In a place of your creation.
History defines causation.

You are alone.

The first thing you notice is the thicket. Cross-hatched branches seal off every exit; the dim light doesn’t reach further than ten feet in any direction. Is this meant to be the ring of pain? Your vision blurs as you try to steal a glance at the sky, but there’s nothing in the distance but ominous shadows and the distinct sense of being watched. Your perspective is low to the ground, too low. It’s as if you’re crawling. There is no sun or moon, only a faint glow from the center of the clearing where a circle of cards demands a choice: left or right? Something rustles in the branches, closer now. Your vision sharpens as you focus on the card faces: some are creatures, others potions. Three are passageways marked with icons. None of them are familiar to you, but one bears a birdlike face.

Three black portals await, leading further into the dream (nightmare, hallucination). The soundtrack, when you can hear it, is a morose synthetic wail. The forest (swamp, prison) is waiting. The bird-face promises company and answers, maybe. There’s that rustling again.

There’s no sense waiting here.

You make your choice and warp forward to another clearing. It’s identical to the last, but this time someone is waiting.

He tells you to call him Owl, but he can’t be. His wingless limbs are too long and crooked, his wrists end in bony, sharp protrusions. Would hands have been better somehow? You aren’t sure. Worst of all are his eyes: two enormous black pools, ringed in blue, staring back from a diamond face. If he can blink, he never does: he never breaks eye-contact. His mouth hangs open and his broken posture tells you he should be in agony; you can’t tell if he’s smiling or panting.

Owl crawls forward on the wrists and knees he shouldn’t have. He’s brought you a candle as well as a request: he asks for your help in cryptic, rhyming couplets. You’re unsure what he wants, but he’s your only friend. He says he’s here to help.

Looking at the thorn wall again – blurry, sharp and flecked with neon – doesn’t it look a bit like a nest?

Welcome to Ring of Pain.

Ring of Pain has been a fascination of mine ever since I first discovered its demo during the inaugural PAX Online in 2020. Something about its alienating, surreal visuals and relentlessly menacing tone spoke to the heightened anxiety of that period. Ring of Pain called to me in the same fashion as other blisteringly-difficult, run-based games that promised outrageous challenges: Invisible Inc., Heat Signature, and Into the Breach all found themselves in good company. Unsurprisingly, I also obsessed over the similarly unpleasant (and brilliant!) The Binding of Isaac in deep quarantine, and for many of the same reasons: just as imaginary Horror can make the very-real horrors of the outside world a touch easier to navigate, the insurmountable challenges of the run-based, reset-on-death ‘Roguelike’* subgenre gave my brain a much needed pressure release. It was a place I could try, fail, and try again forever and ever – while making incremental progress that I could measure, and therefore feel proud of. Even if it made me feel a bit like Sisyphus, that slow, eternal struggle towards victory was a valuable sensation at a time when The World was not offering that kind of validation!

Escapism rules; even frustrating, challenging Escapism. Even, weirdly, Escapism designed to simulate misery! (This will not seem weird to anyone that watched a decade of Game of Thrones)

The media we enjoy need not, necessarily, seem enjoyable by conventional standards! Scrambling up a sheer rock-face forever, on the edge of sliding back down over and over, is a sensation that speaks to anyone that’s ever enjoyed other brutally-difficult-but-rewarding activities like marathon running, endurance training or the original infuriating game, Golf. It isn’t fun, per se, but that doesn’t keep it from being enjoyable or valuable afterwards. The pain is, in some strange way, the point: it’s the toll, the threshold past which our rewards can be claimed. The reward in Ring of Pain‘s case, as it is with so many Roguelike games, is the thrill of possible victory. Or maybe it’s just the thrill of cheating death, forestalled inch by inch into the future forever. That should sound familiar to our world, in which everything seems to be trying to kill us 100% of the time: the imaginary Ring of Pain – spinning and suffering forever – can help make the very real pain of everyday living under Covid, Climate and Political Crisis a touch easier to manage. At least that’s the idea.

We reach for fictional media to give us a language to process our real-world experiences. Failure in a game can be its own reward, which I think is a big part of the reason people play Roguelikes to begin with: when we lose, we win. At least, it’s probably best to approach Ring of Pain (and life?) that way – because we’re going to lose basically every single time. And we’re going to try to enjoy it.

But I’m belaboring my point – back to Owl and his nest.

Each run of Ring of Pain begins in the dark at the edge of a ring of cards. The first ring is always the same: there are several rats, potions, two chests, a stat boost, a blob that explodes, and a way out. You stand between any two of these cards, with their faces revealed to you. The rest face away, though you can get some sense of what they might hide by their shape and card-backing. If you spend any amount of time looking around, you’ll notice this place is super unpleasant, so your immediate inclination should be to find the doorway card and leave. Good impulse!

To get out, you’ll have to navigate the Ring of Pain itself, which is where things get interesting. You can’t actually move in Ring of Pain: you’ll have to navigate by choosing left or right and working your way around the loop. If the card you’re approaching is a treasure chest, stat boost or potion – great! You’ll be able to interact with it and see what it does, and potentially score a useful piece of equipment for your inventory at the bottom of the screen. This also removes the card from play and shrinks the ring, bringing you closer to the exit. Hopefully your new item augments your stats in a useful way, because equipment is permanent until it’s either replaced or the wearer dies. It is absolutely possible to mess up and blow a run by putting on the wrong shoes. You’ll be making these choices every ten seconds or so, so choose carefully!

If you encounter an enemy card, you’re in for a fight.

When it comes to combat, Ring of Pain is more puzzle/deckbuilding game than standard Roguelike – which is maybe why I enjoy it so much. I’m just wild for card games, especially ones that force you to play with the cards you’re dealt, and not the deck you build beforehand. This is where Ring of Pain shines!

Scenario time: let’s say we’re approaching a standard rat, which is just about the only enemy that doesn’t stand a serious chance of ending the game early. Given we can only navigate the ring (and it is always a ring) by moving left or right, we can choose whether to engage our rat or not. Choose not to, and we’ll have to either move away – chancing whatever cards lie in the opposite direction – or try and pass by him. The issue with moving backwards around the circle is that threats have a habit of approaching from both directions; before we know it, we could be facing another, bigger rat. Or something much worse and game-ending. Or Owl. So let’s move forward: if we want to pass the rat, we’ll have to roll the dice on a stealth check, the success of which is determined by our Speed and Stealth stats. If we win, hooray! We pass the rat without incident, and the circle spins on with him safely behind us. If we fail, that rat is going to bite us directly on the neck and take out a few of our precious, limited health points. Also, we’ll have wasted a turn. That’s bad!

We could have avoided this scenario by choosing to click and fight the rat instead. That turn-based, shot-for-shot showdown is also – you guessed it – decided by the stats points we accrued by picking up equipment, boosts and items along the way. Win, and we eliminate the rat from the field: this circle grows one card smaller, and we gain a few expendable ‘Soul’ bucks for the next time we find a locked chest or dead, chatty shopkeep with items for sale. Lose, and it’s quick trip back to the title screen with nothing but screenshots to show for our effort. And possibly a couple new unlocked cards for the next time around.

If you do make it to the exit card, there’s really no telling what might be waiting behind it (especially before some hours have been put into the game). It will be a ring of cards, yes, in a sequence of north of twenty rings of cards, but it might also be:

  • Owl, with a present (why does he have a health bar?)
  • Like a dozen frogs (figure out how to interact with them!)
  • A dog (did you bring the dog-petting glove?)
  • An unkillable monster with a strange request (think carefully!)
  • Two friend-cards with an ocean of monsters between them (will you help them reunite?)
  • The psychedelic, speaking void (gaze in, say hi!)
  • A poisonous graveyard (dig!)
  • A way out?

There’s no actual ‘hand’ in Ring of Pain, though there rare many, many cards to collect and uncover. The ‘deck’ you build as you progress through this bizarre and psychedelic world is, in effect, yourself, boosted, augmented and damaged by the experiences and items you pick up along the way. Although every game starts the same (the rats, the potions), it never takes long for the Ring of Pain to warp you into a new, strange shape.

Which takes us back to Owl again. For real this time.

There’s a symbiotic antagonism at the heart of Ring of Pain, between the player, their bizarre prison-world, and Owl, its seeming warden. That relationship takes many forms – from the game’s difficulty itself, to the cryptic, clue-riddled rhymespeak of the game’s few NPC characters. “This is a space you are not meant to inhabit,” it seems to say. “Though it springs forth from you, you are a stranger here.” Without getting into spoiler territory, the world of Ring of Pain is uniquely your own, a personal prison built by and for trauma. Whoever ‘you’ happens to be in this case is debatable, though there’s a solid case it’s Simon Boxer, the game’s creator, lead developer and artistic head, whose journey through the Australian gaming industry has been difficult and fascinating. Whatever Owl actually is, he is bound to you: friend, foe and guide all at once. All three are spun together in the ring of pain, a crucible out of which the player emerges a fundamentally different creature, divorced from both the real world and the world of Ring of Pain at once. It feels personal, but in a way that feels designed to get under the player’s skin – whoever they happen to be.

If it seems disorienting, intense and confusing, it is!

This theme also reveals itself through Ring of Pain‘s most striking signature feature: the art style. Boxer himself lives with a psychological phenomenon known as ‘Aphantasia‘, which results in an inability to hold images in one’s mind. Functionally speaking, people with Aphantasia visualize images and memories in a fundamentally different way than those without it: Boxer identifies himself at a 2.5 on the Aphantasia scale, but at its most severe it can result in the inability to mentally visualize at all. This fractured relationship to visual memory is the guiding influence on Ring of Pain‘s art style, and the reason for the seemingly-random flashes of colour and strange, cross-hatch bodies of every creature. It lends the game an undeniable visual appeal, but there’s a deeper de-realization lurking just under the surface. It divorces the player from reality just far enough to be uncanny and disturbing, and allows Ring of Pain to function as a Horror experience.

While it might not have any(?) jump scares, there’s no doubt that something is deeply wrong in the dream-world of Ring of Pain. What exactly that is is something you’ll have to figure out for yourself, though the game resist easy answers.

After all, if the creatures of the ring are meant to represent actual concepts in the real world, who on earth are these twisted forms meant to be? What is Owl, with his raw, grisly bones and crooked limbs? What’s the void, and why does it speak in rhyme? Who are you? If you were to look into a mirror, what might you see?

Would you be a neon monster too?

I beat Ring of Pain for the first time a few days ago, completing each of its two major paths over 15 hours and dozens of failed attempts. I made it out, and I’ve seen what lies beyond the looking glass. I found it disquieting, disturbing, and completely fascinating.

I can’t wait to head back in and fail all over again.

You can pick up Ring of Pain right now on Steam as well as every other major platform. It goes on sale a lot – and be sure to check your Epic and Humble libraries, too. There’s a half decent chance it’s been in your library waiting for you for a while now.

*Pedantry disclaimer: I know Ring of Pain isn’t technically a Roguelike because it doesn’t come from the Roguelike region of France, but for my (and, like, everyone’s) purposes we’re going to use “Roguelike” to refer to any run-based, permadeath game in which incremental progress occurs between sessions. It’s a handy catch-all that lets us refer to a subgenre without having to split hairs every time. Which is what subgenre labels are for! No one is ever referring to true, Classic Roguelikes like Shiren the Wanderer, and when they do, they will make that very clear. My favourite is, insanely, Chocobo’s Dungeon 2. Pokemon Mystery Dungeon was just ok. Thanks!

This article is an entry into The Long Hallowe’en X! Loads more to come when yours-truly finds more time off from their dozen jobs – but until that day comes, why not dig into the backlog with a trip into corporate hell?

Thanks for reading, and see you next time, creeps!