I loved Tim Sheinman’s Rivals (review), picking it out as one of 2020’s overlooked gems in a Guardian round-up. Now he’s back with another detective game in the same vein – but Conspiracy falls disappointingly short of his previous work.
That’s not to say it’s bad. In fact, I had a lot of fun with Conspiracy in the two or so hours it took to complete. For a start, the concept is an enjoyably silly one, with you being given the task of piecing together the threads of a conspiracy that leads all the way up to the ‘fixing’ of the November 2020 US election. The best thing about this is that all of the various madhat right-wing conspiracy theories mentioned in the game are actually ‘real’ ones, which can be found lurking in the forum threads of the darkest interweb. These oddball ideas run from the just-about-plausible-if-you-squint-a-bit-and-don’t-think-too-hard, like the idea that shadowy left-wing agents purchased rigged voting machines in Ecuador, to utterly ludicrous 4am-in-the-morning brain farts, like 5G masts being used to spread the coronavirus and ne’er do wells funding a Canadian podcast in an attempt to undermine the Imperial measurement system.
Shoving all of these insane theories together only highlights how nuts they all are, but the game presents them with an admirably straight face, with the winking insistence that it’s all true goddammit. This is backed up with a brace of recorded ‘tapes’ from a variety of voice actors, and I was particularly pleased to hear the instantly recognisable voice of Psychopath Test author Jon Ronson among them. Sadly, the quality of the voice acting varies somewhat: for example, although I enjoyed Ronson’s dulcet tones, he stumbles over a couple of lines, very much giving the impression that they just used the first take.
Gameplay-wise, Conspiracy plays almost exactly the same as Rivals, with you being tasked with matching up a series of dates to a smorgasbord of events by listening to tapes and reading notes for clues about when certain escapades occurred. This is pretty good fun, and I particularly liked how several of the clues had me switching to the internet to dig out certain information with which I could pin down precise dates – like finding out when Taylor Swift’s birthday is. These parts, where you’re forced to look outside the game to progress, are by far the cleverest and most fun ones, and although there are more bits like this in Conspiracy than in Rivals, the game could still do with more of them overall. Chasing down a lead across various websites genuinely made me feel like a detective.
But otherwise, I was a little disappointed with Conspiracy. It’s essentially a carbon copy of Rivals with a different theme – and in a way it falls short of the former game, since Rivals also included music and various bits of art that you had to scan through for clues, whereas here you’re limited to just tapes and notes. There are some fiddly annoyances, too – for example, you can rearrange the events into date order to help you piece together a timeline, but dragging and dropping the events just causes them to switch places rather than parting to accept the newly dropped note. This means that if you want to drop in an event early in the timeline, you have to painstakingly drag and drop every event after it to maintain the order.
Aside from that, the problems are exactly the same ones that Rivals had, and it’s sad to see they haven’t been addressed. The biggest problem is that the difficulty curve is still on its head – the early part of the game is very hard, where you have a large number of dates to match with a large number of events, many of which are difficult to match up because you have so little information at that point. I almost gave up in frustration early on, and it was only a lucky guess that saw me progress. But from then on it gets easier and easier, until by the end it’s entirely obvious where each date should go.
It would make much more sense to have a limited number of dates and events to start with, then to gradually increase the number as the game goes on. And the difficulty could be increased by adding in events that didn’t happen to act as red herrings – there could even be notes or speakers that deliberately lie to lead you off the scent.
There’s also the problem that Conspiracy provides little in the way of reward for your efforts. After matching five dates and events correctly, the game confirms your guesses and then throws in more clues – but I wanted more than that. I wanted more information about the events I guessed correctly, more backstory to fill in what happened in between, even some kind of cut scene to flesh out some of the characters. There’s quite a fun little bit at the very end, which I won’t spoil, but otherwise the game is distinctly lacking in extras.
Overall, Conspiracy doesn’t quite reach the highs of Rivals, and I was disappointed that it doesn’t really build on the concepts from the previous game. I suspect that it may have been rushed a little to capitalise on the current nature of its themes. But nevertheless, I had fun solving the puzzles with my other half, making for a thoroughly pleasant way to pass an evening. And god knows we need pleasant ways to pass the evenings in these lockdowny times.
Disclosure statement: review code for Conspiracy was provided by Tim Sheinman. A Most Agreeable Pastime operates as an independent site, and all opinions expressed are those of the author.