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The Void: First Impressions
lokimotive
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November 2, 2009 - 3:48 pm
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I recently got a copy of The Void (Mamba games currently has free world wide shipping, presumably until they get their Digital Download section up) and have spent a bit of time with it. I’m happy to report that it is much more polished than Pathologic, but it’s still very much and Ice Pick Lodge game. That may not seem to mean much considering this is only their second title, but the fundamental characteristics that were sometimes obscured by bugs and translation problems in Pathologic are still there: it is difficult, it is unforgiving, it is slow, it is weird, and it is tremendously unique.

At this point, still very early in the game, it would be irresponsible to give anything resembling an evaluation. It is clear that I am barely scratching the surface of the game at this point. Indeed I still feel like I’m in training. Nevertheless I wanted to dole out some impressions. These aren’t anything revolutionary. Most of the reactions that have been posted throughout the English speaking web are similar to mine. In the end, this is probably just another confirmation to give the game a try and encourage Ice Pick Lodge in their singular vision.

It’s easy for me to align IPL’s games with literary sources. This is, in part due to me being somewhat familiar with that genre, but, additionally their games have so far invited such comparisons. Pathologic made no bones about framing its narrative within a stage drama of sorts. As such, it struck me as very Brechtian by way of Gogol. Or perhaps vice-a-versa. Besides the dramatic self-awareness, Pathologic seemed to have a loose social commentary with freely interjected folk motifs. Extending that dramatist/prose (primarily) writer synthesis to The Void, at this point, encourages me to put forth a Beckett by way of Clive Barker comparison.

That’s a pretty divergent pair, I realize, but The Void drops you into a barren landscape unconcerned with immediate real world resemblance. As such, it has an ability to build up a narrative that disregards traditional constraints and freely dabbles in philosophical musings that seem deeper than their initial presentation. But instead of leaving its characters in minimalistic narrative despair like Beckett, The Void has no problem with infusing its world with grotesques and freewheeling fantasy. The Sisters are sensuous, passive… and seemingly duplicitous. The Brothers are hulking Cenobite nightmares; they’re lumbering machines from blind darkness.

And when I say grotesques, I apply that to both the horrific Brothers and the sometimes nude and undeniably attractive Sisters. If the Brothers didn’t exist or if they were not given gender by their name (and, I’ll admit, if the game didn’t have such an obvious artistic inclination) the Sisters would just seem another video game minimization of women. But the dichotomy between the two seems to nearly force the idea that the sensuousness of the women is as exaggerated as the protective mechanized patriarchy of the Brothers. In the end, though, these two groups are as mysterious and otherworldly in their makeup as the fantastic setting.

This setting allows Ice Pick Lodge to go wild with their design. The playing field of the game is split into different chambers accessed through the actual Void, a sort of lymphatic map. Since they’re not geographically linked they are each radically different sets linked only by a persistent desolation. The Void (the world) is, at least initially, grey and lifeless. But even at that state, curled metal stairs and railings give it more atmosphere than most games get from much “livelier” worlds. As life is infused, and creatures (dangerous and otherwise) emerge, color shows up in diaphanous nimbi and enigmatic streaks. The currency of The Void is color and it is presented as spilled and evaporating paint.

Which brings me to the gameplay, which, despite the potentially New Agey currency of color, boils down to nerve racking resource management. This is similar to the real challenge in Pathologic: not starving to death or succumbing to the ever spreading disease. At this point color is incredibly rare, and you as a character… as a body, need to continually process it. It is your blood, but it only goes one way: from potential life to potential currency. After your body (through various hearts) processes gathered color you can use it for various purposes. You can plant it to grow more, you can fight with it, use it as a shield, though much of it will go to feed the Sisters. Some of these actions are done by splashing the color on an object, again, like paint, but many are done through “glyphs”: gestures awkwardly drawn on the screen with your mouse.

As you can no doubt guess, this can be a little awkward. The simple donor glyph, which looks like a fish is even a problem for me. It is frustrating to get the message, “You should’ve drawn the donor glyph… and now you have wasted precious color,” when, I swear to GOD I did. Again, this is an Ice Pick Lodge game. It is not forgiving.

And again, it is weird. There is a tutorial, there are constant instructions… but it seems as if these tips are all half lies. That’s not to say that the atmosphere is such that you are paranoid that you are going to be betrayed, or there will be some cheap twist in the future. It’s just that the world is so unique that you feel at the mercy of its inhabitants. And in this case that is both an exciting and frightening prospect.

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Steerpike
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November 3, 2009 - 12:56 pm
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Thanks, Lokimotive. I have to grab this game, but I'm so busy with all the other games right now I might push it off until summertime. My game cup overfloweth!

Great Eurogamer review here.

Life is the misery we endure between disappointments.

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geggis
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November 11, 2009 - 2:02 pm
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Andrea over at Adventure Gamers has done a very interesting review of The Void. It's not positive but I understand a lot of what she's said based on the vids I've seen on YouTube.

I'm very intrigued by it but the writing does worry me a little as well as the appearance of the Sisters.

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Steerpike
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November 11, 2009 - 3:19 pm
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I am just really interested in this game, but I know I'll play for an hour and set it aside, as I did Pathologic, and be left with a vague sense of guilt that I'm a bad person for not having appreciated a brilliant art house game. Is it okay to understand and accept that certain games and movies are classic and important without wanting to play or see them? Or does that make me a dilletante gamer?

Argh! [Image Can Not Be Found]

Life is the misery we endure between disappointments.

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geggis
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November 11, 2009 - 3:57 pm
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My friend once said how everyone always says how good Jeff Buckley's Grace is and how everybody owns it, but nobody ever really listens to it. It's true! Dilletante. That's a good word that I worry can describe me sometimes… I love music, film and games and as such have to divide my time between the three. This is very difficult and causes me to coldly calculate what I shall experience next by reading lots about them on the 'net. This means I sometimes come across as somebody who knows a fair bit about a lot but hasn't actually witnessed any of it at first hand! [Image Can Not Be Found]

My Games To Play list is getting bigger in fact I think I spend more time deciding on what game to play next than I do actually cracking on with them simply because it makes me angry wasting time on something that's rubbish. I know that games like GTA IV only make me even more angry because it dramatically reduces the number of sources I can trust to recommend titles. In a world of happy white sheep, your review said 'boo' instead of baa to GTA IV. I only wish I'd discovered tap and read it before throwing 42 hours into GTAs bloated gaping maw.

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Steerpike
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November 11, 2009 - 8:54 pm
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Heh Heh, Jeff Buckley's Grace. I do like his "Hallelujah."

It's just that I'm such a strong and loud proponent of the Games-Are-Art stance that I feel guilty for not worshipping at the altar of all art games. Loving shooty commercial games as I do, I sometimes feel as though I'm like the film critic claiming that Michael Bay's work is art. I guess the best any of us can do is enjoy what we enjoy, find meaning in it, and convey that meaning to others. 🙂

Welcome to the site, by the way!

Life is the misery we endure between disappointments.

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Toger
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November 12, 2009 - 10:15 am
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Michael Bay's work is art… if you like loud, exploding art. And who doesn't enjoy that? Mind you, I wouldn't want it as a steady diet, but it's entertainment for those days when I leave my brain in the jar by the door.

Powered by PMS ™

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geggis
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November 12, 2009 - 1:40 pm
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I'm listed as Gregg B on the blog/news thingy so I've been around for a couple of months now  😀 Having said that I really ought to look into renaming myself so that I haven't got a split personality thing going on…

I used to be a firm proponent of the Games-Are-Art School of Desperation [Image Can Not Be Found] but I read a quote from Douglas Adams that said “Having been an English literary graduate, I've been trying to avoid the idea of doing art ever since. I think the idea of art kills creativity. I think media are at their most interesting before anybody's thought of calling them art, when people still think they're just a load of junk.” I know that seems like an easy way out but it got me thinking about this box that we want to put our beloved interest into. It got me thinking of outside art that's created by people who have no concept of art and its canon and how they just create for the love of creating rather than creating for legitimacy or status. I think I read somewhere that Da Vinci was in it for the money. Anyway, it made me realise that what really bothers me is the way that the uninitiated regard computer games as a primarily childish activity and by extension *can't* enlighten us like a good book or film can. That's what really bothers me and I suspect the same for most gamers, not the whole Art thing which seems like a conveniently endless and unsolvable diversion. I don't think most people are settled on whether Tracy Emin's work is art so lets not get too touchy about games being considered in the same breath! For the record, I do think games are art. Rod Humble (go and play The Marriage, then read his explanation and then the interview with him over at Arthouse Games – very interesting) said “Entertainment is giving enjoyment to the maximum number of people you can. Art is that which can make at least one person a better human being. Long may they both prosper.”

I have a friend, a relatively new one who is intelligent, very well read and open minded but she sighed when I spoke of computer games seeing them as shallow, vacuous twitchy experiences. She had no reason to believe that gaming had its sub-cultures and niche interests, and people who want to push the envelope and bring interactivity into a new light; begging us to discover more about ourselves from our own interactions (I think Anthony Gormley used this notion to help explain his Fourth Plinth piece in Trafalgar Square). I spoke to her at length about the arthouse and indie game movement, and the relegated adventure genre. I explained the premise behind games like Passage, Braid, Grim Fandango and Facade and suddenly she was interested and not so dismissive. An intelligent and empowered female had her mind changed about games because of my little rant. There are people out there who will never change their mind, even some self proclaimed hardcore gamers can't stomach arthouse/indie endeavours so they'll never be more than a niche interest regardless. Any artform has its entertainment and its art and by Rod's definition art isn't for everybody. “Long may they both prosper”. Amen.

 

(Note: I was logged out while typing this and lost the lot when I clicked on 'Save to Post', after much cussing I retyped it all so it may not hang together as it originally did! [Image Can Not Be Found])

lokimotive
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November 18, 2009 - 9:37 pm
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My favorite definition of art comes from a tiny little sentence in Kenneth Patchen's The Journal of Albion Moonlight: "Art must add to the mystery." Well, actually that's not really a definition of art so much as a declaration of what art should be. It's a call for art (and by extension, as far as I'm concerned, all media) to not be afraid to leave a mess. I suppose my sympathy for that statement is why I'm attracted to games like The Void, Pathologic and The Path. These are games that are often recommended with caveats or with the much dreaded, "it's... interesting," descriptor. They have design choices that rage from "frustrating but important to the overall experience" to "just plain stupid." That being said, they tend to stick with me and lead to much more interesting discussions (to the few that can stomach it) than Doom or even an Elder Scrolls game ever has. That's certainly because Doom and The Elder Scrolls wear their implications (if they even have any) on their sleeves. True Morrowind is vast and amazingly realized, but, perhaps because of this, it doesn't leave much open for interpretation. The political, racial and religious implications are there, certainly, but they don't leave much open to question or wonder.

That's not to say that I don't greatly enjoy these games, obviously, but it's a very singular experience. If I talk to other people it's usually sharing strategies, the occasional hilarious glitch or something stupid I got myself into and then heroically got myself out of. In a way, it's tavern talk: telling stories of exploits and adventures that may elicit tales in my audience. But there's no dialog in that. I speak my piece, they reciprocate. I've had long discussions about the implications of The Path, what it means, if the acquisitions of rape in it are justified, even whether or not it's overly pretentious. I haven't had a lot of discussions about the nature of family in Oblivion.

All of that was mostly a diversion, though, because I feel like video games have been an Art form ever since the concept of interacting with a video display was first thought about. The "new" "Art Game" movement that seems to have exploded with the Internet is mislabeled in my opinion. There is nothing inherently "Art" about them. Indeed, their primary concern seems to be a self consciousness about what it means to be "a game." If post modern self awareness and metacommentary is the hallmark of "Art" then we reached the plateau with Duchamp's Fountain at the beginning of the 20th century. But, again, I'm not complaining, I do like these games, and I often tend to veer my interpretations along metacommentary lines, I just hope we're not headed towards a gap in gaming where one side asks over and over what is a game and the other side is too busy blowing people's heads up to worry about it.

That being said, The Void is not an "art game." It's a game. It's just a game that asks you to be patient, slowly reveals its plot/world, and seems to be on track to leave many more questions than it could ever hope to answer. The world is strange and off-putting and the game willfully frustrates the player necessitating constant reloads to earlier parts of the game. This is a game where you can easily screw yourself, but, again, it is still a game. It is not Tale of Tales recent Fatale nor is it even their much more game like The Path. At The Void's heart is a perfectly engaging resource management simulation: gathering, planting, harvesting, mining. Where it gains some new ground is the context that the resource management conducts itself in. You, the player constantly question your motivations, the characters that inhabit the world question your motivations and as the game progresses those questions just gain more gravity.

Ice Pick Lodge's games seem so far to be focused on infusing your playing experience with ambiguity. It's not the ambiguity of a game like Braid which offers straightforward (though challenging) gameplay but piles on the questions in regards to your character's motivations. Rather it is the ambiguity of circumstance, where you as a player have to look back and think, wait... have I been screwing up this whole time? If I have an all encompassing embrace of video games as art, I do think that The Void is a shining example of Patchen's deceleration.

lokimotive
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December 16, 2009 - 1:08 pm
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I just wanted to mention that The Void is up on Steam for $19.

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geggis
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May 14, 2010 - 8:55 am
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You cover a lot of interesting points there lokimotive, especially the bit regarding Duchamp's Fountain. I agree that the term 'Art Game' can be mislabeled at times but generally speaking I think it simply implies that the game is aiming to provide something more than traditional fun, something that questions the imposed boundaries of what a game is. I know that seems wishy-washy and definitely self-aware, but that's what most self-prescribed Art Games try to do even if they are regarded as failures, such as The Marriage. Self-awareness isn't what makes these games exclusively arty, it's the product of that self awareness. Rohrer understood the gaming death paradigm and made a statement out of it with Passage. It wasn't the self-awareness that was lauded – though that certainly was there – it was the effect that the experience had on the player that made it so popular.

Anyway on topic. Great write-up on The Void.

"And when I say grotesques, I apply that to both the horrific Brothers and the sometimes nude and undeniably attractive Sisters. If the Brothers didn’t exist or if they were not given gender by their name (and, I’ll admit, if the game didn’t have such an obvious artistic inclination) the Sisters would just seem another video game minimization of women. But the dichotomy between the two seems to nearly force the idea that the sensuousness of the women is as exaggerated as the protective mechanized patriarchy of the Brothers. In the end, though, these two groups are as mysterious and otherworldly in their makeup as the fantastic setting."

This is the sort of thing I was hoping to read somewhere. I've not read much about the Brothers but their name does juxtapose them with the Sisters as well as both their exaggerated appearance and roles. Thanks for that insight loki 😉

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