Indie games are awesome, and that’s why we’re here: This column is a celebration of all those projects made by teams or even one single person that, on their own, went and did whatever they wanted. We tell you on a monthly format our newest discoveries regarding any games outside the AAA landscape, shading light into the indie games we love, gush about them, and maybe even help you find a new favorite game!
Where Cards Fall | $19.99 on Nintendo Switch, Microsoft Windows, iOS
Surrealism as a concept was defined by the 20th-century avant-garde artistic movement that was focused on making use of the subconscious mind to release further creative potential. It came in many forms, but at their core was always the belief that the audience was just as crucial to the experience of creative work as the original creator themselves. At times, these visual or literary depictions could be bizarre and unnerving. But it speaks to how engaging they were that many pieces from this movement survive in the public consciousness today. And in the modern era, games are subject to a great deal of discussion regarding the essence of surrealism in their construction.
Is a particular game surreal because it constructs a disconcerting visual landscape? Does surreal experience come from unusual control inputs or incomprehensible storytelling techniques? Is every game an instrument in the grand artistic experiment of surrealism, as so many of them center their observers as active participants? And in a medium so rife with the concept of player control, how do you represent their interior journey through that surreal experience?
These questions swirled within my mind as I unraveled the bizarre, beautiful, brilliant experience of Where Cards Fall.
Developed by The Game Band for mobile devices in 2019 and released last year on the Nintendo Switch by development house Snowman, Where Cards Fall incorporates an isometric viewpoint, providing the player a complete view of the current environment. During play, the player must move from one section of the scene to another, with the hard limitations of a limited horizontal jump and a short vertical climb. However, what sets this title apart from its peers comes in the form of presentation and intuitive engagement with its core mechanic: the ability to fold and unfold spectral sets of black-backed cards into in-game structures.
The sensation of moving these cards around the screen is incredible to behold, both on mobile and with a Switch Joy-Con, and swapping between them is achieved with either a tap or flick of the stick. And somehow, the magic trick of these cards saddling themselves into a particular corner and unfolding out into a record shop or office building never loses its allure. I can only attribute this to how well-constructed the mechanic actually is, where the limits of how it can be applied are immediately understandable through impeccable user experience design.
I’d also like to return to the isometric aspect of the work for a moment, as it’s used to great effect during these puzzles. While many puzzle titles use rigidly presented isometric visuals as a method of abstraction, Where Cards Fall makes use of its card-building mechanic to incorporate that rigidness as part of the environment. In doing so, the visual splendor of the game is on full display, as each unfolded building the player can set up is immediately distinct and yet, largely naturalistic within their given environment. This, coupled with fluid and smooth animation, makes the game a visual treat, to say the least.
All of this is in service of a plethora of quiet, careful, robustly designed puzzles that kept me fully engaged, even during points of frustration or confusion. Here, the plain-faced presentation of the game is on full display as a major positive, as anything approaching negative feedback is almost impossible to find. Where Cards Fall doesn’t seem to be interested in chastising an incorrect answer or prodding the player to hurry and finish the latest little problem placed before them. Instead, it merely is. The puzzle has everything it needs to be solved, it merely needs the player to solve them, and they can take as long as necessary.
But underneath that smooth, evenly paced, experimental, and experiential play seems to be something else. Moving away from the moment-to-moment play, there are the levels themselves: beautiful to behold, but with each locale presented as one step of the unnamed protagonist’s journey into adulthood. These sequences, these surreal moments of building and unbuilding the world around the player, each seemed to show something deeper within. But just as the original 20th-century artistic movement so deigned, it’s never clearly stated what that deeper ‘something’ really is.
It’s all in the hands of the player to release their own creative potential on what the game is giving to them.
After completing each level, one or more of these little scenes play out, ranging from high school dances to working at an uninspired delivery job. These dioramas are muted in presentation, with nearly inaudible dialogue and minimal context, save for the other individuals, all around the protagonist either appearing in clear form or fading like shadows. And in so many scenes, as well as scattered throughout the levels, are authoritative, questioning eyes, seemingly asking the player character what it was they were supposed to be doing there.
All these scenes, and the levels that built up to them, had a tendency to stick with me long after the controller was put down, and again, made me reflect on what the game’s surreal experience was asking of me.
Speaking personally, my experience with this game was perhaps a bit unusual in that I played it in tandem with my partner, each of us swapping the controller when a puzzle was completed, but both providing suggestions and interpretations during the experience. It made me think of spending time in parallel at a library or an art museum and certainly gave me plenty to think on as the game continued to drive home the isolation of the player character, both through its surreal puzzle play and the brief narrative beats that accompanied them.
The protagonist of Where Cards Fall is never named. No one is. But their journey seems undeterred by the need for such specific details. Instead, the work seems to be asking the player to consider their own connection with this protagonist, and why this world they live in must be so frequently upended and rebuilt, card by card, piece by piece?
Why is isolation so easy to find?
Why is connection so hard to rebuild?
After spending some time away from Where Cards Fall, I’m still pondering what it really wanted from me. What was the intended message, or emotional resonance, that the creators of this title sought from their audience? I have my own answer, as does my partner, and as do so many who played this title, but perhaps that is the wrong question.
At the core of surrealist art is the belief that the audience is just as crucial to the experience of creative work as the original creator. In that way, we are bringing our whole selves to Where Cards Fall, and like it or not, crafting a connection of our own with this surreal little story all the same.
Battletech | $39.99 on Microsoft Windows, Linux, macOS
In-between a few of my 1,000+ deaths in Elden Ring, I decided, “Hey, maybe I don’t want to die this much all the dang time anymore,” and so I went back to my tried and true comfort genre: tactics. I skimmed through my library of tactics games and then remembered that big mech boys are friggin dope! So I fired up Battletech, a game that I shuffled away in the back of my mind and the front of the rather useful Steam Collections feature as “You know it’s good fun, just put more time into it!” and I must say that I was in no way disappointed by putting in more time.
It’s a Paradox Entertainment game, so I will never in my life have a full grasp over what the heck is going on. But it’s not as insanely deep as their 4X games like Crusader Kings. I’ve only played the Campaign mode, which for my money, I don’t know why I’d need anything else. There’s a Career mode, which I’m sure I would absolutely thoroughly enjoy, but the Campaign has taken up enough of my time and does offer enough side content to make it feel less like a constricted and driven story mode and rather a nudge in a certain direction. With that said, the story is a tale of revenge, helping a fellow student of your murdered MechWarrior tutor who had her throne stolen away from her uncle. Now, I am absolutely here for a big political story involving mechs, can’t state that enough. It’s why I just started watching the very original Mobile Suit Gundam series! I get to use this big giant walking hunk of metal to blow up a prison gate to free some political prisoners of war? Sign me up!
The combat itself is a pretty deep take on tactics as your mech is outfitted with various weapons that are effective at different ranges. One mech can have long-range missiles as well as a short-range machine gun and a couple of all-around lasers. They added a really nice touch in that you can basically turn off certain weapons if the hit rate is too low and you want to conserve the mech’s heat. Yes, there are a lot of resources to keep note of, but it never feels like too much. It all flows pretty well, allowing you to mostly focus on blowing the heck out of all your enemies. Or, if you prefer, stepping on them. You can melee with your mechs, and if you’re fighting little dork tanks, you can just step on them real quick and one-hit KO those suckers.
After you finish off one map, of which the missions can range from real quick escort missions to the longer story missions, you go back to your ship, where you can choose to fix or refit your mechs, level up your MechWarriors, and choose new missions and mission rewards; do you want some very nice cash or do you want more salvage from the mission? They both have their place in the game, but just like resources, I never felt like I had to balance it out. I just really wanted cash and still had enough of a salvage income to be happy. So, while I watch Mobile Suit Gundam and cry over not having a fantastic Gundam game in a genre I want, Battletech is doing a fine enough job at keeping that little part of my heart occupied and happy.