufacture. There are those that have risen and resisted, even proving politicians of their guilt through information warfare and digital espionage. However, things remain as they are. You play Tek James One One, a Tek designed for detective work. You are assigned to ride the train, known as the subsurface circular, after a series of disappearances and odd occurrences. The human-lead management has assigned you to this task. What begins with a simple, routine investigation soon evolves into something far more sophisticated, and perhaps dire.
It is worth mentioning that Subsurface Circular takes place in the same universe as Mike Bithell’s Volume, from 2015 for PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, and Steam. The game was a futuristic telling of the classic Robin Hood story, as a young but brilliant user, Rob, uses the advanced computer systems of the volume to take from the rich and pompous politicians of London to give back to the poor and the weak. You don’t have to play Volume before playing Subsurface Circular, but it does help in setting the mood and understanding the volatile situation occurring in London. Plus, its a great game with an amazing soundtrack and gameplay that everyone should play.
Subsurface Circular is smart, engaging, and at times, philosophical. As players select bands of text and who to interact with, they will be able to pick up and store clues. You are a robot after all and your detective skills, memory, and problem-solving skills are much more advanced than the average human. Text appears regularly at the center of the screen, which doesn’t compromise the visual imagery of the environment and what is around you. Granted, all that players will see are robots riding in an underground train system, but it is fascinating to see the different designs of the Teks, as well as listen to their thoughts on being assigned a specific role in the city’s management system.
James One One will encounter a variety of Teks, ranging from construction workers, former soldiers, nanny’s, priests, and even two robots that have affectionate feelings. The themes of robot flaws, human nature, and the events happening above will come into conversation frequently. Throughout the dialogue, Subsurface Circular poses big thoughts and questions, some of which are mirroring our world right now. Machines make life easier, but unemployment and homelessness is a real possibility.
Is it the machines’ fault or the faults of the government and companies for refusing to create jobs? Is religion a possibility for a machine? Can a machine feel regretful? What happens when a machine is re-assigned to another role? In Subsurface Circular, the consequences and beliefs of what is right and wrong exist, and players will see how that affects the Teks. However, these ideas aren’t terribly heavy, as Subsurface Circular is designed for all players in mind.
Players of Subsurface Circular can affect the roles of some of these Teks, including their functionalities, all in an effort to solve the mystery of why so many Teks have gone missing. Using a fascinating visual presentation, players can observe their surroundings without the text obscuring the environment. While the environment doesn’t change all that much, it is interesting to see the different designs of the Teks, as well as how the train car slightly changes as the mystery continues. The soundtrack by Dan le Sac also adds to the mystery with a handful of notes to underscore the dark complexity buried beneath the city. On the Nintendo switch, the entire experience can be played with the touch-screen, making the game perfect for that on-the-go.
Subsurface Circular may be a short game, but it is smart and refreshing, filled with intrigue and thought-provoking questions. Mike Bithell has begun an intriguing idea in telling great stories in smaller games. I do hope that Mike continues this trend, as it is a great way to see fantastic tales told without having to resort to a distracting mechanic such as shooting and violence. Subsurface Circular is a mystery you’ll want to dig into, no matter how deep it goes.
Subsurface Circular is available on Steam, iOS, and the Nintendo Switch.
Subsurface Circular may be a short game, but it is smart and refreshing, filled with intrigue and thought-provoking questions. Mike Bithell has begun an intriguing idea in telling great stories in smaller games.