Subsurface Circular is a curious and promising artefact (now followed by Quarantine Circular) that layers simple visuals and effective sound onto what is essentially a nicely crafted linear text adventure.
Circular’s world is one of ubiquitous automation; an underclass of variously sentient robots and AIs run manufacturing and processing functions for society, while only ‘management’ is left to humans. Players take on the role of a high-level robot detective marooned in the titular underground transit system and drawn into a curious case by a chance encounter. Robots are disappearing, and it’s left to players to discover why.
A straightforward enough science fiction plot unfolds from there, presented with charm. Dialogue comes in fits and starts, and players control the order of conversation, though not the content. Occasional logic puzzles pop up, but Circular’s brief runtime is intended as a smooth, largely on-rails journey, and delays are momentary.
As players progress their dialogues with a variety of smooth-faced robots, atmospheric music segues in and out, and moody visuals, punctuated with splashes of colour, paint the picture of an above-ground world that could be utopian or quite dystopic, depending on a few key variables.
Creator Mike Bithell’s writing is sharp and witty, and his construction of an apparent conspiracy is nicely drip-fed to players. This is well-done detective fiction, and though its twists are far from seismic, they are teased out pleasingly. As momentum builds towards the story’s conclusion, players are forced to boil down their feelings on the automatic and divided world they have had described to them, to a final choice.
These game-ending choices are often frustrating and pointless misdirections, the illusion of agency. Refreshingly, Bithell seems to agree. The player’s choice leads to no parameter-based coda or epilogue, and as such is instead a simple thought exercise. It is reductive, but deliberately so, and thus a rare example of its formal trappings succeeding. Players who wish to engage with the question posed more deeply can do so – others can put their controller down and move on.
Subsurface Circular is a novella-like interlude of a game, and a nourishing experience. Its philosophical leanings are perhaps slightly on-the-nose in their presentation, but its snappy script and brisk pace make for a refreshing journey.