RPS Interviews Ice Pick Lodge

By Quintin Smith on February 3rd, 2009 at 7:38 am.


And now, in a feature I like to call Forbidden Discourse: The Oily Fruit of the Broken Heart, we present an interview with Ice-Pick Lodge CEO Nikolay Dybowskiy and all-purpose Ice Pick developer Aleksey “the LxR” Luchin. Ice-Pick are of course the Russian studio responsible for the award-winning Pathologic and The Void, two fascinating PC games.

I could give this chat an introduction about how the attitude that comes across in it gives me hope, but screw it. Instead I’ll just say that this interview proves just how much these guys are Doing It Right.

RPS: Between Pathologic and The Void it’s clear you guys invest almost unheard-of levels of creativity into your games, to the point of making them unlike anything else available today. Where does this drive to be different come from?

Frankly, we never specifically aimed for being not-like-others. What we do began as an attempt at a cultural experiment. Back then, in 2002, we wrote a manifesto, in which we proposed that the computer game is a new, independent form of art with huge and yet unexplored potential.

For us it means primarily that games possesses a unique arsenal of specific “tools” — ones that, unfortunately, we are yet to discover and master — that will allow this artistic form to become the language of the age we live in. We believe that the computer game could become “art of the XXI century” — just like cinema became, to some extent, the primary form of art of the XX century.

And so our studio was born as an artistic laboratory. We decided to set a few experiments — test some ideas, confirm some assumptions and find the artistic tools, unique for the computer game form. Not ones borrowed from the filmmaking industry, painting or literature — but ones based on the uniqueness of playing a game, specific to the form from the very beginning. Ones based on the player’s freedom of choice, irreversibility, non-linearity and pseudo non-linearity of the process in real time… and, of course, many others.

The Russian gaming publications (and some foreign ones) compliment our games for the rare “literature level” of the script, the “artististry” of the visual design and for the ability to use cultural references from movies. But we don’t credit ourselves for any of these. It’s clear that games are a synthetic artform, and therefore attempts to master cultural heritage in order to add “profoundness” to the game might seem like the easiest way. But that’s wrong, proven by the death of post-modernism.

To unlock the true cultural potential of the computer game enormous effort must be put into it, and a huge job done. And here, unfortunately, we didn’t achieve much. But the general feeling of originality (in Pathologic) must have come from the gameplay being oriented towards a catharsis.

RPS: So let’s talk discoveries. If Pathologic is or was a grand exercise in decision making, what were the results? And after seven years spent making games, which tools do you think you’re starting to understand?

We’re not ready to talk about the results just yet. To harvest and process the result of artistic work there needs to be an important twist or change in your outlook, or you must achieve some new level of maturity.

For now I can only say that the material turned out unsuspectedly and is proving exceptionally difficult and refractory. The root of everything is the player’s freedom of choice. The rich variation in the player’s possible behavior rarely allows us to create “predictable environments and situations” (as proposed by Stanislavsky for the theatre). Frankly, a man is usually not ready to entertain himself — he wants to have a shooting range built for him, then be solemnly led into it, given a gun and offered a variety of targets to shoot at.

In order for the player’s decision to mean anything these “predictable environments” must be directed — and that’s where the turf for research is nearly unlimited. The main idea to keep in mind is that the player must not feel that the game is “working” with the simulation of a player that came before him, but with himself directly — the guy who is actually sitting in front of the monitor. The hero’s problems should derive from the player’s problems. There are no recipes or laws to follow here — everything depends on the setting, the game’s world and the key goal.

For example, in our current game — Tension / The Void — the game begins with the death of the main character (who is never shown or referred too), who was lucky enough for his soul to linger in a strange place called the Void. Our main goal as the developers is to make the player believe that he’s playing the game in order to save his own soul from disappearing completely. And who knows, what really can happen to your soul in real life and what not? ;)

Besides solving this damned problem — the freedom of the player in an “ethically pre-set” setting, the most intriguing directions for research are the flow of real time (the problems of irreversibility of actions) and the potential of Chaos (random events and conditions) within the game world, that, nevertheless, must carry an ethical and meaningful sense.

RPS: One element that links Pathologic and The Void is… not so much an unflinching look at death, because the death in both games never seems meant to shock. The death is just there. Would you put that down to your being a Russian studio?

Catharsis always assumes a vivid death experience. Always. And if you remember Aristotle, the meaning of catharsis is in metamorphosis, in this case the metamorphosis of the gamer. The metamorphose is a “ritual” event that assumes a “small death” of the person that went through it. For a new, enlightened man to be born, the old one has to “die”.

Death itself doesn’t interest us. We’re people who quite like life, it’s just that some of us are more drawn to the dark side of Existence. And the experience of death in a game is a clear challenge for the player, one that he must stand up to.

It’s quite flattering that our games are associated with Russian national traditions because one of our aims is to build the foundation of the “Russian school” of game development. Culture does exist in the national form, there’s no running away from that. We can’t run away from our history, our language — and, frankly, we don’t want to. It’s the national tradition that defines the unique style of each art form and its individual contribution into the world common tradition.

What’s peculiar is that you tied this to the image of death. Russia is inclined towards dark, solemn thoughts in the fundamental questions of human existence, but I wouldn’t say that the Russian tradition experiences the phenomenon of death as sharply and substantially as the rest of European culture. For example, we never had anything like the “dances macabres” or the Barocco culture. But that’s a subject for another time.

RPS: Okay, well aside from a tendancy towards the sombre what would you say are some of the hallmarks and beliefs of Russian games development? From what I’ve played I’ve noticed a fair few of the heavy-handed politcal allegories and spoken debates that populate Russian literature and film.

Actually, compared to the exceptionally rich and vivid traditions of Russian literature and cinematography the contemporary game development is dull, grey and secondary. In my opinion at the moment it’s only the Russian studio Phantomery Interactive and the Ukrainian studio Action Forms who dare to experiment with form and content. Andrew Kuzmin, who developed Vangers and Perimiter and promised to become a new significant figure in the Russian game art, unfortunately hasn’t created a vivid and individual school of development.

But we don’t feel we have the right to speak for an entire country. One thing is doubtless, which is that there can be no talk of national individuality in Russian gamedev. Not many are interested in it and the major developers cynically sell out to the crowd, taking pride in successfully copying foreign hits. But we hope this is just a matter of the age we live in.

The most important task is to involve the ‘thinking’ part of the public in gaming and wait for the appearance of intelligent game journalism and criticism. As soon as the average level of intelligence of players and journalists rises, developers will respond immediately.

RPS: More than anything else the design of your games reminds me of the attitude that was so often present in Amiga games – a collection of ideas stitched together, most of them just crazy enough to work. Does your team harbour any disappointment that the rest of the European games industry has grown up to play things so safely?

Of course, one would always want to have a decent artistic competition. I dream of a luxuriant “Renaissance of gaming” when not only the Japanese, but the American, French, English and Russian game industries will create many bright talents, and when players will ask more from the developers — because that’s when our dream comes to life.

Games will find and acquire their own language. And when they do, everyone will have to use it, and thus develop it (neatly paralleling now, when AAA projects feel they have to use stereotypes from other genres). It’ll happen inevitably — it’s just a matter of time. And most likely the decisive factor to this event will be the appearance of a bright personality, a genius of game development, or possibly even more than just that.

But now it looks like the best thing to do is just work and wait for the cultural breakthrough, bringing it closer as best we can, little by little bringing more intelligence to the boundaries of game production. “Dig the soil that the genius will plant seed into”.

RPS: Are there any other large development studios out there that you feel are pushing in the same direction as you? Which is to say, teams focused on learning to use the artistic tools of this new medium instead of leaning on the stereotypes of other genres.

We’ve already mentioned Andrew Kuzmin. Our seven years so far as a studio were spent under a great influence of not only his ideas, but the scale of what he did. It was independent, individualistic, interesting and… triumphant, perhaps. His beginnings were so promising that our studio’s development has taken a lot from development of his own KD-Lab team (though now h’se moved on to another company). He was striving to create a studio with elements of art but a worklike attitude.

Right now we’re waiting for him to wake from his stasis and shock the world with a new revolutionary idea.

RPS: This one’s for both Nikolay and Aleksey- what are you favourite games? Or alternatively, which videogames do you each find most inspiring.

Nikolay: My favourite one is Thief: The Dark Project. Others include American McGee’s Alice, Metal Gear Solid and the Silent Hill series. I’ve got very good impressions from at least half of the Japanese games I’ve yet encountered (which, by the way, a good example of a national gamedev). And, well, I can’t deny it- I love Planescape: Torment and Fallout… But I must note that I only love this games because my life took the path it did, and not because they illustrate our credo.

Aleksey: As for me, I can distinguish the following games: Silent Hill 2 is definitely the best attempt at interactive storytelling, and a very successful one — not many games have managed to repeat its successes. And from what I can say right off my tongue, there’s Call Of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth and that’s about it. I’m also greatly in love with the original Fallouts (1 and 2), Vangers, Perimeter, American McGee’s Alice and… Duke Nukem 3D. You can’t forget the classics that managed to be so revolutionary — I still believe that Duke 3D offers unprecedented levels of interactivity that only some contemporary games manage to achieve. And I’m fascinated by anything Tale of Tales made and will ever make (Hi, Auriea, hi Michael!).

Of course, my favorite games of all are the ones that haven’t been made yet. ;) Many concept ideas are wandering in my head, concepts which will hopefully someday be brought to life — maybe a story of a crashed ship with the people you managed to help escape stranded on an uninhabited island (would really like to have A Silver Mt. Zion’s “Mountains Made Of Steam” as part of the soundtrack for this one); or a game about an expedition into the unknown, where one has to keep in mind that his initial resources are the only ones he’ll ever have; or a lyrical fairy tale about a girl who wakes up in a frozen deserted city and realizes that there’s a strange being somewhere here — this one I’ve thought of with my best friend and the one behind the modeling in Tension / The Void, Alexander Jukov.

RPS: When I reviewed Pathologic for RPS the overwhelming response from the people who then went out and bought it was that they could glimpse what you were trying to do, but couldn’t bring themselves to face the drudgery and confusion of it and stopped playing after an hour or two. Is that something you were expecting when you made the game?

Aleksey: No, of course not. You see, “Pathologic” is just our first attempt, and it didn’t turn out like it was meant to be in many respects. It’s our lack of experience that stood in the way. The fact that Pathologic was developed as a “uncomfortable” game doesn’t forgive our game design mistakes. Or the horrible English translation, which we, unfortunately, didn’t have much influence over. With Tension/Turgor/The Void we decided to do the English translation in-house and pretty much succeeded — the people who played the Russian with English subtitles were positive about the quality (here I would like to thank hydra9 for all the help he offered with proof-reading and stylistic fixes! Without you, the translation wouldn’t be nearly as good! — The LxR).

So, if we were to remake Pathologic (and we’re thinking about it) — we’d do a lot of things differently.

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99 Comments »

  1. Mythrilfan says:

    Our own hydra9? I should have known!

  2. Satsuz says:

    Man oh man, these guys are really growing on me.

    Let’s hope their ambition is infectious enough to catch the whole industry. We’re a little young for a renaissance, but I dig the idea that there’s so much room to grow (you have to peak before you can peak again, is what I guess I’m trying to say). “The sky’s the limit!”, and all that.

  3. Ben Abraham says:

    These guys are treading SUCH a fine line between being Ballsy and being just plain arrogant. The language of these guys is so certain. Everything is “must”, “absolutely”, “definitely”…I hope for their sake The Void is absolutely stunning.

  4. The Poisoned Sponge says:

    Really awesome interview.. these guys seem like they really know what they’re trying to do.

    Also, they like A Silver Mt.Zion, so that’s sold them to me.

  5. ilurker says:

    To be honest, the part that excited me the most was that they’re thinking about remaking Pathologic. If ever there was a game deserving a second go to do itself justice, it’s that.

  6. rob says:

    Fantastic interview from one of the most exciting developers out there. More games inspired by ASMZ please!

  7. Subject 706 says:

    Devs that actually have an artistic vision, and don’t just toss around meaningless buzzwords like ‘next-gen’, are always refreshing. Sort of like an antithesis to that Blezinski idiot.

  8. Throdax says:

    @Ben

    Well Tension/Turgor/The Void is stunning :)

    At least from my point of view.

    Interesting interview all in all. It is always good to know the motivations and methodology that creates the paradigm in which a game developing company works on.

    At the same time I was a bit disappointed as I was expecting more juicy details about the English Tension/Turgor/The Void release, but oh well at least now I know how the game starts (the intro doesn’t have subs).

    I think the art design and art work of Tension would make a fine interview by itself.

  9. Rosti says:

    And miss a wonderful chance to use the Quinns tag again?

    More importantly, ace interview. More Of This Sort Of Thing, obv.

  10. The LxR says:

    Looks like a lot of people TL;DR’ed out of this one :-D

  11. Orange says:

    It’s not too long :)

    Very good interview, didn’t get to try Pathologic but I’ll look out for the Void.

  12. Lord Retro says:

    “I hope for their sake The Void is absolutely stunning”

    Ben, have you seen the trailer? That was stunning enough…and that was before it started showing me naked women.

    http://www.tension-game.com/files_en.php#music

  13. windlab says:

    Fascinating read, many thanks to Nikolay Dybowskiy and Aleksey Luchin for being interviewed by RPS.

    I want to know what goes on in the mind of Russian game dev.s that leads the to create such… bleak games.

  14. ylw says:

    Great interview. Like others have said, they walk a fine line but it’s to be expected. Pathologic was such a unique experience I’ll try anything they have to offer.

  15. Brother None says:

    Ooof.

    They’ve got the kind of interesting ideas you would expect to result in such an interesting game as Pathologic. Whether or not it’s “right” might remain to be seen; it is easy to create a kind of digital view of art vs commercialism that is not really representative of reality. A lot of what we call art now was developed from commercial viewpoints, and a lot of art never reaches the level where it is distinguished as such no matter what the intentions.

    And did they really have to pad their fluff with that much needless intellectualisms? The best way to state truly intelligent ideas is in simple language, you’re only selling yourself short by trying to sound smart. Frith in the sky, I wish more people realised that by now.

  16. Premium User Badge

    yhancik says:

    That was a good read !

    I’m not only looking forward Tension, but also their 10 next games :p

  17. Dozer says:

    To be honest I only understood about one paragraph in five because they’re using terms I don’t understand. But it seems like they’ve got a clear idea of what they’re doing, and that’s very good from my point-of-view!

  18. Rook says:

    To be honest I only understood about one paragraph in five because they’re using terms I don’t understand.

    A bit like playing pathologic then.

  19. Premium User Badge

    Vandelay says:

    Pathologic is a game that I do mean to try out and some point when there is a drought in games and I have some cash to spend. This interview has made me more interested in finding out about the direction they want to take.

    I share their view that gaming can become an important art in the 21st century and we are already seeing this from the commercial side of the industry. Hopefully the growing wealth of the games industry will allow for more experimental developers to emerge.

    And a shout out for Call of Cthulhu is always good to see.

  20. Dan Harris says:

    Fabulous. Love the attitude. Good luck to them.

    Also, as an aside, there are so many phrases in here that you just aren’t going to read in interviews with 95% of other games devs. My personal favourite is:

    ‘But that’s wrong, proven by the death of post-modernism.’

    Of course. Everyone knows that :p

  21. Xagarath says:

    Been sold on these people since I first tried Pathologic after that Eurogamer review.
    Here’s hoping The Void gets the kind of attention they deserve.

  22. Jonas says:

    They seem to really like Aristotle, huh?

  23. Heliocentric says:

    The naked women in the void actually puts me off.

    I’d like it if they can offer a suitable censorship without simply sticking the nudes in bikinis. But here i am the oppressed english family man. Sexuality is a private matter.

  24. mrrobsa says:

    Wonderful stuff. I wish this creative and thoughtful team every success. I also look forward to other dev teams across the world springing up with the same level of thematic creativity going into their games. Definitely have to track down and play Pathologic now.

    @ Brother None: ‘….needless intellectualisms’
    Not sure which parts you’re referring to but everything I read seemed relevant to this team’s design and development process. And sometimes simple words won’t do, some ideas are best expressed through ‘complicated’ words with their associated connotations, which the simpler words would fail to do justice.

  25. jay says:

    Entertaining and interesting interview (and I actually read it LxR!).

  26. ET says:

    Funnily enough, I didn’t notice any ‘intellectualisms’, at least not in the level that I’d call it such. There IS some uncanny valley-styled English going on, which may be why it could some a bit odd, but nothing too complicated.

    But I do agree on the ballsy thing. Hopefully the game is stunning. And hopefully Pathologic would get a remake. I’d love to try that game when it’s not broken!

  27. Feet says:

    @ LxR: I think it’s less TL:DR and more a case of people not being used to the mindset and attitude you have regarding game development. I really don’t know how to respond to what you say in the interview myself, it’s kinda blown my mind abit. The whole “are games art or just entertainment\escapism” subject has been done alot in the past but only by poncy games journos and never in such “heavy” terms as you guys or really by any games devs as far as I’m aware.

    The proof of the pudding, as they say, is in the eating. Suffice to say I’ll be checking out Tension\The Void once the English version is available to see how close you come to your philosophy. :)

  28. tWB says:

    These guys are treading SUCH a fine line between being Ballsy and being just plain arrogant.

    I’ll take arrogance in my artists, though. The Nation recently ran two articles by Ted Solotaroff about his time as a literary critic for Commentary during its heyday (before Podhoretz took the sharp right ideological turn that poisoned his journal), and it sparked a nostalgia in me for the days when artists were, unapologetically, artists — in failure perhaps more than success.

  29. dhex says:

    that was crazy delicious.

    though trying to imagine a game that uses mountains made of steam is a bit hard – though i think a case could be made for 1,000,000 died…

  30. Heliocentric says:

    I need to play pathologic, saw it on gamers gate for $15 anyone seen a better price? Gamers gate don’t tend to be dicks(charges/activation limits) when you redownload do they?

  31. rob says:

    Every time I hear Dead Flag Blues I think of some sort of post-apocalyptic Max Payne.

  32. Cooper42 says:

    That was wonderful, thankyou.

    I’ve recently gone back to Pathologic, after only having got through 4 days before. I’m finding it much better now I’ve picked it up again; like Planescape Torment (another game I put down and will probably go back to) you have to be in a very different frame of mind to play it. It is a disconcerting, awkward and uncomfortable game, and, like literary works which do the same, this is not something you can pick up any old time. But I’ve been really getting back into it recently.

    I’m loving the style of English in this interview. Wonderfully florid. Also, I can’t think of any interview I’ve read with game developers that discusses the cultural relevance of their work with such insight, and can so easily bring Aristotle’s notions of metamorphosis into the interview…

    I agree with before, even if this does sound arrogant – with the ‘musts’ and ‘wills’, that’s fine. I like my artists to be strong in their beliefs.

  33. Al King says:

    Yeah, the interview is pretty frank and down to earth. I mean, they’re talking about the way they think about games and Russian cultural heritage, so it’s heady stuff, but I don’t see unwarranted “intellectualisms”.
    The only thing that might seem out of left field is discussion of ‘catharsis’, but it’s a cultural formula that comes up often – just as ‘anagnorisis’ is embodied in ‘the big reveal’, ‘ecstasis’ in being ‘out of oneself’, and as the hero’s journey archetype crops up everywhere from Star Wars to the Odyssey. You can’t scorn preciseness. Also, IcePick have a history of making use of Greek tragic ideas, like in Pathologic where masked players address the players themselves conjuring the whole ‘other reality’ idea of Greek drama.
    Man, this comment is already sounding more pretentious than the fleeting mention it’s defending.

    Ben, I don’t see anything really arrogant here, most of the imperatives are either personal or obvious. I’ll hope that The Void is stunning either way ;)

    But anyway: loved the interview, and loved the spirit of Pathologic in spite of the crappy translation; I’m sure we’ll see great, or at least though-provoking, things to come.

  34. Grandstone says:

    What’s this Barocco culture they’re talking about? The mixture of Baroque art and a French furniture style? What does that have to do with experiencing death any more sharply than Russia?

  35. Kieron Gillen says:

    In passing, I tend to think the Creative act is intrinsicaly an arrogant act. Getting on the stage in the first place requires a certain amount of ego: “I am worth listening to”.

    KG

  36. Ian Dorsch says:

    Great interview, thanks! I definitely agree on the Doing It Right assessment. Ice Pick Lodge’s goals as game developers–and the uncompromising approach that they are taking to those goals–are inspiring to see. I look forward to experiencing the fruits of their labors.

  37. Dan Harris says:

    I think it’s just the Latin which English translates into ‘Baroque’. Not sure what he means by Baroque culture though, if that is the case – Wikipedia thinks Baroque was “exemplified by drama and grandeur in sculpture, painting, literature, dance, and music”.

    So maybe that.

  38. Grandstone says:

    A big criticism was that Baroque didn’t have much substance, even if it was technically brilliant, so the passing reference might have been Ice Pick’s way of saying Fuck You to Western developers.

    As far as the Danse Macabre comment: I think Russian writers’ investigations of guilt and death are sharper and more substantial than a medieval folk art tradition. But I guess we’re talking more about cultures and less about individuals in those cultures. Oh well.

  39. Pavel says:

    REMAKE PATHOLOGIC with perfect english translation and release it everywhere.

    Thank you.

  40. Al King says:

    Grandstone, you’re thinking Rococo :P But you know, Medieval culture is full of morbid recognition of death, memento moris and all that.

  41. grmnf says:

    Hello,
    to just slightly abuse this comment area:
    I’ve read that there’s a patch for Turgor to get English subtitles. Is that true, and if so, does anyone know about that? Because that would be the perfect reason to buy the Russian version. I don’t want a – speculatively – toned down version if I can have the “real deal” with subs.

    And just to throw in some random opinion. I think Pathologic was awesome – but I can’t be sure, because after several hours my frustration-tolerance just ceased to exist ;)

  42. McCool says:

    I couldn’t be much happier after reading this article. Games developers aren’t meant to say these things, these are the laments passed between disgrunted gaming pseudo intellectuals on the way out of philosophy class.
    Jesus, if this stuff doesn’t make you want to make a game I dont know what will.

  43. The LxR says:

    @ Grandstone: Sorry, this was a mistranslation of mine – I did it in a hurry. I meant, Baroque: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baroque

    @ grmnf: There is one, the only way to get it is ask me, BUT you’re wanting it for all the wrong reasons – we’re making the English version better, than the Russian one. That’s why we bothered to enchance it anyway

    @ all: Thank you for the positive feedback. :) Now we feel even more motivated to make the game better, as we can see that many people actually need our work!

  44. The LxR says:

    @ kobzon: What the hell are you talking about? :) Everyone’s cool, no stereotyping there.

  45. Jake R. says:

    @ Kieron: I think this probably applies to game design more than other types of art due to the necessity of intention. You can claim arrogance or pretension on the part of an artist who feels driven or compelled to paint/compose and probably be right, but there’s the outside chance that it really is just some deeply personal and largely uncontrolled convulsion of content generation on their part. An egoless experience in gaming, on the other hand, is only really possible for the end-user. The complexity of game design and programming practically demands that arrogance and conscious intent.

  46. Jim Rossignol says:

    “your games are bleak cuz your russian y/n (pls say y)”

    ARGH!

    Enough of the amateur culturology!

    Funnily the head of 1c games division says the same thing, that Russian developers want to create bleak games, or “the next Fallout”. Is he guilty of amateur culturology too?

  47. The LxR says:

    @ Jim Rossignol: It’s an internal joke with a rich background. :) It’s based on the fact that every college student team out there wants to do the game of their dreams as their first game. Usually, it’s Fallout MMORPG or the like. :)

  48. kobzon says:

    They wanna make dark games ’cause they’re underrepresented, but yeah, it was a humorous comment. I’m all for curling up into a little ball and crying. In games.

  49. Noc says:

    Grandstone: Three seconds of Wikipedia searching produces this. Which is quite relevant.

    And, personally? I was very pleasantly surprised by this interview. Not because it wasn’t the sort of thing I’d expect from Icepick, but because it’s so atypical of what we tend to hear from game developers. This struck me particularly clearly as I was looking up Borocco, and recalled this article from a few days ago.

  50. Noc says:

    Re: Borocco: Or, not. Hooray coincidences!