Adventure Gamers Awards
Some adventures begin with awakening from a nightmare, others by setting out to become a pirate; many start with searching for long lost treasure in some exotic locale, while others have you combing a crime scene for clues. Few games start with the death of the playable character, and fewer still feature a bizarre afterlife filled to the brim with obscure, sibylline entities. In fact, perhaps only The Void fits this description, which may or may not be a good thing. This radical new experimental game from Ice-Pick Lodge, the Russian developers responsible for the controversial but fascinating Pathologic, tries hard to be original and artistically surreal, but once you scratch the shiny, polished surface, it comes off more as a pretentious, besotted mess that mistakes flimsy plot and tacky writing for art.
Of course, The Void is first and foremost a game, so before delving into its artistic merits, it’s best to settle the issue of what kind of game The Void exactly is. It is much different from Pathologic, but it is not a traditional adventure by any means, nor a first-person shooter, although it mixes aspects of both genres. It even features some elements one usually finds in platform games and a certain degree of character customization typically used in role-playing games. I applaud this bold attempt to create something genuinely innovative, but I must also note that the resulting experience is deeply flawed, both in concept and execution.
The basic premise at first seems really promising, and the initial moments are surely bound to intrigue any player. Following his death, the unnamed playable character descends into the Void, a Purgatory-like dimension between life and death, redemption and damnation. The first thing that will grab your attention is the warped geometries of this netherworld and its dull, greyish palette: everything in the Void – from the dead, deformed trees to the spiral-shaped staircases that seem ubiquitous in the land – is dimly lighted and imbued with a true sense of melancholic listlessness, and the first impression is like entering a once-thriving kingdom, now desperately faded away.
The first creature you encounter, a beautiful but sad-looking woman, identifies herself as a Sister, and she explains both the basic mechanic of the game and the context of the setting. According to her, back when the Creator was awake, the Void was indeed a luxuriant place and the Sisters, daughters of the Creator himself, were the joy of the world, magnificent creatures capable of inspiring countless poets and artists. Unfortunately, when the Creator fell into slumber, the chambers of the Void became plagued by worms and nightmares, and from the Nothing beneath the Void, the Brothers surfaced. Monstrous, blind and single-minded in their lust for decay and destruction, they came into the Void to rule with the iron fist of a tyrant, and they “married” themselves to the Sisters to imprison and feed on them. But all hope is not lost, and your presence in the Void is perhaps a sign that something can be done to reverse this tragic situation. At least, this is what our lonely Sister thinks. She was the last being born in the Void and no Brother claimed her: stranded on her deserted island, the Sister is slowly dying from starvation, and her plea for help establishes your first quest to find something to restore her: Color.
Describing the gameplay here is no easy task, so I will use this first mission as an example. In the Void, the key to everything is Color. Players must collect Lympha (the essence of seven different colors) from spectral flowers or from little creatures like butterflies. The island of the Sister is sparsely populated with these flowers, and while exploring the little atoll, it takes only a click of the right mouse button to harvest the sprouts: each of them is identified by a number that represents the total amount of Color it provides. Once you have collected a little bit of Color, the Lympha is stored away in one of your Hearts, mystical sacks that represent – don’t ask me why, because I didn’t understand it – the character’s memories. At first, you will have only one Heart, but one of the early jobs is to travel to other chambers inside the Void and scour them to find more Hearts for your body. Sometimes these Hearts float in the most impervious spots in a given location, but elsewhere other Sisters will gift you with one of their Hearts if fed the right Color.
Once collected, the Lympha (basically an indicator of how much life the player has) can then be converted into Nerva, a pool of colors ready to be used in the world by means of certain Glyphs, which are magical symbols that must be “drawn” on screen with the mouse. This allows players, at the cost of some precious Color, to perform certain feats like reviving a dead tree, animating a ward to protect it, or literally sucking Lympha out of other creatures. There are more than twenty different Glyphs, and The Void lets you find them in a non-linear fashion, so some situations can be overcome in different ways. For example, when you stumble upon a strange flying beast, you can fight it with pure blasts of Color (by circling them instead of using Glyphs), you can draw the Shield Glyph to protect yourself and ignore the creature, or you can bring to life a second creature like a golem to battle the first (allowing you to regain some of your Colors from the spoils of the two).
While in the Void, your Colors will constantly be drained away by the corrupting power of the place. This essentially means that everything is timed, and taking too much time to explore without harvesting Colors usually means a premature demise. Once the last drop of Lympha is gone, the game will be over, so one must carefully plan the use of Colors and try hard not to waste any. Unfortunately, you are able to save your game only on the map screen that lets you choose between various chambers available, so once again an appropriate strategy is in order. Sometimes, however, waiting until near-death can be part of this strategy, and this is one of the characteristics that makes The Void so hard to play (let alone master): the more Lympha is drained away, the more powerful your Nerva will be, meaning your blasts of Color and use of Glyphs will be more effective. While such a feature obviously makes the game more challenging, I found this means of toying with the player’s sense of urgency was one of the few aspects that was truly original and genuinely interesting. You’ll definitely need some tolerance for heart-pounding, timed experiences, as some challenges can only be won with this approach. When you are fighting for your survival and constantly checking the timer, conveniently displayed at the bottom of the screen, The Void can offer some extremely anxious moments.
Unfortunately, there are significant problems that mar what could have been a fairly engaging game. The Glyphs you encounter later in the game are fairly difficult to draw with the mouse, especially considering that the whole system is clumsy. Many times I drew what seemed like a perfectly reasonable replica of the given symbol, only to be told that my drawing was incorrect, depriving me of the Color used in the failed attempt. Alternatively, if you choose to use pure blasts of Color, many of the flying monsters prove much too hard to hit from afar, so imprecise is the interface here, often resulting in a severe waste of Nerva. These are not the only problems, though. Even when you’re harvesting flowers, sometimes it takes three clicks to collect a single stem, because the first two simply don’t register.
Control problems aren't limited to the mouse, either. At various times, you'll have to jump from one platform to another, and the whole process is one of the most inaccurate I’ve ever experienced. You interact with the world using the mouse (to pick up Color, draw Glyphs and direct your attacks) but all movement is handled with the common WASD keyboard controls. The space bar is used to make small hops, but the response is always delayed, making even the easiest jump a painful exercise. That’s on top of the intentionally shaky, unbalanced camera employed throughout the whole game, which is bound to give motion sickness to even the most resistant player sooner or later. It’s meant to make you feel uncomfortable, and in that it unquestionably succeeds. Adding insult to (literal) injury, when you’re fighting an enemy and it hits you, the camera wobbles and you frequently find yourself facing the opposite direction after every blow.
Progression through The Void is divided into cycles, somewhat resembling days or seasons. At first your task will be very clear: in order for you and your Sister to survive the threat of the Brothers, who were awoken from their sleep by your arrival, you will have to bring a garden of trees back to life by using the most appropriate Color. Once this garden is flourishing and ready for Color harvesting, you will have enough to travel further into the Void and finally meet these Brothers. By showing them that you have been able to grow life through Colors, you will convince them that you’re one of them, at least long enough to find a way to thwart their reign.
For a long time, however, players will likely wonder if there is anything else to do in this game besides harvesting Colors and feeding Sisters. The answer is yes, but only very late in the game, when fighting becomes more prominent and unavoidable. In fact, the more you progress, the more a war between the Sisters and the Brothers will seem inevitable, and when the player has chosen a side, the final battle is quite epic in scope. Unfortunately, more than half the game suffers from a tiresome repetitiveness: the first cycles will be spent harvesting Colors through flowers, nourishing the trees with Colors, taking back little amounts from the trees to defeat the monsters, harvesting Colors from the spoils of your enemies and so on. Rinse and repeat, over and over again.
The flimsy, repetitive nature of the gameplay is somewhat mirrored by the weakness of the storyline. There is very little actual plot to speak of, and it’s a rather inconsistent one to boot. Every detail – about the war between the Sisters and the Brothers, the differences between the various Sisters, the background of the Void – remains murky and indistinct, but the thick atmosphere that could have been fostered by this impenetrable haze is undermined by tacky writing. The developers have resorted to ham-fisted symbols, perhaps in an attempt to divert the player’s attention from the shortage of actual story, and every dialogue, instead of explaining or at least coherently hinting at the overarching situation, turns into ostentatious, even nonsensical rambling. What’s worse, they’ve over-explained every symbol with a persistent narration offered by the original Sister, and when you hear for the umpteenth time that entering the dark, marshy waters that lead to the Void represents a twisted birth in reversal, like dying while being born, you’ll seriously consider tuning her out completely. This expository dialogue is a problem throughout the whole adventure: “Open all the Hearts you can inside yourself, my dear… If you open enough Hearts, you will have enough space to fill yourself to the brim with Color,” is just an example of how inane the writing is. And unlike Pathologic, which was crippled by poor translation, here the blame seems to fall mainly on the pretentious nature of the writing itself.
It doesn’t help that the themes the game tries to approach – metaphysical matters like the essence of the soul and socio-political issues that relate to slavery vs. freedom, tyranny vs. democracy – remain utterly superficial. This is partly because of the poor writing but mostly because, without a strong narrative framework, these themes lose their emotional impact and become mere ranting. For example, the very appearance of the Brothers – grotesque nightmares that reminded me both of Clive Barker’s Jericho and H. R. Giger – is surely fiendish and visually appalling, and their blindness may be an effective metaphor of their ruthless domain. However, their lack of distinct personality, repetitive blathering about fear and power, and continuous, urgent appeals to order and hierarchy feel too streamlined and trivial to really be thought-provoking, as if they were taken straight out of a “How to depict an evil tyrant in a fictitious fantasy setting” manual.
I’m also compelled to mention one thing that deeply offended me about The Void: its sexist stereotypes. At first I found it intriguing that the way to “talk” to the Sisters was by lavishing Colors on their faces, but as soon as I saw how the Sisters communicate in return, I felt a sudden rush of anger. When you feed Color to a Sister, first she undresses and only then speaks with the player. For instance, one of the Sisters is dressed in a long, white robe, and she is gently rolling on a hammock. As soon as the player feeds her, she is suddenly nude with only tiny lights to cover her genitalia, and while she speaks she caresses her thighs, strokes her breasts, crosses her legs like an albino version of Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, wriggling her hips seductively. Now, I have nothing against nudity, as long as the artistic choice feels coherent and non-gratuitous. I do resent this kind of objectifying representation that reduces women to mere sexual toys (the naked body of the male protagonist, on the other hand, is depicted in a nearly asexual way, like a Ken doll). Even the women of Leisure Suit Larry felt more real and less like inflatable dolls whose sole purpose is to entice with their artsy but seductive nudity. Many titles today are full of strong female protagonists, so it’s disappointing that games like The Void still feel the need to use a woman’s body – and, generally speaking, human sexuality – not as a theme but as a cheap visual tactic.
Yet while the content leaves much to be desired, there are no such complaints about the presentation. The two predominantly positive aspects of The Void are its graphics and musical orchestration. The latter has an electronic, almost New Wave sound (that may not please everyone but I found refreshing and catchy), and the art design is undoubtedly gorgeous: the twisted locations are an Escher-like nightmare that will please both fans of Surrealism and biomechanical horrors à la Alien or The Fly. The various chambers – ranging from melancholic gardens to hive-like locales where grotesque sacks hang from tumbledown ceilings – are a feast for the eyes. Moreover, as you can imagine from a game that puts so much emphasis on color, when the initially dull world ignites with sparkling gold, vivid red or eerie azure, the magical yet threatening atmosphere is so thick that The Void is able to deliver more than a few genuine thrills.
Aside from the eye candy, unfortunately, there is nothing in The Void that I can particularly recommend, even if the effort to create some truly original gameplay is certainly welcomed. Regrettably, from the clumsy, unresponsive interface to the corny writing, from the simplistic story to the unbearable, overused symbolism, many diverse problems temper this effort and its kitschy, artsy pretensions spoil what otherwise could have been a flawed but sincere, earnest title. Adventure gamers may be drawn to the free exploration of its fascinating worlds and the almost puzzle-solving tactical element in approaching each obstacle, but the latter is usually few and far between, far surpassed by the constant time-management issues and poorly executed FPS segments. All in all, then, unless you’re dying to play something quite unlike anything else – which this game certainly is – and are willing to tolerate its many problems for the privilege, feel free to avoid The Void.