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Zeyu Yang Interview: Out of Hands, A Psychological Thriller Card Game

Upcoming game Out of Hands is a unique psychological thriller that utilizes card-based battles to tell a story. The title combines battles in the style of Slay the Spire and Hearthstone with body-horror visuals and a dark narrative that slowly reveals itself through each level. The protagonist must confront his own conflicting thoughts as he overcomes nightmarish visions each night.


Out of Hands features the uncommon story structure of using a love story to achieve horror, and vice versa. The game is split into levels that each reveal more about the protagonist’s past and the events that haunt him via participating in unique card battles. Players will fight against things like their own face in the mirror, and an old diary with items associated with those memories, like rulers and pens from the protagonist’s school years. The main character’s facial features have been replaced with hands, creating incredibly unsettling imagery that’s compounded by the game’s spooky soundscapes. Players can also upgrade other parts of their disfigured face over time like their eyes and mouth as they fight for their life against the protagonist’s own mind.

SCREENRANT VIDEO OF THE DAY

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Screen Rant conducted an email interview with the creator of Out of Hands, Zeyu Yang, where he discusses the process behind creating such a unique style of horror game.

It’s very interesting to see a love story presented through a horror story lens. Can you talk a bit about your inspiration behind the game’s plot?

This game was initially designed as part of an indie game jam back in 2021. The theme I chose at the time was “seizing the raison d’être,” or one’s reason for being, which became the first part of my inspiration. I also wanted this to resonate with a wide audience, so I expanded the theme from “seizing the raison d’être” to “finding her,” which made it a more emotional story that more people can relate to.

As I expanded the theme, I came up with a scene where the protagonist is suffering because he has lost his raison d’être, his core motivation, and seeks relief in his inner world. As I considered how to visualize this “suffering” and take it to its extreme, I thought of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis: the protagonist awakens to find himself transformed into a gigantic insect. This sequence, filled with imagery and metaphor in the way it balances the spirit and the body, left a deep impression on me. This was the second part of my inspiration.

Using horror to tell a love story is the result of synthesizing these two inspirations.

The body horror elements of the game are very creepy in the best way. What was it that made you gravitate towards hands as the main mechanic?

The hand is a human being’s most important physical tool. Through it, we perform a wealth of behaviors. Our hands are inseparable from attacking, defending, grabbing, picking up, giving and taking, and expressing ourselves. Therefore, I believe hands are both a rich expressive space, and filled with symbolic meaning. They’re a great medium and vector for visual expression.

On the other hand, because I was flying solo for the game jam and did not have any previous experience in graphic design, I adopted real-life art resources instead of traditional art resources. This way, choosing to use hands as “actors” had many advantages: hands are always available, they’re hard-working, they never take breaks or have opinions. I don’t even have to pay them. Nothing could be better than that.

I love the idea of a card-based fighting game with a horror slant. Are there any deck builders or card-based combat games that inspired Out of Hands?

I’m a veteran card game enthusiast. I’ve played basically every kind of card game, from trading card games like Magic: The Gathering, Yu-Gi-Oh!, Hearthstone, and Gwent, to deck building games like Slay the Spire and Night of the Full Moon; board games like Three Kingdoms Legends and UNO, to more esoteric takes on the format like Hand of Fate or Inscryption. I enjoy a wide variety of single player and multiplayer card games.

For the development of Out of Hands, I was most inspired by the atmosphere in Inscryption, which excelled at combining elements of combat and horror. It has a strong focus on using sound design to create a sense of pain, two things that I am still deeply invested in learning and understanding.

That said, based on my experience, I think the hardest thing to do with a card game is to meaningfully combine its gameplay with a narrative. Therefore, when developing Out of Hands, I wanted to do something different from most card game mechanics on the market by creating a card battle system with narrative capabilities.

This definitely brought some challenges. Compared with more mature card-based combat mechanics, the system I created for Out of Hands still has a lot of room for improvement. Right now, I am rapidly iterating on the card battle mechanics, so please keep an eye out for the gameplay in the next public build! Thank you.

The first chapter of the game is called Kafka, and very much like The Metamorphosis the protagonist sees a horrifically altered version of himself in the mirror. Was Kafka a big inspiration for you?

Yes. The Metamorphosis is one of my favorite works. Reading it when I was a child, I saw the horror and absurdity of the flesh; the spiritual horror drew more of my focus. When I read it again a few years later, I saw the transformation in its social context. The subtlety of The Metamorphosis is how it simultaneously represents different levels of “alienation.”

I was inspired by this narrative approach, which allows for different levels of appreciation based on a person’s experience. In the narrative for Out of Hands, I added a few images, such as distorted facial features, a fragile heart, and moving hands. Together, these elements form the protagonist, an “alienated person.”

It has terrific visual impact to begin with, but on a narrative level, these distorted facial features express “emotion,” the heart expresses “endurance,” while the hands express “action.” “Action” creates a response, and “emotion” is a response to “endurance.” This gives the game a means of expressing emotion. Subtextually, the hand symbolizes demand and desire, the heart is “something you want but cannot have,” and the face shows the “suffering” that results from that conflict. This provides interpretive space to interrogate the work.

My desire to design something that has both visual impact on a surface level while a rich subtextual layer for interpretation is greatly derived from The Metamorphosis.

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The ambient sounds in the game play a big role in the title’s overall unsettling feeling. What was the sound design process like?

The main thing with the sound effects is to keep them subtle. When the game enters different states, I would insert subtle sound effects accordingly. For example, when the different thought cards (Logical, Cryptic, and Instinctive) speak, a different looping sound effect matching that card’s personality will play. Another example of subtle sound design is how a heartbeat sound triggers when the heart has taken too much damage. Players may not notice these sounds, but they will definitely “feel” them. These sounds build the atmosphere very well.

On the other hand, because I’m not the biggest fan of jump scares, I basically only use louder sound effects as feedback for player actions, such as the simultaneous roar while banging on table, or for when the heart takes critical damage, etc.

Currently, most of the sound effects come from public resources. I’m working on creating and adding more appropriate sound effects in the future, so the final version will be much more immersive.

What were the most important themes that you wanted to come through in this title?

​​The theme that I want to express the most right now, at least one that feels most appropriate, is “suffering.”

There are things people want that they cannot have—love, ambition, fame, health. These desires are intangible and beyond our reach, “Out of Hands,” if you will. Pursuing such a desire, “something you want but cannot have,” leads to suffering. Giving up on “something you want but cannot have” also leads to suffering.

I like that the protagonist encounters three forms of conflicting thought during his nightmares, viewing things from logical, cryptic, and instinctive points of view. What made you decide to include that thought mechanic?

The main idea was to create and express a state of internal struggle. Disco Elysium provided some inspiration for this part.

Additionally, I gave each of the three types of thought their own purpose. I had Logical Thought because I needed a rational character to express objective facts and explain the plot. I needed a perceptive character to make emotional speeches and create a surreal atmosphere, so I made Cryptic Thought. I also needed a character to guide the player to act. Instinctive Thought is useful because even if the player doesn’t fully understand the plot, they have something driving them forward.

Is there anything you want players to know about Out of Hands?

Out of Hands was initially developed by myself as part of a game jam in 2021.

I’ve been a full-time game designer for nearly a decade, though I only learned a little bit of art and programming in my spare time. Without a professional artist to help, I had to adopt an unconventional approach during the development process, like replacing digital art with photographs, using post-processing effects on the UI, and so on. These may not be best practices for professional artists, but in my case, they played a huge role.

These unconventional approaches born from environmental limitations ultimately made this game one of a kind. Out of Hands won “Best Game” and “Best Idea” at the 5th Indie Camp in 2021 and “Best Visual Style” at the GWB Tencent Game Creative Competition.I am hoping for this project to earn more nominations and awards, as well as appreciation from future players.

The upcoming demo for Steam Next Fest is still a very early build, so there will be a number of flaws that could affect gameplay; I’ve actually already made a few rounds of optimization and adjustments, particularly to the card mechanics, so the next version will definitely be a notable improvement – stay tuned!

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