Ice-Pick Lodge is the maker of Pathologic, a 2005 Russian-born title that received a veritable festival of accolades within its country of origin but went almost unmarked otherwise, partly thanks to its botched babelfishy translation. In 2009, IPL tried again and this time gave us a competent, lyrical English localization of their latest foray into game-as-art, The Void. In a time where games treat us like we’re five and suffering from a cerebral handicap, Ice-Pick Lodge takes the other extreme. The Void believes with all its barren non-heart that you’re capable and intelligent and beautiful. Okay, not beautiful, but if you’ve a thing for Russian bleakness, then in their book you’re pretty gorgeous.
A face, or rather several faces, that only a mother could love. A Lovecraftian mother. He is Tyrant, self-proclaimed strongest of the Brothers: the hunters, law-keepers, and despots of this world. Fear them, hate them, serve them. Or perhaps join them.
It’s hard to pigeonhole The Void largely because genre labels tend to squirm and implode before it. Ice-Pick Lodge firmly believes in proving that videogames can be art, and good art at that, but not the kind that tries to emulate movies and falls on its Hollywood-insipid script, flat virtual acting, and epic-sounding music stacked on “cinematic” cutscenes that are heavy on eye-candy and light on everything else. Nor will it make you think it could have been better as a movie, as a play, as a book. The Void bends and warps its chosen medium–and bends and warps you–but it leaves no doubt that it can never be experienced in any other way. It’s a game. It can’t be anything but a game. And oh my, that’s so rare.
Unlike many story-dependent games, you don’t have an avatar that stands in for you, or a role to play. The protagonist is in every sense empty: a transparent male mannequin filled with organs–he has no voice, no dialogue choices, no name. There’s nothing between you and the game therefore, and the story isn’t about him; it’s about you and the ecosystem you’re pitted against.
Harlan Ellison’s supercomputer from I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream describes its hatred for humanity in these terms:
“Hate. Let me tell you how much I’ve come to hate you since I began to live. There are 387.44 million miles of wafer thin printed circuits that fill my complex. If the word hate was engraved on each nanoangstrom of those hundreds of millions of miles it would not equal one one-billionth of the hate I feel for humans at this micro-instant. For you. Hate. Hate.”
That’s the kind of hate you will be dealing with. The Void, this ambiguous afterlife you find yourself in, is a relentless ecosystem gone terribly wrong. It hates you, it hates itself, it hates every single living entity that inhabits its bleak, endless nightmarescape echoing with twisted architecture. It’s dying, and when it breathes its last, you’ll go down with it.
If the Brothers are the tyrants and hunters, the Sisters are trapped potential. They are enigmatic women, each owning a set of chambers linked to her hearts. When fed color, they allow you further passage to other Sisters’ realms and may give you directions, helpful advice –but then again, they may not: this is a game that gleefully lies to you, the player, and what one Sister holds as objective truth may not agree with another’s, and little of it will fit with the Brothers’ harsh dogma.
Scarcity of color, the one and only commodity in the game, defines the Void. Color is your health, mana, and currency. You need it to keep going; you spend it to initiate dialogue; you spend it to cast spells and engage in combat. In certain areas, you may seed color and come back to harvest it later (though it can be stolen if you don’t invest in some precaution). Each hue bestows different attributes on your character. You “equip” different ones according to your situation, be it combat or speaking to Sisters. But there’s a delicate balance–the more color you use, the more damage you do to the Void; the more color you plant, the more predators appear, some of which will feed on color and become more dangerous over time. Pretty soon you find yourself in a vicious cycle, but there’s no way to stop it. And you’re racing against time, because that is limited, too.
You are not told what this limit is. Oh, the NPCs imply urgency and a clock ticking down and imminent doom, but then don’t NPCs in every game? The world’s fate always hangs by a thread, the possessed little boy has only a few days to live, your kidnapped sister is going insane–but in truth, you could take forever. Do the side quests, rest ten days in an inn, faff about with your romanceable companions. Nobody cares. The horde of demonic orcs has for some reason ceased all motion. Not so in The Void. When that time limit is reached, the game ends with or without you. It doesn’t care whether you are ready.
Difficult, agonizing, nerve-wracking. But it’s such a compelling, compelling experience. I couldn’t look away and stop, and neither could people I recommended the game to. I found myself up at insane-o-clock past midnight hammering away at the game, gathering scraps of color, feeding them to Sisters, trying to knit together a cohesive truth out of their evasions, half-lies, omissions. Colors whisper to you, trying to sway you, telling you that they will “protect you better than anyone” and more disturbingly that “The Sisters will kneel before you.” The more of a particular color you use, the more it accumulates in the Void, affecting your gameplay and amplifying its voice. It talks to you more and more over time, and maybe you will begin to think that ah, yes, this might just be the truth. It sounds so convincing, after all.
Is this fun? Some will insist not. But then, though we play games to have fun, “fun” has become monolithic and a little insulting. Developers like to treat gamers as spoiled, greedy children in constant need of instant gratification. Spoiled children who aren’t very bright, I might add: quest compasses and map markers lead you to glory, enemies are scaled down to your level, plot foreshadowing is about as subtle as a rusty chainsaw, and at every chance your NPC companions will wax rhapsodic over your beauty, leadership, charisma and general prowess. The game spares no expense to tell you that you’re the specialest, most unique, most brilliant snowflake that ever snowflaked while never making you earn the praise or trusting you to overcome a challenge on your own without flashing on-screen instructions telling you to press X to attack and click once to perform a lovingly scripted death-blow animation in slow-mo. You failed to execute your QTE key combination? That’s okay, the game pats you on the back and lets you try again. And again. And again. Dead party members get back on their feet right away as soon as you exit combat. You died? No problem, respawn with no consequences in the nearest regeneration chamber. Crates of health packs and mana pots/EVE syringes are always around the corner.
In the Void, you reload. Missteps that lead to dwindling resources, a failure to balance your give-and-take act, it’s all fatal. The ecosystem accomplishes with well-crafted, cool intelligence what most of the mainstream big brothers can’t: challenge you to your limit and, what’s more, trust that you will be up to it.
Cold-blooded argent, unbendable backbone, treasury of the forsaken kingdom, patron of the takers: strengthen thy servant! The one who listens to thee, searches for thee, and is blindly obedient shall be answered.
Come to my call! Aid in my vengeance battling a hideous, wicked, unfamiliar foe. Help me. By lies and deceit the one who challenges my righteousness shall die; the one who watches me in hope of exposing my weakness-be blind! His color shall fail, his hammer shall fall, his voice shall quiver.
These are the Brothers’ prayers to colors, uttered in battle. The delivery alone is worth the risk of engaging them in combat–no big names here, but the voice-acting is top-notch–but quite aside from the vocal appeal, there’s an echo of Old Testament biblical verses. “Open to the heart of thy lonely servant,” a Brother invoking amber would beg, and after having parsed a few of their prayers you notice a pattern. The Brothers are zealots to a pantheon that has gone silent, leaving them blind, in pain, enraged and confused. You can hear the colors’ voices, the Sisters can hear the colors’ voices, but even though none of them admits it, it’s obvious that the Brothers no longer do–if ever they did. They still gather color, hoarding it (“Giving is an unquestionable evil, therefore consumption is an unquestionable good,”) without any true understanding of why the color is there and why the Sisters need it. Their purpose and proper place as the Sisters’ guardians, not their jailors, has been lost: the Void has been theologically hollowed out. A little light, a shred of that original divinity, can still be achieved, but as Sister Ima points out, only at a price:
The only way to create something new is to sacrifice all your color and die a suffering death.
Will you do it? Do you want to save yourself? Do you want to let it all go and join the Sisters in their ennui, the Brothers in their pain?
There are different interpretations of the game and the possibilities are almost endless–not because it’s badly written, incomplete, or inarticulate, but because it lends itself to thought. You can take it literally; you can see it as one giant metaphor (albeit an unusually pretty one). It won’t suit everyone’s tastes, but if you’re looking for something genuinely different, this is as different as you will get this year. And probably the next, too, plus the next after that. And yes, I found the game perfectly fun.
By the way, if you’re a lit geek, check out the credits. Some of the ending poems will sound familiar. Yep, those are indeed Blake and Chekhov. I also strongly recommend downloading the bonus content, packed full of exquisite concept art and a haunting OST, freely and legitimately available here.