“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], 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 later 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 chance 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. 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.