As I’ve mentioned before, I’m an enthusiastic but not particularly proficient FPS player. In order to circumvent my poor aim and easy killability, I tend to focus on exploration, variety, and overall quality when looking at a game, rather than honing my skills at knocking down corridors of infantry with a rail gun (Do games still have rail guns? I had one in Quake II and System Shock, and it was totally useless.) It also means that I get a thrill out of games that are conceptually difficult. Games like The Void.
The Void is an offering from Russian development studio Ice-Pick Lodge, previously known for Pathologic, a survival game set in a plague- and famine-stricken village in 1912. Pathologic is the sort of game that is at once very sophisticated and very primitive: It’s got incredibly complicated gameplay, but looks and runs like something that should be running on Windows 98. The graphics are subpar, and the bugs make the game sometimes literally unplayable. The Void, by comparison, is pristine. The characters, particularly you, are plastic-faced and a bit jerky, but their design more than makes up for it, and graphics quality never detracts from the eerie, heavily atmospheric environments, which seem to exist outside space and time. Asymmetry and surreality are used here to excellent effect: Boardwalks jut into nowhere, mysterious stairwells rise out of lakes, and monsters have a carefully unfinished look, as if they’re lacking something that they’ll never find.
The Void recaptures the best of the little I remember from my short time playing Pathologic (which, buggy as it was, wouldn’t run on my computer at all–the only playtime I got on it was on my father’s iMac): The complicated resource management, the tension, and the uncertainty–oh, the uncertainty.
One of the hallmarks of IPL games is the way that they genuinely put you in the middle of little disputes between NPCs. In Pathologic, you were working between an entire town full of panic and bad blood. In The Void, you’re dead: The game takes place in something that is Limbo, Purgatory, or (it’s implied as far as I’ve played) possibly Heaven. There are only two groups of character you can meet, and they both want something from you. Your job is to keep them happy, while staying half-alive with the only resource you can collect, something called “Color.” This is nothing like the betrayals of Bioshock or Grand Theft Auto IV, where you’re fully uninformed until you’re suddenly and capital-B Betrayed; it’s a lot more subtle than that, and you often suspect, but never really know, that someone is lying to you and whether you should care.
My favorite part of The Void is its stripped-down gameplay system. Color is your ammunition, mana, health, and inventory items. You can give it to people for favors, use it to fight, and farm it to grow more of it, while managing the different colors, which give you attributes like trust, speed, or defense bonuses. If you fight with it–which is rarely, at least in the first few hours–and waste it, you’ll be chewed out by the NPCs and spawn more monsters. Which isn’t to say, of course, that you can choose not to fight. You can’t.
That gap between the rock and hard place is where most of The Void occurs. The first person you meet in the Void is someone called a Sister. You have no reason to trust her, but no choice to do otherwise, and you’ll spend multiple cycles of gameplay getting her to help you. As I did so, however, I got an increasing sense of foreboding, balanced only by the even greater distrust I felt for the game’s other characters–the Brothers.
And here, I can’t really explain the game without going into gender relations, because they form so much of the base upon which The Void is built. The Brothers and Sisters pair off in a husband-wife relationship, and each fulfills a particular kind of stereotype about their gender. The Sisters are needy, manipulative, and overtly sexualized–they’re the kind of girl that Mens’ Rights Advocates see everywhere, who make you buy her things, use sex as a bargaining chip, and leave you as soon as they see a guy with more money. They’re completely dependent on you, but in a way that feels like ownership. They have you, as a frat boy might say, whipped.
The Brothers, meanwhile, are everything that anti-feminist apologists like Kathleen Parker see in men. They’re hideous, brutal, possessive, and painfully insecure. Powerless to stop the Color famine that preceded your arrival, they responded first by beating futilely against the gods, then retreating, leaving the Sisters to a slow death. They’re protective of the Sisters, but equally adamant about removing the Sisters’ ability to protect themselves: When you help one of the Sisters by filling her heart with Color, a Brother demands that you rip it out.
I’m unsure how this contributes to the game. On the one hand, they’re the shallowest of stereotypes, but they’re played with such fervor that they seem to become almost mythic archetypes. There’s nothing suggesting that this is how normal life is or should be; it’s rather that they’re a horrible caricature of the worst of male-female relations, and you alternately pity and loathe everyone involved.
The art direction plays no small part in this. The sisters look frail and beautiful but eerie in the amorphous Void, and the Brothers are abominations with heads on backwards and spindles for limbs (one is a massive pipe organ.) The music is a subtle mix of synthesizer and sitar that drifts around the rooms, each of which you will visit several times as you collect and manage Color.
In short, it’s a beautiful, drifting, cerebral thing that still plays well (think of it as Farmville for the laudanum-sipping post-Soviet set.) It’s a game that has a lot to say, but doesn’t allow it to get in the way of effective storytelling and gameplay, a significant problem that I had with similar title The Path. I don’t care a whit for the “games as art” debate, but it has the stuff that I enjoy about my favorite high culture: It’s crazy and it’s fun, and nobody’s ever done it before.