In my youth I was a stage magician, and I’ve started looking back at the hobby recently. It’s interesting to see what’s changed. There’s an unending variety of Instagram ready illusions and video on demand lessons now, but there’s one thing that remains the same. Magicians are great at crediting their influences. Failure to credit is the cardinal sin in magic, second only to stealing people’s material. While not every creator is as meticulous as the next, it’s not unusual to see magicians go all the way back to The Discoverie of Witchcraft, published 1666, in order to demonstrate the chain of influences that lead them to their destination.
While film isn’t nearly as obsessive about documenting their own inspirations, I’ve been impressed in my conversations with directors and film educators in terms of how literate they are about the history of the mechanics they use. If they use a dolly zoom they likely know that it was first used in Hitchcocks Vertigo. They may even be able to tell you Irmin Roberts was the cameraman. They can tell you about the history of the crane shot, and significant films that have used them.
All of which brings us to my point, which is that video games are very bad indeed at crediting its influences and acknowledging its history. We often speak of ‘genres’ in game dev, and most people know that Doom helped popularise the FPS. If we dig deeper, into specific techniques, themes, and mechanics though there’s not a lot of detail to be found. Game developers seem almost embarrassed to admit they’re standing on the shoulders of giants, rather preferring to pretend they’ve built everything from first principles.
Game development often lacks a sense of its own history, and that is a great shame.
The Influences of Hand of Fate
Given that, and given I and the team at Defiant are currently thinking about the influences that will shape our new title, I thought it was worth breaking down some of the influences in Hand of Fate. This is a very much non- exhaustive list, and is primarily stuff that I was close enough to the development of that I can easily reach for the influences. Hand of Fate was the work of a big team of talented people — all of whom brought their own backgrounds and influences to bear on the final product.
First and foremost there’s the choose-your-own-adventure sequences that play out on the cards. These are heavily influenced by old gamebooks, of course, but especially the Fighting Fantasy series written by Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson. The fantastic and evocative art from those series, and the way they told their stories was a huge part of the atmosphere we wanted to capture.
Second, the Dealer. In the Ultima games (IV and V, for sure, and probably others) there’s a (quite unique for the time) character creation sequence, where you meet a gypsy fortune teller in the woods, inside a caravan much like that the Dealer travels inside in Hand of Fate 2. By selecting cards from the Tarot, your characters initial stats are determined. That context, and those opening scenes, made a huge impact on me in my day. I didn’t even get to play Ultima V — I only owned an old, rubber keyed, 4k computer at the time — the venerable Dick Smith branded VZ200. In order to even *watch* Ultima played, I had to travel to a friends house who had a C64, mighty computing behemoth of the era that it was. They didn’t let me play the game at all, for fear I would do something irretrievable to their save game, but I huddled behind them on the bed and watched them play. The moments of that game were seared into my memory, to be replayed time and time again — and evidently kept replaying for 30 years or so until they found an outlet.
The combat in the first game was inspired by Arkham Asylum, a game that found a way to deliver Batman’s visceral hand to hand style into deeply satisfying mechanics. In the process we learned a lot — not least of which how challenging that style of combat is to do well, and how important it is to have a character who has a reason to jump all over the place if that’s what you’re going to do. Arkham has continued to be a huge influence on many games since, such that it’s now considered a ‘genre’ of game combat. At the time though, there was nothing else like it — it made such an impression, and was such a joy to spend time with, that it was clearly a good choice to match up with our short-session, card driven brawls.
Tying back to that gypsy fortune teller in Ultima, there’s a strong tarot influence throughout Hand of Fate. The conceit that each card represents a different archetypical experience, and that each viewer will have specific memories attached to that archetype is at the core of the Hand of Fate mythos, and goes back to my time sitting in coffee shops in Montreal doing tarot reading for passers by. That theme goes from subtext to text in Hand of Fate 2, where the 22 challenges the player faces are named after the 22 major arcana of the tarot. It’s worth noting here as well the Cliff Johnson “Fool” series of games, which also touched on the tarot, and were also a passing influence on me. A series of puzzle games, with the first coming in 1987 and the most recent in 2012, they’re a very different type of game, but there’s a smattering of the creative DNA shared between us.
One of the common mini games we use in Hand of Fate is three card monte (known as ‘find the lady’ to some) which is an old fashioned street con game, commonly used by magicians. The goal is to find the queen (the lady) amongst three cards as they’re shuffled around face down on the table. Never play this game for money! It’s always a con, and you will lose, no matter how confident you feel. Our version though is honest, and gives you a fair shuffle and a fair chance of finding the item you’re looking for.
A note on fairness here. One of the rules we set for Hand of Fate is that we would faithfully abide by the heuristics and affordances of a boardgame. For example there are times when the game wants to draw the next item card from the deck. We could easily make that card the top one of the deck, and simply pass it over. From a code perspective, it’s all malleable. But from a boardgame perspective, that isn’t right. Instead, we retain the actual order of the stack of cards displayed and visibly turn through them one by one until we reach the next item card. It’s small things like this that help ensure we actually live up to our goals of being a ‘card game that comes to life.’
Mechanically, FTL was a huge inspiration to us. Moving from room to room across a dungeon of cards isn’t dramatically different from moving from planet to planet in FTL. The food consumption with each step also came directly from FTL. FTL really helped to start a big push of games that were Rogue variants, and Hand of Fate is a proud part of that lineage. For those who missed Rogue and it’s friends, they are adventure games from the early 1980’s that used letters and numbers to crudely represent the map. Importantly, in terms of the conversation about mechanics, when you died you went all the way back to the start and had to begin again — no restoring from save points! Each run was its own discreet entity.
That said, the things we’ve borrowed from roguelikes end up very much muddied amongst all the other mechanics we have in place, and the substantial progression that comes along with card games and deck building definitely means that Hand of Fate plays very differently to most roguelikes out there. During development we often referred to the game as a roguelike-like, ish. Sometime after release ‘roguelite’ became the preferred nomenclature, and as with any naming conventions there was some argument as to whether that truly applied to Hand of Fate. Ultimately, elements of rogue-likes have permeated game dev so thoroughly now that they barely raise a mention.
Speaking of indie games that helped inspire us, Bastion was a clear pointer that VO could help to carry an experience, and that a single character well written could become a real companion to the player experience. As someone who’d done a lot of writing for games, including writing sets of AI barks, or responses to the players movements, I knew that if we boiled the world down to a single character we could do much more than was possible in AAA games with enormous casts. Bastion helped to show the boundaries of what could be done more clearly.
Cards have tokens on them, which represent additional objectives. When you complete those objectives, the tokens crack open and new cards are added to your deck. This mechanic existed before Hearthstone was released, but Hearthstone clearly showed we needed to up the ante on our presentation. Giving the player rewards for their achievements is a critical part of Videogame development, and it’s worth making that moment shine.
While we’re talking about mechanics, Hand of Fate is full of mechanics that have been around for decades, and which I don’t know how to properly credit. The player has an inventory, but I’m not sure which game did that first. I know it was already a well worn trope when I first encountered it in point and click adventure games, and RPG’s like Dungeon Master. We discussed food consumption and supplies above, both concepts that very much existed in the P&P world of D&D and it’s predecessors well before coming to video games. Magic : The Gathering was obviously the first collectible card game, but was it the first deckbuilder? There are hundreds of other small mechanics that exist in Hand of Fate where I’m unsure who first created them, that simply belong to the lexicon of game development. I’d love to unearth more information.
Crediting your influences cleanly is hard. It’s hard because games are created out of thousands of parts, and it’s hard because games in the past have done a poor job of crediting the games that came before them. I encourage all developers to put together a list similar to this one. Dive into the games that inspired you and help bring them to the surface. Not only is it healthy for developers to acknowledge all the work that came before, it’s healthy for players to understand that we all stand on the shoulders of giants.
So this is my call to action to other developers — make a list of the influences on your last game. It can be short or exhaustive, twitter-sized or a full novel, but get the information out there!