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Hugh Likes Video Games: The Solitaire Conspiracy

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The Solitaire Conspiracy: A Mike Bithell Short
Developed by Bithell Games
Published by Ant Workshop
Played on Nintendo Switch

The Skinny: A tense, techno-espionage thrill built from a deck of cards.
Mike Bithell has some brilliant thoughts on game design and post/transhumanism. He’s also known for his tight, compact game design, compressing his point-of-view into tiny games. He made his mark with indie storytelling platformer Thomas Was Alone and cemented it with the robot detective game Subsurface Circular. His recent project The Solitaire Conspiracy mixes intense spy thriller action with an unlikely gameplay mechanic: a game of solitaire.
 Players fill the shoes of Spymaster, an analyst candidate tapped to save a shadowy spy network when a supervillain locks them out of their coordination software, C.A.R.D.S. Working with the last remaining analyst, it’s your job to coordinate scattered spy crews and get everything up and running, but in the world of spycraft, nobody can be trusted. 
 As you play through missions and rank up, you gain access to colorful crews of operatives, each with their own suit and special abilities. Face cards represent not only the faction but individual members of the team, and placing active cards uses their team power. This can be things like shuffling a stack or redistributing a suit or moving a card of a specific value or suit around. They are powerful twists on the game, but in fitting the theme, they can hinder you as much as help.
 The UX is where the game really shines, with the board appearing as a virtual space lit in the slick blacks and scintillating neon of a cyberpunk wonderland. The design made it a bit difficult to read at times, especially playing in handheld mode on the Switch. Fortunately, there is a zoom feature that makes everything a bit bigger and easier to see. The cool sci-fi colors, along with the pounding, synth-filled soundtrack, lends a tension to the game that traditional solitaire lacks. Missions add both flavor and drama to the gameplay. I frequently found myself playing just one more mission to reach the next rank and advance the story, or get the report on a thrilling mission.
 The Solitaire Conspiracy is a masterclass in design and proves that engaging storytelling and slick aesthetics can spice up even the most mundane gameplay mechanics. Like most Bithell games, there are only a few hours of the main story here, but they’re a thrill ride. The Solitaire Conspiracy is available for download from Steam, the Nintendo eShop, and the Xbox game store.

Hugh Likes Video Games: Subsurface Circular

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Subsurface Circular
Developed by Mike Bithell
Published by Anthill Games
Nintendo Switch

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The Skinny – A short but satisfying trip.

Subsurface Circular is an old-school concept in some flashy new clothes. Quintessentially at text adventure, players assume the role of a detective that works on a subway train for robots, the eponymous Subsurface Circular. When the character goes off-programming to help a Tek (the game’s term for Asimo-like sentient humanoid robots) You’ll question passengers to get to the bottom of a mystery at the heart of your unnamed future city.
Gameplay consists entirely of text boxes and dialog choices as you try and get to solve the case, as well as a few simple puzzles the game puts in your path. The train car and its riders are lovingly rendered in high def, and the game uses the Switch’s gyroscope to let you look around a bit, but it is all just set dressing for the text, as shiny and gorgeous as it looks.
The plot is certainly engaging, but Bithell released it as a part of a series of ‘shorts,’ and it is quite short. Even taking a leisurely pace, the game can easily be finished in a two-hour sitting. It is quite forgiving with the puzzles, and while you can make choices, they don’t seem to have much impact on the game, or create much in the way of replay value. While the economy of the resources is quite clever, I would have liked to have solved a few more mysteries, but the game is propelled by its plot to a quick end.
There is a quite cool Easter egg for fans of Bithell’s award-winning “Thomas Was Alone,” which I won’t spoil here, and the Teks are all both convincingly human and utterly alien looking. They’re breathtaking to watch. There is also a clever bit of design where the soundtrack to each chapter is provided by Teks wearing earphones, their too-loud music pushing out into the car alongside atmospheric sounds of air brakes and sliding doors.
At around five dollars, “Subsurface Circular” is well worth the price tag for an evening of Robot Noire on the loop line. It is available for Nintendo Switch as well as Steam and IOS devices.