My previous experience regarding Bithell Games consisted of playing and enjoying Thomas was alone but never finished it, so going in to Subsurface Circular I had no previous expectations. I had not heard anything regarding Subsurface Circular besides it being a narrative driven text adventure with a “graphical twist” as noted in the Steam Description for it. Now after spending 3 hours with the game, I must say I left satisfied and pleasantly surprised by it.
One of the most surprising elements of the game is its humor; the game genuinely made me stop and laugh multiple times while playing it and it did so through excellent writing and character work. The moments of genuine laughter were not caused by some wacky comic relief character that just serve the purpose of a laugh and then is gone or exists in the story with the sole purpose of making you laugh. The humor came from the characters I interacted with to progress the story which made the characters interesting and well realized; they were not just vessels of a specific purpose as some of them were representative of a specific type of person but could still be funny or sad just like real people who have their own personalities. Which brings me to my next point: it walks the fine line of trying to convey messages, themes and a story without it being overtly preachy about it or too serious.
Many other stories from various mediums of entertainment fail to do so and thus become uninteresting and feel too mechanical or too much like a creation of someone and not something that feels real and that it existed long before you decided to experience it. This is especially true in the medium of video games and, while Subsurface Circular sometimes does tip the line in being too serious or too goofy, it handles the majority of the game with the right amount of seriousness and light-heartedness necessary; let’s not forget that this is a game about a detective robot riding the titular Subsurface Circular trying to solve a mystery by talking to the passengers. This is where the excellent writing comes in, which helps the game sell its world of one task robots with different levels of intelligence and different personalities working endlessly to maintain the human world. Although the premise is something that has been seen before, this incarnation of that sci-fi trope is different enough and well executed that it does not harm the game or its story. Moreover, the excellent writing combined with excellent decision-making in design help the game become engaging right off the bat as well as sustain the level of engagement even after the game is completed; decisions such as how the conversations play out may reveal some surprising avenues or may end prematurely (although there is no way to end up in an actual dead end as far as I have seen). Some are designed to feel like a quest, for example a communications’ robot that has a glitch meaning you have to figure out how to fix it and talk to it or an all knowing bot that is off the grid and wishes to be surprised by hearing a joke, while others are part of a puzzle and some start like small talk between two strangers in a train evolving into an actual conversation.
There is also the ‘focal point’ system that requires the player to learn about a vital piece of the puzzle and start asking passengers about it, so we can learn more; this is a clever way to makes sure the player feels like they are progressing and are not going too far ahead. Moreover, excellent decisions were made regarding the light puzzle solving elements of the game, with puzzles not being too difficult as to slow down the pacing nor too easy as to feel like a meaningless distraction. Furthermore, there is the welcome exclusion of arbitrary and anxiety-inducing timers that for me mostly result in choices I didn’t want to make-either because I felt pressured in making a decision I wasn’t happy with or due to not given enough time to consider the situation. In subsurface circular, I wasn’t always happy with my choice but I accepted it because I was given ample time to consider, interpret and react to each situation and decision. All of these elements help in creating excellent characters from which the story, themes and symbolism can be extracted from, which in turn are excellent as well. Symbolism and messages are depended on interpretation which I really appreciate as often times a line or a conversation is included to make the actual intention of the writers’ known, thus ruining any different interpretations, which thankfully isn’t the case here.
The story is twisting and fascinating with the central mystery and the eventual ending sequence, which is done really well harkening back to the entirety of the narrative in an appropriate and satisfying way. However, it has to be said that the story requires a lot suspension of disbelief in order to work but I personally think that the game earns it. A worthy mention, as well, is the pacing of the game, as no text read and no second spent in the game is wasted, which in turn makes it a shorter experience than most in video games but for me a good and worthy one. Thus, the selling points of a story driven text adventure are fantastic here; every element introduced and explored whether funny, dramatic or thought-provoking is handled with extreme care for details and executed to a degree I’ve rarely experienced in video games.
Despite the positives, the game does have a few faults and although none of them really harmed my experience individually, put together they made the game less enjoyable. For example, I didn’t really care for the music as it stuck in the background and didn’t add anything to the experience which it could have; although there were parts where it became a focal point, even there I still found it largely forgettable. Another issue for me is the suspension of disbelief requirements; as I mentioned before it is earned, however there were some bits where the game went against its own logic that were especially jarring and required me to not think about the logic and just accept it. I’m glad I did and it was completely worth it, however it was a slight disappointment in an otherwise fantastic narrative experience. Lastly the game looks really good for an indie game of that price range; however I have to say that I found the aesthetic to be kind of bland and generic, which was a bit disappointing considering how much detail and design work went into the robots and the train. On their own they look really good, but mixed together they feel generic.
All in all these criticisms are not enough on their own to harm the experience; however when put together and experienced alongside what the game does well in the short period of time it takes to complete it they have a stronger impact and end up somewhat harming the game.
To conclude with, I really enjoyed riding the Subsurface Circular. The excellent story, writing and pacing make it a worthwhile and engaging narrative. The symbolism, themes and messages make it a thought-provoking experience, while the genuine laugh out loud moments and self-awareness shown keep it from becoming preachy and pretentious. The light puzzle solving, conversation and decision-making systems take full advantage of the medium it chose to tell its story in and, while the experience is certainly not without its flaws, it is nonetheless a commute I would take again and again and would highly recommend it to anyone who fancies a great story driven game and a comfortable, thought-provoking commute.