Rituals creep into our lives in all sorts of different ways. I’ve been thinking about rituals a lot lately and what makes them different from routines or habits that we all have. It’s partly because I’m about to move in with my girlfriend, the first time I’ve lived with a serious partner and partly because for the last twenty-eight days I’ve been playing a game about just that, called Ritual of the Moon.
I’m not even sure you would call it a game, it’s more like a meditation tool, or something akin to the wave of astrological apps taking over our phones. But Ritual of the Moon is different in that it has its own narrative to tell and unique way of experiencing it. It’s an examination of love, forgiveness, loneliness, and revenge. And of course, rituals.
Here’s how it works: the narrative follows a witch who has been exiled to the moon by the Earth and is separated from her lover. You “play” once a day and the game takes 28 days in real-time to complete. You control the witch and each day are given a new snippet of the story, followed by a sort of memory game as you select objects in the order they have appeared (a crystal, a mushroom in a glass, a photograph — small totems of a spell) and then draw a shape in the sky connecting up the dots (these can be as straightforward or complex as you like). Doing so gives you a mantra for the day. After this, a comet appears and heads towards the Earth. As the witch, you have the power to control the comet, choosing to either sending it crashing to Earth (by doing nothing) or by changing its trajectory to fly off into the sky. The game records what you do each day, either saving the Earth of allowing it to be damaged, on an astrological wheel and there are several different endings depending on what outcome you choose. Having to play once a day means that it soon becomes a ritualistic act, imbued with meaning.
A ritual is defined not solely by the action one undertakes but by what meaning it holds and its purpose. Brushing my teeth twice a day is not a ritual, it’s a habit, a chore even, a necessary part of being alive. Checking Twitter the moment I wake up is not a ritual either but a habit, some might say bordering on an addiction. For me, a ritual is something which holds symbolic meaning and for which I have to be fully present to undertake. It is performative, but only for myself. Part of moving in with someone is learning each others rituals. This is my first serious relationship as an adult and as such, I am fascinated by the ways in which my girlfriend and I have merged our lives. Routines and rituals included. How is it that I went from casually messaging someone to texting my girlfriend good morning and goodnight whenever we are not together? When did that change happen? When did it become a seamless part of the rhythm of our shared life together? These rituals seem to have effortlessly emerged, a collage of different parts of our lives, made up of whatever we have around us.
I’ve started keeping bottles of water in the fridge because that what my girlfriend does. My girlfriend makes tea now the way that I make tea: honey in first, the teabag quickly whooshed around and then fished out. I watch my girlfriend get ready for the work in the morning and her skincare routine is a ritual in my eyes: the same order each day, the same gentle patting of cream onto her skin, the spritzing onto a cotton pad and dabbing, describing the same pattern across her face as she moistures and does other things that I don’t understand. (Needless to say, perhaps to my peril, I do not have a skincare routine). Saying “I love you” every day to each other has become another kind of ritual, a symbol of our feelings for one another. Love is strange and changeable and hard to express, saying it in words each day makes it feel more solid. To say what we feel, even if those words we are expressing are inadequate or overly simplistic, is nevertheless important. Despite my girlfriend’s uncanny ability to predict the start of my period down to the almost exact hour, she is not a mindreader. Unless we tell each other what we feel we’re both in the dark. I know it sounds mushy and obvious, but saying “I love you” every day (even on the days we argue; especially on the days we argue) has become an important ritual, a marker in our relationship, a moment to realise the now.
The creator of the game, Kara Stone, describes Ritual of the Moon as, “sparking self-reflection rather than escapism” asking the player to think about their relationship to personal technology and take a more active role in understanding their emotional state. Playing this game on my phone felt significant. Even where to place the app on my screen felt important. Looking at the layout of someone’s phone is a divination tool in itself, a reflection of personality. Mine (Virgo) is mostly on one screen and arranged into folders of specific categories, my girlfriend’s (Pisces) is for some unholy reason arranged by colour, meaning apps are found by memory, a combination of swipes and taps required to arrive at the intended destination.
The app for Ritual of the Moon went on a special spot on the second page of my phone, unfiltered by a folder so I could find it easily. It felt like it deserved its own space. As intended, playing it became a ritual, even having to turn my phone sideways felt like its own tiny spell, signalling a need to slow down and put me in the right frame of mind for playing. I like how analogue the action was and the sense of something otherworldly coming from a device that I usually use for very worldly things (I’m mostly talking about Twitter). The artwork and sound design fit perfectly with this sense of the otherworldly, from the real and drawn objects painstakingly imported into the game, to the dramatic swell of music every time the comet appeared. I started to value using my phone as a tool to think about myself more deeply instead of a gateway to other people’s thoughts and opinions.
I’m not very good at living in the present. I am constantly impatient: on the tube, on Twitter, in conversation, always wanting to know what’s coming next. It’s a trait I dislike in myself. My girlfriend and I planned to move in May, then July, now it’s September. I am so impatient to move it’s consuming the days I have left in my flat. I hate waiting. Ritual to the Moon forces you to live in the present moment, if only for ten minutes, as you can’t skip ahead to the next part of the game. Instead, you have to wait for the clock to reset. Playing it forced me to slow down if only for a little while and concentrate on what was in front of me. For me this is also what writing does. Writing requires me to focus on the words in front of me, myself and my thoughts and what I want to construct with them. You can’t think about the future when you’re writing (or no further than the next sentence at least). Writing is my way of bringing myself back to myself and of processing my emotions. I have kept a journal for the last five years; a collection of sketches, notes to myself and quotes from others (basically an IRL version of the notes app) and it has charted the course of my life in a way that I find invaluable.
While playing this game I kept a diary every day, recording the mantras I received and my responses to them, as well as general thoughts on my mood. Reading over that diary at the end of the 28 days revealed just how blindsided I am by my own emotions. I can see how tired I am one day, how annoyed one day I am at my girlfriend (which is hindsight is no big deal) how one day I feel hopeless reading about forest fires in the Arctic and the next day I’m optimistic about moving and my work and where my life is heading. It’s tiring being alive, but taking the time to put into words how I felt each day was a quiet, privately, powerful act. In that way, the game acted like the perfect prompt, a way to force myself to make a ten-minute space in my schedule. Ritual of the Moon taught me that looking up to the stars for solutions doesn’t work for me (I am a practical, earthy Virgo after all) but that looking to language, and writing in particular is the key to understanding myself, my relationships to others and my place in the world. A ritual of writing daily is one I can get on board with.