Subsurface Circular is a visual novel about talking to strangers on a train. Basically, a British person’s worst nightmare. It ends up being a relaxing and thought-provoking experience where you talk to androids and solve a mystery without ever moving from your seat. At ninety minutes long, Subsurface Circular doesn’t overstay its welcome and if anything I wanted the experience to last a little longer.
Subsurface Circular popped up on Steam in August of last year without much fanfare or promotion beyond a tweet from developer Mike Bithell. I bought it immediately, but it took me a while to get around to playing it. I’m glad I did.
In Subsurface Circular, you play as a Tek (basically an android) detective who works for a group of humans known as “management.” While on the subsurface circular line—used exclusively by Tek—you strike up a conversation with another Tek who tells you that his friend has gone missing under unusual circumstances. You quickly break your programming and decide to investigate the case even though you don’t have permission from management.
By talking to other Tek, you unlock focus points which are essentially new topics of conversation that you can use to probe away at the mystery as you gradually unravel what’s happening to the disappearing Tek.
There’s a light puzzle element to the conversations. One Tek might not open up until you solve a problem for it which can conveniently be done by talking to the Tek next to you. A couple of the later puzzles ramped up enough that I needed to get a pen and paper out to make notes. I would have loved the puzzles to build in complexity a little more. You’re playing the role of a detective and yet just as the puzzles get interesting the story ends. It feels cruel to knock a $6 game for not having enough content, but just a couple of more complex puzzles would have made solving the mystery that much more satisfying.
Sitting on a train talking to androids might not sound entertaining, but the conversations are often funny and offer insight into what life is like on the surface. World building is limited—as you’d expect from a game where you never move from your seat—however I never found this a problem. I only needed to believe in the characters right in front of me. Instead of bringing players into the world through hyper-realistic graphics, Subsurface Circular uses witty and meaningful dialogue which feels like it was written by a person with actual emotions, not an AI who has scanned a couple of history books.
The Tek are interesting with memorable personalities and they aren’t just humans in metal bodies. A highlight is the Tek celebrity athlete who answers every question by plugging its energy drink sponsor. There is also a robot nanny who has lost its job and a priest who listens to the confessions of other Tek. Even with some fourth wall breaking, I got far more invested in Subsurface Circular‘s ending than Detroit: Become Human‘s which speaks volumes about the quality of writing in both.
My ninety minutes with Subsurface Circular absolutely flew by. The animations and gentle music lulled me into the world just like a good graphic novel. Every line added something meaningful, be it a joke, character detail, or cheeky reference to Thomas Was Alone. For the bargain price of $6, I highly recommend giving Subsurface Circular a go.