*Warning: spoilers for Inscryption to follow*
The easiest description of Inscryption is that it's a deckbuilding roguelike with horror elements. A more in-depth description of Inscryption would describe it as a buckwild supernatural thriller that uses the depth of a fictional card game to unsettle and delight players in an ever-deepening mystery.
At GDC 2022, Inscryption developer Daniel Mullins broke down the game's design history in a fast-paced postmortem, jumping through his major design goals while breaking down how he achieved the game's unique look on a tight budget.
To better understand the mysteries of Inscryption, you need to look at how Mullins organized and conceived of the games' three different acts. The first act began with a game jam.
The heart of the cards
Inscryption's first act begins after players navigate a game-within-a-game menu that establishes a meta-layer of game narrative anchored around a fictional collectible card game YouTuber uncovering the mysteries of a long-forgotten card game of the same name.
In the first act, players square off with a mysterious googly-eyed villain named "Leshy" who teaches them the basic mechanics of Inscryption. This game is structured in a roguelike fashion that's like a mix of Hearthstone and Slay the Spire. Players build decks of various creatures and maximize synergies to beat a series of enemies embodied by Leshy.
This version of Inscryption has been around since 2018, when Mullins created Sacrifices Must Be Made during Ludum Dare 43. This is where Inscryption's core deckbuilding mechanics and cabin aesthetic were dreamt up. Mullins used his love of Magic: The Gathering and spooky games to create a small deckbuilder with grisly elements.
Realizing this game jam game could become a prototype for something bigger, Mullins set about making a version of this game called Deathcard Cabin (that name wouldn't stick). In one slide, Mullins showed off how Inscryption's cards evolved from the core structure of Magic: The Gathering.
Like Hearthstone, Mullins offloaded the complex rules of his cards into the game's design logic, and used the card design itself to communicate to players what cards did. Unlike Hearthstone, Mullins deliberately did not use text to do this, preferring to use symbols with clear metaphors.
Using the example of a "stinky" symbol (used by creatures like skunks), Mullins explained how the symbol of a pound of dirt with wavy lines worked better than other versions. The "stinky" effect reduces the attack power of an opposing creature by one point. When Mullins tried to use more literal symbols (like a downward arrow and the number "1") players just didn't get it.
Sure, a "stinky" symbol isn't clear either, but Mullins found players latching onto this meaning when the effect was used on different kinds of creature cards...and when he decided to include a rulebook players could access to check what status effects did what at any time. It helped that he would later drop game narrative clues in the rule book to encourage players to look at it.
"Enforcing the metaphor was the way to go," he said.
Mullins also honed Inscryption's aesthetic here, creating a number of post-processing effects he'd dump on purchased game assets, and built out puzzles that sit in the cabin and advanced the game's narratives.
The meta-puzzles served a story purpose and a player psychology purpose. If players stopped to solve puzzles (which used some of the card game logic), they'd internalize more ideas about the card game. And when progressing through the Leshy-led roguelike structure, they'd get new ideas about the puzzles.
This was all going well, but Mullins said he wasn't sure where he wanted the game to go...until he dug up a copy of 1998's Pokémon Trading Card Game - an unusually in-depth adaptation of Nintendo's real-world collectible card game.
Changing the game (literally)
In Inscryption's second act, players are able to escape Leshy's cabin and the game-within-a-game expands to reveal a top-down role-playing game where players collect cards and build new decks using the same logic as the previous roguelike version.
It's styled after Pokémon Trading Card Game and even though it plays very similarly to the game's first act, it looks completely different.
Mullins' dream was to create a moment where players thought they'd beaten the game, but it had only just begun. He likened this moment to game elements like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, or Elden Ring, where the player completes one major game goal only to uncover a much larger world.
"If players' prior expectations are no longer a guide, they have to take things as they come," he said.
In this act, Leshy is revealed to be one of four spirits trapped in Inscryption's software, each of whom are structured around evolving card mechanics. A different one of these spirits would become the antagonist for the rest of the game.
Mullins talked about playing Magic: The Gathering in college, and adapting the game's cards to work in other game systems as his main inspiration. Here, the game unfolds to reveal three additional core systems which had only been teased in the game's first act. Now players have reset and feel compelled to keep experimenting and being playful with card synergy and logic.
By this point in development, Mullins fleshed out Inscryption's card balance using the Steam playtesting feature, where he could push out invites to players who wishlisted the game and gather vital feedback to tuning these new mechanics.
From there, Mullin built out the rest of the in-game adventure's story...but still needed a strong payoff to the cryptic clues he'd been leaving in act one.
FMV + ARG = OMG
As Mullins was rounding out the narrative of Inscryption's game-within-a-game, he found he still needed a solid narrative layer to flesh out the fictional world of the YouTuber learning about this blood-soaked defunct game.
In 2021 (the same year the game was released!) he scrambled to fill that void with a series of full-motion videos that told the story of the YouTuber's descent into horror and death. That works well on its own (the conceit is that the software players are interacting with also has the video files on the YouTuber's camcorder), but Mullins wanted more cryptic content for players pouring over the game's secrets.
The solution was an alternate reality game. The reward for solving the game? The true ending of Inscryption. Mullins left clues in the FMV video and made them as obscure as possible. He noted to the GDC crowd that when it comes to ARGs, puzzle difficulty has to be scaled to the size of the crowd trying to solve them.
One clue was uncovered by requiring players to take a still image of an asset and run it through special processing software. That's how hard it had to get.
Mullins advised developers dreaming of their own cryptic ARGs that it was "impossible" to playtest these puzzles, because any users who volunteered to help would inevitably leak the solutions online.
When you can't playtest your game, you might not realize you've made mistakes. Like say, leaving real-world coordinates for players to visit...but not including enough coordinate information to help them find the disc you buried.
To Mullins' horror, a group of players visited coordinates he'd left but didn't have precise enough information to find said disc. And they were livestreaming themselves digging holes in a Vancouver public park.
Mullins' final lesson to the crowd was what to do when your players might be doing something that kicks off a lawsuit. Here, he hopped on his bike and sped to the park, greeting the players and showing them where to find the disc while their livestream was off. Thinking fast, he asked them to become part of the ARG.
"So," he deadpanned, "we staged a murder in the woods," he deadpanned, showing a clip of someone swinging a shovel at the live streamer's camera.
When your ARG is going off the rails, murder sometimes is the answer.