Deus Ex Ceviche, by Tom Lento and Chandler Groover
I keep wanting the title here to be a pun but can’t figure out how to make “ceviche” fit to “machina”. That feeling of not-quite-rightness is perhaps representative of how I felt about the game. I’m not quite sure what words to describe the setting – it’s like a Jorodowsky comic book about a sentient virus attacking a capitalistic R’lyeh, maybe? But I’m unsure that gives the right flavor, or if I’ve even got the sense of who’s trying to do what to whom (or to what). All this to say the game is enticing and disorienting (in a good way!) off the bat, and the odd interface, atmospheric pixel-art, and punchy text vignettes are grabby and drew me in.
Ultimately, though, that grabbiness wore off for me, I think partially a casualty of the age-old crossword vs. narrative war, and partially because of how the instructions are presented. There’s some in-game help, with a helpful goldfish offering tool-tips when you mouse over bits of the interface. But there’s also a file that comes with the game – the Holy User Manual – that goes into some detail, in out-of-world voice, about the mechanics, goals, and a bit of the strategy of the game.
I’m going to spoiler-block this, even though it’s part of the instructions, for reasons I’ll explain at the end. In effect, the game is played in rounds – in each, you’re shuffled a hand of five cards, three of which you must play into three different slots, and then allocate two (differentiated) worker-units to the played cards. Each card gives, or takes, or exchanges resources based on the slot to which it’s played and whether, and which, worker it gets. When you accumulate enough of one of the resource types, you get a special ceremony card – do that three times and you finish the game.
Now, there’s definitely narrative flavor on top of this dry recital – the workers are members of a robotic clergy, each card pops up a unique vignette when it’s played, and the resource names and types paint an interesting picture that fits nicely into this strange, skewed world. But when playing, I found that I mostly focused on the board-game aspect of making the numbers go up, and skimmed the text. Partially this is because the narrative vignettes don’t seem to have much continuity, or impact – they’re really just flavor for the numbers. Partially I think the interface is to blame – you click “submit” on the right side of the screen, then just to the right of that is where the mechanical results are stated, then just to the right of that is the next turn button, so it’s sort of against the flow to move your eyes left to read the text. And partially I think it’s because I had read the instructions so I knew exactly what to do, and was therefore more in goal-seeking than exploration mode.
It does appear that there is some exploration to do – it seems like there may be multiple endings depending on how well you play the board game, and I think there was some interplay of the card and slot mechanics that I didn’t fully suss out. But it’s possible to reach a perfectly satisfying ending without getting into any of that. I wound up wondering whether I might have enjoyed the piece more without that instruction file – and interestingly, I noticed that it’s located both in the main game folder, but also in a separate Walkthrough folder, perhaps indicating that it was meant as a walkthrough but at some point migrated over into more of a read-first piece. If that’s the case, I think it might have been a misstep, since I probably would have engaged more with DEC and its fiction without having seen the mechanics laid quite so bare – so if you’ve got this one on your list, perhaps try playing it without reading the file first, and see how that works?
Lastly, I can’t leave this one without flagging two great jokes: ”Davy Jones Industrial Average” and the fact that the last line of the game is “FIN”.