From the outset, Solo makes it clear that it’s not a typical game. It starts with three questions: What is your gender, how would you like to be represented, and how would you like your love to be represented? Soon you’ll be asked another question: What role does love play in your life? These simple, direct questions immediately establish a tone (achingly sincere) that persists throughout the rest of the game and forms the basis of your interaction with it. Choosing to present yourself as coupled, single, or heartbroken influences what questions you’ll be asked later, and perhaps more importantly, gets you thinking about your love life.
This mindset will be crucial to your experience of Solo. Taken at face value, it seems to be a simple puzzle game. Traveling across a multi-color archipelago, you manipulate blocks and hang-glide through the air to reach tiny lighthouse-like structures. These activate larger totems, which in turn pose questions to you. We’re trained by puzzle games to see this endpoint as just a marker, a stand-in for achievement, and to see the block-pushing as the real point of the game. But Solo inverts that relationship. The goal here is to reach those totems, not because they signify that you’ve solved a puzzle, but because that’s where the real game is. The puzzles, and to some extent the totems themselves, stand in the way of your true goal, which is self-knowledge.
The puzzles themselves are simple, but mostly excellent. You can pick up and move blocks, or float them through the air with a magic wand, to create a path to the lighthouses and totems. Picking up blocks with the magic wand feels great (and very similar to the magnesis power in Breath of the WIld). The controls are silky smooth and responsive; just navigating the island feels fun.
Some blocks have special properties, such as fans that blow other blocks into the air or suction cups that grab onto surfaces, and you can combine these in different ways to reach your goals. According to the developers, puzzles don’t have set solutions, instead allowing you to make your own path to your goal. This fluidity occasionally got irritating when the environment provided no clear hint to a puzzle’s solution. But for the most part, I enjoyed it. The most difficult puzzles in the game actually became the least satisfying in a way, because the more time you spend working out their solutions, the less time you’re spending immersed in the game’s theme.
Solo is not a game about puzzles. Solo is a game about love, and it’s not shy about saying so. Even the blocks can be read as symbols of the game’s themes of uplift, connection, and reaching out. In addition to the guileless totems flat-out asking you questions, the islands are also inhabited by a second set of beings who occasionally swing by to wax philosophical about the concepts you’re delving into.
These spirits are much more lyrical than the inquisitive totems, and I found them somewhat less effective. Their monologues verge on saccharine, and they slightly contradict the idea that you’re shaping your own experience by setting their own tone for you. That said, they do set that tone well, even if they come off a bit melodramatic.
From time to time, you’ll also encounter the manifestation of love that you picked at the beginning of the game. You can have light interactions with them, such as sharing a bench or helping them lower a drawbridge. They’ll often pop up shortly after you’ve answered a totem’s question to offer commentary on your choice. Sometimes their rhetorical questions come off as a little accusatory, but they’re never confrontational. They’re clearly meant to make you look deeper into your views and examine any blind spots or consequences of them that you may have missed. At times, their commentary felt slightly off the mark, imbuing my answers with meanings I didn’t intend but they generally had cogent things to say. It’s best to look at them as offering one outside perspective, rather than sitting in judgment or stating an absolute truth. I found them to be the most interesting of the “characters” that inhabit Solo’s world. And even if you don’t like what they have to say, it’s still nice to pass a few minutes sitting on a swing with them, taking in the view.
Solo does these little moments extremely well. You have access to a guitar that you can play to make affect the weather or drain the world of color, seemingly for no reason than the fun of it. The islands are dotted with roly-poly dogs, jumping fish, and hungry moles. Some of these animals let you pet them, some beg for food, and others will flock to you if you play a nice tune on your guitar. You can also tackle a series of side puzzles (building paths for stranded dogs or diverting water to a dry garden) that are completely optional, granting no advantage toward actually completing the game. The world is so inviting, and its inhabitants so charming, that I was happy to while my time away solving these optional puzzles or just running around the island, catching wind drafts, and petting animals.
Even aside from any goals, the islands of Solo just feel like places you want to explore. The graphics are almost overwhelmingly cute, and everything on the island looks soft and round and safe. It works with a huge color palette, painting its world in vibrant shades in a cartoonish, almost paint-by-numbers style. The music, on the other hand, is surprisingly melancholic, inspiring the introspective mood that is a prerequisite for getting the most out of the game.
To say that Solo is a game like no other is almost selling it short. Its strange fusion of puzzle game and psychological inventory managed to pull off things that I didn’t know games could even attempt. For days after I finished it, I felt its after effects rumbling around inside me. You can take that as a kind of warning; if you’re prone to rumination and unhappy with your love life, Solo might bring you to some pretty dark places. Above all, the game is defined by what you bring to it. If you’re the type to call games with something to say pretentious, that’s probably what you’ll call this one. If you’re not willing to take a slow pace and do some soul-searching, you’ll find it boring. But if you approach Solo on its own terms and open yourself up to its curious gaze, you’ll find a unique experience that may just bring some hidden parts of yourself into the light.