Ritual Theater Backgrounds in the Arcana Ritual Toolset

As I refine the design for the Arcana Ritual Toolset in preparation for its crowdfunding effort, the analogy of theater is increasingly useful to me.  The idea of theater as ritual performance (or ritual as theater) has been common in mythological and magical studies for a long time, going at least as far back as the Greek tragedies, which were performed as rituals to the god Dionysus.  More recently, I’ve been reading early material for a dissertation by Susan Savett entitled “Games as Theater for the Soul,” which in turn takes inspiration from Brenda Laurel’s classic work Computers as Theater.

But, for me, the theatrical metaphor is most useful as a guide for practical design decisions.  In every iteration of the toolset, users have consistently asked whether they would be able to perform rituals in different environments.  The answer was usually that we had deliberately restricted the Toolset (and the Simulator that proceeded it) to a one-room temple in order to limit the 3d assets required.  As it turns out, making that one room appear atmospheric and beautiful involved months of work by lead 3d artist  environmental Landon Anker, who labored to create a neo-Gothic cathedral with normal maps that represented rich wood textures and an inlaid kabbalistic tree of life.

3d Arcana environmental art by Landon Anker

3d Arcana environmental art by Landon Anker

But the user desire to have many different ritual backdrops is a valid and understandable one.  Being stuck in a neo-Gothic cathedral, however beautiful, tends to restrict the imagination toward a single kind of magic (such as the Golden Dawn-style magic of the Arcana Ceremonial Magick Simulator).   Patterns of thought are promoted not just by gene or meme, but by the scene.  We perform druidic magic in an oaken grove, summon Bloody Mary in a bathroom mirror, and call Papa Legba at a crossroads.


But how to allow this switching of environment without dooming oneself to scads of 3d art and associated textures, thereby driving up an already stretched budget to unreasonable levels?

Cue the theater metaphor.  The idea of a theatrical set is to create a sense of place (with associated mood and atmosphere) with the minimum of effort and expense.   Sets are also built to be easily switchable for scene changes.  Set designers have all sorts of tricks for this, but a common one is to use flat, painted backdrops to stand in for three dimensional objects like clouds or trees.  Some clever designers even use a scrim, which refers to a thin curtain that is opaque when lit from one side but translucent when lit from another, so that through a change in lighting new objects will be revealed.  (The background painters of Disney’s original Haunted Mansion used this approach to reveal the silhouette of the Ghost Host hanging from the rafter in the stretching lobby that previously appeared to have a solid ceiling).

Applied to Arcana, the toolset could continue to take place in a one-room temple, but the walls of this temple could be beautifully painted two-dimensional textures representing different ritual environments (graveyards for necromancy, crossroads for voodoo, suburban bathrooms for Bloody Mary).  Realism is not the priority here.  Atmosphere is.

Claude Coats Haunted Mansion background painting

Claude Coats Haunted Mansion background painting

Moreover, switching between these textures/backgrounds/sets could be not just ancillary to the ritual, but a key result of a successful or failed ritual.  If the purpose of ritual is to alter inner and outer reality (which many magicians conceive of as the same thing, or at least two sides of the same coin), then the sign of a successful transformation would be an alteration of one’s environment.  Crowley calls this movement through the inner reaches of outer space “rising on the planes,” and the concept is familiar to shamans the world over.  The shaman, the walker between worlds, moves spiritually and psychologically but stays in the same place physically.

In Arcana, successfully performing a celestial ritual might switch the background scrim to a heavenly landscape, while botching such a ritual would change the set to an inferno.  In film, matte paintings using exploiting perspective are often used to create the illusion of a vast landscape, as in the Labyrinth of Hellraiser II.



The background set is part of a larger theatrical metaphor in the Arcana Ritual Toolset.  To quote the most recent iteration of the crowdfunding page, “The toolset consists of three parts: a selection of three-dimensional temple environments, a library of ritual artifacts, and a card-based visual programming language that allows you to implement ritual logic without ever typing a line of code.  To use a theatrical analogy, the temple environments are the sets (like a crossroads or a graveyard), the artifacts are the props, and the programming language is the script.   All of these parts come together to form the Ritual Toolset, implemented in the Unity game engine.”


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