PC gamers appreciate strange games. We’ve got the same big names as the other platforms, but we also have some truly fascinating stuff that exists below the mainstream. The Void exists there, a strange, often baffling game about a place beneath dreams, where colour is your commodity and your lifeforce. It deserves to push up into the real world.
So hold tight. This is going to get strange. In The Void you play as a transparent soul. Not that you’re told why or how you’re here. Everything in the game reflects this uninformed introduction: the first-person view feels immediately limiting, mouse-look auto-set to skittish. You’ll feel nervous from the beginning. Nor will you have much idea of what’s going on by the end: there’s no explicit endgame to work towards. After playing, you can infer that the Void is a form of purgatory – characters make reference to the fact that your body must have died, but question whether it would be able, or even want to, support your soul once more. The only splashes of brightness in this peculiar realm come in a visceral form – colour.
Colour is the key to existence in the Void. Interaction with any aspect of the Void is impossible without splashing strokes of colour around: discussions with other characters are initiated by chucking paint over them. Colour is flung via fiddly mouse-drawn ‘glyphs’, they also enable actions and a few special powers, varying from a simple speed-boost to a ‘harpoon’ that can be fired into squishy points in rock-faces. While these powers are useful to a point, you’ll find yourself neglecting some of the more minor choices open to you: the speed boost, for example, provides such a limited effect that you might as well press on at average pace.
Tiny sprouts of colour grow from the otherwise barren ground – collecting these with a tap of the right mouse button fills chambers on the right-hand side of your screen. Here, colour is stored, safe until you choose to use it. To affect the world, this colour must be taken to the left side of the screen – this can only be done by passing the colour through the ventricles and arteries of ‘hearts.’ These hearts are plugged into your incorporeal form, and manually filled from colour reserves collected from the ground. Your body, therefore, is a refinery, collating and processing specks of loose colour, allowing you to amend the Void. But this process is toxic – as your colour is turned into malleable ‘Nerva’, which is able to be deployed in glyph form, it’s drained from your body, taking you closer to death.
As a game device, refilling and draining your hearts manually can become tiresome, but it does perpetuate the idea of the tenuous foothold your character has in the Void. Conserving the last pixels of colour to make it through to the next day cycle, and the next harvest of colour, is a truly tense experience. It’s easier to forgive time-consuming game mechanics when they’re so clearly rooted in maintaining the atmosphere the game has worked so hard to cultivate.
But it’s more complicated than simply staying alive. The game’s hub world is laid out as a biological system, with muscular central chambers and fleshy nodules leading off from them. Dwelling in these chambers are sisters – beautiful women, reclining in various states of undress, waiting for your arrival in their world, and gifts of colour.
Guarding these damsels are the brothers – towering figures of flesh and metal that have crawled up from the darkness beneath the Void to regulate the use of the vital colour. Brothers guard sisters, using their horrific physical presence to crush any hint of insurrection or wasted colour, but the sisters remain completely in its thrall, incapable of refusing any proffered gifts.
You have to find a way to live within the rules set by the Void’s inhabitants – bowing meekly when a brother looks your way, but following your own agenda, offering your own colour to the sister when their brother’s attention is elsewhere. There is a real sense of carving your own path in this unreal dimension: early on, you’re too weak to stand up to either side. But develop your abilities, and you’ll be able to retaliate against attackers.
In stripping away the semi-relatable situations of most RPGs, The Void has cultivated one of gaming’s purest roleplaying sensations. There’s no good/evil dichotomy here: with no party to please or semblance of society to conform to, helping an ostensibly vulnerable sister or conforming to a sceptical brother’s whims become acts of personal choice.
There’s another presence in the Void, who’s provenance isn’t directly explained. Predators exist in the chambers around the sisters’ central grottos. Eyeless and vicious, they attack without provocation. They eat colour, and are drawn by its use: splash too much around and they’ll invariably appear. As you uproot shoots of colour, draw glyphs and mine your own colour, you’ll notice an increase in hungry local denizens. Again, The Void is happy to let you do your own thing with this information. Lethal close up, most predators are simple creatures – give them a wide enough berth and they’ll leave you alone. Decide to cleanse one of your chambers, and you’ll have to burn more colour, perhaps drawing more of them in.
If you do choose the killy option, you’ll find the combat system simple, if a touch unsatisfying. Holding Ctrl slows the world to a crawl, giving you time to swirl your mouse around various glyphs. Offensive symbols come into play later in the game, but standard colour, lumped onto a foe in sploshes, is more than enough to take down an average predator. Keep piling it on and most will fall eventually, but be warned – this is wasting colour in the eyes of the brothers. As they’re blind, and you’re new in their world, they assume that you’re a brother too. Wasting colour shows them you’re different and makes you a target.
Time runs strangely in The Void. Enter a chamber, and it stands still: your life is safe, your hearts remain undrained, but the pace is glacial. Move back to the hub, and your hearts beat fast, squirting colour through their valves, burning your sustenance. Movement between chambers, therefore, has to be done at lightning pace, any wasted seconds literally gnaw away at your life. This juxtaposition makes for intriguing pacing: periods when you have time to consider your approach are offset by moments of blind panic that can lead to mistakes.
And mistakes are common. In early sections of the game, decisions made hours earlier can leave you in untenable positions. This can grate, but it’s unquestionably a design decision made in keeping with the unforgiving nature of the entire game. Where other titles offer helping hands from on high, The Void’s grasp from below, eager to pull your ear down to their whispering mouths. Learning to selectively listen, and to deduce when the game isn’t showing you all sides of an argument, is a real thrill – the stabilisers are truly off.
Conversely, the loss of balance aids might turn some people off The Void. A warning before we recommend this game wholeheartedly: it’s tough. It can be really tough, a truly harsh plane of existence that is actively trying to expel the newcomer. The Void relies on you submitting to its internal logic, finding your own place inside an alien world.
But for those whom The Void intrigues, it’s an unbridled success. As a vision, it’s uniquely complete, with a functioning economy, ecology and political system. Slot a player into this world and you create some fascinating stories. As a game, The Void demonstrates that the PC is the most exciting gaming platform. Independent in development, game mechanics and spirit, The Void simply wouldn’t work anywhere else. We should be thankful that such a fascinating experience has punched through from the void of Ice Pick Lodge’s imagination, and made it successfully into our world.
Nov 6, 2009