Thomas Was Alone dev's new game is a modern take on the text adventure
And it's out now on Steam.
Mike Bithell, creator of Thomas Was Alone and Volume, has announced and released his next game, Subsurface Circular.
Labelled a "Bithell Short", Subsurface Circular is a modern take on the old school text adventure genre, and revolves around the rumblings of a working class of sentient robots.
You play as a robot detective who investigates the disappearance of other robots while aboard a futuristic underground subway system. Indeed the entire game takes place in a single carriage on the train.
As the train works its way around the Subsurface Circular, you're set a number of objectives you complete by talking to other robots. As you chat you unlock Focus Points, which can then be used in conversation to unearth new, sometimes crucial information.
There are various lines of dialogue to choose from, the odd puzzle to solve and an intriguing story that took me around three hours to see through. (Subsurface Circular is intended to be a short, single-session game and costs £4.76 on Steam.)
Bithell told Eurogamer the idea for the game was to tell a story that's concise.
"A lot of video game narratives - well, the ones I've worked on - have been sprawling and you spread them out over 10 or 20 hours," he said.
"I like the idea of trying something more focused. Let's make a rich story rather than spreading it out."
Bithell was inspired to try his hand at modernising the text adventure genre from his time with text adventures as a child.
"One of the adventure games on BBC Micro has a text adventure game editor," he said. "I remember sitting in the classroom, probably knowing me during P.E. or during a lunchbreak - a time when I should have been spending more time with my childhood friends - I was sat room by room creating text adventures in this thing.
"I'm sure they were terrible, but to me it felt like I was suddenly a game designer. It was amazing. It was one of the very early experiences where I realised you could make games."
Set half a century in the future, Subsurface Circular wonders how humanity will react to an army of sentient robots who have become the world's workforce. Many of the conversations you have with the other robots delve deep into this issue. While the robots are sentient, they have designations which determine their purpose. You play as a detective, but you meet all types of robots, including a fabricator robot, a researcher robot and an athlete robot. Some are starting to question their role in the world, and whether they are truly free.
"I've made a lot of games now about AI and robots," Bithell said. "I am fascinated by what our reaction is going to be. We are effectively creating a replacement workforce. That's already the case. You see that every time you go to the supermarket and you notice there are far fewer people working there than when I was a kid because you've got all the machines. We are doing that in the real world, and it's starting to have an effect.
"With sci-fi you can step forward 40, 50 years into the future and try and work out what would happen if we actually went all the way with this. That's the stuff that's interesting to me."
But there's also a political aspect to Subsurface Circular that Bithell does not shy away from. While the game is dressed in science fiction clothing, underneath it's about an insurgent working class, which is an issue with obvious parallels to real world happenings.
"For me it's an extrapolation of history," Bithell said. "You can't help but be political when telling a story. Politics is part of the world. When you start telling a story about more than one person, it's probably going to have a political aspect because people interacting is politics.
"I wouldn't say there was some grand statement I want to make about things, but I do find it interesting to reflect modern and historical politics in my games. I don't think there's anything wrong with that. I think it's a great source of stories. Stories are often about conflict and complication. Politics is a really good place to pull that from.
"Probably my politics is in there! I'm sure people will have opinions on where my politics are based on the game. Or my Twitter account. One of the two."
Subsurface Circular is obviously a different kind of game from Bithell in terms of genre and gameplay, but is was also a very different kind of development. The game was created in just a handful of months, which is a much shorter turnaround than Thomas Was Alone and Volume. It's also billed as a Bithell Short, a line of games the developer would like to continue.
"There's room to do smaller games," Bithell said. "Some games need to be 40 hours long and have an open world. Some need to be eight hours long and be a cool, single-player campaign. I think some games should be short. As long as they don't have lots of filler and are also short, and as long as they're priced fairly, that's an interesting segment to open up.
"A game that respects the audience's time was a big part of doing this. It was just us thinking, well, those five games on the shelf you're never going to finish, even though you like them, just because they take so damn long to get through. Whereas making something that was a single or maybe a couple session game you could see the end of and get the full experience we created, that was appealing to me."
Meanwhile, Bithell is working on his next "big" game. He kept his cards close to his chest when quizzed, saying: "I like jumping from genre to genre, from scale to scale. People should expect the unexpected, because, frankly, I can - and I enjoy that freedom."