Focus Inscryption

The meta-madness of Inscryption and the House of Leaves

The Horror

Inscryption is a unique game. It has found a way to blend a hybrid of horror/haunted media found footage and deck building that is both mechanically and narratively fascinating. In Inscryption, you’re trapped in a cabin in the woods, forced to play a card game against a mysterious, shadowy game master. You travel through a map that constantly unfolds on the table, building your deck and upgrading your cards. These have blood costs, usually between 1 and 3. It’s the game’s most immediate gimmick beyond its genre. To get blood, you have to sacrifice squirrels, the only free card available in the game. Fortunately, the exchange rate between corpses and blood is 1:1. Inscryption‘s combat victory condition is also unique. In most other similar card games, your objective is to cause a net amount of damage to your opponent (often 20). In Inscryption, you must inflict a net total of 5 more damage than your opponent has inflicted on you. Each point adds a tooth (yes, a human tooth) to a scale next to the board. Tilt it by 5 in your favor and you win.

Several other elements and systems are also worth addressing in the mechanical approach to horror. The claws are most relevant: if you use them, an extra tooth is scaled to your scale. Of course, to get this tooth, you have to retrieve it from your own mouth, shown macabrely in first-person. The knife, an item you obtain around the middle of the first act, is even more powerful, as it allows you to instantly gain a single round of your choice by putting a human eye on the scale. You can imagine where this eye comes from. Beyond these consumables, there are also events on the map that you can choose to interact with. You may come across campfires surrounded by hungry adventurers. You can warm a card by the fire to increase its power, but the longer you keep it, the more likely you are to lose patience with the adventurers and see them devour it. There are also surgeons, who will gladly cut two identical cards (2 grizzlies, for example) in half, sew them back together and combine their power.

The map Inscryption

Inscryption is very different from most horror games. A horror game can be scary and atmospheric, but the gameplay usually boils down to sneaking around, shooting guns, searching for keys, solving puzzles, taking pictures or performing other ordinary tasks. In Inscryption, on the other hand, you’re a direct participant in the horror, and more interestingly, much of it is optional. Even if you never die in your game outside of functionally scripted deaths, you necessarily sacrifice dozens of squirrels, and using the pliers at least once is necessary to beat the game as well. But using the pliers on yourself, risking cards to hungry adventurers or handing them over for brutal experiments? These are actions you choose to take.

Clearly, the first act of Inscryption brings out themes of self-sacrifice or horrific action-consequence from almost everything the player sees. Some of the cards in your deck speak to you throughout the game, and it’s pretty clear that they’re people trapped inside certain cards by the referee on the other side of the table. Your overall aim is to free them, which you eventually do. However, one of these people becomes the game’s real antagonist, taking control of the software, reshaping it in his image and manipulating you into his meta-plan (he wants to download this corrupted version of the game from the Steam store). In the third act, where this takes place, the theme of self-sacrifice continues. One fight requires you to scour your real hard drive for large files that the game then threatens to delete, and in another fight you have to face and kill enemies who take the form of people from your real Steam friends list. Though less visceral, these more personal actions are effective extensions of the game’s overall themes of self-sacrifice and self-imposed horror.

The Inscryption game board

Inscryption, especially in its first act, is a game that challenges you, the player, to answer one question more explicitly than most:

How committed are you to the game?

It’s a question that’s echoed in another of today’s cult works: The House of Leaves.

The weird

In the first few pages of the book, we discover that The House of Leaves purports to be a story composed by Johnny Truant that describes his investigation into a manuscript by a dead man called Zampanò. The manuscript, in turn, is an exploration of a collection of videotapes called The Navidson Record. And this one was supposed to be a documentary about a young family moving to the suburbs, but instead becomes an exploration of a haunted house with a labyrinth at its heart, and at the heart of that labyrinth, a Minotaur. The documentary may be wrong, and so – we suppose – are the Navidsons. As for Zampanò, well, his manuscript is at least equally questionable, being full of errors and references to partially fictitious sources. Our worthy narrator – Johnny Truant – assures us that he tries to correct these false references as he finds them, and admits that his effort is imperfect since he is not an academic. But how trustworthy is Truant himself, the articulate drug addict, amateur ghost hunter and book courier, carrying messages (lies?) to the reader? How trustworthy is his own account of the pursuit of love, told in footnotes?

The more we get to know Truant, the less we have to trust him. Just as the family in the fictional The Navidson Record (Will, Karen, their children Chad and Daisy, Will’s brother Tom) begin to distrust the walls and shadows of their home. Just as we begin to distrust the author’s intentions toward the children (note the children’s names in the color plate inside the cover; note the author’s suggestion ‘I could kill the children’ in that color plate). Not so much a house of leaves, we realize, but a house of cards. And always falling apart. The only thing we’re relatively sure of is that, apart from all that, Mark Z. Danielewski (the book’s author, the real one) populates his text with a multitude of unreliable, articulate and strange narrators in a frenzy of something deeply meaningful – or discordantly meaningless, depending on your point of view. Because in this text as in no other, the reader must also become a character, either a believer or a skeptic. You find what you bring. You find exactly what you bring, what meaning and power, what effort for what riddles. And when you choose to bring that meaning and power – or doubt – to the text, you also create something unique, a personal level of collusion with the author who – like a true puppet master – pulls your strings as deftly as he manipulates the characters in his book. It’s just that, as far as the characters are concerned, they’re all fictional. And you’re real. Aren’t you? The House of Leaves poses that question endemic to metafictional writing: what is real?

Extrait de la maison des feuilles
Extrait de la maison des feuilles

In the case of a novel, we surely expect none of this to be real. This is fiction, after all, stocked in the Fiction sections of bookshops. We expect a level of manipulation beyond memoir or documentary, but perhaps (especially these days) not so far beyond. We expect the author to guide us in determining what is real and what is not in the fictional world he has created. We’re familiar, after centuries of literature, with the idea of the ‘unreliable narrator’, but we still expect an injection of reliability – some validation – to occur, or if not, to be waved in front of us with a wink and a mischievous writer’s grin. ‘Is this part real?’ the author may ask.

To launch us down the rabbit hole again: La Maison des Feuilles is about a video manuscript about a house containing a labyrinth that houses a Minotaur. Back to square one, The House of Leaves is, in fact, a labyrinth, a perfect paper example of what it describes right down to its title (the ‘leaves’ being most often supposed to refer to pages: thus, a house of leaves is a house of pages, or a book). It’s a descent into psychosis, a physical and mental challenge. The labyrinth at the heart of the house on Ash Tree Street is as much a psychological representation of the Navidsons’ own state of mind as it will become your state of mind as you try to read it.

Illustration par Guilherme Krol Lins
Illustration by Guilherme Krol Lins

As Will Navidson plunges deeper into his shame and Karen Navidson distances herself more and more from her husband, as Johnny Truant falls more unwittingly under the spell of various sexual partners, and as his mother opens up secretly and clandestinely to the terrors of the place that shelters her (sometimes in coded letters), we experience more of the labyrinth and ‘inextricable wandering’ of the house.

It all starts with the discovery that the house on Ash Tree Street is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. Then there’s a door, a hallway, an insurmountable darkness. Karen forbids Will to continue exploring the dark heart of the house, so he hires a team of explorers, none of whom survive. There are strange growls or howls from the darkness that resonate with the howls of Johnny Truant’s mother as she is institutionalized. Because she’s sorry. She’s sorry they’re taking him away, and she’s sorry she took it out on her son. There’s a monster in the house, a Minotaur, capable of making the kinds of marks that were found on Zampanò’s floor (under his corpse, in fact). There’s a tangle of realities that can’t be kept separate.

There is, on the part of the reader – this reader, anyway – a burning desire to shout “what the hell is going on?!” across the page, in a kind of joyful wonder.

Obsession

On closer inspection, the deceptive appearances of Inscryption‘s narrative and the echoes it reveals could surprise even the most discerning minds. On the surface, the game’s dynamics seem uncluttered, almost minimalist, a far cry from the labyrinthine complexities of Mark Z. Danielewski’s masterful work. The player is trapped in a cabin, forced to play card games against an invisible entity, like a frantic dance with the arcane of fate. One defeat, and death is assured, the soul captured in a gloomy map, condemned to wander in the limbo of oblivion. But there’s more. Much more. Beneath the veneer of this game lies an unexpected depth, a disturbing echo of the murky meanderings of The House of Leaves. The parallel, at first elusive, gradually reveals itself like a subtly woven spider’s web, linking two seemingly disjointed universes.

However, if you take a step back and change your perspective slightly (literally), you realize that Inscryption isn’t exactly what it seems. The card duel in the cabin is actually a game played by a fictional character, a YouTuber named Luke Carder, who found the game on a floppy disk buried somewhere in the woods. Although you make the decisions, play the cards and (hopefully) eventually escape, you play as Luke, who records the game with his own camera. You play the video of a man playing a game full of secrets, and as you and Luke uncover the truth behind Inscryption, the obsession with uncovering everything threatens to consume both character and player.

Luke Carter, avant de s'enfoncer dans le mystère d'Inscryption
Luke Carter, before delving into the mystery of Inscryption

The House of Leaves reveals its labyrinthine strangeness through the eyes of Johnny Truant, an individual searching for meaning in an ocean of chaos. Like an endless spiral, Johnny plunges into the depths of an enigmatic manuscript left by a deceased man, a maze of words and footnotes that haunt his thoughts. The boundaries between reality and illusion blur as Johnny becomes obsessed with unravelling the threads of the story found within these pages, at the risk of losing his sanity. And so Inscryption, by its very nature, becomes a labyrinth in its own right. Luke’s quest to unravel the mysteries of the game reveals layers of interwoven realities. Just like The House of Leaves, where each footnote is another stone in the story’s labyrinthine edifice, leading inexorably to an elusive truth.

ALT236’s brillant video on The House of Leaves attempts to make sense of this complicated tale, which features such exhausting textual organization that you physically have to turn the book to keep reading at some points, and at others, the footnotes and details threaten to consume the narrative, as does the mysterious force (the “minotaur”) that consumes everything left in the labyrinth beneath the house and haunts everyone who reads about it. The book is a labyrinth in itself; footnotes, sidebars and endless spirals threaten to trap you in it as it trapped Johnny. The only way out is to keep going, and even then, you won’t soon forget what happened when you finally escape.

Inscryption, without even meaning to, manages to transform itself into a labyrinth in its own right. Luke, the Johnny Truant of this tale, is directed to the game disk buried in the forest and finds himself obsessed with the circumstances that led to its creation. The cabin is far from the complete game; it’s revealed that the dark force inside is Leshy, a character from the current Inscryption game who has taken control of the narrative. In the game universe, there are four card battle masters, whom Leshy has locked in their own cards and who are all released when you (Luke) finally manage to defeat him. And then it gets even weirder, as you discover that the whole game is an RPG in which you have to defeat all four masters to become a Scrybe in turn. That’s when another of the masters, P-03, takes control and traps you in a factory, forcing you to fight him to escape, then revealing that by fighting him, you complete the unfinished Inscryption game and give him the chance to transcend into other people’s computers and live for eternity.

There are many allusions to the fact that people died creating this game. There’s a surrounding alternate-reality game about something called the Karnoffel code. And, of course, there’s the Inscryption minotaur itself: the OLD_DATA, a hidden file that P-03’s transcendence plan plans to rebuild, and which the other masters warn Luke directly is a malevolent force in itself. Like the Minotaur, it haunts him as he tries to piece together everything that happened. Unlike the Minotaur, it reveals itself to him in the end. When one of the masters triggers a full disk wipe to delete the entire game, Luke is lucky enough to see her. We never see it with our own eyes, but as soon as he does, he rips the game disc from his computer and smashes it with a hammer, trying to destroy it, refusing to let the obsession he’s become part of spread out into the world.

Johnny Truant never gets the chance to break free. The Minotaur haunts him. His past pursues him. The last we hear of him, he’s ill, short of money, and happens to have met a group who read the book he didn’t finish writing. The publishers of The House of Leaves, and several letters written to them, make it clear that Johnny has disappeared, and that there’s no sure way of knowing what happened to him, but it’s obvious that no Hollywood happy ending awaits him, wherever he may be. Luke, unfortunately, meets a similar fate in Inscryption. As he attempts to share his findings with a journalist, a representative of the company that created the game barges into his home and shoots him in the head, and the ARG that accompanies the game ends up revealing that he failed to stop P-03’s plan.

Le couloir sans fin de la Maison des Feuilles
Endless hallway in The House of Leaves (source)

“This is the aftermath of meaning. A life ended between two images”

The blind man, silent witness to the torments of the soul, reminds us of the fragility of existence, where every choice is a fork in the labyrinth of destiny. Johnny, Luke, ourselves, all lost in the meanders of our own narratives, haunted by the spectres of our past choices. But beware, for while the consequences of falling into the labyrinth of the mind may not be so fatal, they are just as baffling. As we share our experiences with our peers, as we dissertate on the virtues of a book or a game, we are confronted with the horrible truth: are we condemned to wander endlessly in this labyrinth of meaning, forever prisoners of our own narratives? Or can we, if only for a moment, escape the clutches of darkness and find the light at the end of the tunnel? You may even – and this is the most horrifying – feel that you have to write an article comparing the two…

Share your thoughts