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Subsurface Circular is a stylish, engaging and affordable success

By Sean Willett, September 13 2017 —

British video game developer Mike Bithell, known for the critically acclaimed games Thomas was Alone and Volume, is releasing a series of short, inexpensive games meant to be played in a single sitting. Subsurface Circular, the first of the series known as “Bithell shorts,” was released in August on Mac and PC.

The game casts players as a robot detective investigating a series of mysterious disappearances. In Subsurface Circular, robots — called “Teks” — have replaced humans in almost every field, though strict limitations are placed on the movement of the more intelligent Teks. This confines the player to a train car on an underground subway. The entirety of the game unravels through conversations with passengers as they board and depart.

At its core, Subsurface Circular is a text adventure. Gameplay consists of navigating conversations by selecting from a list of responses with the goal of convincing your fellow Teks to give you information. Sometimes this means solving a logic puzzle or gathering information from several sources, but the path forward is almost always clear. There is an optional hint system, but I never felt the need to use it.

While Subsurface Circular’s gameplay doesn’t reinvent the wheel, it’s perfectly suited to the story Bithell wants to tell. It is a story about the automation of labour, the rights of sentient machines and the fear of obsolescence. These are common themes in science fiction but Bithell approaches the subject with a sense of perspective and grounded humanity that shows why these issues are so immediately relevant.

This is demonstrated perfectly in the game’s final moments. Though most of Subsurface Circular is linear, the ending presents players with a single, punch-to-the-gut choice. It’s a testament to Bithell’s writing — clear, thoughtful and surprisingly funny — that this moment lands with such impact.

The game’s narrative is enhanced by its stylish, minimalist aesthetic. Teks look cohesive yet distinct, with subtle differences echoing the disparate roles they were built to fill. These visuals are paired with a pulsing, down-tempo soundtrack by Dan le Sac, which underscores the game’s emotional moments without getting in the way.

The most striking aspect of Subsurface Circular is its size. The entire game takes about two hours to finish and is completely confined to a single, almost static environment. This is not a limitation — smaller, more intimate games like Subsurface Circular give developers like Bithell more freedom to tell their stories. Plus, the game’s launch price of $6.49 makes it an accessible experience.

Subsurface Circular tells a gorgeous, achingly relevant sci-fi story that takes exactly the amount of time it needs to hit home. Its ending will stick with you long after the credits roll and you’ll only need an evening to play it from start to finish. In a medium where stories often take over 20 hours to complete, the game is a refreshing change of pace.

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