Subsurface Circular came out last month with very little fanfare. A text adventure from the indie team behind Thomas Was Alone and Volume, it was announced and released on the same day, an unusual move in an industry known for its lengthy, sometimes years-long hype cycles. But, studio head Mike Bithell told Glixel he wanted to manage fan expectations.
"I was absolutely terrified that people would think it was a bigger or more expansive game than it was," he said.
Labelled a "Bithell Short," Subsurface Circular costs $5.99 and can be played in a single session. It's ostensibly the story of a robot detective investigating the disappearance of another robot on an underground subway. As the train travels along its route, the player interrogates fellow A.I. to unlock key phrases called Focus Points, which are used to solve the occasional puzzle and advance the narrative. But, look past its mystery trappings and you'll find a thoughtful meditation about job automation and how it could affect society in the near future.
"The very first version of it basically was Agatha Christie with robots," Bithell said. "But then I realized there were more interesting things to do, and a better place for it to go, than just discovering a murderer. I think it's good to have the detective aspect at the start to get people into the world and explain what it is, but I also like the surprise of where it goes, and I think we've gotten you so inquisitive that you don’t necessarily need the trappings of a detective story to keep you going at that point, and to keep you interested."
Subsurface Circular portrays a future where sentient robots called Teks are the world's primary workforce. They act as nannies, therapists, clergy, and even pro athletes. Many human workers are now displaced and live without purpose. It's a situation with obvious parallels to the real world.
In the UK, where Bithell and his team live, more than 10 million people could lose their jobs to automation within 15 years, according to a report from consultancy firm PwC. An estimated 30 percent of British jobs are potentially at risk. While the report predicts automation could create new job opportunities, it said the loss of low-skill tasks could widen the country's inequality gap if action isn't taken. America won't fare any better. That same report estimates 38 percent of US jobs could be at "high risk" by the early 2030s. The finance and insurance industries, hospitality, food service, and transportation are all likely targets.
Automation is affecting video game industry jobs as well. Bithell's first gig was creating navigation meshes for non-playable characters. These so-called "NavMeshes" tell the NPCs where they can and can't walk within the game world. These days, most game engines like Unreal and Unity can do the task automatically with the push of a button. "My entry level job in the games industry no longer exists, and that feels like it's creeping in everywhere," Bithell said. "I don’t really have the answers on it, but it's something that I wanted to talk about and explore, and use as a way of also talking about human nature and how we react to this kind of stuff throughout history."
Artificial intelligence features heavily in most of Bithell's work. As a fan of Asimov and Philip K. Dick, he sees it as a ripe playground for creating larger-than-life characters, and for discussing political topics like job automation in an approachable way. "There's definitely a practical element to it," he said. "Artificial intelligence can be kind of abstracted. You don’t have to have facial animations, you don’t have to have humans walking around. You can have either rectangles or robots without faces."
"There's lots of rules you can break if your characters aren't real, in a practical sense, like we do in Subsurface," he added. "You can have the character reset and completely change their personality in an instant. You can have characters who are old or young, but that doesn’t necessarily tie to actual timelines. There's a lot of freedom to A.I."
A game with a clear political commentary has the potential to backfire in a year where political commentary is as incendiary as it is ubiquitous. But, Bithell said fan reaction to Subsurface Circular is better than expected. It's reviewed well at places like Polygon, GamesRadar, and Videogamer. Word of mouth has been good. To Bithell, that means the experiment worked. There is a desire out there for bite-sized games that respect a person's time and won't wind up on the dreaded pile of shame. Although he's not sure what the future of Bithell Shorts is yet, he thinks the format has definite potential.
"A really great sci-fi short story, or a book of great sci-fi short stories, will keep me entertained massively, and that’s the kind of thing I want to make," he said. "I don’t think I need to tell the big story because I think there's enough really talented people making the 20-hour epics."