When he was still a student at the University of Southern California, Sam Rosenthal started working on a game about building a house of cards. It was inspired in part by the Radiohead song "House of Cards," which Rosenthal felt sounded "like a gentle plea to knock down a structure in favor of something new." The game let you create structures, then break them down so that you could rebuild them in different ways. Rosenthal wanted the deconstruction and reconstruction to gradually tell a coming of age story about the wistfulness of adolescence, and the way important, sometimes devastating events can impact your life. "The longer the idea sat with me," he says, "the more it became a lens that I use to see the world."
After graduation, he worked various industry jobs, designing puzzles for Disney’s mobile hit Where’s My Water? and characters for Activision’s ubiquitous Skylanders series. The idea from school stuck with him, and in his spare time, he continued to tinker with it. A few years later, in 2013, Rosenthal met up with budding game designer Ryan Cash, and the two shared the projects they were working on. Cash had an early version of a snowboarding game, which would go on to become mobile hit Alto’s Adventure. Rosenthal revealed an early version of Where Cards Fall.
"I knew right away that it was a project I wanted to be a part of," says Cash.
Where Cards Fall is a collaboration of sorts. It’s being developed by The Game Band, a small studio formed by Rosenthal, but with support provided by Cash’s Snowman, which is helping to refine aspects like the art, design, and marketing. The game itself is still in a relatively early state. The team isn’t ready to announce a release date or platforms just yet, though Cash and Rosenthal have been working on it full-time since last year.
"The cards remain intact amidst the disorder, waiting for an architect to make them stand again."
The version of the game Rosenthal created in university, which took around a year to build, already had the majority of the game design in place, but what Rosenthal hadn’t figured out was how to tie the in-game interactions to the story he wanted to tell. A short time later, he was going through a period of personal change, leaving the familiar comforts of school and moving to a new city for a new job, and he started thinking about the game again. "The whole time, I kept thinking about my favorite aspect of a house of cards – the pile it leaves after it falls," he says. "The cards remain intact amidst the disorder, waiting for an architect to make them stand again."
Where Cards Fall doesn’t use cut scenes to tell its story, but instead builds its narrative through the way the various ways the player interacts with the game. "The houses of cards become homes for characters, platforms to traverse, places to visit, and so much more," Rosenthal explains. "After building them, you can knock them down and build them again in a different way. In several scenes, you meet characters that have their own ambitions, and we challenge you to balance their needs with your own. Our scenes take different forms, but we never drift away from our core interactions. Whether you're building dreams in a lake or solving puzzles with skyscrapers, you can always expect to use the houses of cards in new and surprising ways."
Though it’s The Game Band’s first project, Rosenthal has a lot of experience that prepared him for Where Cards Fall. Creating puzzles for Where’s My Water? taught him about easing players into an experience, for instance, and how to introduce new concepts to players in a natural way. Skylanders showed him the importance of even the tiniest details when it comes to creating memorable characters. More recently, he worked at indie studio Giant Sparrow on the upcoming surreal adventure game What Remains of Edith Finch, which tells several short stories about a cursed family. "Giant Sparrow cares deeply about merging storytelling and gameplay, and found creative ways to tie a small number of inputs to a plethora of interactions," Rosenthal says.
"We're aiming for the game to feel like a bittersweet memory of adolescence."
While the game is very different than Alto’s Adventure, it does share a few commonalities, and benefits from many of the things Cash learned while working on Alto. For one, there’s the sense of style; both have a flat, beautiful, but somewhat minimalist look. "We're aiming for the game to feel like a bittersweet memory of adolescence," says Rosenthal. "Our visuals and soundscape are welcoming, yet slightly unnerving and melancholic."
There’s also the audience the game is trying to reach. Alto managed to become a breakout hit largely because of its approachability — its one-button gameplay was easy to understand, while the art and music pulled people in — and the team is hoping to do the same thing for Where Cards Fall. "Our interactions don't require much game literacy, and aren't based on timing or reflexes," Rosenthal says. "We let the game design do most of the teaching. You learn how the game works by playing and exploring, so there's no need to reference or remember an overwhelming amount of rules."
As a narrative driven single-player game, Where Cards Fall might not have the same breakout potential as the addictive Alto’s Adventure, a game which recently adopted a free-to-play model on Android in an attempt to expand its reach. But for Cash, Where Cards Fall is a chance to help create an experience that he’s very passionate about. And by leveraging his experience on Alto, he’s hoping to bring it to as many people as possible.
"We have a powerful story to tell and we really want to get it out there," he says. "Not just to gamers, but to everyone."