The feeling I got while playing Ritual reminded me of nothing so much as those old Dr. Strange comics from the 60’s, back when the master of mysticism was drawn by Steve Ditko, himself a master of the bizarre. The game is full of strange, hallucinatory images: a road that melts into nothing, an arch with marble carvings on one side and black decay on the other side, exploding and melting universes. The whole thing made me feel like I was immersed in a Ditko landscape, and the fact that the main character is a spellcaster on an astral voyage didn’t hurt either. Of course, some of the scenes in Ritual could never have taken place in a 60’s comic — at least, not one that adhered to the Comics Code Authority. There’s nothing really outrageous, but there are scenes of sexuality, drug use, and gore that you’d never see Dr. Strange experiencing. I’m not suggesting that the game is some sort of Dr. Strange rip-off, or that Ditko was an inspiration for Ritual — that’s just what it reminded me of. However, one source of inspiration for the game was clearly some of the more obscure poetry of Edgar Allan Poe. At the completion of almost every puzzle, the game throws a box quote from Poe, usually one which has some relation to the obstacle just overcome. These quotes are well-chosen, digging deep into the Poe archives and highlighting how much he inherited from William Blake, as well as how much he prefigured H.P. Lovecraft. At its best, most deranged or sublime moments, the game evokes the weird, dark mysticism shared by all these creators. On the whole, the effect is very trippy, and a fair amount of fun.
Unfortunately, there are some false notes as well. From time to time a character will say or do something fairly anachronistic, which tends to break the spell pretty thoroughly. In fact, at one point you can get a character to whip out a bong and start taking hits from it, which brings the whole elevated plane of symbolism and wonder dive-bombing back to earth. The effect is not so much of Alice in Wonderland‘s “hookah-smoking caterpillar”, but more of Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. It just doesn’t fit. There are also a few times when the game seems to slip into clichés or “AD&Disms” — one beast is described as “biting easily through a set of plate mail”, and some of the spells feel suspiciously close to ones I remember from 7th grade basement role-playing sessions. In addition, the game has a number of grammar and spelling errors, usually minor problems like missing punctuation or vowel mistakes, but again they break the spell. Finally, and worst of all, there’s a bug in the game which causes it to not respond at all if a certain action is taken sooner than the game expects it. There’s nothing that ruins immersion quite so much as when a game just doesn’t respond to a command in any way. Well, maybe not nothing — crashing the interpreter would probably ruin immersion more, but because of the lack of response problem I ended up turning to the hints, only to find that I had in fact given the right command to solve the puzzle — I just gave it a little too soon.
The game suffers a bit from the “unconnected symbols” syndrome — sometimes it feels like all of these dreamlike images are just images, with no meaning or substance attached to them. However, the game manages to pull them together somewhat through its title, intro, and ending — the bizarre symbols with which the game is littered are all loosely connected through a theme of purification, of facing inner demons and the pain & joy of life in order to become a better person. It didn’t entirely work for me — some of the symbolism seemed arbitrary or clichéd to my mind — but I think it was a good beginning. I would really like to play a game with this kind of tone which had freed itself from shopworn images and RPG leftovers. Something with imagery like the more arresting parts of Ritual, but which really cohered to make a powerful statement on some aspect of the human condition, could really take advantage of IF’s immersive capability to create a remarkable work of art. Ritual isn’t it, but I hope it becomes the jumping-off point for someone (the author perhaps?) to create something like it but better: no writing errors, no clichés, no anachronisms, no bugs — just the Ditko universes exploding and melting all around us, with meaning.