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Manichee Business, January 15, 2013
Ex Nihilo sits on the cusp between IF and e-poetry: a very short, very abstract, highly atmospheric CYOA in which you make choices about a deity. It will take perhaps five minutes to play, but you'll want to play a few times.
The core plot is always the same: a divine being creates the universe, abides alone for eons, encounters a race of lesser beings, and finally meets a being that is something like an equal. The value of interaction is primarily about the attitude and tone of the piece: depending on your mood and tone choices, the lesser beings and your relationship to them will turn out rather differently. God's mood is the shaping force of the universe. Events are described in terse, cool tones, at a high level of abstraction; and when you meet your counterpart, at the end, things are left massively wide open.
The game's colour choices and the decisive nature of the final encounter, which determines the fate of the world, suggest a kind of Manichean universe*, in which the nature of the two sides is always different. The suggestion of these strange dualisms is the main thing I took away from the piece; it has the weirdly fruitful nature of procedural generation about it, and in this context the awkward juxtapositions that this kind of thing often throws up seem more like the product of minds alien to one another trying to communicate.
To be more specific: the final choice of the game is a text entry, the first thing you say to the Other Being. From what I can make out, the game stores the entries of everyone playing the game, then feeds them back out as the Other Being's responses. Like letting players choose their character's name, this is the sort of thing that you'd expect to be tone-breaking, and often it is; when you encounter a divine being who greets you with "Eat at Joe's", you're kind of catapulted into a Douglas Adams cosmos. But at best, the disconnect that this creates, the feeling of talking at deep, unbridgeable cross-purposes, makes for a pretty good suggestion of cosmic conflict: Heaven and Hell fundamentally don't understand one another.
All this is rendered in a smooth, simple, effective graphic style with appropriately vast-and-lonely-sounding music.
* that is, a world shaped by the struggle between two roughly equal gods or cosmic forces: in classic Manichaeism, these are the forces of good and evil.