Ceremony of Innocence
The rise of the CD-ROM in the 1990s brought great excitement to artists and storytellers interested in the digital medium. At last they could explore the concept of multimedia -- sound, animation, text, and graphics could be put together in one coherent piece of artistry and shipped out to millions of people.
It worked in theory, but not so much in practice. Most multimedia CD-ROMs released commercially were awkward to use, uneven in their artistry, and downright boring to explore. Many tried to cross the line from “interactive multimedia” to “game” -- to mixed success.
But one in particular was always likely to be an exceptionally successful -- in quality if not sales numbers -- piece of interactive multimedia. It was Ceremony of Innocence, an adaptation of artist and author Nick Bantock's Griffin and Sabine trilogy.
Ceremony of Innocence tells the story of Griffin, a neurotic young English artist, and his mysterious South Sea Island muse Sabine, of whom he becomes aware at the very beginning. This is done through a series of postcards and letters, which are presented through voice-over and a variety of simple-but-effective audio-visual techniques. It is a beautiful game -- if you can call it such -- with incredible animations and short films that bring life to Nick Bantock’s bizarre and detailed illustrations. The sound design adds additional vibrance and detail to the art, with passionate voice acting, haunting music, and well-produced sound effects.
There is a subtlety to this digital version that is missing from the original work, which not only renders it an effective adaptation of a work from another medium, but also puts it on a too-short list of format changes that actually improve upon the original.
Your role in moving the story forward is restricted to solving puzzles, which are found on every postcard and letter. They are not conventional puzzles, however, as each serves as a visual metaphor, relevant in some way to the story, which is surreal both in appearance and solution. In some instances the mouse becomes more than a mere interface between user and puzzle. It is eaten, washed away, or used to break a fish bowl, which leads to a horrifying scream and the shattering of glass -- an event so impressive it leaves you feeling a tinge of guilt. The puzzles are so cleverly designed that you will question all that you take for granted in interface design, meanwhile appreciating the lighter touch on what becomes a dark tale.
The story itself is very much open-ended. You are not given complete backgrounds for the characters; you know only what they tell each other, and are restricted to only the viewpoints of Griffin and Sabine. You see the world through their words and illustrations. Precisely how much of that world can be taken as objective truth is up to you to decide.
You are a spectator in the story -- your agency is limited to solving the puzzles that move the narrative forward. But it is one hell of a spectacle. Sounds mesh with words, which themselves may flash across the screen or blur into the background, creating a haunting, ghostly effect that stays with you long after you stop playing. The visual and the verbal engage in a captivating dance of spoken word, ambient sound, and poetic imagery.
In an early letter Sabine tells of an image of a half-drawn flower that unexpectedly appears in her head. Entranced, she watches it grow and change, lines appearing and disappearing, until a noise from outside breaks her concentration and the image evaporates. But enough of a trace remains to leave her desperate for more. Ceremony of Innocence is much the same. It gives you a window into the deepest, most personal secrets and feelings of these two characters through both their “extraordinary correspondence” and their heartfelt letters and illustrations.
Your lack of agency only serves to make you closer to the characters who themselves are tugged along by some mysterious external force. You can’t change the story, but neither can they.
Ceremony of Innocence was released for Mac and PC back in 1997. The Mac version requires a PowerPC with System 7.1 or greater. It is listed as being available for purchase on Nick Bantock’s website, but that was last updated in 2005, so may not be true anymore. Good luck finding a copy.
Have you read the Griffin and Sabine novels or tried Ceremony of Innocence? What's your take on the rise and fall of CD-ROM-based interactive multimedia? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.
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