I’m not generally big into card games and deckbuilders, in video games or in physical space. Lots of numbers, complicated mechanics, a desire (be it by designer or opponent) to absolutely wipe the floor with me, it’s always been too high of a wall for me to want to climb over.
Similarly, I’m not the biggest fan of rogue-style games. I love learning and adapting as much as the next player, but there’s always an underlying sense of punishment to those games. There’s a feeling of being caught off-guard for the sake of being caught off-guard, out of some strange cruelty or malice.
And then everyone started freaking out about Inscryption (Daniel Mullins Games, 2021). It looked like a lot of things I hate: deckbuilding, card-based mechanics, frequent defeat. But over half-a-day of playing, all was not as it seemed. Inscryption is a phenomenal game on its own: gameplay that eased into itself, an atmosphere that swung back and forth between unsettling and comforting, challenging without overwhelming, disconcerting with the purpose of familiarizing, and all orbiting around a surprisingly philosophical core. Inscryption shines as a game, but it shines brighter by showing what more the interactive medium is capable of.
A New Challenge
Inscryption leans hard into its surface gameplay out of the gate: this is how you play cards, and this is how easy it is to lose. And it feels accessible. Cards are bold in their simplicity: Cost, Power, Health, and Sigils. What do you need in order to play the card, how much damage does it do, how much damage can it take, and does it have any special buffs? It’s all simple numbers, rarely reaching as high as 10, and the Sigils can be distilled into one sentence effects, easily referenced in a handy rulebook.
As you progress, you learn a little bit more, and then a little more: first about sacrifices, then about bones, then areas on the map, sigils, strategy, synergy, all piece by piece. Inscryption is difficult, but it never tries to overwhelm players. It wants you to win, so it breaks up the tutorial into manageable pieces, spanning the entirety of the game itself.
It’s rogue in gameplay, dumping you back to the starting block with only a few, hidden shifts in the experience: cost of certain items and the deck you start each run with, most notably. But Inscryption is roguelike in your own gameplay; where other games might bolster your future runs with permanent upgrades and enhancements, Inscryption’s progression relies on your understanding of the mechanics. They are simple mechanics, but the ways they all marry into one another, how they effect and impact the game moment-to-moment…there are so many different ways to play the game. It doesn’t demand you play the right way; it asks you to play your best, your way.
To find what your way is, Inscryption encourages experimentation and learning. Branching out from what I thought would work best often yielded far more effective results. From understanding hidden mechanics through gameplay (due to their section in the rulebook being unreadable) to trying something out of sheer desperation, there is an underlying encouragement to try new things. In a game where the tides can turn at a moment’s notice, both against you and for you, experimentation is survival.
Just when you think you have it all down, Inscryption still finds ways to throw you for a loop. It’s never cruel about it, it’s never a “gotcha” moment, it’s just surprising. An unexpected strategy, or a new mechanic getting thrown into the mix, it catches you off-guard in the moment. At a point, the ongoing tutorial makes a ninety-degree turn down a new path, relying on your understanding so far in order to, if not thrive, simply survive. Maybe it defeats you. Maybe it keeps defeating you. But you can try again. There is a feeling of momentum, of short-term losses and long-term gains, that helps to spur you on for one more run. It is a game, designed to be played and, ultimately, won. And you’re just a bit more prepared than you were last run.
After you’ve spent hours learning how to swim, Inscryption drops you in the ocean. But it knows you’re ready. You wouldn’t have gotten so far if you weren’t. That’s the beauty of the gameplay.
Feel Free to Explore
Anyone can sit down and play a card game, even one with as robust mechanics as Inscryption. But the spotlight shines on the gameplay by painting the world all around it so vividly.
The game takes place in a cabin, at a table, which you can stand up from and explore. Your opponent, a pair of bright, twisted eyes, constantly stares you from a pitch-dark corner at the other side of the table. The lighting is befitting an isolated cabin; dim, and unnerving, but never hiding pivotal information or gameplay elements. The sound design is calm as it pulls from nature’s serenity, but just as fear-inducing as it pulls from that same lethal nature. Deep, rumbling, creeping noises, punctuated with quick attacks and the plunks of golden teeth on a scale. It is oppressive in its setting, so that its gameplay can be a little less so.
Progress is shared by telling a story in a world: players, through theater of the mind, figurines, and masks, are launched into a journey to progress and, in time, triumph. Interactions are more than mechanics, they’re little story beats. Do you warm your animal allies by the fire for a stat boost, knowing they could be consumed by ravenous campers? Who do you violently sacrifice, and who do you choose to accept that creature’s power?
The mechanics transcend the gameplay, impacting the small slice of the world you can explore. Actions in-game affect the bits and bobs around the cabin. Your understanding of game mechanics yields helpful cards and items. Experimenting outside the table yields items or currency to help with current and future games, or to help discover how deep the cabin’s mysteries run. There are a lot of unknowns within the walls of Inscryption, and the game is more engaging for its trail of breadcrumbs than its lore-loaf dumps.
Inscryption is like a pendulum: on the one hand, it’s a wholly creepy experience, but on the other hand, people are creatures of pattern. As unsettling as everything is, there comes a point where you get used to it. Where the darkness is a familiar darkness; you anticipate your opponent’s once-spooky behaviors; the heavy, loud flickering behind a door becomes rhythmic; once-overwhelming tactics become predictable. The pendulum started on one end, and swung to the other as you got used to it. But then, like a pendulum, it swings to the other side again. Inscryption never rests on its laurels: it makes them part of your experience, unsettling you, then getting you accustomed to them, before it yanks the rug out from under you in new, unnerving ways.
We don’t need to keep score.
At the heart of Inscryption lay questions with answers I didn’t have…but sometimes, it’s not about having the right answers, but just considering the answers.
Why do we play games? Is it to simply win? To optimize our gameplay? To tell a story in ways that print and passive audio-visual mediums can’t? To struggle, to earn our victory? To crush opposition? To improve, be it in-game or out? To have fun?
Who do we play games for? Do we play for ourselves, alone in a pink recliner for our own enjoyment? For others, as we stream and share our progress and pain with others, be it on small or large scales? Do we play with others, to challenge and overcome a real opponent, or to cooperate and progress together?
What does it mean to create something? What does it mean to consume someone else’s creation?
What is the purpose of a game? Is it to be won? Is it to be shared? To be mastered? To end?
There are no universal, monolithic “right” answers to these questions. But the fact that they’re asked at all is a testament to how much video games, stories, and games can make us think. It’s a testament to Inscryption that those questions arise so organically.
One More Game
Inscryption eludes definition by wearing tropes on its sleeve. It is made of layers upon layers of mechanics, all complementing and working in tandem with one another. It is a framework of how to make a game: accessible, challenging, and atmospheric. But in the same breath, it begs to know why we make games, and why we play them. Inscryption is many things, an artfully-crafted video game almost the least of them. It is an experience, from the moment your opponent opens their eyes to the moment the credits roll.
All images captured in-game.