The Void – “Unrequited Love”

“The Void” has us enthralled at first sight. An eerie melancholic soundscape fills the background, a strong feminine voice entangles itself in a haunting poem [adapted from our very own Luís Vaz de Camões, it seems], the screen swerves through the air, gently flying by a colorless cityscape, waltzing near an old withered tree, only to then plunge slowly into a pit of nothingness… death. It all starts with death. That is how you enter “The Void”, a purgatory realm of ether somewhere between life and true death. It’s not named void by accident, it’s an oppressively dark and empty space, a vast sea of absence and non-existence, punctuated with small shimmers of light… beacons of color. These islets of comatose life serve as surreal habitats for the strange denizens of this no-life: the sisters and the brothers. The former are romantic and charismatic interpretations of beauty and emotion incarnate, and the latter are grotesque, crude nightmares born out of melting flesh with mechanical weapons. All are portrayed with a pendant for aesthetic virtuosity that cannot be overstated, demanding immediate comparison with Tale of Tales’ own projects. Like the Belgian studio, Ice-pick lodge indulged in sipping inspiration from the fine arts, bringing centuries of haunting beauty into the barren 3D medium. That both their games’ landscapes can be read as breathtaking spatial paintings is telling of this aspiration to “art”.  But similarities between the two studios productions end thus, as in terms of formal structure, these could not be more disparate. Whilst Tale of Tales insists in valiantly swinging its art/not-game banner with both ingenuity and admirable perseverance, Ice-Pick lodge clearly upholds and cherishes the conflicting logic of games.

Which brings us to the strange nature of “The Void” as a video game, a sinuous hybrid: half strategic board game, half art-house horror adventure. You actually play “The Void” as an economic management game not unlike “Monopoly” – you plant color, wait for it to mature, collect it, and then employ it to defend your territory and repeat the cycle – , but you also spatially explore the void, delighting in its glorious vistas whilst occasionally confronting yourself with its menacing creatures. All these elements compete for your attention in equally strenuous ways. One must juggle the cognitive burden of pondering every move in the over-world board, managing color in the most efficient way, whilst keeping in mind the hectic, nerve-wracking combat and the heavy, obscure rules which the game forces upon players without explanation. All this, whilst still trying to derive pleasure from the symbolic journey through the void’s bizarre milieu, attempting to decode its metaphors and allegories, as well as its rules on a purely semantic level. It is by far the most puzzling of its eccentricities that it can be so cleanly split into these conflicting halves, as they are not only aesthetically incompatible – inviting antithetical subjective experiences – , as they appeal to different audiences.

Nikolay Dybowskiy’s blind, gluttonous virtuosity may be to blame. In attempting to complexify game design and imbue it with meaning – a western game design axiom, if we ever saw one – he must have lost track of what was most important: player’s relationship with the game. For this, “The Void” ends up being a good example of video-games not being art; there’s a lot of art in it, surely – in the ethereal soundtrack by Vasiliy Kashnikov or the moody 3D landscapes by Peter Potapov – but it plays just like a game, barring any possibility of pure aesthetic appreciation and that vital sense of transcendent beauty which defines art. There’s just no space for the experience to breathe, as you will find yourself frantically competing with the game. Which is not to say Ice Pick Lodge does not deserve praise; they do, by all means. They’ve created a singular video game with some of the best art and character design we’ve seen in the past years, and backed by a proper budget, which is no mean feat by itself. It’s just that we wanted to love “The Void”. Heartily, with passion and idolatry. In fact, we might have loved it at some point. At the very least, we love its potential to be something more than it is. But it just never loved us back. And quite frankly, we couldn’t guess who it loves… like its beautiful mistresses, “The Void” is a demanding diva that forces you to masochistically labor for its sympathy, only to keep you ever frustrated and desolate no matter how much sweat you sacrifice for it. It possesses the lyrical beauty of a mesmerizing poem, but beneath it lies the cold embrace of a punishing game, one so powerful that when you see through its gorgeous exterior, it will feel as barren and desolate as the void itself… because that’s how games feel.

“The dream of future you see dissolves
And with time so does the apprehension
The world under sun is no exception
And all you see around you evolves

New traits in things familiar can be sensed
But futile is hope without fruition
The grief you knew begets no vision
The happiness you felt becomes regret

Winter fades and takes it cold and storm
Spring revives the world with loving and warmth
But still the law: all things decay and age.

Vanity itself won’t dry your tears
And so you fear as your time draws near
The word will turn but never change.”

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  • Comments (3)
    • LiquidMango
    • December 17th, 2010

    I tend to disagree with your overall opinion of ‘The Void’s’ merit as an artistic piece, not because I think you’re wrong to say that the aesthetics of the game don’t mesh with the gameplay, or that the unforgiving difficulty doesn’t leave time for aesthetic appreciation.

    ‘The Void’ brings the player into a strange world, not knowing who they are or why they’re there, and forces them to struggle against long odds and fantastic horrors at the behest of beings which they don’t understand and cannot trust. It’s a game about fighting your way to the top of the food chain, and finding out why you’re doing it to begin with. If the game wasn’t difficult, the mechanics mysterious, and the objectives often not fully explained, the game would lose that sense of struggle, fear, danger, and mystery.

    Games are not like other art (books, movies, theater, music, painting, etc.); they’re not something you’re supposed to just sit back and experience. They’re something you interact with, and the interaction has to play to the theme of the work. It’s the difference between being in a theater audience watching Hamlet slowly losing his grip on reality as he plots the murder of his uncle, and having to do the grip-losing and murder-plotting yourself.

    I think ‘The Void’ accomplishes the goal of immersing the player in the experience quite well, thanks, in part, to the way the game mechanics force the player to be economic, cunning, and aggressive in order to succeed. In that, it succeeds as a work of art.

    In conclusion, I don’t thing games are art that is appreciated purely by experiencing a construct, but by wringing your hands with fury when Tyrant breaks into your garden and robs you of most of the color you grew and maintained at great personal sacrifice, and yet still feeling that niggling doubt in the back of your head as to whether or not that five-faced wheel-looking bastard is truly in the wrong for doing so. It’s at that point that you become unified with the experience, and not just some jerk sitting in front of a keyboard pressing buttons for no reason.

    Of course, a gentler difficulty curve and a more detailed explanation of the game mechanics early on might have served this purpose better. There’s nothing that throws one out of an experience quite as badly as having to reload your last quick-save ten times because you keep dying or missing a critical event. Or because old five-face keeps eating your lunch… bastard. In that respect, I can definitely appreciate your frustration with ‘The Void’.

    I know this post was made back in April, but if you’re still listening, I’d like to hear your response to this comment. Unlike what you wrote about yourself in your “About” page, I don’t think very highly of my opinions, and am usually welcoming of different perspectives.

    • ruicraveirinha
    • December 17th, 2010

    Hi Liquid! Thanks for the comment. Embrace yourself for a testament (sorry, I really suck at making small comments!).

    I agree with most of what you say, in abstract. Interaction can and should make you feel as if part of the experience. I even agree with you that the “The Void” difficulty certainly helps us feel as the main character – lost, surrounded, hopeless, clueless. That the very rules the creators wanted you to learn feed into the semantic interpretation is another plus; for while struggling to learn the gameplay mechanics, you are, in a way, struggling to better understand the very meaning of the game (a rare feat, mind you).

    That being said, videogames can achieve such effects in many a way. The fact that “The Void”, as you so note, consistently forces you to abandon the experience, repeat the same stretches of gameplay over and over and over, frantically employing save-load routines, is a very poor way of imposing stress, panic, or any other emotion. Furthermore, the authors practically acknowledge and cherish the fact that you have to play the game multiple times for you to get to an(y) end – the rules were never meant to be played with so as to be decoded by the player (a sign of well idealized interaction), in fact being dictated to you textually by the Sisters and Brothers at specific points in time… typically, when it’s too late to use them in order not to die again. By the time you start mindlessly repeating the trial and error cycle, the game isn’t emotional, it’s just another grind of repeating tasks mechanically until you are faced with the challenge you couldn’t pass earlier. The very game elements do not help – there are simply too many mechanics, too many levels of gameplay, so much so that the experience ends up appearing as muddy and ill-conceived. All these make the focus of the experience become the process of beating the game (as in beating my chess opponent) as opposed to understanding the game, delving into its ambiance, understanding its core-narrative. This is why “The Void” is, first and foremost, a game (as in traditional games) and not art (in which there is no competition, no challenge, no goal, etc).

    Now, the question here, really, is how could “The Void” be better. I see two possibilities, one that would please me the most, the other you would probably prefer.
    The first alternative, would be to minimize game-elements (get rid of all that farming business, at least), and turn the game into a more sensorial, aesthetic and subjective experience (like art!). The void is menacing as is, with its creatures and oppressive blackness – that’s more than enough for me to relate with the experience of dread that the game wished to convey. Not only that, there should be opportunity to breathe, to contemplate and analyze the beauty and semantics of the game and its narrative, from within the experience. The game could still present difficulty, or more interestingly, the illusion of difficulty, in particular stretches so as to enhance the negative emotions discussed beforehand, so as long as the game did not stop being about these sensations and become focused on the struggle to compete. There are many a good examples of this sort of experience, the best of which are, as far as I can recall, the “Silent Hill” series. They can evoke all the feelings you describe and more, without ever needing to create a complex and elaborate gameplay schema, with an absurd difficulty level and devious trial and error cycles.

    The alternative, of course, would be to do as you say: maintain the game as is, and simply do it right. Edit the mechanics so they don’t seem overwrought, let the player learn how to play the game from inside and at the proper moment in time, and tune the difficulty (whilst maintaining it) so the game doesn’t become a mindless hill-climbing drudge. The reason why I still wouldn’t prefer this polished “The Void” over my idealized version, is because all things considered, this would still not make the experience about the themes the authors are trying to communicate. It would still be a game about killing monsters rapidly and accurately, about learning obscure rules over how to breed, harvest and manage color as if in some bizarre strategy game. That’s the great distinction between art and game experiences: games are skill-learning activities, the focus is ever on the conquest, the goal, the achievement and how to get there, by learning rules and improving your abilities; art however, is contemplative, exploratory, emotional, it’s about understanding, thinking and feeling. The two things couldn’t be more apart.

    Nevertheless, I still consider “The Void” to be one of the best videogames of the year, and one of the few that better damn be remembered in the future, if only for its lofty aspiration and virtuosity.

    Cheers!

    P.S. I’m always listening Liquid, and I would love to hear from you again. I like that you are a reasonable person, even if I must admit I am not.

    • Dylan D-W
    • February 27th, 2013

    I played it two years ago, died pretty early on (chased? by brothers and ran out of color or something)… was too affected to ever play the game again. For me this is one of the most effective pieces of “video game art” I’ve ever seen. Maybe one day I will play it again and hopefully die in a different way — I guess what I’m saying is it sounds like the author of the post might’ve gotten more out of playing less.

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