Daniel Mullins says he’s not sure that “horror” is the most accurate way to describe his gruesome new card fighter, Inscryption. He immediately investigates by telling me that a friend of his had nightmares about the menacing character you are playing cards against, so yeah, maybe it’s a bit of horror. But I understand his point.
In the beginning, Inscryption is like a hostage situation where you are forced to play a card-based roguelike against a sinister game master. Then once you start getting the hang of it, the game evolves into something much more complex. If you’ve played Mullins’ other games, you know his work can go to some strange meta-places. I won’t say more about the cut because I would hate to spoil it. But for those of you who have already played, read on to learn more about how Mullins created an excellently troubling world.
Inscryption, or at least the beginning of it, was launched in 2018 as a short game jam project. Mullins developed it in 48 hours for the “Sacrifice Must Be Made” theme and spawned the gruesome roguelike that makes you spend blood and bones discarding new cards. It was inspired in part by Magic: The Gathering, which has a sacrificial mechanic, if not quite as macabre as Inscryption’s. Despite all the bloodshed, Mullins told me he wanted to maximize his interpretation of the subject, so he started thinking about what else could be sacrificed.
“I thought maybe you are sacrificing your body parts somehow, what effect would that have on a game of cards?” He says. “If you chop off your hand, you can’t hold the cards. You cut out your eye and you can’t see half the field. A lot of the really core things came together on the spot – including the evil character facing you with the weird googly eyes that are always watching. ”
The opening also feels like a horror game. You are in a dimly lit room and you can barely see your opponent – who wearing ominous masks will act as characters you will meet on your villainous journey. Not glued to the gaming table, however, and you can (and are encouraged) wander through a dark hut solving puzzles as if you were in an escape room.
“That sets the stage for creepy and macabre things,” says Mullins. “In that mindset, a lot of the horror stuff just followed suit. Especially the really cruel things like ripping an eye out with a knife or ripping a tooth out of your mouth with pliers – that came from that original Game Jam. I did I did no pliers, but I had a dagger that would cut off your hand or eye. The cut hand never made it into Inscryption. ”
“It’s socially appalling … shocking to do something a game shouldn’t or should never do.”
As you play, the gamemaster will occasionally offer items to help you out a little. Teeth pliers to tip the scales in your favor, or a knife that you know will do the same thing, but not sure what exactly you will be chopping until you are desperate enough to use it. The first time I played I actually thought I was taking a hand or finger off, much to my utter horror when I raised the damn thing in front of my face.
But once you start cutting out eyeballs and unraveling the secrets of the cabin, the game starts to change quickly. From weird interludes showing found footage to a complete change in what you actually play. Suddenly you’re in a 2D world, playing more of an RPG-like deck builder. And it turns out that the creepy mask man is not alone after all.
“I got a feeling that just having a deck building roguelike with creepy puzzles in the dressing room wouldn’t be good enough for people who really liked my previous games,” Mullins told me. He’s also the developer of Pony Island and The Hex, two games that deliciously undermine your expectations, and Inscryption is no different.
“I really racked my brains wondering where these should split up,” he added. “My previous idea was that during the roguelike run you would get items that would help you in the end in a chase in the first person, where you can take shoes instead of pliers and get an attempt to run in the last event and maybe over obstacles jump and so. ”
Personally, I would have found that terrifying. Maybe it would have cemented the game as a slightly more traditional horror experience. But Mullins was not content to keep things this way and wanted a sharper change.
“At the time I was playing the Pokémon TCG for Game Boy Color and something just clicked where I loved the idea of deciphering Inscryption in 2D and doing it like a core piece of lore,” he tells me. “The idea that the character in the first part was just one of four of those Pokémon Gymnastics Master types, or Scrybes as they’re called in the game, was really exciting in 3D.”
It is certainly a daunting feeling as a gamer to “escape” the first 3D section to be confronted with a completely new game. I just remember thinking how long is this? Once you manage to fight your way through the 2D part, you will be sucked into another 3D world again. However, this is in stark contrast to the first. In a high-tech factory with slightly modified rules for the original card game, you compete against a robot scrybe. You spend a lot of time in his world and look for further secrets and above all for a way out. In all honesty, I didn’t like this section as much as the first, and I was hoping to fight the last two Scrybes, Magnificus and Grimora, too. Unfortunately, Mullins didn’t think gamers would be hungry for more 3D sections.
“I tried to make up for that a bit by letting the other two play a really important role in the events that unfold,” he says. “In the first part, Magnificus is the one who helps you to get out of the cabin – he’s the stunted wolf who talks about the reel of film and who has previously painted things with invisible ink that require an eyeball.
“Then Grimora arguably plays the most important role, choosing to delete the game, and it turns out to be a benevolent cause because of the dark things on it. So it’s messy and asymmetrical, but it’s part of the plan not to have these have their own full games. ”
Giving these two their own full sections of the game would also add a few extra card games for players to customize, and Inscryption already had a few of them. While the card battles are all pretty much the same, I’m curious how difficult it was for Mullins to balance everything.
“One thing I found out later was the total frustration people had that they were asked to create a deck in Part 2,” he tells me. “You don’t build one card at a time, you are asked to make your own list of twenty cards, and there is a lot more to juggle and consider when creating your deck.”
He adds that this created issues where players had mastered the first part but weren’t necessarily the type of people who were into card games and couldn’t really grapple with building a full deck from scratch to create. In the end, he added an auto deck building button to help these players out.
“I looked at it from the perspective of someone who loves card games,” says Mullins. “I thought the idea of assembling the deck myself would be exciting, but for some it was a huge frustration. Part three wasn’t that bad because you bring the knowledge from the first part, and it makes me start adding more exciting gimmicks like the file fight to make it fresher, but it wasn’t a wild new challenge for you. ”
I want to draw special attention to the file battle, as it brings the world of inscryption disturbingly close. Not only will it search your PC’s folders to find large files that can be turned into cards, but it will also hold one of your files hostage and threaten to delete it if you lose it. While you know a video game won’t actually do that, it is enough to sow a little doubt in your head – what if it did? But it could be, right?
“I always look for that sort of thing,” Mullins tells me. “In my first game, Pony Island [spoilers ahead!], the most talked about moment that people tell me they loved or were shocked by is towards the end when the game pretends that you sent a message to your real Steam friend. There are these fake Steam popups from this person who says, “Why did you send this?” And it’s socially appalling. It’s a fake, of course, but I’ve been trying to recapture moments like that in my games ever since, pretty much just a cheap shock value by doing something a game shouldn’t or should never do. ”
To Mullins, Inscryption seems to be more about bringing a player into these shocking or surprising situations than about creating a typically terrifying experience.
“It’s weird because I called it a horror game when I first announced it, but I got a feeling that maybe it wasn’t exactly a label,” he says. “But then people told me that it really scared them. I had a friend who said he had nightmares about the threat from the person on the other side of the table not that he kept jumping and throwing a knife at you. ”