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Inscription is Polygon’s No. 1 game of 2021 Graphic: James Bareham/Polygon

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Inscryption is the best video game of 2021

Experimentation as a masterstroke

Mike Mahardy leads game criticism and curation at Polygon as senior editor, reviews. He has been covering entertainment professionally for more than 10 years.

[Ed. note: The following contains spoilers for Inscryption.]

Inscryption is one of the most perplexing games I have ever played.

For our 2021 game of the year coverage, Polygon is celebrating our top 10 video games with a collection of essays. You can see our full Top 50 list here. Throughout December, we’ll also be looking back on the year with special videos, essays, and more!

To call it a roguelike would be a disservice. Labeling it a card game would be missing the point. Lingering too long on its horror qualities would be myopic, like describing a movie based solely on its opening scene. Inscryption is all of these things, yes, in the same way a book is a collection of paragraphs — there’s far more to it than that.

Even the way we talk about Inscryption has an air of mystery. One day, just over a week before Halloween, it began popping up in Polygon’s Slack channels. Several writers had tried it over the weekend, and showed up on Monday brimming with excitement. “Has anyone else played Inscryption??” It spread slowly at first, then all at once: Threads formed, spoiler warnings appeared, and groups splintered into DMs to discuss this strange, confounding game with other co-workers who had made it past “that part.”

The roguelike board game in Inscryption. The player is holding a deck of animal-themed cards. The opponent is in shadow, with the whites of his eyes showing. He is holding candlesticks and looking menacing. Image: Daniel Mullins Games/Devolver Digital

In other words, Inscryption had created a moment, and we all loved it so much that we refused to spoil what made it so special. We trusted the game to work its magic on newcomers, irrespective of our glowing, whispered praise.

Now, looking back on Inscryption at the tail end of 2021, with distance from that initial fervor, I can appreciate the game for more than just the excitement it stirred. It was released in a year replete with roguelites, time-loop mysteries, and genre-defying breakout hits. But still, it towers above its peers. Its first act effortlessly combines the strategy of a deck-building card game with the puzzle solving of an escape room. Its second act drops us into a pixel art adventure that pays homage to everything from EarthBound to Pokémon. Its third act brings us back to the roguelite format of the first chapter, but in a completely different context: The shack in the woods has been replaced by a factory, with holograms instead of parchment, and floppy disks in place of cards. Also, the dealer is a robot.

It’s here where the full scope of the magic trick comes into focus. While we’ve been learning the intricacies of the card game variations, Inscryption has been telling its story under our noses. With one hand, developer Daniel Mullins has distracted us with some of video games’ more clichéd genre tropes. With the other, he has fleshed out an entire cast of characters, each with their own fears, goals, and insecurities.

Inscryption - Luke Carder, a young man in front of a green screen background, sits and prepares to record a video about card games Image: Daniel Mullins Games/Devolver Digital

None of this is to mention the fake YouTube videos tying all of the acts together, or the Easter eggs hidden in the credits, or the real-world history that Mullins has tied to Inscryption’s lore. Some of the most compelling elements of Inscryption’s narrative take place outside of the actual game. Devoted players followed a trail of breadcrumbs to data storage websites and real-world GPS locations, parsing their way through an ARG that has become somewhat of a signature in Mullins’ portfolio. As Cass Marshall said on our top 50 games of 2021 list, “Inscryption is a game about games, centered around a narrative with as many layers as a Russian nesting doll.”

Not all of the story works, to be clear. In more than one case, Mullins is trying a little too hard to be clever. The live-action plot thread focused on the shadowy GameFuna company (Inscryption’s in-universe developer) ends with a choreographed murder in which neither the assassin nor the victim have the acting chops to make it feel organic. What’s more, much of Inscryption’s second act legitimately drags: The novelty of the pixelated, top-down world wears off quickly, and the lack of any roguelite elements makes the deck-building more of a chore than a compelling gameplay loop.

But I’ll forgive any game for its valleys when the peaks are this high. I’ll choose the game taking the big swings over the one riding a constant wave of “good” every single time. Much like I prefer the intermittent perfection of The Sopranos over the consistency of The Wire, I can’t help but marvel at how lofty Inscryption’s aims are — even if it misses wide every once in a while.

Because when Inscryption is at its best, and its genre-blending systems are feeding into its narrative, and its deck-building mechanics are telling a story the likes of which can only be told through interactivity, there’s nothing else like it. Inscryption is a symphonic tribute to video games as a whole, and even with a violin or two slightly out of tune, it builds to an astonishing crescendo.