The Void is the kind of game you’ve probably never heard of. If you have heard of it, it’s probably the kind of game that you took one look at, and decided it was probably one of them there pretentious “walking simulator” games full of arty-farty nonsense and only a couple of hours of gameplay for your money. If you happen to be a fan of arty-farty nonsense walking simulators, you may have even bought The Void, only to find that The Void promptly stomped you from its virtual existence with all the vicious glee and abruptness of a Dark Souls game.
Coming from the strange people who brought you Pathologic, this shouldn’t be much of a surprise… except for the fact that you probably never heard of Pathologic either, or never played it, or started playing it and found it vaguely depressing, mildly terrifying, quite overwhelming and very, very strange.
The Void is perhaps stranger still, and rather hard to describe.
Nevertheless, I’m going to try to strip it right down into something you might actually consider playing, because The Void is the kind of game deserving of more fame than it will ever receive. It is intricate, it is beautiful, and it is absolutely you-total-bastard hard.
You’re a naked bloke in a weird place full of women who take their clothes off when you feed them.
[Open to heavy interpretation]
The Void is about survival. That’s the first thing you learn having bought this strange game you know nothing about, and it is absolutely central to the game throughout. You are dying; a lost spirit in a hauntingly bleak monochrome world of shattered, twisted, fantastical architecture. Washed up on the shores of an eerie island, surrounded by a black ocean beneath a black sky, a mystical, scantily clad nymph-like being guides you through the basics, explaining the rules, hinting at the secrets:
You are in The Void.
The Void is divided into chambers, like a dungeon. It looks a bit like a tangled load of bollocks, quite literally, though I suspect it’s supposed to be reminiscent of nerves and stuff.
The rules are thus:
While you are in a chamber, time stands still.
While you are in The Void itself, traveling between chambers, time moves relentlessly.
While time is moving, you are dying from a perpetual state of hunger.
To feed yourself, you must consume the game’s only resource – Colour.
Consuming Colour converts that which you imbibe into that which you can use.
This is a one-way process.
With every tick of the clock, one unit of raw Colour inside you is converted into its usable form.
You must always have Colour inside you, or you die.
From these core rules alone, the game creates a sense of tension the likes of which even the most hardcore sandbox survival game would struggle to match – if you want to use it, you have to consume it, but if you consume it, you won’t have it, and starvation is a binary state in The Void; either you’re actively consuming… or you’re instantly dead.
THERE WAS A GARDEN GROVE
The first chapter’s heading is “Famine” – this is apt. Guided by the first of the “Sisters” – the aforementioned nymph-like exhibitionists who inhabit this place – you find yourself scrabbling across the deranged scenery for tiny glowing saplings of Colour; curling fronds that may be collected for just a few humble units of the precious resource. Leaving the safety of that first chamber, stepping into The Void itself, you are instantly reminded of your impending doom – you have mere seconds before you die.
You quickly make your way to a nearby chamber, calling itself a “garden”. It doesn’t look promising, being little more than a desolate grey realm full of dead trees and billowing fog.
Nevertheless, here you learn your next important lesson – that unless you want to spend your time here sucking up scraps that will sustain you only very briefly, you must risk starving yourself to feed others. Using a spell system akin to Arx Fatalis, in which you draw mystical runes on the screen (or dicks, but drawing dicks doesn’t do anything – I’ve tried), you can donate your consumed and converted Colour to the dead trees in this garden, bringing them to life.
Next cycle, one hundred clock ticks from now, the trees will blossom and your initial investment will be rewarded. Breathing a sigh of relief, you set about harvesting as many scraps of Colour as you can, and feeding them into the trees, before waiting for the next cycle to arrive with bated breath.
WHAT THE HELL IS THAT OH GOD WHICH END IS THE HEAD
When the next cycle arrives, you find that you have upset the deathly calm of this place. Your garden is now pulsing with fresh Colour awaiting harvest, but strange creatures have emerged, drawn to it, born of it, and they want to steal what you have.
Looking like the mutant offspring of Silent Hill and Hieronymus Bosch, these creatures vary in size and configuration, from strange little hopping things with gaping mouth-sphincters, to bat creatures and later, giant monsters capable of swallowing you whole.
Your guiding Sister warns you that the “Brothers” will not tolerate the mess you’ve made – that you have to tidy the place. So you set about fighting these new inhabitants, using the glyph-drawing system to cast spells that will shield you, propel you, summon decoys and turrets, set off bombs and the like; all powered by that one precious resource.
AAAAGH WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT
A few cycles pass, and just as you’re getting into the swing of things – nourishing your crops, carefully managing your consumption, fending off predators – something happens. The screen fades to black. With the deafening clang of a hellish rusty gate, the screen fades in on something monstrous emerging from the blackness – warped beings of flesh and metal, at times faintly ridiculous, yet like Tim Curry in a clown costume, always unsettling.
The Brothers have returned.
Blind, they claim to be the righteous guardians of this place, protecting and subjugating the Sisters. Oblivious to the fact that you are not a fucked up machine-monster like them, they assume you are a new Brother, an apprentice. They preach austerity – if they knew you’d been growing trees (you utter bastard) and feeding Colour to the Sisters (you pervert), they would cast you into the nightmare realm from whence they came.
And so begins the game proper. The board is set – in order to progress, you must do more than merely survive. You must thrive, growing larger gardens, fighting tougher enemies, exploring The Void chamber by chamber, unlocking new areas by feeding the Sisters, placating the Brothers while they stomp around the map consuming everything, and warning you that pretty much everything you’re doing is against the rules, and that you’re a little shit, and that they’ll punish you if they catch you doing it.
THE WORLD IS ENDING, AND THERE ARE STATS EVERYWHERE
As if managing a constantly-dwindling, hard-to-replace, essentially finite resource weren’t challenging enough, the Sisters warn you that The Void is destined to die. That’s right – not only are *you* facing the clock, but if you’re planning on living long enough to escape this nightmarish reality (in which case, there are multiple endings), you have to do it before the entire place slumps into the abyss. But the more aggressive you are in your Colour-farming, the more the game responds in kind – the more monsters will appear, the tougher they will be.
And the Brothers will, sooner or later, start to realise that you’re not one of them. In which case, one by one, you will end up fighting them (though the order is up to you, and I suspect you could actually complete the game without fighting them all).
To that violent end, in addition to the list of spells and your basic ability to shoot Colour at enemies to kill them, each Colour has a certain trait. Blue, for example, is associated with speed, while green is associated with defences. As such, if you fill your body with a certain colour, you will receive the corresponding statistical buff – meaning that it’s not enough to simply make sure you have some Colour inside you at all times, but that you’ll want to manage which Colour you’re currently consuming in order to boost certain traits.
Thankfully, since time doesn’t pass inside a chamber, the combat gameplay is comfortably segregated from the broader survival components; while exploring a chamber you can fill your body with green to boost your defences… then simply replace that colour when you’re ready to leave, having not actually consumed any of it. In other words, while inside a chamber, your one resource becomes your inventory – your unprocessed Colour becoming your armour, your magical loot.
SIMPLE CODE IS BETTER CODE
Like with programming and mathematics, simpler is usually better, and the best ideas can always be reduced to a very simple expression. While The Void may be tricky to explain, it is tricky to explain because it is so abstract. Because its core rules are actually so very simple, all its complexity stems from the same thing:
The production and consumption of one resource, in a place where that resource is finite and dwindling, and you are not the only one consuming it, and everything you do costs you that resource… even when you’re not doing anything.
Everything revolves around this, even the mysterious narrative, and there is an odd sort of virtual life to the game once the Brothers arrive – the whole thing feels like a natural ecosystem, because everything pulses in accordance with a central clockwork mechanism of hunger and decay:
Each Cycle, your crops bloom with Colour, and the Brothers start wandering around, scooping it up. You have to prioritise your consumption of Colour, your production of it, and your use of it. Do you race the Brothers to each of your gardens, trying desperately to complete your harvest before they steal it all? Or do you invest a little extra Colour to booby-trap those gardens, ensuring that the first Brother (but only the first) to visit that garden per cycle will be repelled?
Do you save up your processed Colour to fight one of the Brothers, or do you work towards feeding one of the Sisters – potentially unlocking a new area of the map, or gaining a new spell, and ultimately leading you to the game’s ending?
As time goes by your consumption escalates, as do the number of threats and the demands placed upon your dwindling supply. Soon, that strange cluster of tangled bollocks that is The Void is writhing with activity, and the ticking of the clock becomes an oppressive, ever-present threat – each tick accompanied by a subtle dripping sound, reminding you that you’re essentially bleeding at all times.
Rather unsurprisingly, the game’s original Russian title translates into “Tension”, and you will at times feel as though your entire strategy is unraveling because you spent a little too much time growing trees of the wrong colour many cycles ago. Nevertheless, if the stress gets to you… there are tits everywhere, which does tend to brighten things up.
Did I say tits? Yes, yes I did.
THERE ARE TITS EVERYWHERE
Now, I could wax lyrical about the actual meaning of the story (at least as far as I’ve interpreted it), and all the interesting visual and narrative clues leading me there, and how symbolic the whole naked-Sisters-blind-Brothers thing is, and how it’s not about death at all… but bugger that.
Let’s just say, these developers? They’re eccentric types. They’re Russian, and most other countries aren’t quite as prudish about nudity as us Brits and the Americans, so I’m just going to go ahead and let the obsession with tits slide here… because it’s possible that it’s not gratuitous at all, just uninhibited.
But it is something you should probably know:
In order to progress through the game, in order to access the full map, you must feed Colour to the enigmatic Sisters. Every time you do so, they will perform a strange, unique striptease act before delivering some dialogue. Feed them enough Colour, and you will see their mystical shackles dissolving, parts of their glowing clothing disappearing.
And they have very pointy nipples.
Yes, that is how I’m ending this piece. You should play The Void. It has very pointy nipples, and everything kills you.
Except the pointy nipples.
[Due to the usual publisher-wrangling, The Void is no longer available on Steam, but still available on GOG, and it’s pretty cheap too!]