One of the great advantages of horror is its versatility. You can sprinkle a little horror into just about anything to spice it up a bit, and that’s especially true in the game, where the genre boundaries tend to be relatively rigid. Swap soldiers for zombies and your generic first person shooter is now a horror game. Make your character a vengeful demon, and role-playing can easily turn into horror.
But what about the less obvious genres? Could you, for example, create a scary card game?
The answer is yes, as evidenced by the all-new Inscryption, which incorporates the game concepts popularized by The magic of gathering and evolved into video game hits such as Foyer and Kill the arrow and leads them screaming into a world of terror and bloody sacrifice.
At the start of the game, you are seated at a table in a dark cabin, presumably in the middle of nowhere. In front of you is … something. You’ll learn a lot more about your mysterious opponent over the hours, but for now it’s just a pair of glowing eyes staring into the shadows and sometimes glimpsing gnarled hands. Between you on the table are the props for a card fighting game, and – for starters – that’s where the meat of the game is. Literally.
You have a small deck of cards, each marked with woodland creatures. Each card has a defense and attack stat, and when two cards face each other, that’s what determines who lives and dies. A Wolf card, for example, deals three damage but can only take two damage back before it expires. If a card deals damage to an empty space, that damage is dealt directly to the player in question and is visualized as teeth added to a ladder on the side of the play area. If your side of the ladder tilts too much away – five more teeth than your opponent is all it takes – then you lose and one of your two vital candles is extinguished.
This is the very basis of the genre, but particularly disturbing wrinkles emerge quickly. Most cards have a cost that must be met to be played. This Wolf card, for example, requires a blood sacrifice. Two drops, to be precise, which means you have to sacrifice two of your currently played cards to place the wolf on the table. Others measure their entry into the game in bones, accumulated every time one of your cards dies for some reason. A pair of pliers offers a way to correct an imbalance in the number of teeth on the scale, for those who are not hesitant about self-administered dentistry.
From the start, this is a game where your strategic currencies have a nauseous butchery air. You even have an endless supply of Squirrel Cards for this very purpose – innocent, useless little creatures that exist only to be turned into blood and bone for your benefit.
Things somehow get even darker. You don’t just play endless card games for no reason. Your opponent – who you will know as “Leshy” – holds you prisoner, forcing you to play. There is an element of role-playing adventure to the procedure when moving a wooden totem pole along a path, board game style, trigger events, and card battles. Leshy tells them with bloodthirsty taste, sometimes wearing hideous wooden masks to play different characters. Things that can happen along your way include ravenous travelers offering to heat one of your cards on their fire, strengthening it. However, you quickly suspect that their random nature may backfire on you.
Cards can also have seals – marks that grant a special bonus or ability. Sometimes one card will sacrifice another on an altar, thus gaining its ability. Sometimes you will be able to cut cards in half and assemble them in new configurations, creating hybrid creatures marked like a mad Frankenstein dealer. There are a multitude of intelligent and complex systems EncryptionIt’s guts, and part of the initial fun of the game comes from discovering them and how they fit together.
This is if you can trust your captor. The rules of the game are explained to you by Leshy, and the idea persists that he is not a fully reliable narrator. Gambling is never unfair, but neither are you allowed to feel confident that you know the limits of the game until much, much later. Thanks to Leshy, the game continually comments on your actions and choices, laughs at your mistakes, and generally treats you like a disappointing student at the mercy of a mercurial teacher. Both candles go out if you lose two matches in any adventure, and Leshy drags you into a grisly side room to kill you. Death, for the player, is only temporary, however, and by falling into Leshy’s hands you gain a unique card, drawing stats and powers from whatever you have left, which goes into your deck. and can be distributed to you later.
The immediate question is whether you will ever be able to escape this hellish hut, and it is here that Encryption goes from being a really good card fighting game with a macabre aesthetic and becomes something altogether more ingenious. You see, the game comes from Daniel Mullins, an indie developer best known for Pony Island. This game presented itself as a whimsical, retro-style endless runner, but then turned out to be a battle for your soul against a possessed arcade machine.
Mullins plays with similar ideas in Encryption, with the card game as the compelling heart of a much larger and much stranger experience. You can get up from the table and explore Leshy’s hut. There are objects strewn all over the place that lead to escape room style puzzles. Things learned in the card game are relevant in the “real” world, and vice versa. One of your initial cards – an Ermine – even speaks to you, offering timely commentary, tips, and warnings about what Leshy has planned.
So, can you escape from the cabin? Answering yes is not too revealing, but it is far from the end of Encryption‘s comes out dark and is, in fact, the start of something else entirely. The fact that this is a card game that can genuinely come with a disclaimer regarding its history should give you an idea of what a bizarre, unique, and effective creation is.
None of this would work if the card game at the center of it all didn’t work, and it comes with a painful learning curve, to begin with. You’ll lose and die a lot, but each time you do, you’ll walk away with a little more knowledge of how the game is won and a card that will help you get closer to that goal. Submit to this progressive pace, immerse yourself in the visual style of the bloodstained floor along the way, and before long you’ll be hooked on intense and constantly surprising gameplay that’s nearly impossible to pin down.
Horror in games tends to calcify around certain tropes, but there’s never been anything like it Encryption before. It’s weird, disgusting, confusing, thrilling, fascinating and deeply, deeply unnerving. How many decks of cards can you tell that?