Inscryption, or what could have been

August 25, 2023

This essay contains spoilers for the 2020 video game Inscryption.

Inscryption is a very good game.

It is almost universally agreed that the best bit of Inscryption is the first Act. For those not in the know: the game is divided into three sections, or “Acts”, each with a different vibe, and largely different mechanics.

If you haven’t played it – what the hell are you doing here! Get lost! Go read a different essay! – the first Act is what you’re familiar with. It’s the one on the store page, and all the trailers. It graces the YouTube thumbnails of video essays.

And then you beat that bit and…

Well, spoilers.

Inscryption is really great. All of it is really great; this is not a negative review. It’s got a free expansion that builds on the best bits that I’m about to compliment. Steam says I’ve played it for nearly 26 hours. Since it takes about 12 to beat, that means I’ve sunk about 8 viewings of Shrek 2 into this game after I beat it. Take that as my recommendation and go play the goddamn thing.

Where was I? Ah, yes.

The first Act

I knew almost nothing about Inscryption going in; I had read a review or two (namely this one), and I knew it was a game that would have surprises in it. I didn’t watch trailers or anything. I just sat down to play.

The first thing that happens in Inscryption is this.

Someone sitting across from me opens their eyes. The rest of them is shrouded in darkness, but their eyes are clearly visible. When they speak, their pupils swirl with madness. They know I don’t understand the rules; that’s okay, my opponent says, I’ll teach you. This was my first proper card battler, and my opponent taught me well. One of the cards whispers to me, too; let me live, and I can help you.

I don’t learn quickly enough. I lose a round. My opponent tells me to get up from the table.

This, I think, was another part of Inscryption I was spoiled on. I knew there would be escape-the-room portions in it. So I spent a little time wandering around the room, poking at everything… Lots of objects, I thought. What are the things bolted to the walls? What’s the importance of the globe? And so on.

I can’t work out anything. Not even the combination to the safe. I sit back down. The game continues.

I’m not good at card battlers, so I lose another round. My opponent, still shrouded in darkness, kills me. I make my first deathcard; but death is no respite from play.

This, I think, is a good game. The vibes are immaculate. It’s this dark cabin, yes? And the cabin feels real; I feel like I’m in this space, a person trapped here, with no way out. The sole door out is locked and something flickers like lightning on the other side of it. Every victory is hard-won, because I’m bad at card battlers. Simultaneously, the game isn’t so hostile that I’m afraid to experiment. My opponent is fair, but cruel. My mistakes have unexpected consequences; but my successes do, too. My cards can do surprising things if I’m clever, or careful, or lucky. I get the real sense that there are many small secrets lurking underneath the skin of the game. Systems I don’t quite understand. A room filled with puzzles, none of them solved.

Steam says that I noticed the safe combination almost immediately after I made my first deathcard. (Which scans, since it only appears after you die the first time.) I get up from the table, and I open the safe; inside is another talking card. The stoat and the stinkbug clearly know each other; they talk about getting out of their predicament.

It’s easy to forget our first guesses and impressions when we’re experiencing something for the first time. When I was first playing Inscryption, I (obviously) had no idea who these characters were.

My natural assumption is this: they’re past players, like me. They had played their own games against my opponent – maybe this card game, maybe some other – and lost, after their own fashions, and were therefore held in the thrall of the cabin’s owner. How long had they been trapped as cards, playing this brutal game of life and death? Had they pulled teeth? Stabbed eyeballs? Sacrificed friends? What would they think of me, as I did these very same things?

I also don’t know how many puzzles were in the cabin. I assume, naturally, there would be many. I don’t know how many different interactions and bosses my opponent could pose; there could be myriad. It is very early in the game, and the possibilities stretch out before me, like a dark forest.

I had gotten up from the table. When I sit back down again, I had just solved most of the puzzles in the room. Turns out, there aren’t that many. Charitably, there are seven of them in the main progression, and I solved five in the last ten minutes. If I had known that there were so few puzzles, I wouldn’t have done them all at once.

There is stuff left to do in the room. There are items to unlock; essential things to find, which will help you defeat your opponent. They’re not difficult puzzles, but they are things you need to do. I found everything in the first session of play. After only three hours, I knew I had found everything the cabin had to offer. The only thing I had left to do was beat my opponent once, and this portion of the game would be over.

And that kinda sucked.

What was

I’m not necessarily criticising Inscryption for wanting to do something different than what I expected. It has a very particular thing it wants to do, and it foreshadows that from its opening moment.

What it wants to do is break the fourth wall. The characters in Inscryption know that they’re in a video game. They want control over it. My opponent (named Leshy) has control of the game Inscryption; when you defeat him, you reset the game, and all the characters are on equal footing. Then the stoat (whose real name is P03) gains the upper hand, and you play his version of the game instead.

All is very well and good. Except the game switches tracks twice (once for each Act), and both times, it feels like a downgrade. The vibes switch from being immaculately creepy to a more mundane “SNES-alike”. The puzzles get less interesting. Instead of a finely crafted difficulty curve, the game vomits three new sets of mechanics at you and explains them poorly. I didn’t enjoy this part of the game as much; it was kind of cool, but I also slogged through it, and my progression through the game was far more due to chance and luck than a carefully honed skill.

The third Act is similar. It’s more similar to the first; but P03 is no Leshy. He doesn’t care about the vibes, or the game-feel. He purports to only care about the game mechanics; but the thing is, his game mechanics are far more boring than Leshy’s are. I played through the whole thing, wishing Leshy would come back.

The ending was fantastic. Obviously.

But that’s the point!

“The fact that P03’s Act doesn’t care about story or game-feel is a deliberate commentary on players who only care about mechanics and disregard the story!” Sure, yeah, and it makes that commentary by deliberately sabotaging its best aspects. If you’re going to shoot yourself in the foot, and then use the fact that you’re bleeding everywhere to decry people who shoot themselves in the foot, then I’m probably not going to invite you to my firing range.

Inscryption wants to break the fourth wall, because it thinks this is clever. It wants to surprise you. It will build cool things and then knock them over, for the shock value of knocking the cool things over. And it works, at least at first; when I started a new save file after the first Act, I was impressed. Excited! What would come next, I wondered?

The problem is that it has nowhere to go. Inscryption plays its best cards early, then sacrifices them to use the rest of its paltry deck.

I wish that Inscryption understood that the parts where it was breaking the fourth wall were its least interesting parts. The most interesting parts was where the game felt real. Not in an “o-ho, the game really exists in real life!” way; because, like, c’mon, I know that it isn’t real, and you do too. This isn’t a grassroots advertising campaign for a 90s horror movie. We’ve all been on the internet for ages, and we’re all wise to this sort of stuff. I meant real in a living, breathing world sort of way. Like, imagine it! You’re alone in a dark cabin, playing cards against something wicked. There’s a quote from Good Omens:

God does not play dice with the universe; He plays an ineffable game of His own devising, which might be compared, from the perspective of any of the other players [i.e. everybody], to being involved in an obscure and complex variant of poker in a pitch-dark room, with blank cards, for infinite stakes, with a Dealer who won’t tell you the rules, and who smiles all the time.

This is exactly what Inscryption felt like. You are only vaguely told the rules. Your cards do unexpected things; some of them have personalities and agendas of their own. Encounters can do surprising things. You are playing for your own teeth and eyeballs; the blood and bones of real creatures. When you sacrifice your first card, your opponent remarks: “Its suffering is real, but you will see it again”. It’s a game with real consequences. I won’t let you play until you draw a card. Will you get lucky?

What could have Inscryption been like, if it continued in that direction, instead of changing course?

What could have been

You have three cards with personalities. They have a few conversations between themselves; but after that, they stay quiet (excepting some repetitive lines to protest your sacrificing them, or to exalt your decision to buff them with sigils).

What if, instead, the cards had different agendas? What if they disagreed with each other? What if they disagreed with you? Maybe while you have one in your hand, it whispers about how you shouldn’t trust the others… or your opponent.

Maybe they recommend different goals to you. Whose advice do you follow? Which action do you take?

What if, at a certain point, you had to permanently remove one from the game? Your opponent threatens to burn a card; it will be gone forever. Who do you choose?

You have puzzles in the cabin. There are, charitably, seven of them in the main progression:

  • Opening the safe using the combination written in the rulebook (which gives you the key to the cabinet)
  • The four slider puzzles in the cabinet (which unlock new cards, including the Caged Wolf card)
  • Killing the Caged Wolf to unlock the actual caged wolf totem in the room, and using that newly freed caged wolf totem to free the knife
  • Using the magic eyeball to get the film roll (which requires you to stab out your eye, and to have lost after a certain point)

I’m calling this seven, but it’s really four, since most people beat all the slider puzzles in one sitting (or at least I did). There’s also some optional puzzles:

  • Getting the ring (by using the bottle of green goo, bearing the magic eyeball, and screwing around with the cuckoo clock further)
  • The painting puzzles, which unlock useful items

I solved five of the main seven after my first stint wandering around the room; the sixth I solved only an hour later, and the seventh an hour and a half after that. I never got the ring (I never even realised that I could), and once I worked out what the painting puzzles were doing I mostly ignored them. What if, instead, there were ten, fifteen puzzles? What if the parts of the room came apart in interesting ways? What if information in the card game crossed over into the room, and vice-versa? I’m asking for secrets, yes; and secrets within secrets, like peeling layers back. I want the game to wring every single last possibility out of this escape-room card-game combo. Instead, it barely scratches the surface. Because, you understand, the best part of Inscryption is the bit where you’re wandering around the cabin solving puzzles, and it’s over in a ten minute burst and two five-minute sections after that. Make the escape room two hours of content, instead of twenty minutes.

(I really should finish TUNIC. But the combat really puts me off, unfortunately, even with its excellent accessibility features. My cute fox character keeps getting bashed around. I’ll get to it soon. Ahem.)

My opponent presents three bosses, then a final boss battle (against himself, obviously). What if there were four, five, six bosses that he presented, and each time I battled a random selection of three? The boss battles are some of the coolest parts of the game, since the characters can act in surprising ways, and my first encounter with each of them presented a certain kind of magic. It might be tougher for a beginner to learn the battles; so maybe after a certain amount of progress, the first Prospector gets replaced with anything. Game designers are clever. They can work something out.

What if there were more opportunities for real consequences? You pull teeth and stab eyes; but your wanton sacrifice of cards is largely ignored, both by you, your opponent, and the card characters themselves. What if the cards remembered who you sacrificed, and when? What if they could hold grudges between games? What if my opponent kept track, and judged me for my actions?

What if some scars were permanent?

Broken masquerades

Some of these are terrible ideas, sure. All of them would utterly remake Inscryption into something else that it doesn’t want to be. The intention is that the cool, spooky cabin is a charade; moreover, it’s a charade that several characters in the game are actively working to break. And you’ll help them do it, because it’s the only way to progress. But once you break the charade, you can’t go back.

The truth is that the charade will break much sooner than that. It breaks the second you see the shape of the Act; when you realise how few puzzles there are, and you see the goal in sight. That only takes a few hours. But those hours before it broke was magical. I have never gotten that experience anywhere else. It’s the experience of truly not knowing what was behind each corner; of fearing the risks, but playing anyway. I played dice with the universe.

The designers know that this is the best part of Inscryption. They’ve released a whole expansion pack for exactly the portion I’m talking about; it makes it into an endless card battler, with some new encounters, and a slew of new cards. But no new puzzles, and no new narrative beats.

The thing is, the puzzles and narrative beats were my favourite parts! Kaycee’s Mod is really cool, but it only tangentially builds on Inscryption’s best bits. Instead of 12 hours, split into three Acts, I wish the game was 12 hours of this Act; with puzzles, narrative beats, sacrifices, cards, and encounters to fill them. Kaycee’s Mod is about getting better at the card game, and understanding the system. I wanted the system to surprise me.

I wanted to play dice with the universe. I only wish that the game wanted to play with me a little longer.

Appendix: the ARG

Yes, I know about the ARG. No, I don’t count it as “deeper secrets” or “interesting puzzles” or “narrative beats”, because:

  1. the puzzles in the ARG aren’t that interesting
  2. the narrative beats in the ARG are cheesy, as opposed to spooky and atmospheric
  3. there’s actually not any connection between my actions in the game and the plot of the ARG, which is what I actually wanted

Maybe I’ll write about ARGs some other time, since I have things to say about it. Or maybe I’ll run one. Who knows.