Version tested: PC
The Void makes me feel stupid.
I'm more daunted by writing this review than I have been by any other. Perhaps not surprisingly, the last time I felt this terrified about writing a game up it was Pathologic, the previous game from Void developer Ice Pick Lodge. This is a game that's an awful lot smarter than I am. Or perhaps just weirder. See, I don't know.
A review is designed to provide the reader with a description of the game, and then act as a buyer's guide. This will fail on both counts, since The Void is so far outside of the realms of helpful description that I might as well phone you up and make animal noises at you, and since I honestly couldn't tell you whether you should buy this or not. Instead let's fumble along together, and at the end you can decide for yourself.
So let's sort of outline what you do. You are dead, but you haven't gone to your final resting place. You are a soul without a memory, and you are trapped in this in-between space. The Void contains a series of hubs each surrounded by a number of chambers. The hubs each contain a Sister - a naked female form who guides you through the chambers surrounding her. You move about these from a first-person perspective, but that's about all it has in common with an FPS.
Each chamber serves a specific purpose, be it mining, agriculture or creature cultivation (I guess - the game only uses the term "mining" itself). And all these goals - in fact, everything you do in this game - is in the pursuit of colour.
Colour is everything. It's the only thing that keeps you alive, it's the tool you use to attack, the source of your glyph-based magic, the seeds you plant for harvest, the substance that feeds the Sisters, the very reason for existence. It exists in extremely limited form in the chambers, and must be cultivated by you, and indeed through you. You are, more than anything, a colour-processing machine.
Colour you pick up, take from creatures or trees, or mine from walls goes into your 'memory', a series of colour-coded vessels on the right of your - for want of a better term - inventory screen. This colour is known as limpha. Any time spent outside of the chambers, and this in the Void, costs you limpha, which must be stored in 'hearts' inside your body, constantly draining out while you're there.
Should you be in the Void and run out of colour in your hearts, it's game over. It drains into the vessels on the right side of the same screen, now called nerva. Nerva is colour you can give away, either to plant in trees, drop in tempting blobs on the ground, or fill the hearts of Sisters. It's a cycle of energy - harvested, processed, and replanted, hopefully in such a way that you'll create a colour profit.
Colour is, of course, much more complicated than this. There are different colours, and each has unique properties. As you progress you will gain more hearts for your character, each of which can be filled by any colour. But some colours don't get along. Others do. You have to figure out which. Have gold in your heart when giving colour to a Sister and it will have a greater impact - but the game's not going to readily tell you this. Each heart offers a glyph that gives you a new ability, perhaps forming a shield, or boosting your speed, or mining walls, each costing you colour to use.
Hindering you (or are they?) in your progress are the Brothers. These hideous creatures contrast the elegant, siren-like beauty of the sisters. They look like H.R. Giger's fever dreams, brutal fusions of flesh and machine. Before their appearance The Void simply suggests its sinister nature. Once you see your first Brother your imagination is outdone. Their role is to - well, no, I'm stopping here. Their role is a secret you should learn for yourself.
If this were a regular game I'd summarise this all by saying, "Your goal is to collect enough colour to open the Sister's hearts, and thus access farther areas of the game." But this isn't a regular game, that doesn't satisfactorily describe your task, and even though that's what you're first told to do, there's this unavoidable nagging thought in your mind that the game might be lying to you.
That's the key to understanding why understanding The Void isn't an option. The joy or the hate of it is not knowing what you're doing, and any time you get close to thinking you do, then being sent into spirals of doubt about it. Take the twisted fauna of the world. Most of it is intent on killing you, and you're instructed by the first Sister to eradicate them by using colour as a weapon. So this you do, until the haunting voices of the Brothers question this behaviour. Was that wrong? Should I be doing something else? And what about the fireflies from which I can harvest so much colour - was I supposed to leave them alone?
You have no idea on whose side you might be, whether what you're being told is true, and most of all, who to trust. It's an extraordinary experience in a game. It breaks an enormous rule. When games tell you how to play, either through an early tutorial or when introducing a new mechanic, it surely has to tell the truth? It's unnerving on new levels for this not to be safe.
I'm not sure I like it. But I'm more sure I don't like how hard The Void is. It's stupendously, unrelentingly difficult. It's so very difficult that you will find yourself in situations where you have no choice but to reload older save positions in order to be able to carry on. The key issue is moving from chamber to chamber - to do so you need to have colour in your hearts, which drains at an alarming rate. Run out and it's game over. Be somewhere where you can't gather any more, and there's no way out of it.
Of course it's arguable that you let yourself get into this situation, but as you start the game this is more often because you did what the game told you to do. It's tempting to forgive The Void of so much for being quite so interesting. But this isn't reasonable. Some may find the astonishing opening difficulty to be cherished, others might call it horrible design. It does seem to be deliberate, rather than an unwitting mistake by the developers, but forcing you to make improbable guesses as to the nature and power of various colours will not entertain all. It certainly didn't me.
The game revels in leaving you to find things out on your own, only explaining them later (deliberately too late) to be sure you understood why you survived. Which would be a wonderful thing if not understanding them didn't mean you'd played yourself into an irreversible corner. No amount of esoteric brilliance and haunting intrigue, and it has this in vatfuls, let me feel comfortable with it.
So much is very, very wonderful. The design, while not boasting state of the art graphics, is exceptional. In fact, it's enormously frustrating that all the appropriate descriptions for The Void have been worn out by their being applied to games that don't come close to earning them.
This is a nightmare-scape, a twisted, demented world, horrific and terrifying. Arriving somewhere new is always a remarkable experience, forcing you to stare up and gawp at its majestic imposing scenery. Creatures appear benign, almost cute in an alien way, until they reveal their ghastly faces and attack. The Brothers demonstrate an imagination at work unlike anything else in gaming. Their Cronenbergian fusion of organic and metallic parts create monstrous beings that hideously boom their criticisms of you as they stalk, stomp, roll or float across broken landscapes.
The writing is also superb. Bear in mind this is a translated Russian game, and that statement still applies. Pathologic simultaneously suffered and was elevated by the peculiarly poetic mistranslations. The Void's opaque and bewildering script is quite deliberate this time. Wonderful phrases appear throughout, like the early description of the Void as being "a desert on the threshold of death". Messages delivered in friendly voices can carry the most threat. At one point I was told enthusiastically, "Now you look and act just like a Brother." "No!" I actually exclaimed out loud. Please not that.
My interpretation is a game about the nature of death - spiritual, emotional and physical death. It asks questions about existence, and it makes powerful statements about a world lacking passion, energy, and of course colour. Colour is a matter of obsession for many. Hans Hoffman said, "The whole world, as we experience it visually, comes to us through the mystic realm of colour." That statement would seem central to the ethos of The Void. It's a fascinating creation in a medium that rarely asks questions at all.
There is no doubt that The Void is evocative and extraordinary. Yet I came away without loving it. I respect it, enormously. But it's too hard, and I'm not happy playing games where my exploration is punished by inescapable death, or my confusion is met with absolute failure. But you may well be. My goodness, if a game that constantly keeps you on the precipice of failure, forcing you to be just so good all the time to keep yourself from falling, is something that appeals to you then get this immediately. The tension it creates is exceptional.
I did not get nearly as far into this game as I would want to for a review. I simply couldn't. I tried for long enough. Yet I am completely unwilling to say this a bad thing - I'm certain this is a brilliant thing for the right person. Which is why I hope I've brought you to a place where you can make that decision for yourself.
7 / 10