There’s something about cheating the nobility of pre-revolutionary France through card tricks that appeals to Nerial, the indie studio behind Card Shark. For a start, emptying the purses of pompous Bourbons, while ascending into the Ancien Régime’s upper echelons, provides for a neat satire of an impoverished society governed by the rich.
As gratifying as Card Shark’s promise of fleecing your way to the top may seem, this journey won’t be straightforward. You’ll have to think about what happens to those you cheat. As Design Director François Alliot explains, “We wanted the player to go through the moral implication of cheating people.”
Mingling with Mesmer
Card Shark is a game about scamming people at card parlours and dinner parties with sleight of hand card tricks. There are two main reasons behind its setting, according to Alliot. “One of the main ones is to try to convey a bit of the mystery of card tricks and sleight of hand”. To this end, Nerial have incorporated fabled characters of the period into Card Shark.
They include the likes of the Count of St. Germain, an elusive historical figure claiming extreme longevity, as well as “an alchemist, and also a bit of a cheat. We wanted to convey this character and very well-known scammers like Victor Lustig, or characters like Mesmer.” (Franz Mesmer was an eighteenth-century physician who garnered a reputation as a charlatan.)
Another motivation for Card Shark is to explore France in the 18th century. “Our game is set before the revolution, around 1743. The old monarchy was about to disappear.” Meanwhile there was “social development and the development of ideas and philosophy. You meet Voltaire, you meet d’Alembert. You meet those characters who worked on the Encyclopédie.”
At the king’s table
These worlds are combined around the protagonist, an arriviste who deceives his way into polite society. “He is a young hero who starts as a waiter in a tavern and ends up at the king’s table in Versailles,” says Alliot.
The narrative bears intentional similarities to the picaresque novels that were popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. These typically traced an appealing but roguish character and often satirised the corrupt societies in which they sought to prosper.
Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 film Barry Lyndon, itself based on an 1844 novel by William Makepeace Thackeray, is a particular influence on the protagonist’s moral ambiguity. “[As] your character gets more skills and gets better in the world,” says Alliot, “you don’t know if it’s good or bad. Sometimes you don’t know if they’re a good guy, a hero or a bad guy.”
What it means to be a cheat
The moral implications of cheating people lends the game an intriguing tension. There are multiple outcomes to your deceptions. “Some people will just be happy to be cheated and just carry on playing, and it’s quite fun and light. For some other people, it can really mess them up.”
Alliot describes how one character in the game can initially be teased with tricks in an amiable atmosphere. Having brought him into your world, however, this character will develop a disordered relationship with gambling.
“You find him a few scenes later and he is in a gambling house, then he’s kicked out because he’s making debts and he’s cheating. It’s actually quite bad,” says Alliot. “The whole game is about trying to explore what it means to be a cheat.”
Nerial’s resident card cheat
The idea for Card Shark originated with Nicolai Troshinksy, the game’s artist. “He’s also the card cheat,” says Alliot. Troshinsky taught the team card tricks, having first seen potential in the hobby for a game.
“Nicolai is a special character,” says Alliot. “When he’s got a hobby, he does it perfectly. Before card tricks, he was a champion of pinball.” After picking up a deck of cards, Troshinsky introduced the base of the game to Alliot and Nerial partner Arnaud de Bock. Thereafter, Alliot took on writing duties.
Kubrick’s natural light
As the artist, Troshinksy delivers a distinctive visual flavour to Card Shark’s opulent card parlours. Here, the influence from Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon is felt again. “For that movie, Kubrick used some very light-sensitive lenses to capture every scene with natural light,” says Alliot, “so you got candles and not much light to paint the scene.”
“Nicolai is trying to transcribe that in a way that’s not expensive.” Alliot describes how Troshinsky draws everything by hand, before scanning it and texturing and lighting it with the game software. “That’s how you got this look that’s very unique. You have the feel of something that’s drawn while still leaving a lot of light and a lot of atmosphere.”
A bit of a trick
Card Shark is set to be released later in 2021.“It’s going to be a bit of a wild ride,” says Alliot. “We tried to get close to the novels of Dumat, like Le Comte de Monte-Cristo. The storyline and the plot will [feature] a lot of setback and discovery: ‘Oh, this is not exactly what we thought’.”
Alliot ends our call with some mystification of his own. “The whole game itself, if you want, is a bit of a con,” he says. “A bit of a trick.”