Let's play a little choose-your-own-adventure game. Okay, ready? You're a small Russian games development studio located deep in the grassy guts of your enormous nation. It is dark. You are likely to be eaten by a grue. In your inventory is: Some designers. Some computers. Two jars of instant coffee. Some asshole has drunk all the milk.
You've just had tremendous critical success with your first videogame, Pathologic, and the time has come for you to choose what to do next. Do you:
A) Pay for a stripper to come round to the studio and, in the absence of cocaine, write "POTHOLGIC" on her back in coffee before starting work on Pathologic 2.
Б) Realise it would be quite nice to earn lots of money without quite as much thought involved. Design a truck driving sim called Hawk Angry's Bitchin' Rig Blowdown that features 12 different bitchin' rigs and an all new Mowdown Showdown mode.
Г) Stay entirely focused on the future. No sequels, no cash-cows, no rest time. Come up with an all new concept for another experimental game and get to work.
Д) Decide that videogames aren't the correct medium for your team's grim visions, go on to sell all your computers and buy two tons of surplus hospital equipment and DIY supplies. For the next nine months nobody is seen leaving or entering your building, though the noise of welding, hammering and bestial howling continues late into every starless night.
If you chose Г you can feel smug and pour yourself a healthy shot of vodka, because that's exactly what Ice-Pick Lodge are doing. This year should see the English version of their next game, Typrop (Which translates to "Tension"and while due to some fist-eatingly annoying copy protection I haven't been able to play as much of my friend's Russian copy as I'd like, I have played the first couple of hours. And oh, mercy.
Once again The Void is a first-person game about the struggle against death, though it pulls the rug out from under you in the first couple of minutes of play. See, you're already dead. What The Void tasks you with is exploring and understanding the dark, sprawling underworld you find yourself in, communicating with the mad inhabitants, learning (and then manipulating) the strange new laws of nature down there, all of it with the aim of clawing your way back towards the light.
While there's nothing cutting edge about the engine, the design of the world is spectacular. Barren black bluffs that tail off into nothingness, twisted islands of gravel surrounded by inky water, unnatural vast tediums of sandstone and narrow paths that curl through the air, supported by nothing. There's human architecture in the game too, though it's slightly more sparse and even more fucked up. Corridors are too narrow, open spaces are too open, and the only furnishing seems related to rest. Chaise longues, cots, a bath surrounded by tinctures, a mansion cut into a stone wall decorated like an Egyptian pyramid.
As far as I can tell the two mechanics at the core of The Void are colour and the Brothers. The colour's a really interesting one. The world you're in is overwhelming sterile, most of it either built of stone or scorched black earth, but every so often you'll come across little spurts of colour contained in hungry creatures, weeds, mosses and so on. You can absorb this colour into various parts of your body and it acts as both your health and mana, but you're always pushed for space.
To begin with you can only fill up your left breast and left forearm with the tiniest spurts of beige or silver, and the only use I could find was siphoning it back into dead trees and plants. In time, however, you learn to trace sigils and spells such as using your colour to influence people and fling boulders, and more body parts become unlocked for storage. I was surprised to find out that while I was gifting the trapped, exhausted women around the world with colour to make them talk to me (shut up Kieron), certain colours are deathly poisonous to certain Sisters. Soon after that I noticed that you can farm colour by sluicing it into dead trees then returning several days later. The body of the tree is still be dead but the colour you choose thrives in that time, growing up along invisible branches to create glittering canopies in the sky.
Presumably by about the half way point of The Void you've transformed into a terrifying, shimmering multicoloured sorcerer, twisting and bending the bleak landscape back in on itself in your quest to return on the land of the living. But I mentioned the Brothers, didn't I?
The Brothers are strange and fearful men and act as peacekeepers of the afterlife, and it turns out if there's one thing you are absolutely, positively not meant to do as your soul rots away it's mess with the colour. In time your activities draw the attention of one of the brothers, who appears on the world map as a little spherical icon who starts drifting towards you. I'd just learned how to stuff rocks full of colour before flinging them around as crude projectiles, so I was naturally pretty confident. In time the Brother arrived in the same zone I was in and... the game ended. Insta-death of my fledgling soul.
More than anything I think the reason this game excites me is it'll be a chance for all the people who tried Pathologic but couldn't stomach it to experience Ice-Pick's handiwork. The Void might be a little obtuse and the atmosphere kinda stifling, but compared to Pathologic it's a full-body massage. Discovering how the world works and winning over the Sisters is immediately rewarding, and there's no sense of pressure for quite a while as you wander round, get lost and experiment with colour.
There's a collection of fun stuff on the site if you want to whet your appetite a little more- music, screenshots, a couple of trailers and some writing from the developers. I'm not sure I'd recommend any of it though. It's a little early to call it, but I'd say this is a game that's built around the concept of exploration. I reckon you want to go in having seen as little as possible.
The Void will be coming to the West in 2009. We'll have an interview with Ice-Pick next week