Subsurface Circular Tackles Job Automation, Authority, and Human Needs

By Laura Kate Dale on at

Going into Subsurface Circular, of course I had preconceptions based on Mike Bithell’s previous games. Thomas Was Alone was an adorable plot-heavy and gameplay-light platformer about friendship, which suited my tastes perfectly. Volume on the other hand was an isometric stealth game with a story that didn't quite do it for me and gameplay that verged on frustrating. Which one of those categories would Subsurface Circular fall into?

As it turns out, neither. Maybe it's a little closer to Thomas Was Alone purely by virtue of the fact that, besides a couple of logic puzzles that may require pen and paper, SC is almost exclusively a game about conversations. You have a limited number of robots to talk to, and a limited number of things to say to them, and you can probably brute-force your way through most of the game in the old-fashioned way: keep asking questions till something clicks.

Subsurface Circular is kind of old-school, being essentially a text adventure with 3D art. What's modern about it is the game's theme. Set on near-future earth, AI robots with differing intelligence levels, limitations and degrees of freedom are used to automate many of the jobs humans do today. You play as a detective AI, tasked with investigating a series of disappearances of other AI, despite such an investigation going against your core programming.

The experience is only a few hours long, so I won't spoil plot specifics, but the way job automation is discussed is fascinating. It not only incorporates observations based on our current responses to automation, but brings in parallels to past instances of how working class job automation has happened, and the role of the job market in anti-immigration racist attitudes. Subsurface Circular is very much a product of today, but it’s got enough clarity of vision to see the historical parallels.

You’ll need to set your expectations accordingly: this is a thought-provoking experience, but at the same time it's also a text adventure with pretty visuals. Subsurface Circular is worth playing because it's about one of the really big changes our societies face, and uses that to pontificate on what exactly humans are looking for in life. What is it to be satisfied in life? Why should you defy authority? There may be consequences, but sometimes pushing back is right.

The real bonus, however, comes after you finish the game, with an outstanding director's commentary. It's so in-depth and clearsighted about what the game's trying to achieve that, ironically, it felt like it was automating the job of games critics. Maybe that's the point. After all, you don't really think about these things until it seems like they might impact you.