Painting a World in Dialogue: Subsurface Circular

“Show, don’t tell” may be one of the most common pieces of advice that beginning writers encounter in their early classes and workshops.

And while I’ll refrain from the debate on whether or not it’s a rule that holds fast or one that’s best broken, it’s an idea that I want to explore in Subsurface Circular.

[If you haven’t played the game and want to avoid spoilers, I suggest you proceed with caution. I drop spoilers in without warning, and without reverence.]

If my title hasn’t given it away, a lot of Subsurface Circular’s action takes place in dialogue. When you begin the game, you’re greeted with a scene on the train. If the robots — or Teks, in this game — in the title sequence didn’t alert you to what the characters you’d be interacting with looked like, then the first moments on the train certainly do.

The irony of the first chapter title isn’t lost on me after finishing the game once.

Through the first couple of interactions with the first Teks that you encounter on the train, you start to get a feel for the world and even for the Tek that you’re speaking as.

You learn that you’re a detective, geolocked to the train, and you’ve been asked to investigate a series of Tek disappearances and other suspicious activity. But how can you do that when you’re stuck on a train?

Easy. You talk to every passenger that comes aboard.

It doesn’t sound as if it would be compelling, just making conversation and choosing some dialogue options, but that’s why I ended up loving Subsurface Circular so much.

It’s a choose your own text adventure with a more appealing UI and at least one part of the world is visible to you. And if you ever thought that a train couldn’t set an appropriate atmosphere, this game would show you otherwise.

The color palettes are incredibly expressive.

Subsurface Circular covers a lot of the hot topics in the rise of sentient machinery, and there have been plenty of people that have written about it.

I want to talk more about how Subsurface Circular seems to show us the world through telling us. There’s a lot to learn about the world without actually having to step into it.

Never once do you feel lost, and the world unfolds itself quickly and organically through the dialogue options that you can select. The UI above each Tek’s head teaches you about their primary occupations, and you learn that each Tek comes programmed with a different capacities of thinking, communicating, and doing depending on what they’re programmed to do.

You learn that Teks and humans coexist, but not without some degree of unease and tension. Tek’s can’t technically be owned, but are programmed with Asimov’s laws that prevent them from inflicting harm on human beings — save for the exception of infantry Tek — and are controlled by a group of humans referred to as Management.

Humans are uneasy because the Teks are strange and unknowable, anthropomorphic machines that can do their jobs better, with more ease, and with fewer mistakes. They’ve formed a coalition and there are rumors of humans committing violent actions on Teks.

Before long, you find yourself in the midst of a revolution with Teks building up an army, ready to dictate their own futures rather than leave themselves under the judgment of the humans that seem to resent them.

One of the only sequence openings where you can’t see yourself.

If I’ve painted the game as the story of a robot/Tek uprising, I apologize. (But I’m sure now that you have some idea of which ending I chose).

But the magic of Subsurface Circular is that it doesn’t immediately make you want to opt for keeping the humans in power. As you learn more about the world through the mouths of the Teks that are taking a break from it on their underground commute, you start to understand where they’re coming from.

The game never alienates you from the understandable human fears that exist even today, but it does make a compelling argument for both sides.

Holding the gun.png
“Make a choice.”

Without rambling on, Subsurface Circular is a brilliant game that practices telling the story as much as showing it. If you haven’t played the game already, I highly recommend checking it out.

It’s a wonderfully neat little short with some wonderful storytelling in both dialogue and the few visuals that it provides.