Inscryption and Fear: A Video Game Retrospective | Wyrd & Wonder 2023

Today is May 1, which is not only Labour day across much of the world but also the first day in the fantasy blog event Wyrd & Wonder! It’s great fun, that one, and I thought I’d pitch in with a post that would put FEAR back into everyone’s fantastical Wyrdness and Wonderness!

Inscryption is not all that old, so why a retrospective? Because I played it about a year and three-four months ago, and I’ve wanted to talk about it in all that time. This is me looking back on my time with this game–I’m not following the structure of a review so much as working with the traces this game left in me. And sure enough, if you’re lucky enough to have played Inscryption, it will have left a trace on you. This is the kind of game you might want to play for yours elf first – I’ll talk about my experience with it openly, without worrying about spoilers; consider this a warning.

I can tell you that Inscryption is part card game, that it has escape room elements, that it has a whole meta layer that’s clever enough to engage people on the Internet for months on end; but you’ve already heard that. So instead I’ll concentrate on the first and the last of the game’s three parts, and I’ll contrast them to one another. But first, what is Inscryption about?

This game is about fear. Not just one type of fear, either, but two, and two very special ones at that.

The first section awakenes the deepest paranoia, to begin with. You find yourself in a cabin, sitting against an old man reclining in the shadows. He is bearded, his hair is unkempt. There is something of the forest in him. The forest cabin holds a mystery in every nook and cranny. Your opponent–for that is what the mystery man is–is impatient as he teaches you the basics of this game before you. It is gruesome. It is cruel, to the point of savagery, but then, survival is worth an arm and a leg.

And Leshy is all too happy to let you pay the price, before…but, we’ll get there soon enough. You play the game, and the game is reaching the cabin within which you play the game, and defeating the one within the cabin. It’s not difficult to figure out, all things considered. But what a mood the old man sets; every point of your journey is shrouded in a slow-moving sense of dread. You are in the forest, and you are lost. Utterly, completely lost. Old fear, that, and for good reason. Times were, if you went wandering off in a forest, you chanced never returning. Think of Schwarzwald, the Black Forest of Europe. Where do you think all those grisly German fairy tales were given birth? There are beasts in the woods, and bandits, and monsters. One of them won’t let you leave. You have no choice. No choice but to keep playing.

And then, finally, inevitably, you lose to him. That’s when he takes a picture of you, for his collection, leering with joy as the photograph falls to the cracks and his arms reach out at you. Snuff. You. Out.

You play again. You learn his name. You, the player, note, little by little, that he is not clueless as to the fact that you are playing against him. But the tension does not let up, and Leshy has many, many masks before he reveals his face. Little by little, you tear them apart.

You defeat him. Perhaps you do so more than once. You become better at the grisly game of sacrifice before you. Eventually, you master your fear, you make allies, and you, finally, trick him. You return things to how they are supposed to be.

It doesn’t last. {In big bold words in-between a fancy edit of the middle section of the game?}

There you are again. It’s not Leshy who’s before you, but PO3. What waits atop his holographic board is frightening in an altogether different way from the ancient horrors in the face of the forest. A wasteland of optimization lays before you. There is no artistry, no craft, no originality. Instead, there’s enhancements, accumulation, checkpoints, and . The movement of cogs and mechanisms, of assembly lines and conveyor belts. It’s repetition; familiar beats, remastered, thrown a fresh coat of neon-coloured paint on. Almost a fear of the uncanny valley, like that first time you were seeing Star Wars: Rogue One on screen and suddenly there came out a gloriously animated Grand Moff Tarkin, moving, speaking, just as you remembered him…only, not quite.

P03 doesn’t wear masks, the way Leshy does; he’s subsumed entirely by the simulations he runs. It’s simulacra, pure and simple, not a copy but truth in its own right: hyperreality, to quote the French postmodern critic Jean Baudrillard. There’s something frightening about that, too. Everywhere you look, you find differences between Leshy and PO3: with Leshy, you had an embodied experience, the kind that would play amazing on a VR headset, for the sheer immersion factor of it. With PO3, you are very consciously playing a game. A game that demands you play in a specific way–not mechnically so much as in a narrative sense, as shown in all the way in which your choices are different in Act 3 from the way they were in Act 1.

In a way, Inscryption is the best comment on AI-powered chatbots there is – and it came out over a year before ChatGPT sent every large journalistic outlet into a spiral of alarmist nonsense about artificial intelligence with feelings. Let me tell you how I really feel about it–but another time.

PO3 is driven by the desire to win. His last moments see him celebrating, much as your worst friend from high school, that petty guy in class you knew was overcompensating for something. In contrast, Leshy, as you come to learn by game’s end, is driven by a love of the sport. All he wishes to do the last time you meet him is to play another game. Even the music reflects it – listen to Deathcard Cabin first, then to its Reprise. All the sharp edges are sanded away. What is left is melancholy sadness, the kind that threatens to pierce straight through your heart–and it does. Because, while Inscryption is about fear, it is about so much more, too. No piece of art is about just one thing. What a game’s meaning is too often in the eye of the beholder. What was Inscryption about, for you?

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