Much praise and masturbatory proclamation has been written about Ice-Pick Lodge’s survival game Pathologic. The games obsession with the bleak, its poetics, its toying with the player, has inspired artsy game designers and pretentious think-pieces alike. In its wake came spiritual successor The Void, equally prone to bouts of existential dread, but often overlooked in the shadow of its forebears definitive statement of intent. So, does it deserve to gather dust on the shelf while Pathologic is blown kisses from the art-nerds, or is it equally worthy of adoration and navel-gazing Youtube essays?
While Pathologic was grounded in a twisted representation of Russia, The Void completely pulls the rug, dumping you into a surreal afterlife that refuses to explain its inner workings. You play as a blank-slate of what was once a human being, voice-less and without personality. The first contact you make is with one of the Sisters, women living out existence as hopeless shells, desperate for salvation but too devoid of life to actually leave their chambers. And salvation may be too much for your brittle body to handle, the grotesque Brothers hell-bent on making sure you that you’ll never make it out alive.
That good-vs-evil plot description would suggest all manner of gameplay, perhaps an en vogue minimalist platformer, or the standard running-away of horror games. Instead, what we have is a cryptic farming-simulator. The Sisters need their hearts filled with colour, and you happen to be the perfect vessel. Much of the map is locations where you can implant trees with golds and pinks and greens. Watch them grow with beautiful shards of vividness. But watch out, every action expends your supply, and if you waste too much the Brothers will seek you out and shred what’s left of your flesh.
Layers upon layers of symbolism. Mysterious dialogue that sounds more poetic than in any way useful. Characters who lie to you about your goal with no indication, happily watching you trot into your death. The game actively wants to confuse you, wants you to misunderstand your role and find yourself re-loading saves to stop yourself hitting a dead-end. Progress in The Void requires good fortune and the prescience to know to not actually listen to what the characters are asking of you. But learning to accept your own insignificance is half the point. You are a pointless speck of nothing in a world that neither loves or cares about you. Embrace it.
This artistic wankery would be grating if the atmosphere weren’t so perfectly apt. Crunchy textures and unnatural lighting make the environments feel like the most horrific corners of a Francis Bacon painting. Monstrous synth lines mixed with organic wails soundtrack your descent. Your character even floats as if within a dream. The Void disguises its beauty in death and tedium, but every defeat beckons you with promised intrigue waiting in the next attempt. Follow it into the depths, you’ll find your most delicious nightmare yet.
Publisher: Ice-Pick Lodge
Developer: Ice-Pick Lodge
Release Date: October 23, 2009
Photos by author.