'Subway Adventure' Is a Surreal and Beautiful World of Transit
Next stop, Cloning Tanks. Transfer at Victoria Station if you are headed to the False Consciousness line.
A Postcard From... is a column by Jack de Quidt about the people, and the places, and the stories in the games we play.
Stephen Lavelle, or "Increpare", has made a lot of games. They cascade down his homepage unbidden, row after row after row. Almost all of them have excellent names: blunt, brief, and acting as either a description or an obfuscation. The Good Sister. Paddle Game. Oh shit, the camera man ist arrived. The Baron's Volcano Party. Most people who've played a few Increpare games quickly develop a favorite. I have, too: I'm here to tell you about Subway Adventure.
Right off the bat there is something pleasing about the title, isn't there? It is refreshing to sit down with a game and know almost exactly what awaits you. At the same time, though, the word "adventure" looks a little out of place at first; "Subway" is a word more commonly paired with things like "Dash" or "Escape" or "Manager.". What, you wonder, is a Subway Adventure?
When you begin Subway Adventure, two things happen. First, the game displays a photosensitivity warning, which is not misplaced. Keep this in mind.
And then you are given your objective with a deliberately, brilliantly low resolution title card. It says:
The game loads, and all of a sudden there is a lot of noise. From a first person view, you look out into a crowded, underground terminal, looking at a large subway map. The music around you sounds like things falling down some deep well and it's unclear whether it's emerging from speakers within the terminal or playing non-diegetically. The effect is disorienting.
There is an underground station in London called Bank/Monument which somehow manages to be both somewhere you pass through very frequently and also entirely alien on each visit. Most people using Bank/Monument have been there before. Almost nobody knows where they're going. It is a place that you can hold no coherent mental picture of for longer than ten or fifteen minutes, and the wave of panic and determination that washes over you as you arrive can be found almost immediately in Subway Adventure.
In this way, it is a successful evocation right off the bat.
The terminal around you is full of people, and they are all bustling about. Some of them are entirely bizarre. There are multiple Queens Victorias, walking to and fro. There is a squirrel. Two or three shopping carts trundle towards waiting trains under their own power. An abstract block of flickering color walks in small circles. Most of the figures, though, are duplicates of a bearded man wearing a pink shirt and green slacks. This station is Hauptbahnhof, and its residents all dress like this.
According to the subway map, Hauptbahnhof sits at an intersection of the pink "worldliness" line and the dark blue "birth" line. A shapeless column of smoke next to me is also checking the map. One stop to the east on the blue line is the station Housing Estate, and two stops to the north on the pink line is Trocadero, my favorite station in the game. Let's go there. hang on. Let me find the right train.
In a lot of ways, there is not much that's better than successfully catching a train. Outside of a video game, there are lots of things that are involved in the process. You have to put things into a bag. You have to find your way to the station and collect a ticket. You swipe the ticket and find a platform. You perform a sort of spacial math while looking at a timetable or subway map. And then the train pulls in and the doors open and the doors close and you sit by a window and feel a sort of intense satisfaction that you managed to complete about eight consecutive tasks without major incident.
Catching a train in Subway Adventure taps into the satisfaction of this process in a very direct way. You have to make sure that you're on the right train, sure, but before that it's worth checking that you're on the correct platform, or traveling on the correct line. Boards, showing the route this train will take, sit beside each platform.
Sometimes I check and double check that I'm boarding correctly. Sometimes I barrel directionlessly through the station and jump a barrier and get onto the first train I see.
Onward to Trocadero! In the train carriage with me is a small golden fish, presumably taking its own journey further down the line. Just before the doors close, the shapeless column of smoke that was looking at the map beside me earlier comes pouring down a ramp and boards the carriage noiselessly. The doors close and the train hisses and we're off.
The station between Hauptbahnhof and Trocadero is called Victoria and arriving there for the first time is a surprise. In contrast to Hauptbahnhof's flat, muted colors, Victoria is almost completely made of gold. It is as if Lavelle has chosen the most outlandishly gold material in his palette and placed it everywhere; it shimmers and glints and is the most amazing contrast to the solid color fills used instead of textures throughout the rest of the game.
I say "the rest of the game" and that's not quite true. Stations like Victoria, where Lavelle pivots the visual style of the game to somewhere brand new, are scattered throughout the subway. The fact that each location is its own bubble, separated from others by stretches of tunnel, allows for these visual twists to be outlandish and experimental in a way that a consistent art style simply can't be. One or two stations actively hurt my eyes, but I still have the rewarding feeling of climbing onto a departing train and ending up somewhere new.
Lavelle plays with colour, in moments like the transition from Hauptbahnhof to Victoria. He plays with scale, in stations like Edible Trains, which you enter through the mouth of an enormous face. Several stations on the orange "Abstraction" line have names like "Weird Angles" or "Elevated Ceilings" or simply "Skewness" and they are not kidding. They are not kidding. Those are accurate names on the Abstraction Line.
With a rumble the train arrives in Trocadero and I step out. The first time I arrived at Trocadero, in an experience that reoccurs throughout Subway Adventure, I was not sure what I was looking at. There is a wide blue sky—this is an overground stop—and there is the sense that the sun is perpetually setting. The trains at Trocadero pull in and out on vast stepped terraces—above and below you, other carriages arrive and leave. They disappear into the distance, past a certain point. You descend the steps of Trocadero by jumping down onto the roofs of the trains below. When you are hit by a train in Subway Adventure, and it'll happen quite a lot, it passes clean through you like a ghost before causing you to board it automatically, so this is a safer descent than it sounds.
At the bottom of the station is a small beach. People carrying fishing rods stand facing the water. There are soft ripples. The colors are pale and gentle and behind you, like gigantic auditorium seats, the trains come and go. It is a good place.
The shapeless column of smoke wanders down from the tracks. I can't tell whether it's looking out at the sea or up at the steps, because it has no discernible features at all, but it pauses on the beach. It is definitely thinking about something.
And then off it goes again, whirling away to another destination. It is a busy day for the shapeless column of smoke. There are places to be.
In one sense, I suppose, there is not a lot to do in Subway Adventure. You can walk around the stations. You can board the wrong trains. You can travel from place to place.
But then—the game is so full of surprises, so full of places to be, places to accidentally end up in, that the overwhelming sensation is one of absurd generousness. There are several stations that are closed. Swallowed by grass. A few stations are terrifying. Many are extremely beautiful. Regardless, they call to you. So pick somewhere you'd like to go—even if it's somewhere you'd very much not like to go—and go there.