Voltaire is famously quoted as saying that you shouldn’t ‘think money does everything or you are going to end up doing everything for money’. Indeed, this adage is so popular that you’re most likely to come across it plastered on Minions-based image macros shared by your extended family on Facebook, or by that dude in high school who’s, ironically, really into crypto. The saying is widespread, however, for a very good reason; it is, after all, true. The corrupting influence of wealth has been present in human history from the very beginning. Everyone, to some degree, lusts for the power riches can bring – whether that be the power to stand up for yourself and live your own life, or the power to crush those who oppose you. Nerial’s brand new cheat-em-up, Card Shark, dares to tackle these lofty philosophical musings by placing players in the shoes of a mute serving boy living in 18th century France. Our silent protagonist is drawn into the world of deception, card tricks and gambling by real-life historical figure the Comte de Saint Germain and, through accumulating wealth and notoriety, meets several other famous faces on his journey (both real and fictional). The setting of pre-revolution France provides the perfect backdrop for the story, imbuing it with that distinct sense of unease. The old world is beginning to decline, the general atmosphere seems taught, the people ready to snap at any moment. Wealthy casino owners, self-proclaimed royalty and nonchalant philosophers treat coin as if it is water, while the disenfranchised middle-classes long for serious revolution, both industrial and political. The tale of our hero, christened Eugene by the Comte, initially appears as if it was set in motion by chance, but as the game progresses, he comes to realise that there is no such thing. The moment-to-moment narrative of Card Shark is deftly conveyed via witty conversation, attention to detail and a string of eccentric characters. The threads of conspiracy that begin to intertwine and connect as the game goes on are fittingly complex yet conveyed in such a way that the player doesn’t have much trouble putting it all together – giving a wonderful sense of satisfaction that does not give way to confusion. Eugene being mute is a slice of genius design, as it allows players to choose their own reaction and choices to situations using the expressions given to them by the game e.g., a frown for no, a grin for yes. A silent protagonist always does wonders for immersion, in so far as it allows the player to imprint their own personality on the avatar they control. It is clever then, that Eugene’s inability to speak is given concrete reasoning within the in-game universe. There are even these neat little meta moments that play with silence, and I particularly enjoy the quasi-game over sections in which the player is allowed to try and cheat death for another attempt should they fail a particular scam. When I talk about cheating death, I do mean it in the literal sense, as in, playing a card game with the grim reaper in the underworld, which is a realm in which we see Eugene actually talk (as Death puts it, it is their realm, and the rules are up to them). This adds yet another layer to our protagonist, and we must ask ourselves, as players, how much control we truly have over the man on the screen.
Outside of the realm of death, and the real historical setting of 18th century France, Eugene also finds himself on another plane of existence entirely, that of magic realism. This is obvious from the opening sequence in which our hero meets the Comte who, while being very much real (or as real as the history books say), was infamous for his many large claims and outright lies. Eugene’s world is one where nothing is as it seems, and the player is drip-fed little snippets of the uncanny at a constant rate. Those familiar with the work of Jorge Luis Borges will notice that, once Eugene is drawn into the troupe of travelling cheats, one of the first members he meets goes by the name of Ireneo Funes. Funes is the name of the central character in Borges’ short story Funes the Memorious, which details the brief life of a young man who falls off a horse and, after hitting his head, can suddenly remember every minute detail of everything that happens to him (for example, the shape of each cloud in the sky during a given time of day). Funes direct appearance in Card Shark works on multiple levels and serves to enhance the general uncanny atmosphere of the situation that Eugene finds himself in. The bizarre, fantastical anachronism of finding a character from a 1942 literary story in 18th century France helps compound the strangeness and creates a level of meta-textual intrigue that draws the player deeper into a world of lies. The actual content of Borges’ story also helps illuminate certain themes found in Card Shark, as it relates to ideas of miracles, curses, wasted potential and artificial language – all of which bear relevance to Eugene’s story and the personal histories of his companions in deception. Among other historical figures, including Louis XV, Voltaire himself also does eventually make an in-game appearance. His arrival, like Funes, is short, sweet and multi-faceted. The French philosopher is immediately aware of Eugene and the Comte’s tricks during a card game, but treats it with a jovial frivolity, enamoured with the ideas and implications of cheating over any financial loss. This speaks to Voltaire’s actual written musings on money, but also serves to show his elevated place within French society – he was someone who, unlike Eugene, could very much afford to be swindled and turn the experience into artistic inspiration. The game does an admirable job of highlighting the nuance here, neither condemning nor celebrating Voltaire, but highlighting the comfortable position and stability that financial success allows.
Amongst a story that layers political intrigue, philosophical musing and layered literary and historical reference, Card Shark also possesses an intricate and addictive mechanical gameplay loop. Throughout the game, the player will learn a series of increasingly complex methods of cheating that are carried out via a series of mini-games, most of which require memorisation, timing and fine motor control. For example, the very first trick you learn is taught to you by the Comte in the opening sequence of the game and involves peeking at his opponents’ cards over their shoulder as you serve them wine. This plays out via a split screen in which, on the right, the player must gently press the analog stick forward to pour the wine (without over, or under, filling the glass), all while keeping an eye on the left side of the screen and clocking the hand of the target. Afterwards, the player must wipe the table in a particular pattern in order to signal the Comte as to the most numerous suit that the other player has – a clockwise circular motion for clubs, for example. This succeeds in being both challenging and stressful, with the tight controls and snappy sound design proving immensely satisfying once everything comes together in one smooth motion. The most important aspect of the game is nailed from the very beginning, and you feel like a devious, criminal mastermind, expertly stringing together button inputs to completely outwit your adversaries. During these sequences, a small bar at the bottom of the screen shows how suspicious your opponent is, and several things can affect how quickly it fills (the game is up once they reach the red zone). Stumbling on certain inputs, taking too long during a shuffle and betting obscene amounts of money a little too quickly can all contribute towards agitating your mark. This creates a delicate balance of cat and mouse and can even lead to the player choosing to lose on purpose in order to decrease the bar, before mounting an even more aggressive counterattack. The excellent balance is further enhanced by the sheer number of tricks that Eugene ends up with, which caps out at 28 total. Some of these are more complex variations of simple cheats you learn early on, whereas others are delightfully bizarre and include disguises, mirrors, makeup and even a paintbrush. Some may take issue with the relatively binary way in which success is measured in Card Shark, since messing up on even a small element of the trick will result in you losing the round, but I think this speaks to the theme of nothing being left up to chance. You make your own luck in Card Shark, and a victory that isn’t guaranteed is no victory at all. It is worth noting that you also receive ample time to practice all your illusions in a safe environment, and the game is relatively generous when it comes to guiding you through the more demanding sequences. Again, the stiff challenge that presents itself later in the game might be a bit of a turn-off for players who struggle under pressure or find tightly timed sequences of button prompts too much to deal with. I would argue that this degree of challenge is completely necessary in keeping within the realms of the thematic elements of the game. The difficulty level needs to exist in order to create tension when pulling off more complex bouts of cheating and Eugene, as a character, grows steadily along his journey in terms of what he does.
One of my favourite aspects of Card Shark is the journal that gets filled in as you progress through the story, each entry written by Eugene after a level is completed. These entries start off clumsy, often full of misspellings and grammatical errors, the throwaway thoughts of a poor servant boy with no education. Every time Eugene learns a new trick from the Comte, he then insists that you practice your handwriting, grammar, or declensions. Eventually, and entirely naturally, you see these journal entries evolve from nigh-incomprehensible to something both legible and moving. As colons fill in the blanks, names are capitalised and places spelled correctly, you also see a change in Eugene’s general state of mind. His education has the knock-on effect of activating his moral compass, and his feelings soften and complicate as the game goes on. The woman who took him in as a server boy is killed at the beginning of the game, something that Eugene almost celebrates in his initial diary entry, claiming that he always hated working in that tavern. As time passes, you see him reminisce about the woman and how she didn’t need to die; he sketches a portrait of her so that he can remember her face. A young man that he and the Comte swindle reappears later down the line, having lost everything, driven to drink by financial failure. Eugene notes the sadness in his eyes that exists beyond his physical years and small pockets of regret begin to appear in his journal entries after that point. The moral conundrum of money relates once again to the writings of Voltaire, is Eugene indeed now doing everything for money? Has the introduction of guaranteed (should he be skilled enough) access to wealth fundamentally changed him forever? The Comte too, is he also a victim? Trust and destiny are brought into the equation in consistently fascinating ways. Can the player trust the Comte when he never really tells you exactly who he is, or what he even wants for the most part? Eugene must decide whether he relinquishes his grasp on his own fate to the eccentric man or takes matters into his own hands. The player’s own ideals and morals are brought to the fore with this conundrum. What do they owe the man who provided their player character an education and a chance at something greater? Is that enough to essentially commit your life to one big act of deception? So many questions, such brief, bittersweet time in which to answer them.
Card Shark is something of a monumental achievement in the ways in which it bridges high-concept, literary thinking with satisfying and entertaining gameplay mechanics. It is, for all intents and purposes, the thinking person’s WarioWare. The art style evolves in fascinating ways, leading from dusty wooden inns, all the way to lush, regal abodes and everywhere in-between. Of particular note is the way the visuals change as Eugene finds himself in unfamiliar locales – the fact he is unaccustomed to wealth and excess reflected in the warm, smudged oranges and reds of the French casinos – they are foreign to him, existing on a level of abstraction. Likewise, all the characters walk with a pronounced gait, limbs rotating like separate joints on marionette dolls as if they are being controlled by some unseen force in the rafters. The aesthetics, mechanics and historical influence coalesce into an accomplished artistic whole. I found myself moved by the game in a myriad of unexpected ways, made to muse on concepts both large and small, on my own moral boundaries and what the unavoidable necessity of money means to me on a personal level. The redistribution of wealth becomes conceptually marred when we leave it down to a small group of real, flesh and blood people to do it (in this case, the troupe of travelling tricksters), their imperfections surfacing like so many unsightly wounds. At the end of the day, can we trust anybody beyond ourselves? And are we even right in doing that? To finish where we started, Voltaire once wrote that ‘every man is guilty of all the good he did not do’ – and this, for better or worse is the cross that we must bear. Human sin, human indifference, is unavoidable and bound to blossom if left unchecked; the first step to tackling it at its roots is to acknowledge that it exists to begin with.