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About the Story
Something fishy is happening in the Section B-2 Temple.
59th Place (tie) - 26th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2020)
IFComp 2020 Review: Deus Ex Ceviche by Tom Lento, Chandler Groover
I'm sure there is a carefully thought-out, internally consistent story going on here somewhere, in a world where fish have temples, organised religion and computers, and I sure wouldn't mind if some of it was, you know, actually put in the game itself to maybe explain itself to us simpletons? Unexplained weirdness is, of course, part of Groover's schtick, but I feel with Deus Ex Ceviche that the audience is beginning to get left behind.
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Oh man. I almost held off reviewing this one because I wanted to see what others had to say about it first, in hopes other reviews would help me understand it better. But this isn't the first Chandler Groover game I've played and so my guess is that I'm not meant to understand it fully, so here we go.
This game is really more a statistically based puzzle game than interactive fiction. There are plenty of words to read, but I'm pretty sure they would only make sense if you lived in the absurd world of the story. The puzzle itself involves accumulating fish or tech related stats, like brine and bytes, by putting religious-themed "disks" into processing slots, sometimes accompanied by what I think is an AI, and clicking submit to see what kind of stats you get. After hitting submit each time you get a few lines of text adding color, but a really weird color like Smaragdine, to the world. The rules of the game are barely explained to you, so it is just up to trial and error to figure out how to accumulate the necessary stats fast enough to win the game. I was starting to notice the pattern towards the end of the game, but I wasn't into it enough to keep playing and fine tune it.
Because all the text was so weird and I wasn't able to pick a story out of it, it quickly devolved in to me just clicking as quick as I could to try different combinations of disks and slots to reach the end of the game. I love Groover's game "Eat Me" and it was the first of his I played. Since then I've always played his games early in each IFComp, hoping for more greatness, but mostly finding weird mood pieces. I'd love to hear from someone that really enjoyed this game to help me understand it better.
There were many ambitious entries in the IFComp 2020. This is the only one I’ve played that goes so far as to stake out a new aesthetic school of its own. The bizarre, alien world of Deus Ex Ceviche is inextricably steeped in the unmistakable flavor of this so-called Piscespunk: a marriage of artificial life and marine biology, here examined at the intersection of religion and for-profit enterprise.
The whole experience is packaged with a visually-stunning backdrop of netted fish, rendered with distinctive colors and bold lines that evoke a vague impression of stained glass and its tracery, bringing an ecclesiastical flavor to the table. Against this, the game’s interactive elements are rendered in pixel art that adds a palpable artificiality. The visual design elements of this game are thoughtfully-constructed and I cannot overstate how well they work together to sell the radical new Piscespunk concept.
Gameplay consists of putting disks in slots and seeing what happens, with each input yielding a narrative description of a resulting event, plus a change in your resources (of which a certain amount must be collected for victory). Both the story and the mechanics come off as weird, surreal, and possibly confusing at first. Why is the GUI gooey? How exactly does brine accumulate as a result of accidentally censoring important passages in the holy text? Nothing makes sense according to the logic of reality as we know it.
But much of the pleasure of playing Deus Ex Ceviche is in keeping at it, gradually discovering that this world has an internal logic of its own, according to which everything makes perfect sense. Trial and error (and the advice of a helpful goldfish) will reveal that the strange results of disk-insertion are in fact quite predictable, and one can easily achieve a desired outcome.
Meanwhile, as one becomes more acquainted with the setting and its characters, the weird language and inexplicable causal relationships of the story’s events will gradually decode themselves into something that’s actually quite coherent.
The travails of the faithful as they struggle to perform their duties in the face of a malfunctioning temple apparatus; the underdog tale of an obsolete abbess seeking to fulfil her duties while painfully aware of her own shortcomings; the desperate hope of the congregants to find some kind of comfort or meaning in a corrupt, pay-to-pray religion. From these poignant beginnings, the Section B-2 Temple will spiral into a crescendo of mounting tension, as constructed systems transcend their intended purposes. All aspects of reality - social, ontological, and architectural - will be revolutionized by one’s apotheosis, and one’s faithful will experience the terrible ecstasy of union with one’s divinity. It’s all on display in a series of rich, evocative vignettes. There’s real, human emotion here. It’s the kind of stuff that could be described in terms of heartbeats, smiles, and tears… if it weren’t already described in terms of databanks, replacement fingers, and salt instead.
If that doesn’t already have you hooked, then frankly, I don’t understand you. Just know that my meager review cannot possibly do justice to the raw power and majesty of Deus Ex Ceviche. Without a doubt among the most unique and memorable games of the comp, it definitely deserves a playthrough (or five).
This entry is a richly designed experience guided by a clear artistic vision. My attempts to describe that vision — it’s running a business that operates a church for seafood robots — will fail to do it justice.
The main mechanic resembles a card game where "disks" are placed in three fields that guide the story, and modifiers can be added to change their effects. Different variables are tracked on the side of the screen, and a pixel-perfect advisor offers help.
It's quick to figure out what will happen when various disks are submitted, but it's unclear whether you want those things to happen. You gradually gain awareness as you spend more time with Deus Ex Ceviche, developing conscious control over the proceedings. This mimics the experience of “you,” the central character in the story.
At first, I couldn't tell whether I wanted to restore things to normal or create a new order. In Deus Ex Ceviche, that might mean a religious order, a sequential order, or a restaurant order.
Wordplay is a major component of this entry, but they aren't quite puns. In the real world, people share imperfect metaphors when they’re trying to describe the workings of finance, theology, and computer programming. Deus Ex Ceviche blurs the edges of those concepts and freely substitutes nautical terms, business concepts, programming ideas, and spiritual dogma.
In a dizzying feat of logical consistency, those substitutions are consistent throughout the story. The three fields of play are front end, back end, and hardware, and each has an equivalent marine creature that is thematically linked with the rest of the work.
(In one of my encounters, it noted that you can translate "serpent" as "python" to create a new religious paradigm.)
Your choices to invest power and piety can result in rituals that reveal mysteries and draw the game to its conclusion.
...although pickling is always an option.
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