Is your dream to sit on a train for a few hours, speaking to whoever gets on, just talking casually and learning about their lives, but all the while uncovering a grand conspiracy that has the potential to reach the top echelons of government? Well then Train Passenger Simulator 2017 is for you! I mean… Subsurface Circular is for you!
Subsurface Circular is a modern take on the text-based games of old, harkening back to the days of Rogue and Zork but now realised in three glorious dimensions, albeit with rather unvaried environments. In fact, there’s just one environment, you will spend the entire game sitting on the same seat of an underground train. However, the deep conspiracies you’ll uncover while in that seat more than make up for the lack of environmental excitement, it is a text-based game after all.
The third game from indie studio Mike Bithell Games, made famous by their Seminal work, Thomas Was Alone; Subsurface Circular was announced and released on the same day and was described by Mike Bithell as a little project to keep him busy while negotiating plans for the development of his studios next major title.
With no release hype and details on the game scarce, Subsurface Circular offers no introduction, but throws you straight into the boots of a detective Tek (robot), solving cases for those known only as ‘management’, his human bosses. Shortly after the game starts another Tek boards the train, and after a brief conversation you learn that one of his friends has gone missing, and down the rabbit hole you go.
In terms of gameplay, it’s incredibly simple; Text rolls up the screen in a classic dialogue display with response options interlaced within. You chat for a while, uncover what the Tek knows, and when you are finished talking with those around you the next stop will come, they will disembark, and a host of new Teks will board for you to speak with.
You will mostly just chat with the Teks, and as they tell their tales you will unlock ‘focal points’, conversation guiders which you can raise with the other Teks around to gather more relevant information. These conversations are occasionally interlaced with minor puzzles, ranging from basic cryptography to logic riddles. These are not all that challenging but may require a pen and paper to connect the dots. There is also a built-in hint provider which works rather well without giving too much away.
The main story may only be a bit over 3 hours long, but it provides an insight into a much larger and heavily detailed world. It describes a world full of Tek hierarchy and power politics, with tensions bubbling between the Teks and their human masters.
The story is also heavily strung with relevant societal messages covering a wide range of topics, with slavery, autonomous workforces, and anti-capitalist sentiments playing a particularly large role. It also delves into the future earth they inhabit, one ravaged by global warming, a fascist London, and a fallen America. It finally takes a short dive into robot religion, and in doing so offering an excellent homage to Thomas Was Alone.
In terms of production value, while environmental variety is lacking, the lighting does shift subtly in reflection of your conversations, and what is presented is clean and vibrant. In all its simplicity, it really is quite a pretty game. While there is no audible dialogue, the train is often occupied by ‘Listener’ Teks, who offer no conversation but sit near you blasting minimalist techno through their headphones, offering a simple but effective musical backdrop to the scene.
The real mastery here however is in the dialogue, it’s written incredibly smoothly, and while it can be a bit stilted and ‘robotic’, the mood is always appropriate. It made me laugh, shocked me, and really feel more than I should’ve playing a game about robots chatting on a train.
The dialogue also does not appear instantly, there is a short ‘writing’ delay before messages appear on the screen, as if the Teks were taking their time to write the message out. This speed can be adjusted although I found the default settings to be the most immersive, and it added some moments of heart-stopping tension after I blurted out something particularly risky.
While the story does offer a number of dialogue options, it’s still fairly linear, and once the twists and turns have been revealed there is little in the way of replayability. This is even acknowledged by the developers with a message on the main menu for youtubers and streamers asking them not to stream past the third chapter as the game is so heavily based on the story. The game does include a commentary mode which unlocks after you complete the final chapter for a little extra play time.
Subsurface Circular is not an extended experience; However, it still manages to fit a huge amount of depth into such a minimal concept. In the age of ultra-realistic graphics and celebrity-status voice actors, who knew a text based game could hold its own against it all. Subsurface Circular is a compelling and emotional rollercoaster of a game, and I only wish I could’ve stayed on that train for a little while longer.
Subsurface Circular is available on PC and OSX.