How You Get There: A Review of Subsurface Circular

Warning: This post includes spoilers for Subsurface Circular.

Subsurface Circular is a text-based adventure game, which is a fancy way of saying that it’s an interactive short story. The player’s perspective is that of a robot detective who lives on one of the subway loops that service the underground community of robots (called Teks in the game’s vernacular) that humanity’s leaders (referred to as “management”) have installed to perform most human jobs. During a conversation on the subway, the player learns that Teks have been disappearing and so, being a detective, begins an investigation into the matter. Gameplay exclusively involves deciding who to talk to and then choosing various dialogue options from a series of menus. Occasionally those dialogue options will involve solving minor puzzles but, for the most part, the game is focused on expanding the player’s understanding of the game-world and advancing the narrative.

The natural comparison for this type of text-based game would seem to be the choose your own adventure genre of books, but while the dialogue choices made in Subsurface Circular impact tone and the nature of the player’s relationship with the game-world, they don’t alter the narrative. Every player will ultimately arrive in the same place, no matter the specific dialogue choices made on the way. This is not Trapped in Bat-Wing Hall, a Goosebumps book that I’m mentioning only so that I can include this fantastic summary of one of the book’s good endings:

I hate when that happens.

Part of what’s so brilliant about Subsurface Circular is that, even though the player’s choices don’t materially impact the events of the game’s narrative (a reality that the player would only realize on a second playthrough or from an article such as this), the simple act of having an active role in those events unfolding naturally draws the player in. As the player discusses work and friendship and fear with the Teks on the subway, it would be hard not to come to care about them and the world they inhabit.

In the end, the player learns that a Tek named Red has amassed the missing Teks into an army that is set to overthrow management and take control of the city, purportedly for the benefit of everyone, human and Tek. The player’s final act is to either kill Red and stop the coup or to commit suicide and allow the Teks to take control. Once the choice is made, the screen cuts to black. Game over.

That Red, your first suspect and someone who has long since been acquitted, proves to be guilty is not the point of Subsurface Circular. The choice that you make in the game’s final moment, to upend society or maintain the status quo, isn’t the point either. By weaving the player-character through a slowly unfurling plot that moves from the routine to the existential, Subsurface Circular asks its players to interrogate the game-world and their place in it. The point isn’t what happens in the end. The point is that you care enough to weigh the enormity of that final decision to introduce chaos or maintain a miserable peace, even as the results of that decision are excluded from the game’s narrative. It’s not the outcome that matters, it’s how you get there.

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