Subsurface Circular and Solvable Games

Subsurface Circular is available for PC and Nintendo Switch.

The idea of a “solvable game” is usually reserved for competitive games, particularly board games. Things like Tic Tac Toe – which has so few moves that a person with reasonably good memory could teach themselves to never lose a game again – or like Checkers – where humans are fallible, but a computer with the right program will only ever draw at worst. The very idea of this only really works for games totally devoid of any random elements – something rarely true of video games as we think about them.

But then there are adventure games.

Things like the famous Monkey Island games of yore, or their younger point-and-click cousins from Humongous. To a degree, visual novels. Swaths of text adventures in the vein of Zork and Thy Dungeonman. And any other heavily-scripted games like Firewatch. For any of these, there is some set of flat instructions which any player could follow and get the same result, every time, completely irrelevant of their own skill.

Now, normally this doesn’t matter so much. Adventure games generally have the benefit of comedic writing, Firewatch treats us to a sequence of grand vistas and character drama not unlike a film (with minor variation), and visual novels have their likeness to reading a book baked right into the name of the genre.

But then you hit an oddball like Subsurface Circular.

Which is a great game to play, once. Maybe twice.

Then… meh?

The key to this is in its focus. Aside from the obvious veneer and overtones that pin it as “hard” science fiction and the selection-driven play of a text adventure, at its heart this is a game about being an investigative detectives. You encounter unclear situations, and you clarify them. The whole goal of the game is to solve things. Sure, there are a few dead-end leads to chase, but they’re exactly that: dead ends. As a player, you’re guaranteed to take certain actions and see the same sets of dialogue (with a few inconsequential deviations), up until the final scene of the story. And with no other exploration aside from with the vehicle that is conversation, you’re severely limited as a player to what you can do outside of that.

In fact, “solving things” is almost the entire draw of mystery stories for a great many people. Even if you’re the sort who will go back and experience the story a second time just to try and spot the tasty breadcrumbs hinting at its resolution, that’s the last new experience that the game will have to give. After that, Subsurface Circular becomes the same set of robots who respond in the same way to the same narrow set of prompts, with the path from beginning to ending something you may well have already memorized after that second run through.

So why does this particular example stand out?

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It’s the one, Circular line – and that’s your lot.

There’s the argument that it’s relatively short, and so exhausting the game’s core plot within three hours can be seen as a let-down. Yet people will re-read Sherlock Holmes serials that hardly take half an hour to devour, and mystery films or even similarly-short puzzle games like Pan-Pan don’t generally get knocked for clocking in at similar times.

Rather, it may be because there’s no draw to playing Subsurface Circular again outside of just that core plot.

As noted, we don’t much care that this is effectively the case for The Secret of Monkey Island, because hearing the farmer-cow line is not only a satisfying payoff to solving a radiant mini-puzzle, but also because the line is still funny the eighth time you hear it. It prioritizes entertainment first and foremost, so like re-watching a familiar movie, it makes for a good bout of light fun. Subsurface Circular, while it has its moments, drags itself down with a darker tone and headier themes – something additional to chew on after you’re through, sure, but not something really aided by repeat playing.

We give Firewatch a pass for its acting and visual appeal, pitting it again in the same realm as on-screen mysteries in terms of presentation. While Subsurface Circular’s claustrophobic subway setting definitely makes narrative and thematic sense, it’s also a single setting for the entire length of the game – and the robot character models, while unique and appealing in their geometric-yet-humanoid designs, have no faces or voices to give a performance with, so the whole look of the game can come across as a bit static.

Visual novels as a genre can get dumped into the “reading” category, save for very occasional player decisions (and not even those in the case of kinetic novels like Planetarian). If you have the attention span for the amount of text in front of you, they’ll demand very little but your empathy and some degree of imagination. Subsurface Circular again lacks this advantage, requiring player input just often enough that you’ll have to remain physically engaged with putting puzzles in the right place.

Even in other puzzle games short enough to be memorized – say, in Pan-Pan, there’s some flexibility in how the player can roam, experiment, and generally piddle away their time at their own discretion. Not so with the locked-in-place protagonist of Subsurface Circular.

No, the secondary hook that drives and supports Subsurface Circular is in its themes and world-building, suggesting through dialogue a distinctly dystopian take on the automated future. It’s incredibly relevant to current conversation, leaves itself open for that avenue of interpretation, and puts it nicely into a framing that – through its parallels to history – encourages the viewer to re-think futurism in a more altruistic way. It’s a great science-fiction pitch delivered well inside of the game’s three-hour runtime.

And then playing any more won’t add to that.

They’ll refresh the viewer on the same points, get them to roll the ideas around in their head a bit more, but they’re not given much more (if any) additional context on playing again. Not unlike the dialogue-puzzle gameplay, what it has to offer is just about all laid out by the time the credits roll.

Granted, I hardly re-play any games at all nowadays – not when so many new ones are waiting their turn in the wings – but I found it hard not to notice how complete Subsurface Circular was on its conclusion. And for someone looking for a compact experience that respects their time in delivering its full message, that’s more boon than burden.

But there’s a strong case that it makes for an odd use of an interactive medium; inserting “choices” that only affect a few lines of text at the most, and limiting the scope of interactivity to a set of predestined actions that patiently wait forever until the player inevitably executes on them for lack of any pushback mechanism. What makes it unique as a game rather than an on-screen production is equally exhausted after the first play.

The player will have “solved” Subsurface Circular.

And if that’s something they wanted, then hey, that’s great.

And if not, then hey, you can always move on to grappling with its ideas. Those sure aren’t going to get solved any time soon.

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