I started playing Devotionalia over lunch. Lunch was cheesy ramen. I had to stop within five minutes because the two experiences were not aesthetically compatible.
Like a lot of weird fiction, this is a mood piece rather than a plot piece; it’s more of an evocative portrait of a situation than it is a progression of actions. The protagonist is the last priest of strange and indifferent gods – vast serpent-things from an ocean above – who have for no clear reason drawn back, and left their priesthood to dwindle.
It’s tempting to talk of it as a Sunless Sea aesthetic; it hits similar notes of sombre feeling within a great but bounded darkness, and is text is, similarly, inseparable from its context of dark colours and moody music. At its core, the thing I took away from Sunless Sea was not the details of plot, picturesque shipmates and exotic ports: it was the sense of being alone in the dark on the still silent water, with the sense of an unseen roof far above and unknowable things swimming deep beneath. Music, darkness, melancholy, the unknowably alien, and the space to absorb them. That’s the mood which Devotionalia is after, and it skewers it like a moth on a specimen-board.
This is not a faith with a canon and a liturgy; it is not one where the gods are understood to communicate in any real way to humanity, or who are expected to care. This is not a situation where railing against the gods, Job-like, would make any sense. The main choice of the game is about making an offering to the gods, but the ritual you choose is no more than that; it determines which ritual you perform – and, in the choosing, gives the sense that you’re slightly making this up as you go along. (The God of Moses gives pedantically exact instructions about the procedure of his worship. This is not that kind of god.) This is a piece about having a sense of duty when you’re not entirely clear what duty consists in; of diminished hopes. It’s about struggling to come to terms with the inevitable loss of something dear to you, something that wasn’t ever really yours in the first place, while knowing that you won’t ever really be OK about it.
It’s difficult to imagine what Cult could have looked like when unfallen, what it could have offered to its adherents in the first place, but that’s not the point: the point is capturing the feeling of a very particular kind of desolation.
It’s not quite right to classify this as a reflective-choice game, because that implies a particular technical meaning; this is ultimately a kind of game where your choices mostly affect the character’s feelings about things, rather than shaping the events of the world, but player choices have important effects on how those reflections go. It’s a cool and difficult trick to pull off, and it does it handily. Developing and maintaining all this takes a careful and powerful use of language; this is a piece which pays attention to its words, and invites the player to do likewise. A less able treatment could have easily veered into overwrought Lovecraftianisms or Rubbery Lumps grotesque comedy.
There’s evidence of tight design elsewhere, too. The music and graphic presentation are not extravagant – there are two pieces of music and I think they’re just on straightforward loops with a fade between them – but they’re chosen and deployed very effectively. Playing this right after Abbess Otilia, which has a ton of assets but makes rather a mess with them, is one hell of a contrast.
One of the recurring Twine Gimmicks it uses is the choice-of-word click, arranged in a particular progression: the initial meaning, a stronger meaning, the real meaning. The repetition of the form as something regular makes it feel like a mental habit, a discipline of thought: and it leads the player into the impact of the final word in a way that wouldn’t have worked if it had been used up-front. Technically, it’s a quite conventional technique, but it’s applied very sharply.
Excellent work. An 8 at first blush.