This week I looked at the nominees and winners of the Independent Games Festival to find some new games to try and I stumbled upon this game called Inscryption which won the grand prize in 2022. Created by Daniel Mullins Games, Inscryption is a rogue-like deck-building game, mixed with an Escape Room, mixed with a full-blown ARG (alternate reality game) tie-in spanning years of development.
The cards will talk to you
I've played many large open-world RPG games that feature card games/board games inside of the game itself. The most notable example of these being Gwent, a fictional in-universe card game featured in the Witcher 3, which has since spawned a standalone title of the same name. But this game is unique in its genre bending. This game is primarily a deck-building game, and the world surrounding the game is a mystery meant to be unraveled through solving puzzles in the 3D environment surrounding the player. This is the first time I've played a card game that's also an escape room game, and the way the story unravels as you solve puzzles in the game is done masterfully. There are clues that lead you to the next puzzle, but there's no clear route to get there, which makes them extremely satisfying when you inevitably figure out the next steps.
Gameplay of the introduction to Inscryption
You begin the game as someone who wakes up stuck in a cabin sitting across the table from a creature called Leshy (you don't learn his name until much later). You don't know who you are or how they got there. Leshy, the first act's antagonist, reminds you that you've been here before but may have forgotten the rules of the game. He proceeds to roll out a cloth map and teaches you the rules of the card game. Eventually he shows you how to get up from the table you're sitting at to fetch him your player piece, a wooden carved figure of a farmer. From there you have to start figuring out how to escape the room you're stuck in. You're given only one clue and are encouraged to investigate every detail of the cabin to find a way to escape.
The card game itself revolves around the theme of sacrifices. Inscryption was built on top of a demo that was released a few years ago called "Sacrifices Must Be Made" and the rules of the game remain very much the same. You have a deck full of animals which you use to destroy the animals in the opponent's deck. Stronger animals require a sacrifice of weaker animals to play. Some of the sacrifices in the game are permanent while others change the gameplay in significant ways. The most jarring element to the early game, is you realized that the cards themselves have sentience to them. They were living creatures whose souls were essentially fused with the cards by Leshy himself - making each sacrifice feel real and significant. It's because of this that you start to become attached to certain cards in the game that you've managed to build up overtime and save them from being sacrificed, which again makes the idea of eventually losing the cards all the more significant and jarring.
sacrifices must be made to create more powerful cards
Later in the game this mechanic becomes even more metaphysical, when the game replaces the animal cards with friends from your Steam account, or even files on your computer, the risks of making the wrong decisions are further elevated.
I really like the idea of requiring the player to take a lot of care in making certain decisions that are significant, but serve a greater purpose - or does it? This internal conflict, which I struggled greatly with while playing, becomes the core motivation for the cast of characters in the game once the larger narrative begins to reveal itself.
On top of being a rogue-like deck building escape room game, Inscryption also contains ARG puzzles to add even more depth to the game's story. Much of the ARG elements had been solved early in the games release so I was unable to participate in any of the community discovery process. Many of the clues to solving the puzzles involved going into Daniel Mullins earlier games and finding the answers within them. I thought this was a nice touch because all of his older games bizarrely tie into the narrative of Inscryption and adds a lot of depth behind its ending.
I don't want to spoil the larger story in this blog post because I think everyone should play this game. It really is an incredible experience to go into it without any knowledge of what to expect as the way the story unfolds is a prime example of how to create a game that gives the player full agency to discover the story and unravel the mystery.
the game is filled with a lot of subtle details, the squirrel's eyes change when selecting them for sacrifice
The game has 3 distinct arcs. I avoided placing images of the other two arcs because there are a lot of spoilers, but also I think the first act of this game is the most powerful in terms of effective story telling and experience playing. This first section of the game received so much praise that the designers released an unlimited mode so you can continuously play in Leshy's cabin.