Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Unfinished Business: Steam Sale Backlog - The Void (Games)

[Unfinished Business is a feature where I take an unplayed game or unwatched DVD that has been languishing on my shelf and chronicle my experiences with it.]

Another Steam Sale has come and gone, leaving my library drowning in discounted, unplayed games in its wake. Over the coming weeks, I'll be using this Unfinished Business feature to push through my backlog and chronicle my experience with each title. The first article, written prior to my summer holiday, covered this year's indie critical darling, Dear Esther. While this week's title heads even further away from the mainstream, future instalments will cover (not necessarily in this order) the likes of Just Cause 2, the Half-Life 2 episodes, Batman Arkham City, Deus Ex: Human Revolution DLC 'The Missing Link', Bastion, Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Football Manager 2012. In other words, there'll be a bit of something for everyone.

Whatever your tastes, it's unlikely a game like The Void will fit into them. When players or critics talk about 'art' games, the reference is usually to visually stylish games such as Ōkami or Viewtiful Joe, along with the occasional more appropriate example like the aforementioned Esther. Such questionable choices are sadly demonstrative of the industry's struggle to comprehend the nature of artistic expression, and how the gaming medium can fit into it. The former two examples are cited for their beauty alone, despite neither seeking to evoke any particular emotion or reflection from their players. If an artistic experience is solely measured by attractiveness, as such choices would suggest, Pippa Middleton's buttocks should perhaps be reclassified as a mobile art gallery. Dear Esther has greater depth (than Ōkami or Viewtiful Joe, not Pippa Middleton's rear), but scales back its interactivity to such an extent it can only debatably be called a 'game'. The Void, on the other hand, is one of the first games to have a legitimate claim to being a work of art in its own right.
The aesthetics and mood of The Void can be pithily summed up as what might happen if Dinos and Jake Chapman, H.R. Giger and Fyodor Dostoyevski shared a particularly harrowing dream. Created by Russian developers Ice Pick Lodge, previously responsible for the equally stunning Pathologic (which I'll write about at some point in the future), the game places its players in a deformed and barren landscape, where the ground twists and contorts beneath your feet like intertwining branches of a decaying tree. Only the shells of civilisation remain, now repopulated by silhouette-like monsters, scavenging on whatever scraps of life are still to be found. The scenario posits that the player's character is trapped in this deathly Asphodel without name, shape or memory, saved from fading away into nothing only by harvesting slithers of colour.

The seven different colours represent the player's life, their means of attack and their currency. Crossing between the various parts of the Void drains your colour supply, with non-existence the cost of finding your resources completely depleted. (I avoid saying 'death' because your character is technically already dead, although whether this demise is physical or mental is an ongoing question). Once inside a garden, trees can be given temporary life with an infusion of colour, yielding a greater supply in return later on. Hungry monsters can be fought back through the use of powerful symbols, whose power correlates to how much colour is used when drawing them on-screen. The bulk of the game consists of resource management, making sure you have enough of each shade and a steady supply of replenishment to complete your tasks and progress.

Your first taskmasters are the comely sisters, whose siren-like beauty provides an oasis from the horrors elsewhere. They explain the rules of the world to you and ask that you provide them with sufficient colour of their choosing to open up the paths ahead. They also warn you about the presence of the fearsome brothers watching over them, behemoths whose bodies and bones have been grotesquely reformed into biomechanical horrors: one stands on spear-like metal stilts protruding from his four limbs, with a lance impaled through his chest. Others seem to have been fused with accordions, hot air balloons and bird cages. This sounds funny. It isn't.

So far, so BioShock, albeit with Rapture's bright environments replaced by a nasty streak of body horror. Where the game begins to hint at its true brilliance though is in the player's interaction with the brothers. Because they are blind, they assume the player to be one of them, setting challenges as proof of worthiness and elucidating their thoughts on the grim world they were responsible for creating. Thing is, their advice often contradicts that given earlier by the sisters, or at least reveals another side to instructions taken for granted. The amount of colour used in any area, for example, is directly linked to the number of monsters who are later attracted there. The sisters, it seems, are not the benevolent victims their beauty makes them seem, and their demands suddenly appear to have less to do with helping the player advance than using them as a means of acquiring a steady supply of colour. Much of their advice is biased towards achieving their goal, without revealing the dangers such an approach poses.

To put it another way, this is a game whose tutorial lies. It tells you to play one way, before later revealing such an approach to be perilously risky, almost certainly endangering your ability to reach the end of the game. The game is so open-ended that the player's choices are the entire driving force between whether it is even possible to reach the finishing line. Fail to manage your gardens correctly, and you could find yourself stuck with no colour and nowhere to go, forcing a restart from potentially hours back. Using a strategy guide won't help, as the location of key items and characters is randomised, with the brothers roaming around the map and occasionally, horrifyingly, happening upon one of your carefully tended gardens and draining it.

Like Pathologic, this is a cruel game, not only defying the recent trend towards handholding the player through the game, but outright reversing it by deliberately sending them in the wrong direction and laughing when they have to turn back several hours later. It defies the natural instinct to move forward as quickly as possible, instead forcing a playing style involving taking ten steps forward to get a rough idea of what lies ahead, then jumping eleven steps back so the following twelve steps can be taken in relative safety, or at least with a little more certainty. It's an endurance test, made no easier by the constant uncertainty of what is true and what isn't, and the desolate terrain you are have to navigate. Were it possible to complete the game without constantly reloading previous save files - and I contend that it isn't - the time commitment would still be enormous, at least the thirty-to-forty hours demanded by a completionist Zelda run. With all the reloading, you're looking at hundreds of hours to reach the end. I'm not even going to pretend I've got there yet, despite putting in Football Manager numbers of hours.

If you're still wondering what qualifies this game as a credible work of art beyond its aesthetics, here's your answer: The Void is one of very few games (again, Pathologic may be the only other) to harness the power of the negative experience. The experience is driven not by the excitement and awe that fuels other games, but exhaustion and helplessness. It denies the player any sense of certainty or safety, punishing every mistaken belief that things will get better or easier with hard work. If the aesthetics are reminiscent of Giger, the mood similar to that evoked by the Chapman brothers' installations, the despair and futility, delivered through hostile surrealism, is pure House Of The Dead or Brothers Karamazov, with a little Kafka (The Trial or The Castle, perhaps) thrown in for good measure.

As you drag yourself through hour upon hour of hard toil for the faintest scrap of colour, only to have it stolen from you as a result of some tiny miscalculation made hours earlier or the unexpected intervention of a vindictive monster, the experience becomes not only a damning commentary on the nature of gaming - which players sink hours into for no tangible or personal reward - but the unfairness of life, how dreams and hopes can be crushed by arbitrary chance, how not all suffering can be ended through perseverance, even though stopping only means the complete surrender of hope and self. It's a Russian game through and through (yes, I do know Kafka was Austro-Hungarian / Czech, but Dostoyevski comes through far more strongly for me), the product of a national mindset forged in the colourless oppression of Soviet communism.

It's a work of art because it challenges how we perceive our lives and the world around us, with a clear vision in what it seeks to evoke through words, action and visuals, while remaining completely open to personal interpretation. (For me, the 'death' suffered by the player's character is not a bodily death, but the total loss of passion and hope symptomatic of deep depression, further evoked in the design of the brothers as hideous mutations of pleasurable, creative endeavours, and the sisters as morose representations of beautiful falsehoods). It is a masterpiece of game design because every hour spent retreading your steps, forcing yourself back through long periods of drudgery and suffering, each tiny victory - be it a tree alive with colour as a result of your earlier efforts, a new item acquired, a new monster overcome, one small step forward down a long but new path - provides with the buzz of pure elation that shows up the emptiness of the term 'achievement' in the modern school of mollycoddling, patronising game design. The Void is one of the most unforgiving, unfair and unenjoyable games ever created. It is also one of the greatest.



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