Publisher: Bithell Games
Developer: Bithell Games
Format Reviewed: PC
Provided By: Purchase by Reviewer
Very few games make the act of conversation exciting. While many games have dialogue, they use it only to support the overall narrative or to justify the main source of gameplay. They use it as a tool and ignore the possible encounters a conversation can have. Subsurface Circular creates these encounters and uses conversation as a window into the world these characters inhabit.
Set in an Asimov themed world, Teks (robots) have been implemented in all forms of industry, from nurses to detectives. You are one of those detective Teks, who has been asked to complete an unauthorized investigation on the disappearance of Teks.
To solve this mystery, you must speak with other passengers on this train, trying to pry information from each Tek and use it to form clues. With the ability to learn specific topics called focus words, each conversation becomes a puzzle as you try to guide Teks into giving your information.
While both the narrative and the conversations start out slow, each encounter soon becomes a mix of quick revelations and complex coercions. These Teks are self-aware and understand their place in the world and how humans view them. Taking cues from the science fiction novel iRobot, the relationship between Teks and humans are tense and change on a case-to-case basis. Humans show fear and resentment towards the Teks that replace them, and love and adoration to those that serve them.
This is all done while navigating interesting conversation puzzles. Since Teks vary in both intelligence and purpose, you must adapt and use your focus words to work around each Tek’s quirk or challenge. While many puzzles acknowledge the mechanical aspects of the Teks and allow the player to use those aspects against them, I wish there were some larger scale manipulations that fully used some of the concepts presented. These puzzles were fantastic and made me crave for more elaborate challenges.
However, not all of the narrative themes were delivered with as much elegance as the puzzles. The fear of replacement and dangers of full automation lacked the nuance that made the rest of the game so engaging. While it was a small misstep in phrasing, these themes have been used so many time within science fiction, that any failure becomes glaring in comparison. The other themes addressed however, were nuanced and interesting, displayed in both direct conversation and the subtext behind it.
The characterization was also clean and well executed. Teks may be artificially designed with a specific purpose, but each encounter showed how self-awareness affects the subservient programming of the Laws of Robotics. Teks display resentment or compassion to humans depending on their individual experiences. While their personalities are limited, those slight traits make them relatable and sympathetic.
This tale of mystery and choice is like a well-written novella, short and satisfying. Taking up less than two hours on a first time playthrough, players can fly through the experience in one sitting. For players who are less skilled in puzzles or just want to see the story, there are numerous hints and tools used to make the conversations easier.
Subsurface Circular combines traditional science-fiction themes with an interesting mystery to hook players on their two hour adventure. With puzzles that make talking engaging and conversations that show the world without becoming tired exposition, Subsurface Circular is an amazing text-adventure. Sitting on a train has never been so interesting.