October 27, 2009 12:00 PM |
['Battle Klaxon' is a bi-weekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column where traveling games journalist Quintin Smith fights to win a bit of glory for the beautiful, brave but overlooked games that people are missing in their lives. This week: fascinating Russian PC survival horror game The Void.]
Czech puzzler Machinarium looks to be the PC's solitary darling for October, which is a crime and a sham and a shame and other such nastiness. Let me tell you about The Void, another Eastern European PC game that's out this week in the UK, a game that's stranger, more interesting and more ambitious.
Well, you play a mute, incorporeal soul trapped between life and death in a land which looks like a nuclear bomb test site redesigned by a feng shui master, and your only means of interacting with the world is the removal and application of colour from a first person perspective.
'Oh... that's... and is it good?'
Yes it's good! I wouldn't be writing about it in this column if it wasn't good! The Void is just as deserving of a fat slice of your time and money as Machinarium, perhaps even more so if you believe a game which tries to realise the potential of our hobby through ideas is more worth supporting than an exquisite construct of familiar, fading genres.
It's easy to use the word 'familiar' as a snub after playing The Void because of just how comfortably The Void sits in the unknown, which is a reference to more than its life-after-death setting. You can almost see the Russian developers [who also created the acclaimed PC title Pathologic] grinning out from the shadows like a whole squadron of Cheshire Cats, delighting in your discovery of all the bleak imagery and weird ideas they've brought to (the after)life.
At its (unbeating) heart though, The Void is a game about high tension resource management. So let's talk about that first.
Progressing through the grim world of The Void with the aim of finding a means to re-unite yourself with the body and memories you supposedly left behind is a straightforward, if peculiar process. You do it with a currency of colour. Each area of the game contains a somnolent female character known as a Sister, and after you've gifted her with enough colour she'll let you through. There are also a number of horrifically warped men known as Brothers wandering around, beings so ugly they look like someone was playing Pipemania with their body parts in the womb. Badly.
As with real life big brothers, your goal with the Brothers is to do what they say while figuring out how to subvert them. That means following orders, expending colour somewhere in a certain way, until enough you're strong enough to tussle with them, which you do by flinging even more colour in their direction. The final use of colour is in travelling and maintaining your soul's sentience- meaning colour is also your vehicle, your food and your health.
This actually resembles Ice-Pick's previous project Pathologic, where you played a healer in a plague-ridden town. In Pathologic completing the story missions where you researched the plague or prevented anarchy from breaking out was relatively easy. The challenge came from keeping your character fed, watered, liked, protected, healthy, and well-rested while you ran about doing your good work, and inevitably three hours into the game you were controlling a sickly man with bloodshot eyes who sold razorblades to children so he could afford more coffee and maybe repair his galoshes with the change.
Likewise, The Void is a game where resources are all you ever need and the challenge is in learning how to claw them out of the world and in trying and failing to keep your grip on what little you have. So, one of your first lessons in The Void is that those skittish egg-shaped creatures can be lured over if you create a pool of colour, allowing you to snatch colour out of them while they feed.
Soon you find out that colour hidden in the ground can be excavated by brute force, and later you learn to lure it out by song. You also learn that different shades of colour have different effects both when you store them in your body and when you expend them, you learn certain colours are poisonous to certain Sisters, and you learn new ways to use colour that have you returning to old chambers in an almost Metroid stylee.
I guess comparisons with such joyful franchises as Metroid aren't wholly unwarranted. While The Void is fundamentally a difficult and daunting game which so often crosses over from being creepy into being downright scary, it does have the capacity to charm you due to it creating such a tangible space for you to explore and exist in. The idea of charm might seem ridiculous when you first start playing the game and are chewing over such friendly pieces of advice as "Until you have learned the Commandments, and followed and seen the Revelation, you are an enemy," but the subtle emotional attachment does begin, even if it's not always a positive one.
It's largely down to this ecosystem of colour you have to study. Through necessity you learn the movements of predators and how to tend whole gardens of colour, and as you master your surroundings you might never feel comfortable, but you do start to feel at home. You could compare it to living in a dodgy area of town. And while the game's inhabitants never become any less monstrous or stony, a small cast of characters means you do get to know everybody's quirks and mad personalities.
The Brother known as Mantid never stops being appalling- I mean, he's a slim man who moves about like an insect on the spears he's skewered by. But you do get to know him. You get to know all of your enemies, and your undead soul dreams of their destruction. Which is an interesting enough idea in itself- the bosses in the game, The Brothers, who are your ultimate enemies, are the same people giving you your quests and warnings. Quite aside from the neat idea of being able to turn on them at any moment, when you do you it's a more interesting fight simply because these are characters you've gotten to know.
Also of note is how The Void's unique setting affects the role-playing you do. Rich McCormick, who was reviewing it for PC Gamer UK, said to me that "as you're a soul in an alien land rather than an analog of yourself on SCI-FI ISLAND or something, you perhaps play closer to your actual thought processes." Meaning the game forces you to make decisions and form opinions with none of the bias other games would impose on your through your character, or the setting, or the tone of the game. There is simply you, and this new world you must feel out piece by piece.
He went on: "it's at such a disconnect with the typical good/neutral/evil decision making dichotomy in a role-playing game, but it's perhaps the purest role-playing game I've played. You're forced to duck when infinitely more powerful forces float overhead, but you can flip them off when they turn around, or act as their little enforcer, or simply bumble around as you (perhaps) would."
Probably the lesson to take away from The Void is how powerful an experience can become by taking a step back and removing elements of game design which almost seem set in stone now. For example, forcing the player to make moral decisions without a character to pass their sins onto. Making them survive in a world without telling them the rules. Telling them there's a time limit, but not how long it is. Letting them stick their nose into areas long before they're "meant" to.
Through all of this The Void becomes a game about fumbling in the dark with both hands in front of you, with you routinely drawing them back to find one covered in an unidentifiable, damp substance. It's a design ethos that makes for a game which is as harsh and awkward as it is fascinating and worth playing.
I was reading a review of Borderlands this morning where it was discussed how neither the reviewer nor his friends bothered reading any of the quest-giver text, instead relying on nothing but objectives and waypoints. They couldn't see any point in reading this stuff, and certainly didn't get any pleasure from it.
Conversely, The Void is a game where all players will find themselves opening their journal and re-reading what's been said to them in instruction, advice or warning, simply because the game cannot be trusted to guide you or catch you if you fall. This need to read over what's been said strengthens immersion because it's no longer a case of you and the game, it's a case of you and what the characters have said, of you and the world.
Of you and the void. Of you, alone.
The Void -- which is available in Russia, Poland and Germany under names including Turgor and Tension -- is currently retailing for £20 from several fine UK-based retailers. If you're not in the UK, then ordering from the British publisher will get a PC physical version, according to recent forum posts. No confirmation on a digital release just yet.
[Quinns is a freelance journalist who has fun working for Eurogamer,, contributing to Rock Paper Shotgun and reading Action Button. You can currently find him in the damp Irish city of Galway or at gmail dot com.]
Categories: Column: Battle Klaxon