Archives in Video Games: Inscryption
[Spoiler Warning for all of Inscryption!]
A common misconception of those outside the archival community is that archiving is just another term for death. In my experience, people are distrustful of "giving up" their records because they fear never getting their documents back, that the records will be "lost" and eventually "forgotten" if an archivist gets their grubby little paws on them. It's not an overstep to say that the stages of grief can be applied to convincing people to actually archive their records.
Whether the documents are buried somewhere in the archives or records post-project are dead filed, the morbid language surrounding archives and records management perpetuates the image of untouched, dusty basements where documents and materials linger and rot away until some valiant soul "discovers" them for reasons. It's definitely a stereotype that I tried to dissuade people of in my previous jobs, but I can also see how record-keeping and death go hand-in-hand, especially within the sci-fi and fantasy genres where immortal beings and futuristic databases alike find value in the historical and proof of their longevity. Plus divine bureaucracy, one of my favorite tropes, leans heavily into record-keeping practices in the afterlife, so I'd be a hypocrite if I didn't acknowledge the appeal.
The latest video game from Daniel Mullins Games, Inscryption takes the theme of archives, record-keeping, and death and bundles them all up into one of its four main Scrybes, Grimora. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Inscryption is a horror, deckbuilding, roguelike puzzle-solving game that begins with the player supposedly trapped in a mysterious cabin with an equally mysterious and disconcerting person, Leshy, who has a love of taking photographs, performing character pieces, and encouraging your participation in playing his card game...or else. In the First Act, the game involves beast cards that can be upgraded, traded, and destroyed as the player progresses. However, as with all things in life there's a price to be paid and Leshy demands blood. Every unblocked hit deals damage and if the player finds themself facing certain death, there are tools available to tip the scales in their favor. Very sharp, pointy tools.
Within this first act, the player is also introduced to three cards that have the ability to speak and interact in a way that the other cards can't. At first, it's just the Stoat, one of the first cards the player receives in their base deck. The Stoat is later joined by the Stink Bug and then the Stunted Wolf. The player finds them as the game progresses and with each death or milestone passed these particular cards begin to change, the "artwork" altering into images both beast-like and otherworldly.
It's only after the player has beaten Leshy that the rest of Inscryption opens up. There's a whole meta plot within the game involving a card-opening YouTube channel called The Lucky Carder, run by Luke Carder, and a cover-up involving the creation and distribution of Inscryption as a computer game where before it was just a standard deckbuilder like Magic the Gathering. Trust me, there are layers to this game! But there's something not quite right about Inscryption; the world within an innocuous floppy disk has become something more, something its in-game publisher, GameFuna doesn't want to get out.
Okay, Lore time!
Within the world of Inscryption, four Scrybes alighted on a new plane of existence and went about crafting cards based on their domains and fighting styles. Leshy, Scrybe of Beasts, used his wildlife camera to capture animals. Grimora, Scrybe of the Dead, copied the epitaphs of the dead with her quill. Magnificus, Scrybe of Magicks, painted his wizard pupils with his magic brush. P03, Scrybe of Technology, copied the CPUs of robots with his scanner. But as is the case with all-powerful beings, somebody - Leshy - got greedy and captured his fellow Scrybes with his camera where they ended up as cards for the player to use. And as each of these special cards changes, the player begins to notice the resemblance. The Stoat eventually morphs into P03, the Stunted Wolf into Magnificus, and the Stink Bug into Grimora.
It's also worth noting that during Act I, Leshy introduces two mechanics of playing cards on the board. The first is with blood that requires sacrificing animals of a lower value so higher value cards can be played. The second mechanic comes into play once the Stink Bug is uncovered and involves accumulating bones with every animal sacrificed. The bones can then be used as payment to put specified animals on the board. It's at this point that the game is subtly introducing the player to new mechanics while also contributing to the worldbuilding. It's no coincidence that the Stink Bug has a price of bones because it's actually Grimora whose domain is death. Eventually, when playing Grimora in the 8-bit environment of Act II, you see that the main form of payment in her games are bones.
It isn't until Act III that we're introduced to the final stand-in for Grimora, The Archivist. Long story short: P03 doesn't want to become someone's lackey again - understandable - so he decides to take over the game the same way Leshy did, converting the world into a technomancers dream as the player must adapt to new cards and new mechanics in order to stop P03 from uploading Inscryption and letting it loose on the world. While navigating a map similar to the 8-bit world, the player must confront techno-avatars of the other Scrybes as bosses, called Uberbots, in the same way Leshy converted his cohorts into beasts.
As you can see, the meta plot and the story begin to merge in Act III. So much so that before you meet the Archivist two robot minions, called Librarians, ask the player for permission to access their actual, real-life hard drive at the Archivist's behest. Because you can't progress without it, you give them permission. Then the Archivist appears and they're just adorable!
During the phases of the fight, the Archivist asks the player to first choose a file from their hard drive, with the helpful hint that the bigger the file the more beneficial. The file chosen becomes a weight placed on the scales that determine the winner, so the bigger the file, the better your chances of winning quickly. The second time the Archivist requests access involves the player choosing an old file with value. This file is then converted into a card that the Archivist threatens will be erased from the hard drive if the card is destroyed in game.
Thankfully, the file won't actually be erased, but a text file will be added requesting the player delete it anyway in the spirit of the game.
The real culmination of following from Stink Bug to Grimora to the Archivist is that once P03 has been defeated by the other Scrybes the end game literally becomes the end of the game as Grimora finds the accessed hard drive from the Archivist and uses it to destroy Inscryption, which includes herself and her compatriots. For the Scrybe of Death nothing is more poetic or more fitting than allowing something to finally die.
It's interesting to look at the game's progress and how it makes the association of death with archives. Grimora's whole deal is "honoring" the dead by immortalizing them on cards, but she's really just using them for her own purposes. We don't spend a lot of time with Grimora in the same way that we get with Leshy and then P03, so I'm unsure if the skeletons and zombies she creates are the actual dead people forced into servitude in the afterlife or if they're just illustrated proxies. I'm hoping for the latter, but given that none of these Scrybes are especially good people I'm more inclined to believe the former. I will say, though, that Grimora understands the value in what others consider old and dead. For her, age is just another facet of usefulness.
The alternate versions of Grimora illustrate more aspects of her death domain. The Stink Bug, other than using a payment of bones, also has an ability to reduce damage from cards with their stench. This is likely another means of associating Grimora with the stink of death and further perpetuate the ideas of rot and decay. The Archivist invokes similar ideas not only in the implied nature of archives as dealing with the old and long forgotten, but also in the Archivist's final request for the player's oldest file, preferably something with sentimental value. Yes, it's a means of holding the file hostage, but it also implies that the Archivist wants the player to appreciate the value of this file that they might not have accessed or thought about for some time. The player is effectively resurrecting an old file per the Archivist's instructions. It's a stretch, but one could make the case that the Archivist represents a positive approach to the lifecycle of records.
I'm not going to do that here, but it's something someone could do if they were so inclined.