Creepy Indie Game Guaranteed to Send Chills Down Your Spine
Every once in a while, a game appears that’s unlike anything else on the market. Devolver Digital’s Inscryption is one of those games. Created by Daniel Mullins, who previously developed creepy indie hits Pony Island and The Hex, Inscryption is based on the game jam title Sacrifices Must Be Made. However, if Sacrifices Must Be Made is a proof of concept that a card-based horror game could work, Inscryption takes that premise and runs further than it has any right to.
Inscryption is a horror game. It’s a card game. It’s a pixel art RPG. It’s a found-footage video series. It’s an ARG. In all of these incarnations, it crafts a thick, eerie atmosphere that sent shivers down my spine. There are barely any jumpscares in this game, but I still found myself leaning way back from the computer at certain points, and some late-game developments are going to stick with me for months if not years. Above all, else, Inscryption is an unequaled experience, and I firmly believe it acts as a challenge to what creators–particularly horror creators–can accomplish.
Pushing the Envelope in Game Mechanics
First things first: what is Inscryption, exactly? I could say that Inscryption is an intense and creepy card game with puzzle and adventure game elements, and that description wouldn’t be incorrect. However, it would be selling this title very short, because Inscryption isn’t just a creepy game, it’s three creepy games in one–all of them continuing the same narrative while also weaving in and out of an equally unsettling found footage storyline. If you have any intention of playing Inscryption for yourself, I implore you to do so in order to get the full, untainted experience of its many twists and turns. Everyone else can move on to the next paragraph.
Inscryption is a series of nested stories that gradually unravel as you progress through the game. The first layer sees you trapped in a darkened cabin and forced to play a game with a shadowy opponent whose glowing eyes and gnarled hands possess no mercy. The second layer tasks you with exploring a pixel art world reminiscent of classic Game Boy RPGs in order to defeat all four of the legendary Scrybes and replace one of them. The third layer brings you back to a dark, enclosed area, this time with a newer, more robotic opponent you must struggle to outplay and outwit.
Each of these sections could easily support a full game dedicated to the premise, but Inscryption’s relatively swift pace keeps you constantly on the back foot. I spent my whole playthrough guessing what new mechanics the game was going to throw at me and what new twists would accompany them. Absolutely everything about the game’s mechanics and progression was designed to confound the player, and I love it. You don’t get to hit New Game until you’re already two-thirds of the way through. If you seem to be stuck, the answer is generally to go back to the main menu and see if something new has been unlocked. When the game finally ended, it took me a while to accept that it was actually over–I’d been faked out too many times. In short, Inscryption is a real trip, and it dares other games to match it or even outdo it.
The Joy of Meta Horror
When I say that Inscryption is unlike anything I’ve seen before, I’m talking as much about the story as I am about the mechanics. This may surprise some people because Inscryption is very much a classic example of online creepypasta horror. Come on, a cursed game with a dark secret, filled with sapient characters who can address the player–or rather, the in-universe player–directly? There’s an entire genre of creepypastas with that premise. What sets Inscryption apart, aside from sheer mastery of technique and production values, is that it knows exactly what it is and what it’s trying to be: an entire alternate reality game following an unfortunate man who stumbles across a terrible secret, with the unwitting player discovering this as events unfold.
That’s right: Inscryption not only contains three interlocking narratives plus the story of Luke Carder, the guy who’s playing the game, it also has a treasure trove of hidden secrets and codes that fans are grouping together to solve in an alternate reality game format. There’s a group on the game’s Discord that are collaborating on solving these final puzzles to unlock even more of the secrets surrounding Inscryption, the OLD_DATA, and the company that both created the game and is willing to kill to keep it contained. This hooks in with all the times the game allows you, the player, to catch a glimpse of Carder, either through snatches of dialogue, webcam footage, videos apparently recorded for his vlog channel, and stranger clips that really have no business being in the game at all.
When you play Inscryption, you slip into Carder’s shoes without realizing it. This makes solving the ARG extra personal because it feels like you’re trying to solve your own murder. This isn’t the first game to use the trappings of an ARG, but it definitely stands out that Mullins decided to have Inscryption’s ARG kick into gear after the game was released, not before. In other words, Inscryption’s ARG isn’t a marketing gimmick–it’s part of the game itself.
Inscryption is one hell of a multimedia experience. Mullins worked so many spooky images, themes, and mechanics into the game that it now stands as a challenge to horror creators everywhere, whether they’re working on horror games, horror webseries, or ARGs. Creators across mediums can and should learn from it, and I hope to see some of the techniques Mullins used in Inscryption surfacing in other games, webseries, and ARGs in the future. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from Inscryption, it’s that a low budget and a global pandemic are no excuse to not create the meta horror masterpiece of your dreams. While there are certainly scarier games out there, I’ve never seen any video game attempt–and achieve–as much as Inscryption does in one small, enjoyable package.