The world is a confused and messy place, but as I sit here in front of my laptop fighting my humanity, I’m absolutely sure of two things: my stomach hurts a lot and I’m tired of Daniel Mullins shenanigans. The former, I suppose, is the result of a bad carne asada, while the latter came to mind several hours after starting my game of Encryption, the latest meta-experience from the guy behind Pony Island and The Hex.
Since making a name for himself for the first time, Mullins’ penchant for infusing his projects with M. Night Shyamalan-style twists has made him something of an indie darling. And while this is in part due to the largely unimaginative mainstream market of the video game industry which helps anything slightly more ambitious than the latter Call of Duty Looking like a masterpiece in comparison, there’s no doubt Mullins’ unique ability to push the medium’s interactive storytelling into uncharted territory.
I bring up Shyamalan because I see echoes of his professional trajectory in Mullins own career after his debut in 2016, Pony Island. Just like Shyamalan put himself on the map in the years 1999 The sixth sense, a supernatural thriller whose climactic revelation that the protagonist actually died in the movie’s first home invasion scene still hasn’t lost its luster after all these years, Pony IslandThe more sinister story of the minute about a haunted video game has enshrined Mullins as someone to watch in the independent developer scene.
And, for better or for worse, these early successes still inform the work of the two artists today. Shyamalan can’t seem to write a movie these days without some sort of left turn in the plot, as the two games Mullins produced afterwards Pony Island were chock full of the same meta-level reveals as their predecessor. This is not to say that the two men are not convincing and talented artists in their own right (I will defend Lady in the water to my last breath), but for the most part you know exactly what you’re getting yourself into when you sit down with one of their creations.
Fortunately, Encryption—Released last month on To smoke and GOG– never waste your time pretending to be more than another entry into the Mullins Menagerie from Meta Mindfucks. The first time I started the game, the main menu greeted me with several options: New Game, Continue, Settings, etc. Except, wait a minute, New game is grayed out? And the only way to get started is to select Continue? Well that must mean someone else played this copy of Encryption before me! The mind is spinning.
The following is largely the same game seen in Encryptionpre-release marketing of. You are trapped in a cabin and forced to play a rudimentary wildlife based bridge building game against a dark figure. You are going through a connection map similar to that of 2017 Kill the arrow and start over when you die. Every once in a while you are allowed to get up from the table where the game takes place, explore the cabin, and solve puzzles that unlock new maps and items that carry over into subsequent parts.
It’s the Encryption which I first fell in love with. Of course, the card game is quite simplistic and easy to break as you are given better deck-building material, but alongside the ubiquitous roguelike genre appeal of “one more try”, the claustrophobic atmosphere and the disturbing tale were enough to keep bringing me back to the table. But, as many people have correctly assumed before Encryption Launched, this cabin frame soon falls by the wayside as the game boldly advances through the following chapters.
After defeating your executioner in an elaborate way that would make absolutely no sense without several more paragraphs explaining the dense but ultimately unimportant lore of the first chapter, the “New Game” option on EncryptionThe main menu will unlock. It is at this point that you also learn that what you went through was actually a play footage recorded by someone who found coordinates on a buried floppy disk containing Encryption when opening boosters for a physical card game of the same name.
That’s right: Encryptionthe protagonist of – and by extension you, as the person playing Encryption– is a YouTuber. This is described as a horror game on its Steam page, after all.
Encryption then radically changes. When you finally start a new game, you’re immersed in a 2D, pixel art world reminiscent of the 1998 video game adaptation. Pokémon Trading Card Game. Your objective here is to defeat four Scrybes, each with their own unique mechanics. Where the game in the cabin focused on sacrificing cards and sometimes even using the bones they left behind to summon stronger monsters, EncryptionThe second chapter doubles the mechanics with an energy meter and gems, which also dictate when and where you can and should place cards on the playing field.
Unfortunately, this rule set extension is coming at the same time Encryption becomes much less compelling narratively. By establishing a story outside of the game itself, it belittles the whole experience by turning it into a type of alternative reality game mystery that we have seen so many times before. This is funny Encryption leans so much on its main character creator of content in the second and third acts, as the whole game seems explicitly designed to cater for the cottage industry of the “X Ending Explained” channels on YouTube, the result of this flavor of early 2010s of internet storytelling that treated the plot as something to be resolved rather than a vehicle for a thesis or central emotion.
Encryption eventually returns to the escape room escapades of its first chapter – this time with a robotic sensor and a more grungy sci-fi aesthetic – but by this point, the game had well and truly lost me.
Of course, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t keep doing Cool, Meta Things. One of my favorite moments in the whole game came when I was asked to use actual files on my hard drive as maps, and I was threatened with their deletion if they were defeated. The underlying mechanics also remain a lot of fun and engaging until the end, despite the fact that strategy becomes less and less important as the game lazily feeds you more powerful cards. I no longer had the impression Encryption was as concerned with bringing out those bright spots as he was with moving on to the next part of the laborious story.
As a video game, Encryption constantly reinvents itself. I generally got bored of roguelikes that build decks, but the way its mechanics iterated through the three separate chapters was a real joy. That said, the card game at the heart of Encryption ultimately seems like an afterthought, wrapping for a separate, totally less charming, alternate reality thriller. And to reach the end of the artificial story “an evil company is releasing a scary game that has become sentient and wants to replicate via Steam”, it took a sunk cost mistake that obviously didn’t pay off.
Yes Encryption had only stayed in that damp and horrible cabin and lay on this experience, I probably would have left thinking it was a decent use of my time. But as it stands, the game is just a clichéd experience dredged up in the same shallow pool as the internet’s most artificial YouTube pseudo-mysteries.