Lately I’ve been gravitating toward shorter games. Probably because they’re easier to digest, but I think also because they tend to get to their ‘point’ faster. Subsurface Circular is a great example of this. It’s a recent release by Bithell Games (Thomas Was Alone, Volume, among others), headed by Mike Bithell, as well as a team of animators, writers, and designers. I finished it in about two hours, but spent easily another six thinking about what it was saying.
Subsurface Circular is something of a hybrid, sitting somewhere between a TellTale-Studios-style modern adventure game and a traditional text game written in an engine like Twine. Most of the game involves reading communications between your character and other robotic beings, called ‘Teks’, in a circular, underground subway. It’s a murder mystery, as all good investigative dramas are, but it quickly becomes more than that. It’s also gorgeous, with some of the best environments and character art I’ve seen in awhile.
Lots of games try, mostly unsuccessfully, to draw parallels between the conditions of their fictional world and the material oppressions of the real world. Often, this is clunky, a simple replacement of character (an easy example would be a game substituting racism for fantasy racism) Subsurface Circular manages to do this with a surprising amount of grace, mostly by focusing on the material realities of a labor force entering a human society.
At one point in the game, you are speaking with a Tek employed as a psychiatrist. Aboveground, they act as a therapist to human patients, just as therapists do in our world. The Psychiatrist Tek’s conversation with the player character is mostly about human nature, and more specifically, the way humans react to Teks in everyday society. When the player asks if humans are discontent with Teks, the psychiatrist’s first answer is simple: “Yes. They are scared of us.”
Any society needs a labor force. That much goes without saying. But where that labor force comes from, and to whom go the rewards of that labor, determines the structure of a society. In the world of Subsurface Circular, it’s implied that human society still has human workers that need to be paid. To those workers (who undoubtedly form the majority of a human society), unpaid robot labor is nothing but a threat.
Whether or not the game means to say this, it creates a powerful argument for the creation of a socialized economy before the introduction of unpaid labor. The game has a lot to say about the role of Teks as sentient labor, which works somewhat against my conclusion, but I think the point still stands. There is a fear of displacement felt by the humans above Subsurface Circular, and it’s a fear rooted in the loss of autonomy. Without work that gives wages, a human in a world of market economies has no power.
The solution, when robotic labor exists, has to account for the loss of human workers.
If you think I’m drawing a very basic parallel to modern economic anxieties, it’s probably because I am. There’s no way to talk about this without doing so. Subsurface Circular presents a world where economic class has the opportunity to be upset, and there is a subtext there: maybe we don’t need economic class at all. Maybe, if we have enough resources to go around, and enough willing workers, the answer doesn’t lie in pushing resources upward and hoping for a trickle-down, but lies in a redistribution of resources to benefit all who can be.
Dante Douglas is a writer, poet and game developer. You can find him on Twitter at @videodante.