With indie developer Mike Bithell’s newest game Subsurface Circular, surprise releasing yesterday evening, we decided to sit down with Bithell and discuss the game in a little more depth. If you want an overview of what the game is, you can read our thoughts here.
During our discussion, we talked about Bithell's choice to forego voice acting, his thoughts on UK job automation, and the challenges that arise in trying to tie together ideas from his previous games into a single narrative.
Laura: Staying light on spoilers, one of the themes that Subsurface Circular touches upon is the idea of automation of jobs within society. How do you feel about the UK and real-world job automation? Do you think we're doing enough to prepare for automation of job roles?
Mike: I don't think humanity is doing enough to prepare for automation of job roles! I mean, my personal politics lean to the left, so I do have this fear that yes, we are replacing a group of workers with robots.
You only have to go to a supermarket - I always use this example - and there are less people working there. I remember when I was a kid, working in a supermarket was the one job we were all guaranteed. You'd be a 16-year-old who needed some cash; you could go get a job in a supermarket. That isn't the case anymore because so many of those jobs have been literally taken by robots. Robots, by the way, that don't perform the job as well as humans did. There's an assumption that automation is always a better experience, but anyone who's ever experienced "unexpected object in the bagging area" knows that robots are not as good as humans at that job.
The problem is that they're cheaper, and they're good enough that we don't kick up a fuss and complain and riot in the streets. I don't think that we, as a society, completely come to terms with what this is going to do - I think already it's affecting a lot of people around the world.
It did before - you know, when factories moved to robotics decades ago. And if this is all moving in that direction, then yeah, I think we as a society need to work out what we'll do when there aren't those jobs, and how that will affect parts of society.
Laura: It’s fair to say your past games have experimented with how to weight the balance between gameplay and narrative. After now releasing a third title, where do you feel happiest creating on that scale?
Mike: To me, they've never been competing. I completely agree with your reading of my games — Thomas Was Alone was much more narrative-focused and Volume was much more gameplay-focused. This game, I would say, strikes a good equilibrium, because you're basically playing the narrative and I like that.
With Subsurface Circular I wanted to make a game about having conversations on a train, so that's obviously going to have a lot of words in it. It was obviously going to be a dialogue game – that becomes the focus, and you work out how to make that interactive and interesting.
It's not so much that I sit down and think, okay, this is going to be 20% story, 80% gameplay, It's more, "this is the experience I'm trying to create, and how does narrative fit into that? What role does this narrative need to serve, and what role would I like the narrative to serve?" And I'll continue to do that, I think. There'll be projects that swing different ways.
Laura: As part of this game, you make quite explicit references to Thomas Was Alone and Volume in terms of using them as background flavour to build the world, but you don't give much in the way of context for players who might not have played those games. Considering that Subsurface Circular isn't strictly a sequel, how do you feel about the thought that some of those references may not be picked on by players who come into this as a standalone work?
Mike: It's a good question. Obviously I'm going to avoid any spoilers in my answer, but yeah, there are references to my other work. I think in one case that's very throwaway.
I actually have spoken to someone that hadn't played the game that one moment references, and they thought it was a reference to something completely different. They still enjoyed it on that level. In terms of the one that's maybe a bit more substantial and a bit more of a big part of the game later on, I think you get a different meaning from it if you've not played my previous games — but I think it's contextualised enough that you understand some of its connotations.
You're not going to get the same level of understanding out of it as someone who's played my previous games, but I don't think you're going to suffer for it. We're very specifically not trying to make a game that excludes people who've not played my other stuff. I think you can play this game and have a great time and hear a great story outside of playing other stuff, but I wanted to put in those little Easter eggs, those little nudges, for people who've been playing my games for a while.
Laura: With both of your previous games, when promoting the narrative of them, a big part of that was voiceover casting. It's a big part of what people talk about when you look back on Volume and Thomas Was Alone. With such a narratively-focused game, was there any particular reason why you decided not to have voiceover in this project?
Mike: Yeah. It was originally going to going to have voiceover. What was really interesting was, as I started putting it together, I realised that I thought voiceover would take away from the delivery of the story.
It's obviously a text-based adventure game, making dialogue options, other characters are saying stuff back to you, and it's constantly arcing off in different directions based on what you're doing across different conversations.
What's interesting about the English language is there's lots of double meanings; there are lots of ways you can truncate things and move things around to create new meanings just by reordering things or changing the start of a sentence. We do a lot of that in the game; reworking the conversation based on what you're doing. And in text form, that works.
Let's say you've just had an argument with a character in the game. Maybe you've been rude to them, and later in the game they could say, "thank you so much for the respect you've shown me" — this isn't in the game, but it could be. If you've played the game and been very polite to them, that makes sense; of course they'd thank you for being polite. If you've been rude to them, then that line suddenly feels like sarcasm, and you can enjoy it on that level.
With voiceover of course, it places a line of dialogue as having a very specific emotional intent and meaning — that's if you direct it well, it does! Therefore we'd have had to record a crazy number of variations of every line just to get every potential arc the player could be taking.
The other aspect was about half way through writing, I made the decision that these were techs [AI Robots — ed], and they maybe weren't going to have a gender. They were going to be ambiguous in that sense because it's not a part of what the characterisation needed to be for those characters. And again, with voiceover, it places a gender, it places an age — and we do play with age; we have some elderly robots in the game — but a voiceover just defines things. And I think the fun of old text adventure games often was reading between the lines — and the fun of reading a novel as well — that you can bring some of your own self to it.
It's funny talking to people who've had very specific reads of a character, just down to gender; people who have played the game have referred to certain characters as 'he' or 'she' when that was not something that was intended — or even thought about — by me, but that's something they've brought to it. I like the ambiguity that just text gives it. Obviously, I think voice over serves a purpose, and it's especially great in action games or platformers because you can listen while playing and you're not constantly trying to work between the two. When a game is just specifically about the dialogue, text actually worked really well for us here.