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Video Game / Subsurface Circular

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Subsurface Circular is a text-based adventure game developed and published by Mike Bithell Games (The creators of Thomas Was Alone and Volume). The game was released for Windows-based personal computers in August 2017, for iOS devices in October 2017, and for the Nintendo Switch in March 2018.

You play as a detective robot (or "Tek") assigned to the Subsurface Circular, a looping subway line in a futuristic city. Learning about a series of disappearances of your fellow Teks, it's up to you to investigate passengers and try to get to the root of the problem, even if it's not a case assigned to you by Management.

WARNING: As a narrative-heavy game, reading the spoilered text below before playing may negatively impact your experience.


The game provides examples of:

  • After the End: The tourist Tek in the second sequence implies that there are some aspects of this, such as Mumbai being flooded over, and wanting to visit a "Fall Palace" where the city's previous government collapsed.
  • Age Is Relative: The oldest Tek encountered in the game, whose body was one of the originals and who is seen as elderly by the player character, is about 30 years old. It's discussed when they mention that you "age" quicker when your body can't fix itself.
  • Artificial Intelligence: All of the Teks you encounter have self-awareness.
  • Big Brother Is Employing You: Played with; humans are treated fairly, but the Management of the city the game takes place in still views most Teks as tools rather than individuals (due to fear of the opposite), and monitors their status on the surface.
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  • Brick Joke: At the beginning, you can sarcastically tell the Tek that gives you the case that your Detective work gives you time to paint portraits. If you do, the Red Tek will bring it up if you ask about his "change of profession".
  • But Thou Must!: Many decisions, such as breaching protocol to take on the missing Tek case, are mandatory to make progress.
  • Celebrity Endorsement: Parodied; an Athlete Tek you encounter had its speech modified to constantly shill the Tek equivalent of sports drinks in exchange for better treatment in the industry.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Alpha Seven, the Tek that gives you the case, mentions that he carries a gun effective on both humans and Teks for its safety. You see it, and fire it, in the final sequence, making it a very literal trope example.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Alpha Seven, AKA the Red Tek, is a recently-employed recruiter for La Résistance.
  • Closed Circle: Befitting a story with "Circular" in its title, the entire game takes place in a single subway car, as Management has restricted the player to that position.
  • Deus Est Machina: Not present, but it's the goal of the revolutionaries, believing that human management is far too faulty in comparison to Tek overseers.
  • The Dog Was the Mastermind: The Tek that gave you the case at the start was the Red Tek, unsure if it's doing the right thing and wanting a Tek permitted higher intelligence than it to decide.
  • Do Not Spoil This Ending: There's a button on the Main Menu that asks Youtubers and Streamers to only show the first three "sequences" if they don't want to ruin the experience for others.
  • Double Meaning: There's one subset of Teks called "Listeners", that seemingly do nothing but head bang to the music in their headphones. They're actually Listening to you, discreetly hacking into your conversations and reporting on your actions to the Red Tek.
  • Emotion Suppression: When two Tek cops interrogate the player about their unassigned investigation, their emotional states are linked, so that one can focus on staying stoic while the other does their job without emotional bias. The puzzle is manipulating the suppressor and getting the suppressed locked into different emotional states to get information out of them.
  • Entertainingly Wrong: The Tek cops, with the player's help, reach the conclusion that "missing" Teks are a byproduct of managerial error, with more Tek bodies claimed to exist than actually produced. But the player knows that there are Teks that actually existed that have gone missing, leading to the last parts of the game.
  • Fantastic Racism: There are humans, such as the HPC group, that are anti-Tek, partly out of fear of being replaced by them.
  • Fantasy Pantheon: There are Teks that believe in one, known as "The Architects". See Stealth Sequel below.
  • Full-Circle Revolution: The purpose of La Résistance; replace the human Management with Teks able to compute the best course for humanity, and the worker Teks with human labor.
  • Hello, [Insert Name Here]: The detective's first name can be one of four options the player can choose: Theta, Beta, Claire, or James. The rest of their name is always "One One".
  • La Résistance: The HPC group sees itself as one, though a more traditional example is the group responsible for the Tek disappearances.
  • Loophole Abuse: La Résistance was founded by humans that will be harmed if the secret's out, so Teks cannot stop them directly. Additionally, the group has been giving their Teks military designations, as the "Do no harm" law of robotics doesn't apply to Teks designed for combat.
  • Multiple Endings: Decided by a Last-Second Ending Choice. Do you kill Red and report the revolutionaries to Management, or kill yourself and let the revolution proceed?
  • No Biological Sex: None of the Teks have genders, and names such as "Claire" or "James" are merely interpreted as religious.
  • Non-Indicative Name: The "Red Tek", in addition to being more than just a Red Herring, isn't colored red; they're yellow.
  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: Management strips you of your Detective designation because you breached protocol to take on a case.
  • The Place: The entire narrative takes place in the titular Subsurface Circular subway line.
  • Red Herring: As a detective, part of your job is to identify these and rule them out. Played with in that one deemed this in-universe, the Red Tek, is later revealed to be working with the culprits.
  • Ridiculously Human Robots: All of the characters in the game, including the player, are ascended AI in robotic bodies. Though they lack features such as faces, they take on many human mannerisms to put people at ease, such as simulated breathing.
  • Running Gag: There's a Listener Tek in nearly every sequence, that always refuses to communicate with the player.
  • Shout-Out:
    • There's a hidden achievement you can get by quoting Hamilton lines at a Listener. You can also quote Les Misérables and Jesus Christ Superstar in the same conversation, though they don't come with achievements. It's also subtle foreshadowing that the end of the game involves whether or not you "throw away your shot".
    • With the right option picked, there's also a reference to The Shawshank Redemption (as well as a comparison to the Stephen King novella that it's based on) during The Reveal that the Red Tek isn't colored red.
  • Slave Liberation: Prior to Management taking over, Teks were considered private property, and they still are in other cities. Not that their current situation is a major improvement...
  • Stealth Sequel: To Thomas Was Alone, whose characters are seen by religious Teks as "The Architects".
  • Talking Is a Free Action: All of the conversations are Private Messages between AIs, justifying how much information can be gained just between subway stops.
  • Three Laws-Compliant: Asimov's work is directly referenced a few times by Teks, mainly when discussing interactions with humans.
  • Turn in Your Badge: The robotic equivalent. For investigating the case without permission, the player character is reformatted and stripped of their "detective" designation. Their refusal to give up the case afterwards leads to the endings.
  • Video Game Caring Potential: At one point, you can give job advice to a Nanny Tek who is heading for a system reset following the end of her previous job.
  • Was It All a Lie?: During The Reveal, the player can ask if they were lied to about Tau Thirteen, Alpha Seven/Red's "missing friend". They did exist and go missing, but Red didn't really know them, and it wasn't the main motivation for getting the player to investigate missing Teks.