Content warning: themes of self-harm, suicidal ideation, artistic depictions of self-harm.
Divination by Mojiken Studios is a refreshing take on the visual novel, crossed with an unconventional courtroom procedural. Taking place in a futuristic society where robots and humans live side by side, due process is dependent on the centralized arbitration of a networked AI named “MOTHER”. MOTHER, overwhelmed by the singularity of omniscience, then finally succumbs to madness, sending out a final nihilistic message before ceasing to exist. When the shock subsides, regulatory authorities step in, mandating the installation of anti-suicide protocols in all synthetic lifeforms.
Divination establishes robots as meaningful compatriots to their human counterparts, seemingly capable of emotion, though without the introspective intuition by which humans navigate those emotions. The turmoil in the wake of MOTHER’s untimely demise calls into question not only the notion of AIs’ sound judgement, but many of the city’s denizens’ very own sense of self and purpose. It is a story of waking up one day to sudden, traumatic self-awareness, immediately being forced to rationalize the paradox of free will in a system where many have lived assured lives in fixed roles. Does the termination of MOTHER’s oversight merit abject despondency, or is it an unprecedented opportunity for individuals to reassert themselves in a functionally homogenized society?
Unable to console one another or provide verifiable outcomes, a society that was dependent on absolute oversight from an impartial authority must now rely on gut instincts alien to them. With nowhere else to turn, and the intense anxiety of self-doubt spreading through the system like a virus, several turn to a mysterious seer, rumored to be neither robot nor human.
Free of complex dialogue trees, instead employing a pared-down one-question setup, Divination relies on its namesake to permute outcomes: a simple ritual of ordering beads etched with runes, ultimately combining to form the coherent reading by which the seer delivers the binary verdict. In the absence of the direct voice of the divine, the priestly caste operate as a proxy to set troubled minds at ease and offer closure or absolution for their fears and worries.
As the seer, four people come to seek your guidance. You control a fixed entity, trapped in a room with no voice or face, the only means of communication being a digital display. Interrogation will only get you so far before you must cast your prediction; confirmation of outcomes is unseen to you, with your only information on the outside world filtering through a televideo display and what your clientele decide to share with you. Some trust your ability as a seer; others remain skeptical or outright cynical of your premises and predictions. Despite the straightforward design of the game, Divination hardly has a predictable narrative, and understands how to leverage simple plot points and conclude them effectively. Despite the heavy premise and subject matter, Divination asks for very little of your time, keeping things short and sweet, just like your appointments for predictions.
It’s a potent meditation on the value of life, and how much or how little agency people are given to choose how or whether they live. Is life satisfying or meaningful if you can’t change your role? Can you find meaning in the minutiae of life? Are those questions even pertinent to contentment? Divination isn’t here to tell any of its characters how to live; rather, it gives them the metaphysical tools to establish that for themselves.
It’s a gorgeous experience with presentation as stark as the subject matter, with eye-popping visuals that draw your attention to, rather than distract from, the rich characterization of every client you encounter. Divination drips with atmosphere from start to finish, standing as one of the more memorable and experimental indie titles I’ve played this year. Mojiken Studios have an extensive backlog stretching back past 2015 that look worthy of further examination.
In the future, our resident editor Mx_Medea will be thoroughly deconstruct the game’s vivid symbology and its underlying metaphysics. Until then, I see a possible future in which you will go out of your way to try it for yourself.
Emily Rose is an indie developer who writes for rebind.io and resides in the pacific northwest. She’s often seen in the local VR arcade and developer community participating in pushing the medium’s horizons. You can find her on twitter @caravanmalice