The last release from developer Bithell Games was John Wick Hex, and, having emerged from that as you would from a dark cinema into blaring daylight, I went into The Solitaire Conspiracy expecting shadows. I was not disappointed. The verdant baize of the Solitaire table has been banished; in its place is a basement gloom, illumined only by the cards, which emit the sort of light that leaks from the keys of gaming laptops—pale blues and chilly, thin pinks. It’s as though you’ve stumbled into the lair of a poker-playing villain, only to discover that his mother lives upstairs.

That is the prevailing mood of The Solitaire Conspiracy: a mix of darkness and light that hums like a headache. Its plot is veiled in the private dinge of spies and spymasters, but scrambled by a low-rent comic climate. You are a handler, so to speak, placing agents in the field by playing hands of Solitaire—a cut and shuffled variation, wherein the cards can be laid over others of higher value, regardless of colour and suit. You are handled, in turn, by Jim Ratio (played, in a procession of FMV cutscenes, by Greg Miller), who pleads for your help in taking down a criminal organisation, called Solitaire. Miller—who is best known as a host on Kinda Funny, a gaming YouTube channel—is a jarring presence here. He’s jovial and winsome; even when wreathed in a beard and black glasses, and shrouded in low-lit air, he still shrugs off the brooding atmosphere.

I suspect that Mike Bithell—who is credited with code, design, and writing (the latter along with Alexander Sliwinski)—spotted an opportunity for deception, wielding Miller’s boyish mien like a cover. But the trouble is that you don’t believe it. And when you encounter another operator, called Diamond (played by Inel Tomlinson), who cryptically warns you that “Ratio lies,” it comes as no surprise whatsoever. There was something kinda funny about him from the start. The same could be said of the landscape in many of Bithell’s games. His breakout hit, Thomas Was Alone, dealt with the dangerously shifting and the search for solidity. “The world was not to be trusted,” warned that game’s narrator. “It was unstable, and it seemed to Thomas that it could let him down at any moment.” That sounds like the coffee-infused account of an indie developer, nervously attuned to the precarious nature of success, and I wish I could say that the same caution applies to The Solitaire Conspiracy.

The fact is that the game could do with a dose of the unstable. To play Solitaire is to risk being let down at any moment; it’s a game of strategy that’s not to be trusted, couched in the knowledge that you may tumble into an unwinnable position. Here that tincture of doubt ebbs away, and the mystery is strained off. We can see the cards buried in every stack, and victory depends only on our willingness to dig. By way of disruption, the picture cards—which are decked out with funky designs (by Jen Pattison), representing different spy crews—are vested with various powers: the ability to order a stack from high to low, for example, or to send a lurking card zipping to its target. It speaks less to the quality of these additions, and more to my own mind—hard-wired and wary of fresh complication, honed by Solitaire into habit—that I ignored these perks, falling back on the bare hunt for order.

Not that I begrudge the game’s creative iteration. Just because Solitaire requires no adornment doesn’t mean that it isn’t a developer’s right to try. My gripe isn’t with mechanical burden; it’s that the tone and the themes of The Solitaire Conspiracy kill the underlying card game’s mystique. Consider the notes of espionage naturally present in Solitaire: the lonely, smart-suited grind, the tracking of patterns, and the pursuit of new pieces, out in the field, to be flipped and pressed into service. The problem with the new game is that the conspiracy is out in the open, and whatever you make of Miller and Tomlinson, their presence is contrary to the entire enterprise. The clue is in the name: this should be a solitary pursuit. When I returned, after the credits rolled, to classic Solitaire, the biggest relief was simple: I was alone.

Why, then, would I recommend The Solitaire Conspiracy? There are two reasons. The first is that it was clearly forged from a love of Solitaire, and even its failures feel like restless, riffled expressions of that love. They seem like an exploration of its opaque design, at perhaps too great a cost. If your years have yielded countless hours to Solitaire and you’ve no idea why, then this may help you pin down its elusive pleasures. The second is Bithell’s curious relationship to play, fitting it into strange new configurations as a means of understanding—whether it be the meticulous mind of an assassin or a series of coloured shapes, as if coding out shards of himself. Whether it works or not, it’s a relief to await a developer’s next game and have no idea what’s on the cards.

Developer: Bithell Games

Publisher: Bithell Games

Available on: PC

Release date: October 6, 2020

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