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At some time or another, we've all lain awake at night and replayed memories in our heads: That one great birthday, or the first time seeing the beach. Not all of them are good -- the embarrassing moments at school, bad breakups and losing loved ones. You might cringe at some moments, but they all played some role in who you are today.
Where Cards Fall, an Apple Arcade game from developer The Game Band and publisher Snowman, puts this entire concept into a narrative-driven adventure. The game follows an unnamed protagonist who traverses different landscapes, from forests to cities to classrooms. To get from point A to point B, the player must construct and destroy card houses. A memory is unlocked at the end of each level as you progress through the main character's journey into adulthood.
In June, Where Cards Fall won an Apple Design Award along with six other Apple games and apps. The award recognized winners for outstanding app design, innovation, ingenuity and technical achievement.
For Where Cards Fall designer Sam Rosenthal, the journey to creating the coming-of-age game was spurred by the Radiohead song House of Cards. This ultimately led to the game's debut on Apple Arcade almost a year ago.
"Everybody gets into this not to make a ton of money or to become famous," Rosenthal said. "We're all getting into this because we love the creativity and we all find some spark that we want to share."
Over video chat, Rosenthal and Where Cards Fall animator Cedric Adams told me about the interconnected journeys of the game and the creators themselves.
Swimming against the current
While studying at the University of Southern California, Rosenthal found his friends starting to drift away from video games. But he doubled down, and found himself moving away from popular "power fantasy" games (you know, the big shoot-em-ups featuring white guys with guns and their bikini-clad female sidekicks) and toward games with quieter, emotional themes (like those from Chinese developer Jenova Chen). That's when Where Cards Fall began to take shape.
After graduation, Rosenthal's game studio started taking shape. Focusing on the smaller human experiences, as opposed to heavier plots with multiple twists and turns, attracted more people to Rosenthal's team. As they added their own personal stories to the development process, the game's progress picked up steam. By the time Where Cards Fall was downloadable on Apple Arcade, it was a universal player experience.
The game's narrative plays out over 10 years through an unnamed, androgynous main character. No matter where you're from, the game has no language barrier, opting instead to create a new language similar to something you'd hear in The Sims.
"It's a character that we want people to be able to project their own experiences into," Rosenthal said.
This is where Where Cards Fall really sets itself apart: Instead of setting definites, the game stays fluid.
When I played through the game, it was hard not to get swept up in the sometimes-overwhelming moments of early adolescence you'll find in the ambient world. Moments of jealousy, embarrassment, making new friends, the seemingly omniscient presence of adults and the moments when childhood crossed over into adulthood all felt fully realized. Even without typical dialogue, the inflection, body language and even the silence carried a story.
Keeping diversity in the cards
The Where Cards Fall approach represents a major break from most major studio video games of years past, which have historically favored hypermasculine, white, male protagonists. According to a study of the top 50 games of 2014, 67% of protagonists were white, while only 3% were Black, 3% were Asian and 1% were Latino. There's still a long way to go, but we've seen progress in games such as Apex Legends, which features characters who are diverse in race and sexuality, though these are not their only personality features.
Meanwhile, female video game characters are often oversexualized or left out altogether. According to data from Buzz Bingo, 2020 marked a five-year low for female protagonists in video games, despite women making up nearly half of all gamers. We are seeing an increase in games that offer multiple gender options, though.
Where Cards Fall fits neatly into Apple Arcade's collection of indie games that tell stories that otherwise might not have gotten an opportunity at a major studio. While these games won't appeal to every hardcore console gamer, they are often beautifully designed and include innovative gameplay, along with more diverse characters. For example, alongside Where Cards Fall, two of Apple Arcade's debut titles included a character in a wheelchair (Cardpocalypse) and a character who was a practicing Muslim (The Get Out Kids).
"Diversity opens a very broad book of ways to introduce more people into a world of games, and into being players," Adams, the Where Cards Fall animator, told me. "There are a lot of people who don't often get represented in media. When you close the world of who you're telling stories about, you're closing the market of that group of people."
Introducing a variety of different characters in games sends a message to that group of people as a whole, Adams said: You're worth talking to, listening to and marketing to. Building a diverse team of creators is equally important in telling authentic stories as creating diverse content, he added.
"Anyone can play Where Cards Fall and connect to a certain point in the story," Adams said. "Why take that experience away from them by focusing on a cookie-cutter market that already exists, that's dated and hasn't evolved for so long? We should speak to more people. I think it's as simple as that."
You can check out Where Cards Fall and over 130 other games on Apple Arcade (with more games coming). Apple's gaming subscription service just had its one year anniversary. Apple Arcade is $4.99 (£4.99, AU$7.99) a month and lets you play across the iPhone, iPad, Mac, iPod Touch and Apple TV. The gaming service will also be bundled through Apple One when it is released this fall.