Inscryption launched in 2021 to critical acclaim, winning top prizes at the Independent Games Festival and Games Developers Choice Awards, among others. To celebrate the game’s launch on PlayStation® 4 and PlayStation® 5, we’re looking back at this year’s Game Developers Conference (GDC), where Daniel Mullins of Daniel Mullins Games joined Unity’s Osama Dorias for a conversation on unexpected storytelling.
Scroll to the end to watch the event, or read on for discussion highlights and key takeaways.
Blending innovative, genre-bending gameplay and metafictional storytelling, Inscryption offers a captivating, mulitlayered experience that wouldn’t be possible in any other medium. “I really don’t think that the story of Inscryption – if you could even call it that! – is something that works as a novel,” says Mullins. “If it was written out, it would not be what it is... You have to live it.”
His narrative process is deeply tied to his experience as a game developer, and he’s familiar with the realities of writing for the medium. So what came first – the story or the gameplay? For Mullins, it’s not really a chicken-or-egg question: “I don’t think I’ve ever really written a ‘story’ or anything like that. Ideas for the story come out of the mechanics and ideas for the mechanics come out of the story – it’s all mushed together.”
Narratives don’t have to be exhaustive to be compelling – games from Hollow Knight to TUNIC have shown that a little mystery can go a long way. By creating a loose story that’s open to interpretation, you can generate a lot of interest from your community. They’ll work to fill in the gaps and make the narrative their own.
In one example from Inscryption, the player encounters a wizard whose head is on a spike. Mullins only ever intended for her to be a minor character, but players latched onto her and created a whole backstory. “I don’t know much about her as a writer… It was a sort of one-dimensional character because she was just a student at the wizard school,” reveals Mullins. “But then people invented why she’s there and what her personality is.”
Goobert, a green blob, now the game’s unofficial mascot, is another example of how players have taken a role in Inscryption’s worldbuilding: “I knew from the beginning this goo man had some good mascot character potential. And then when people embraced the goo man and gave it a name – the people on my Discord called him Goobert – that stuck. And I just loved that.”
Mullins’ love of fan culture is even having an impact outside the game. Inscryption players are already working to bring the twisted card game into the real world.
Mullins initially conceived of Inscryption as one of three games that could be played in any order, but later pivoted to a three-act story with gameplay and visual styles changing between acts. This not only resulted in a consistently surprising experience for players; challenging himself to keep things fresh helped Mullins maintain the momentum he needed to finish the project.
“I try to make the development exciting by always doing something new within the game. It keeps me interested,” explains Mullins. “If you make yourself excited about what you’re working on, then it will come out better for it.”
“If you make yourself excited about what you're working on, then it will come out better for it.”
Watch the full recording to learn how Hearthstone, Magic: The Gathering, and Yu-Gi-Oh! influenced Inscryption, where Mullins found acting talent for his game, and the horrifying true story behind the “meat bot” card.