There was a time when we set out to write a horror game called Apocrypha. Along the way, I realized that I couldn’t scare you with what was in my head. I could only scare you with what was in yours. Now that its final chapters are shipping to our customers around the world (with an in-store release date of December 3), I want to tell you how we did that.
You’ve played our game Betrayal at House on the Hill, right? Think about that time you were freaked out by the house threatening to swallow you alive. The little girl with the shotgun. Jacob’s room. Whatever it was, you don’t tell people about the words on the cards, even if they’re really good words. You tell them about what happened to you.
To write a horror epic like the Apocrypha Adventure Card Game, we had to make it about you. Maybe we don’t know you. But we know where you live. We know when you live. We know what you read in the newspaper and on the internet. We know that the world scares you. You don’t know what we’ve become. But you know you fear it.
We wrote that game. We set it in the modern day—that is, quite literally on the day you’re playing it. Every day, you can fire up the Apocrypha ℵ1 Companion App and see what daily mutation we’ve inflicted on you. If there’s a bomb cyclone hitting the northeast today, it’s in the game. If the White House is in chaos today, it’s in the game. If it’s the day of the most consequential election of your lifetime, it’s in the game.
To make that game, we took the core of the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game and—well, we shattered it and put it back together. The two games are like brothers, except one’s a champion of all that is right and true, and the other lives in a shack behind the Piggly Wiggly and nobody looks him in the eye. We broke it up into three sets—The World, The Flesh, and The Devil—because we had so much we wanted to share.
We made a game that busted genres. It’s both a co-op card game and a roleplaying game. It can play in 45 minutes or 5 hours, depending on how you want it to go. You can tell our stories, and we’ve given you a lot of them, or you can tell yours. At conventions, I run a special mission called “Mike Selinker’s Private Game” that everyone who plays is sworn to secrecy beforehand; you must agree to keep playing no matter what happens. It’s my favorite mission, and every guide likely has their own.
In the game, you play a saint. That’s kind of a misnomer. You’re no saintlier in demeanor than your average broken soul in these troubled times. But you have something deep and spiritual about you. You’re incredibly powerful. The only problem is, you’ve forgotten all your superpowers. You’ll need to find those lost memories again, to put your brain back together. I based a lot of this on my research on Alzheimer’s disease, and made something good out of the scariest thing I can imagine.
Your saintly powers let you pierce the veil that hides all the monsters in the world. You can see them, but they can also see you. They probably don’t like you very much. Some of them want to end the world, and you’re not too keen on that plan. The world is where you keep your stuff.
We messed with the world quite a bit. We carved up the continent into our horror amusement park, featuring nine regions in which we could tell nine very different epic stories featuring nine very different kinds of monsters. The Deathless chapter is about an Alberta oil town that punches a hole so far into the earth that they reach the death goddess Ereshkigal’s realm. The Fae chapter is about a malicious EDM carnival of motorcycle-riding fairies cutting a Wild Hunt across the Midwest. The Skinwalkers chapter is about a clash among the balkanized street gangs of Chicago, all of whom are lycanthropes who wear what they turn into on the backs of their leather jackets. The Serpents chapter is about a tribe of India’s snake cultists who believe they have found a real dragon sleeping beneath a Mexican pyramid. Any of these can end the world, in highly different ways.
We wanted you to feel like you are there. So everything—everything—in the game is a reference to something you’ve seen, or didn’t know you’d seen, or maybe wish you’d seen. On each card and in every mission, there’s something ulterior going on. Maybe several somethings.
Take Looming Spectre of Inutterable Horror, for example. This card appears in the Dreamers chapter in the expansion The Flesh, but its genesis was a long time coming. The title (which our graphics team really wanted me to cut down, but no dice) comes from a dissent by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in Arizona v. United States, where he warned the court of falling prey to a “looming specter of inutterable horror” if they proceeded down the path of giving rights to suspects.
The flavortext refers to Scalia’s quote “On occasion I’m asked when I’ve given a talk like this a question from the back of the room—’Justice Scalia, when did you first become an originalist?’—as though it is some kind of weird affliction that seizes some people—’When did you first start eating human flesh?'”
We weren’t done there. The card is spelled with the British spelling of “Spectre” in contravention of Scalia’s quote to match the James Bond film, in which Sam Smith sings the theme “The Writing’s on the Wall.” This is also the name of a haunting song by the art-rock band OK Go, whose lyrics “Seems like forever since we had a good day” are written on the courthouse wall.
Oh, one more thing. The day after I commissioned the art, having built all this mythology in my head, Antonin Scalia died. We wrote a card about Scalia as a ghost and then he obliged us in the most honorable way. Here’s to you, Justice Scalia.
And that’s just one card. There are over a thousand unique cards and 99 unique storybook missions in Apocrypha, and all of them are like this. We put in layer after layer of the real world because we wanted you to imagine you were in this game. I wrote more words for this than any game I’ve ever written, with over 100 pages of story and flavortext on every card. And I also got my friends to help. Friends who write. Friends like Patrick Rothfuss, Kij Johnson, Jerry Holkins, Erin Evans, and Kris Straub. I asked them to write the fragmented memories the saints re-experienced.
We wrote it all down, of course. We could never remember everything we put in the game. So we keep an Apocrypha OneNote which has a tab called “Easter Eggs,” which has 17 sub-tabs like “Ecological references” and “Religious and mythological references.” If we printed it off, it’d be taller than my house.
And oh yes, we wove in a mystery, of the kind you might have seen us do in works like The Maze of Games and all our alternate reality games. Apocrypha contains the biggest secret we’ve ever put into a game, and we’re not going to tell you anything about it. Maybe no one will ever discover the answer we’ve hidden. Maybe no one is looking for it right now.
All those components weave into a game that is as immersive as we can make. We might never make another game like it again. Certainly, it took vastly longer and was vastly harder than anything we’ve ever done. But it’s out now, and we think you might enjoy it if you give it a chance. It’s kinda creepy, I know. But it’s a very deep rabbit hole, and if you walk into it, we think you’ll come out a bit different.
That’s because the game is about you and your world. Now that it’s all coming out, I’d be honored if you go and find something of yourself in it.
Mike Selinker, Lead Designer, Apocrypha Adventure Card Game