If you scroll through my post history here on N8R8, it ought to be pretty obvious why Rituals first caught my eye. Low-poly, exploration-based, minimalist, slightly abstract, 3D first-person adventure/puzzler. Not to mention its dreary themes relating to nature and humanity. I mean, it literally feels like Tymon Zgainski knew exactly what to include in a trailer to get someone like me to buy his game. So I did, of course, and after a brief stint in this lovely, snow-globe-like world, I can’t help but feel a tinge of disappointment… But perhaps that’s too pessimistic a sentiment to begin this review, so instead of whining straight from the get-go, perhaps I should just begin with what Rituals is.
Rituals is a point-and-click. It’s a short, thoughtful(ish), well-directed adventure into an immersive bridge-world between natural environments and industrial/corporate spaces. The player takes the classic role of the highly-relateable desk jockey with a penchant for poking around places lower-level employees don’t belong. The controls are simple and self-explanatory, with on-screen directional arrows and a click-and-drag style of looking around. Using these simple tools to peruse my place of work, I was clued into the statutory mystery of the game. Security cameras, that ever-present feeling of abandonment, and an eerie audio track which could easily have been titled “Something Amiss” all suggest that something is, indeed, amiss. Is this a dream? Am I dead? In a coma? In purgatory? I fear this game will be boring enough to answer “yes” to any one of these questions.
And quickly, at the end of a disastrous elevator ride, my fear that Rituals will be riding the same tedious rails as a hundred point-and-click adventures before is alleviated. I enter a new place – a forest temple – decorated with light and greenery and sacred symbols. A note on the pedestal at the end of the enclosure asks us specific questions, but their gist is the same. They are the formal questions of the adventure game genre. What is the meaning of this place? Who are its creators? Who am I, and how am I related to it all? I could call these questions tropes, and indeed they are. But these archetypal riddles give the first-person adventure game its glow. Without these recycled fundamentals, adventure games would not do what they do so well – and that is ask us meaningful questions.
Other adventure game conventions are maintained. Instinctually, I collect a lantern, a bucket, and a shovel. I know they’ll be useful at some point. Reflexively, I explore all directions and click on all things clickable. Several paths lead to dead-ends. These dead-ends are off-putting in a modern adventure game like Rituals, where the protocol is that all impasses offer some sort of eventual purpose. It took me a while to trust them as true dead-ends and to understand that Rituals is not a complicated game. The lantern is used for light. The bucket is used for water. The shovel is used to dig. The initial excitement of this place wears off and I go about using these items in a chore-like manner. Many games offer something pretty to look at during these moments of tedium. Rituals gives you the same forest-y labyrinth, with its actual dead-ends and its low-poly dirt. Fairly humdrum.
These moments are abound in the exploration process. In each new area, I am required to engage in mechanical, unchallenging, and relatively uninteresting stints of investigation. Having been so enthusiastic to play the game, I wanted to get something good out of my experience. So I tried to stop thinking of Rituals as a game. I quit focusing on the simplicity of the puzzles and focused more on the exploratory process. But there was nothing supplementary to the primary goal of moving forward. Excluding the occasional magazine or note with some detail into the ‘story’ behind the game, there is nothing to gain from deeper inspection.
And this ‘hidden’ story, which the player is almost guaranteed to discover, revolves around some unfortunately well-worn practices of science fiction. Humans have pissed off Mother Nature. The player is the agent that will balance the scales. But since this is a video game, the almighty art form of the modern generation – destined to overturn the staleness of linear narrative, the player has Choice(tm). So instead of saving the world, the player – groundbreakingly – may choose to end it! Heavy stuff, I know… There’s no nuance to any of it. Each little piece of the story is, without any convincing veil, placed directly on the player’s path. This, to me, is analogous to disobeying the old English teacher adage of “Show, Don’t Tell.” Rituals got right in my face and told me the answers to those questions it had me asking early in the game. Answers I didn’t want, answers I honestly didn’t need. This problem carries over into the actual gameplay. A linear trail of crumbs leads the player to the only possible conclusion there is to each and every ‘puzzle.’
All of this is not to say that the game does not have its merits. The game is at peak shininess during those in-between scenes where the player has just completed the tasks required to move on. The wonderful direction of Rituals peaks out from the shroud of monotony to give us a glimpse of what magic may have been. There is a legitimate sense of urgency and seriousness when you’re being brought to and from different places. Volcanos explode, elevators crash, and lights dim, giving off the real impression that something meaningful and exciting is happening. The conclusion of the game is one of the best parts. Suddenly, all of the little boring bits come together with a bang, and it’s almost hard to remember why they were so lame in the first place.
Rituals does a good job of scaling up the story to fit my understanding of the world as I explored further. I never felt overwhelmed or confused, which is a typical problem I have with first person adventure games. The story was dull, though not vapid, and the gameplay was slow-paced and obvious, though not entirely pointless. I feel like there’s a spectrum that exists with games like Rituals. At one end is total convolution and at the other is flaccidity. And while Rituals is pretty far to the flaccid side of that spectrum, it isn’t a total bust. It is thoughtful and has a lot of heart. It’s a well-polished, solid, short-form interactive experience with some real problems with its essential game-ness and narrative direction. Undoubtedly, though, I am glad I took the time to play.