Subsurface Circular is a game of puzzle conversation. The look and feel are quite polished — nice animations, sound effects, a sense of three-dimensional place, a UI representation of how far you are along your subway journey — but your activity in the game is talking to your fellow robots on a subway car, mostly picking dialogue options.
For Plot Reasons, you yourself are never allowed to leave the subway. But other riders come and go, and you can interrogate them for as long as they’re seated near you. The subway ride also functions as a measure of your progress through the story, in an elegant understated way: you know where you started, and roughly how far you are from completing the loop.
Character entrances and exits are gated in such a way that, as far as I can tell, it’s not possible to fail at an important conversation beat because you’re too late and the character leaves the train before you’ve talked to them. The frame structure provides just enough sense of passing time to imply a little urgency, but not so much as to actually get in the way of success.
As you do so, you gather “focus points” — a topic inventory that you can deploy whenever your current strand of conversation runs out, unlocking new menu items. Your focus point buttons highlight when you have any available gambits associated with them. And there are also a handful of things to figure out, passwords you can extract from one character to use on another and so on.
These puzzles were anti-mimetic but gentle: I knew when I’d encountered one, as it stuck out of the conversational flow in an obvious way, but I was never left banging my head very long against any particular barrier. There was one case where I did take some notes in order to find the solution, but that was my choice — there were hints I could have chosen to deploy instead. My very favorite of the puzzles involves manipulating characters emotionally in order to unlock access to particular information: that one felt the most novel and also the best embedded in the conversational fiction.
The story surrounding all this is the tale of a robot society that is used, oppressed, and distrusted by humans. So far, so familiar: robots are routinely used to represent the marginalized, the exploited, the immigrant worker or the excluded classes. This piece doesn’t expand that conversation in any very surprising new directions, but it delivers solidly on the premise.
I have some more thoughts about the structure of the choices and the endgame specifically here, but as those are inevitably spoilery, I’ve put them after some spoiler space at the end of the review.
Overall, this is a highly competent and elegant made piece. It’s got loads more surface polish than your typical piece of interactive fiction — and I don’t mean this in a dismissive way. It contributes to the sense of presence and connection that the other robots take a little bit of real time to answer you. The audio and animation support your connection with the world.
All the same, the fundamental mechanics are the mechanics of a choice-based text game, and if you’re interested in IF, you’ll likely find this a familiar kind of piece.
There is also a not-exactly-sequel to this piece called Quarantine Circular; I haven’t gotten to that one.
As far as I can tell, there’s no significant branching in the game. (I have only played it once, so I could be wrong about this, but the narrative felt like it was constructed to be linear.) At the end, you’re asked to make a big choice, one that is essentially a judgment on everything that’s led up to that point. It’s definitely a classic “neither of these outcomes is ideal” situation, in that you can either preserve a corrupt and oppressive status quo or overthrow that status quo in favor of something that might well be worse.
Most of the final scene is about ramifying that choice, in fact: there’s a moment when it feels like you might already be choosing, but an NPC says, “no, hang on, think about this a moment more.” Some choice-based authors recommend against the “are you sure?” choice structure — Choice of Games‘ house style recommends against, for instance — but it can be deployed quite effectively, and I think it works here.
So by the time you finally commit, you’ve had a couple of feints at choosing and then a real final “yes, I am completely sure this is what I am doing” moment.
And then you never see the consequences of that choice. The game cuts to an ending as soon as you’ve decided.
It’s a technique used in a small handful of other games, and it gets around the problem of Myst-style multiple endings, where the player is likely to save right at the endgame and then run around trying out all the possible end-game options in order to find out what happens in all the different scenarios. For many players, that structure tended to drain the impact out of these big end-game choices, because by the time the player had sampled all the possible different outcomes, they were no longer emotionally invested in any particular one. There are various ways to try to add impact here — create quite a long epilogue scenario after the near-end-game choice, prevent save games, use permadeath, store information about what the player did in previous playthroughs. And some authors bite the bullet and try to write a storyline that will still feel meaningful and effective (or perhaps even take on more meaning) when the player has absorbed all the possible outcomes. Successfully or not, I experimented with that approach on some of my early work — the end of Metamorphoses is less about which ending you choose than about the fact that you finally have a choice at all. And many visual novels are structured with the expectation that the player will replay to reach all the endings and unlock a final best ending, making a complete exploration of all the narrative avenues core to the experience.
But the other option is to do what Subsurface Circular does here: present the choice and cut to black. There’s no reason to replay the game and try the other option because I’d learn nothing new from doing so — and so I’m left with the one choice I actually did make, and that I did agonize over a bit.