Madrid based Team Gotham couched their debut tale of love, loss, and reflection in a third person puzzle game. You must manipulate blocks with different attributes in order to activate a lighthouse which in turn activates a statue that will ask you questions meant to guide your own relationship based reflections. Along the journey you’ll also help several bee-pig creatures - beegs? - reunite with their own partners, feed cheese to elephants, and take selfies in an adorably constructed chain of islands.
The puzzles themselves start out easily enough but thankfully pick up the pace before becoming bland. Several of the puzzles in the last set of islands had me scratching my head and rearranging the blocks into several configurations before I finally hit my lightbulb moment. Speaking of which, the light puzzles are easily some of the most standout examples and I only wish that there had been more of them. The camera itself can be a little wonky and the game had trouble detecting my basic 360 gamepad, but neither issue significantly detracted from my otherwise solid puzzle experience.
But the core of Solo’s message comes across in it’s narrative, so without further ado:
Solo reminds me of the time that my wife and I attended a church required couples premarital counseling class. Neither of us were particularly particularly religious, but we figured it would help expand on the discussions we had already had on our future life together. Much to our chagrin, the weekend was instead filled with remedial questions that only scratched the surface of the trials and tribulations of marital commitment. And much to our surprise, many of our fellow attendees found these questions not only illuminating but upon further inquiry had not previously discussed them.
Likewise, Solo frames it questions in such a manner as to target those who are in a relationship but had not spent much time thinking upon or discussing what that actually entails. For instance, at one point a statue asks if you’d be willing to give up your passion in order to be with your love. Framing the question of “how do you plan on balancing time between the person you love and other things you enjoy doing” as an almost binary yes/no question misses the importance of the thought experiment.
Indeed, to drive home the notion of love as a zero sum game, the ghost representation of your love demands to know if there’d be anything left for her after you are done pursuing your other passions. But in a healthy relationship, of course you would balance time between your partner and other activities. The interesting bit - the part that Solo sailed right past - is the discussion in how to balance your time or how your needs as a couple can and will change with time.
But roughly halfway through the game, I began to wonder about my reaction. Certainly, no one sets out to undermine their tale of love and reflection by asking overly broad questions and I do not see why Team Gotham would be any different. In an interview, lead designer Juan de la Torre shares that Solo takes inspiration from an intense and sudden breakup he experienced 4 years prior.
Returning to the game, I began to think about the hints of a very personal tale that had been scattered through the experience thus far. I only wish the developers had structured their narrative around a close to life interpretation of de la Torre’s experience; because in generalizing his inspiration for a broader audience many of the questions lost the weight and context they would have otherwise brought.
Upon further consideration, I realized that I was already mentally modelling relationship considerations as a timeline. Though the questions may fall flat and I feel that I already learned the lessons alluded to in Solo, there was certainly a time when I would have considered the wisdom I now hold as non obvious. Indeed, I hardly hold all the answers and look to things like Esther Perel’s excellent podcast Where Should We Begin for clues as to what challenges I might face next. As such, it occurred to me that I was being overly harsh because the questions the game posits were behind me on the timeline. And as that counseling session made clear, not everyone arrives at the same questions at the same time.
Solo’s adorable aesthetic, relaxing music, and clever if not overly challenging puzzles made for a compelling experience. Despite feeling like the totem questions did not do the subject matter justice, the game did achieve its goal of getting me to ruminate on relationships - even if in the most roundabout way possible and outside how the developers intended. Solo is worth visiting for the puzzles and relaxed atmosphere, but you are better off looking elsewhere if only the narrative caught your interest.
Score: 3 out 5 (Cautiously Recommended)
Solo was created by Team Gotham. It is available on Steam for $14.99.