Jun. 03, 2009 - Issue #711: Rancid
Infinite Lives: Fairway Solitaire
You know what's delicious? An A&W "Sausage 'n' Egger." You know what's
not so delicious? One's own words, eaten in defeat. A snippet from this
space, from a little over a year ago: "Fuck solitaire. Solitaire is the
apotheosis of futility and meaninglessness, a degrading exercise whose only
purpose is to obliterate consciousness. Solitaire symbolizes boredom, ennui,
hopelessness. Solitaire is a fast-forward button for a life not worth
Ouch. But, hey, I meant it when I said it; I'd just ripped my soul away from a steely solitaire jag. Clarity came, and it was all over for me and solitaire, I figured forever. But then, last week, I did something else I never thought I'd do again: I clicked on an online advertisement. I know! Curiosity's a powerful force, though; I'd heard mention of this "Fairway Solitaire," and there was the ad, bright in the middle of a blog post, Big Fish Games offering me a copy—a full copy, not some lobotomized sample or time-limited demo—absolutely free. Caught, I clicked.
And, so. Fairway Solitaire. A solitaire game, presented within a golf metaphor. Solitaire plus golf; doesn't that sound quite pleasant and/or unspeakably boring? Turns out, it works hellaciously well. Gone are the scoring systems of traditional computer solitaire widgets, the games-won-vs-games-lost tallies and the depressing virtual moneypit of "Vegas" scoring, replaced with par, birdie, eagle, bogey and a golf scorecard; you play through courses of nine or 18 "holes," each hole a unique solitaire layout of overlapping cards, complete with special hazards and traps. A run of card-removals is a drive, and racks up your score multiplier. Your success or failure is greeted with crowd noise of golf-claps, restrained golf-cheers and (more often) disappointed golf-awwws, narrated by a pair of mild-mannered, hokey-jokey golf commentators. I've been more or less completely involved in this for 30 hours out of the last week.
Let's take a look at the elements of addiction at work here. On the basic,
neurological level there's the fundamental hook of solitaire, which is
mechanically matching up cards. Our circuits want to make order and sense out
of the chaotic inputs they receive, and release a big ol' chemical thumbs-up
when this is achieved. Taking shuffled deck and random layout and making it
into something neat and tidy is a physical rush that lies beyond
consciousness, welling up from primitive places we'd rather not think
That animal action, though, isn't enough; once consciousness manages to fight its way through the haze of autonomous endorphins. Fairway Solitaire mitigates this by adding a layer of complexity and strategy that mollifies the higher mind. Rather than re-dealing a single standard layout, you're playing though courses comprising sets of unique card patterns, and each course has its own discrete goal beyond simply clearing the boards. And on individual holes the golf metaphor really comes alive: some holes are twisty and tricky, some holes are wide-open and gentle, and the addition of water hazards (areas which need to be cleared before certain blocks of cards enter into play) and sand traps (obscured and unplayable until a "sand wedge" card is discovered and removed) adds a strategic feeling.
This agency is enhanced by, well, I won't call it an "RPG element," but there is an upgrade track. As you earn loadsadough from your solitaire-golf career, new accessories become available from the pro shop. Some of these are kind of inconsequential—improving your chances of success in the random mini game cards that turn up now and then, adding a few more seconds to your deadline in time-trial courses—while others, like the X-Ray Specs that allow you to peek at the next card in the stockpile, are game-changers whose proper deployment becomes critical as the courses get tougher. You can play the first dozen or so courses of Fairway Solitaire pretty much by old-school reflex, but later on you're going to need every trick at your disposal—and every "club," special cards you hold on to and use to fill a numerical gap in a drive—to meet the game's insane requirements.
If my opinion of solitaire is low, my opinion of golf is positively subterranean, yet Big Fish has managed to combine the two into something really special, the cellular satisfaction of mindless solitaire harnessed to a deeper gameplay that actually allows you to feel like an active human rather than a lobotomized sorting machine, and still grabs you like a motherfucker. Quick tip to AADAC: you want to reduce VLT addiction? Put a terminal offering free Fairway Solitaire in every video-lottery parlour and watch the numbers. V
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