By Quintin Smith on September 29th, 2009 at 12:01 pm.
[It seems to have gone through nearly as many name alterations as the Sugababes have line-up changes. It's the sequel to RPS-championed Russian existentialist minor classic Pathologic, the game Walker described as Oblivion with cancer. It's finally translated to English. It's time to send the man who Butchered Pathologic to see Wot He Thinks of The Void...]
A year and a half ago I wrote an article on RPS talking about how Pathologic was the most important game you never played. Lots of you went out and bought it, and I appreciate that, but most of you reported back that you couldn’t stomach it and dropped out after an hour or three of play.
Next month developers Ice-Pick Lodge release their next game, The Void, in English. This time, the translation is a fine piece of work. This time the game is much smoother, easier ride.
This is an article devoted to why The Void is the most important game you are GOING TO FUCKING PLAY. You hear me? Let’s GO.
A game where you play a soul who finds themselves in an afterlife with no memory of the person they once were. We all have our hopes, fears and preconceptions of what the afterlife is meant to be like. The Void takes all of these in both arms and fumbles them into a bin, preferring instead to deploy all of Ice-Pick Lodge’s imagination and creativity in creating something fantastical, the likes of which we’ve never seen before. In other words, a place that’s actually worth exploring.
Desolation is the word, and the word is whispered. If an area isn’t blasted and blackened then it’s been twisted into a useless shape, and everywhere is still and sterile as a full moon. To call a game eerily beautiful is fast becoming a cliché so I’m going to sidestep that, but I will say that the Void musters up both the ugliest and most beautiful imagery I’ve seen all year.
The sound design lurking behind these barren vistas is similarly haunting. Percussion is slow and aimless, voices are never raised, but sometimes seem too loud. There is dripping, clunking, grinding. And in those few areas where the soundtrack does become excitable it seems to have no idea what to do with itself, always repeating or giving birth to confused-sounding solos.
A recurring theme in the Void is hunger, and that has a hand in the way areas are designed. At the very least an area will hint at bare cupboards, while most regions appear either farmed into oblivion or torn apart by some omnipotent brutalist in search of sustenance. Your own character, your soul, must constantly be fed if you want to survive. Likewise, passive NPCs must be fed if you want to progress, hostile NPCs roam the Void consuming what they find, and even the mindless Predators that sit in an area will pluck away at what’s available there.
To take some words from the mouth of one of the The Void’s characters- “There’s only hunger, slumber, and waiting for the end to come.”
So what is it, this substance everybody needs? What is it that’s lacking in such great quantities to have rendered the world exhausted?
Food? No. Water, perhaps? No.
Colour is all in the Void. Colour is what stops everyone from slipping away into nothingness, and in the case of your mute character the removal and application of colour is your only means of interacting with the world. To break it down into terms we’re all used to, your amassed colour is simultaneously your health, currency, inventory, mana, conversation options and weaponry. Just as the real challenge in Pathologic was completing your objectives while manipulating a plague-ridden town’s economy, the real challenge in The Void is completing tasks while constantly having to harvest and tend to the world’s colour.
Broadly, you have to sow colour to reap it back. Take the fireflies you’ll encounter from time to time. They’re flighty, egg-like things, easily spooked. Sacrifice some colour by depositing it on the ground and they’ll lap it up as they pass, allowing you to snatch the colour inside them. Gardens are a better deal. You can infuse dead trees with colour then return to them much later once they’ve bloomed, pulling out more colour than you put in. There are many, many methods like this, waiting to be discovered.
That’s not the half of it though. Check out the way colour works once you’ve actually acquired it:
All those bulbs on the right are your ‘memory’, and show colour you’ve picked up. Each bulb only has limited space, and colour held in your memory in this way is useless. However, colour held in your memory can be transferred into your body, ‘couching’ it. Your body must always have some colour couched in it, or you die. Couched colour, however, constantly drains out of your body into the ‘palette’ on the left. Again, each bulb in your palette only has limited space. Colour in your palette can, finally, be spent to affect the world, fight, or talk to people.
So, your body is kept alive by constantly turning the colour you pick up into colour you can use. Colour is spent predominantly by drawing glyphs, which are magical symbols you collect throughout the game. Hold down ctrl and you can trace these glyphs with the mouse while the game continues in accommodating slo-mo (which in combat will never feel slo enough). The first glyph you get is the Donor glyph, for example, which allows you to give colour to something else. This is followed by glyphs like Shell, which protect you, or Hawk, which binds together twigs to create an aggressive flying creature you guide with further dabs of colour.
I’ve already seen people comparing this mechanic to [zelda-derived dog-god-painting console game - Ed] Okami, which is about as correct a sentence can be while still getting on my nerves. Okami was beautifully constructed but had an utterly straight-laced structure. To put The Void in the same sentence as something so safe is doing it a disservice.
I’m not nearly done talking about this colour system. It’s far more complex than this. I’m also not going to say anything more about it, because learning to master colour is the game.
Rather than Okami I’m much happier comparing The Void with old cult favourite Vangers, which I’ve just remembered also came from a Russian developer. These are both games which revel in dropping the player into an utterly alien environment and letting them sink or swim, games where the real opponent is your own ignorance. And that’s the crux of it, really. The most satisfying moments in The Void come from deducing some minute detail of life in this crippled land, and using it to best one of the other inhabitants.
And what inhabitants. So in the Void live Sisters, Brothers and Predators. Or more accurately, Sisters, Brothers, Predators and You. You encounter the Sisters first. They’re all beautiful women who embody the ennui of the Void. Ageless, mercurial, stoic and knowledgeable, they wait out the game in their respective chambers. The more energetic ones might brood, scheme or berate you from the safety of their thrones, or couches, or swing-sets, but they’re ultimately sad figures and unable to turn down your gifts of colour whenever you need something from them.
Choice Sister quote: “Nobody cares about anything anymore. And nobody knows why nobody cares.”
The Brothers are another story, and are at least half responsible for The Void being as disturbing to play as it is. The Brothers are the few souls who managed to come crawling up from the colourless realm that exists beneath The Void, though they suffered terribly in the process. They’re all blind, for a start, and have names like Triumphator and Whaler. And. Well, nightmarish is a word that’s long since lost its original meaning and become a synonym for scary, so I need to be more specific: their character design is like something you’d see in the worst gorgonzola-fueled dream. One of the Brothers is a non-existent musical instrument who’s constantly blowing into and winding himself. Another is attached to the ceiling from a rope, and has a ribcage with extends far enough that it becomes a birdcage. Then there’s the guy with a fanny for a face. He’s a charmer, actually.
Since arriving in the Void each Brother has long since paired off with a Sister and now ‘protects’ them with a miserable zeal. Since they’re all hopelessly powerful, the early game in The Void is in convincing the Brothers you’re one of them (which for all you know you might well be) while you muster enough colour and glyphs to defend yourself. You’ll soon develop a monstrous loathing for the Brothers since you’re forced to watch them wander the map, cleansing areas of colour. Getting a Brother in one of your gardens is always particularly painful.
Finally, there’s Predators. Predators are the bantams of the Void and are just horrid jerks. In a game where your primary concerns are always ‘How much colour do I have’ and ‘Where am I getting more from’, Predators exist to chew colour from both the world and you, if you get close.
The question of how to deal with Predators was what first made me realise where the game was going. This was an hour or so in.
When you encounter your first Predator a Sister guides you through battering it with colour until it dies, then she congratulates you. COOL! You think. And so you get into the habit of unthinkingly crushing Predators you find with colour. Before long a Brother gives you a reprimand, telling you flinging colour around is taboo. Then the colour itself starts whispering at you, telling you you’re wasting your soul. Then you pick up from a conversation about something else that there’s a relationship between colour spent in an area and the Predators that appear. Suddenly, you’re not sure if killing Predators is a mistake. Suddenly, you’re thinking.
Just as Pathologic was really a story that had the confidence to lie to the player, The Void is a game that has the fearlessness to mislead you, to obfuscate the rules of the world and make you rely on your own intuition and experience. In a year where mass-market games development is trying harder than ever to ensure even the most casual gamer is never confused or lost, I find Ice-Pick’s attitude here much appreciated.
And there’s something else that I liked in Pathologic that’s still present in The Void, though it ties in with this same ethos of treating the player as an adult. There’s an incredible freedom to The Void. For instance, (and this is what blows a hole in any comparisons with Okami, Zelda or Metroid) the order in which you acquire Glyphs is partly randomised. Second, failing a Brother’s task doesn’t end the game, it just results in that Brother coming after you, giving you the opportunity to best him. Third, once you stumble across the secret to it, you can murder Sisters at will.
This is Ice-Pick lodge allowing the sabotage of their own narrative, just like they did with Pathologic. But you know what? That’s okay! Just as walking next to a pond, lake or river in real life when there’s no safety barrier brings a strange, animal excitement, so does playing a game with the knowledge that this path you’re following is of your own choosing, and that a mistake or willful decision would change things irrevocably.
Here it’d be possible to write another 4,000 words breaking apart the design of The Void further, peeling and segmenting it just like I did with Pathologic. It’s unquestionably a game that deserves it, but it’s not something I can do now. I was always comfortable spoiling parts of Pathologic because I was writing two years after the UK release and in any case, I knew 95% of people wouldn’t be able to hack its tone, structure and shoddy translation. That’s not the case this time. This is a review, a buyer’s guide, of a heroically inventive, entertaining game, and writing any more would simply be spoiling what hopefully you’re now keen to find out for yourself.
Wait. Shit. You’re meant to talk about flaws in a review too, right?
First: The Void is hard, and requires some degree of perseverance. I don’t consider this a problem, but some people will. Likewise, I was only angry at myself when I had to reload an old save because of a fuck-up that came from me misreading a single letter of a character’s name. I did not consider this the game’s fault. You might.
Second: There is at least one minor bug that I know of.
Third: Transferring colour to and from your body to maximise your effectiveness before an action can get tedious fast if you’re retreading old ground.
That’s it! You can pre-order The Void from here.
As a kind of epilogue, let me finish by saying that I’m going to be doing one final piece of writing on The Void later in the week on the subject of breasts and art. Because, y’know, The Void’s got me thinking. About breasts. And art. It should be good. Come for the breasts! Stay for the art.