Ritual of the Moon: A Last Quarter Check-In

Technically this is another waning crescent check-in, but I finished writing during the last quarter. Close enough.

I’ve noticed that there’s been more talk recently of rituals, and how they transform our internal lives via external symbolic action. Brie Code, known best for her work on the #SelfCare App, linked a New York Times piece on her Twitter timeline recently about how “There Should be More Rituals”. The piece reflected on how in our increasingly secular world we have lost touch with rituals for their intrinsic value. The rituals we do hold on to have become bloated or over-commercialized as a result. I believe that in addition to our world becoming much more secular, we have also become much more cynical: is it practical? Is it profitable? Is it productive? Rituals don’t always pass through all of these gates (sometimes none of them), and I think it’s a big reason why we have been leaving them behind. Yet rituals “concretize spiritual experiences” allowing individuals to tap into a collective experience that has been ongoing in some cases for centuries or even millennia. Kara Stone’s Ritual of the Moon (RotM) is very keyed into this last notion, that of how the repetition of a ritual grounds you. Regarding what the everyday enactment of a ritual means for her, her devlog mentions how her Ashtanga Yoga practice makes her “aware of the differences in my body, mood, and mind each day.” Even on days where there are missteps in a ritual, the act of being present for it makes you more attuned to your personal growth.

All the above is to say, the second half of Ritual of the Moon (RotM) has made me reflect a lot on how rituals tie into (or are excluded from) our current paradigm in Western society, and what that means for video games. The 14 days leading up to the destruction or salvation of the Earth follow more or less the same pattern as the first 14. Near the end of the cycle, however, the Witch realizes that the comets aren’t going to ever stop shooting towards the earth. This caused her and me to contemplate what it means to constantly give of yourself for people or a higher power that is indifferent to you. Despite my resolution made in my first review that I would only use the Witch’s powers to protect the Earth, I began to have second thoughts. Does acting out of empathy matter when that empathy isn’t improving anything? Even if the Witch is protecting the Earth because Malinda’s there, what does her devotion matter when Malinda’s the one who ratted the Witch out to the council in the first place? My perspective of battling the comets started to shift — perhaps my rituals were teaching me less about acceptance and more about subservience. Rituals are often not just about transformations or transitions; they can also be about rooting out toxic mindsets or previous ways of treating your body that weren’t beneficial to you.

Toronto essayist and educator Eric Demore wrote recently about taking a palliative approach towards climate change and how it might be too late to salvage our global ecosystem through sheer willpower. Despite how bleak this premise sounds at the outset Demore’s perspective was not about hopelessness but acknowledgment. We often cover up what we feel is too disturbing to meet head-on, whether this is disease (both mental and physical), death, or the destruction of our planet. When we take a defensive (and dismissive) stance towards dealing with finalities, we often do more harm than good. Demore posits that perhaps we should be more palliative instead, improving the quality of our environment day by day, even knowing it might not be enough. The sentiment of Demore’s piece intersects with how I felt at the end of my playthrough of RotM: the comets are always going to keep coming, so you’d best be definitive about your choices, even if those choices aren’t ideal.

In the end, I still stuck with leaving the Earth be, but I decided to direct the comet at myself for the last several days. I can’t really pinpoint why I did this…as it is suggested by the Witch that the Witch could also become an eternal protector instead. Perhaps that’s part of why I directed the comet at her instead. Spending an eternity protecting those who don’t deserve protection struck me as a special kind of hell to inflict on someone. Although I’ll still be puzzling over why I chose this ending for a while, I think another reason I did so was witnessing the Witch’s resolve to always stay present and deal with her situation head on. Every single day, before completing the ritual, I always clicked on the spaceship’s control centre to see if the Witch would change her mind about taking flight. Every day her response was the same: “Where would I even go?” There was both despondency and obstinance in this statement, and it kept me flip-flopping too much in my decision-making…even when I switched course during the homestretch.

Elegant early concepts for the Witch.

As briefly discussed in the first half of this reflection on the game, Ritual of the Moon can be seen as an anti-game, both in aesthetic and mechanical design. Instead of sleek digital renders, the game feels tactile with its multimedia art featuring fabric swatches. And the mechanics aren’t there to encourage you to “git gud” as it were. Stone mentions in a GDC 2019 talk given before the release of the game that she noticed a pattern of how crunch culture and grinding mechanics in games heavily influence one another, and how many games that seek to engender empathy or self-care in their players are compromised because of this dynamic. I agree and would like to add that this game design flaw is pervasive in many areas of the medium. Achievement trophies and explicitly penalizing players for choosing casual/story difficulty modes (in games and gaming culture) are chief examples of this. In recent years, The Game Bakers’ stylish but ultimately repetitive Furi was criticized for marketing itself exclusively to difficulty fetishists, a senior games journalist was bashed for struggling to play the challenging platformer Cuphead, and (most recently) Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice debate has spawned a wave of ‘you not only cheated the game’ memes. Many games, at least at the AAA level, only seem to care about how many hours they can get frustrated gamers to play in order to feel adequate by achieving meagre rewards in the form of trophies, microtransaction-driven loot boxes, or leaderboard prestige. And unless you’re a professional Twitch streamer or E-Sports player, that prestige doesn’t amount to all that much in terms of value, both intrinsic or monetary.

Achievements in RotM are more like the kind of achievements you get in a game like Broken Age where trophies act as narrative markers of progress. Broken Age’s achievements were even a little mocking of traditional trophies in a meta sort of way, giving you reminders of incidents your character was responsible of perpetrating (even if by accident or incident) such as the “She’s doomed us all” achievement when Vella refuses to follow a ritual of maiden sacrifice and escapes Mog Chothra, a god who might destroy her home village for doing so.

Trophies don’t always have to be about winning.
Vella forced into the humiliating Mog Chothra sacrifice ritual.

Rituals and traditions seem to be an occurring theme lately in the indie games I’ve been playing. Whether it’s the ARInas in A Summer with the Shiba Inu, the family ritual of pizza night that binds the protagonists of Order a Pizza together, or the Witch’s daily altar rituals in RotM. #SelfCare’s core mechanics are also about rituals, particularly small chores or habits that help us stay mindful like tidying up laundry, deep breathing to get in touch with our bodies, and enjoying nature in the form of our apartment plants to name a few. Indie developers seem to be tapping into the undercurrent of how gameplay itself can be a type of ritual we perform. Think about your favourite games, how they put you into a flow, how they can be challenging in a way that forces you to adapt your reflexes or learn something new about yourself through narrative choices. But I find it might be that indie games, more so than AAA games are truly ritualistic, in a meaningful kind of way.

As discussed above, AAA games are more concerned about how much play we get out of them instead of the quality of that play. And repetitive action alone does not constitute a ritualistic experience. Many games I grew up with (as I’m sure many who might stumble upon this blog grew up with) in the 90s were experimental. These games were also way shorter compared to the 100+ hour standard of today and focused on delivering a very specific experience. That’s why you had titles like Metal Gear Solid which carried descriptive subtitles about its system like “Tactical Espionage Action.” While I wouldn’t say Metal Gear Solid is ritualistic in the same sense as the way the indie games I’ve mentioned above are ritualistic, I can say that games used to have an element of ritual to them in the memory card era, since you had to play them in deliberately planned sessions and the present experience and its actions were more important than the end goal or state.

I would like to point out though that this indie title has joined Gris as an accomplished “sad game”, one that I can count on for a mental health check-in as well as practicing mindfulness. Rituals are a powerful theme to explore in games because they are both intimate and shared experiences at once. The comet in RotM as a shared experience is particularly powerful because it speaks to how we cope with negativity and any baggage we may be carrying around that is affecting us and those around us. Rituals can be restorative, but they are also fraught with their own challenges, and Stone’s minimalist yet skillful system design proves they can be compelling in their own mechanical right.

Freelance game critic, writer, and advocate for indie and diverse game development. For more rambling thoughts follow @phoenixsimms on Twitter.