Quick thought experiment; close your eyes and conjure up an image in your head based on the following phrase – “pretentious indie game”.
I’m not a betting man, but chances are you imagined something very similar to Rituals.
Now, it’s important to clarify that I don’t actually find fault in what many would define as pretentious, having a fairly high tolerance for that sort of thing as long as it doesn’t get overbearing or preachy. There are points where Rituals feels like it’s standing on the edge, ready to cross that line, and maybe it’s my bias for the genre talking here, but the game does feel like it has something to say. There’s an obvious contrast that results from the walks through untouched natural wonders, often broken up by glimpes of oppressive man-made structures. It does feel a bit ironic to see such a negative portrayal of modern life given that Rituals wouldn’t exist without some decidedly non-organic game development tools, but never does it reach Fern Gully levels of misguided tree-hugging, the loose narrative thread centered around Mother Earth often deviating into a tangents about death. I’d be lying if I said I knew what it all meant, or should I say, intends to mean.
Playing Rituals is a lot like deciding to listen to a prog album front to back. A lot of it is going to feel vague and textureless (quite literally in this case), but dammit, that bass player really feels like he’s on to something. That’s the general takeaway I have; there’s obvious talent there, even if it’s muddled in a mess of other ideas and influences. Actually, to say that Myst is an influence on Rituals is a disservice to the implied subtlety of that term, since it’s pretty blatant, offering the same mouse-only interface and general puzzle structure, albeit in simplified form. But you know what? I like Myst. A lot. I don’t mind more of it, especially in a different context. It feels like something I’d be capable of making with my limited development know-how, and it can be cool to see rudimentary pieces put together to create a world like this.
What you do in that world and that world’s reason for being, however, are still up in the air. Personally, I choose to look outside of authorial intent on this one and see the game as less of a statement from the creator than an exhibition of said creator’s talent and potential for the future. I think it’s easy for us to lose perspective on these things, constantly going with the expectation that everything needs to fit into our predefined ideas of “good”, even if the thing we’re judging is likely someone’s first crack at this.
In that context, maybe Rituals is exactly what it needed to be.