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Last Rites: A journey into the depths of The Void

An analysis of how Ice-Pick Lodge's The Void manipulates the player's sense of identity to create a terrifying but utterly compelling experience.



Imagine if everything you owned was taken from you. Not just your material possessions: also your name, your knowledge, all your memories, the shapes and colours you had familiarised yourself with as a child, all the safe places you retreat too in times of distress.

Welcome to The Void. As a place, as a game.

There are a number of reassurances that games offer their players to avoid feelings of alienation and to make them keep playing even when faced with what can seem to be an insurmountable challenge. One of these is difficulty. Many games curve their difficulty levels so that players can acclimatise to what is being asked of them and be confident that the obstacles in their path have been designed to be conquered. Another popular reassurance is linearity. This ensures that players can always know they are heading in the right direction and that they needn't worry about the consequences of their actions. All of them have been laid out to present the illusion of control and choice, even though the designer is the only one who has any real power over the playing experience. Other reassurances include knowing who your character is, giving you a figure through which to connect with the action on-screen, but also know that none of the things you're seeing are really happening to you. Your character will also set you a defined goal and a way of delineating your allies and your enemies, giving you the safety of knowing you should be working towards certain ends.



As a place, the Void strips away all the reassurances we look for as human beings. As a game, The Void takes away everything we lean on as gamers. You have no reliable indication of what your character ended up where he did, or what he looks like. One of the menu screens features a translucent figure of a naked man, but he looks more like an anatomical mannequin from a science class than a real being. He might simply be what your character imagines himself to look like. After all, you have no reflection in the game, nor any other reliable means of ascertaining how you appear to others apart from a handful of suggestions as to your height. When we, as people, hear about someone we don't know, we create an image for them in our minds. How does a baby imagine itself? In the game, you are simply born into The Void, literally empty. Isn't this translucent man then exactly an approximation of all we know about ourselves in this new world? Isn't our first clear task in the game, the exact nature of which I shan't detail so that anyone opting to take the plunge for themselves will be going in fresh (as I did), also our first real task in life, to give ourselves substance and definition?

I wouldn't hold it against you right now to be thinking that all this sounds horribly pretentious. But when you take your first steps into The Void, you'll understand that this is just the way the game makes you think. Nothing is defined for you. There is a brief tutorial section, in which the most basic mechanics of the game are laid out for you, but then are left on your own. But you will soon learn that even the things you learn in those earliest moments are not necessarily so straightforward as they first appear. The game does not lie to you, but neither does it give you the truth. You are given the pieces that make up how the game is to be played, but never the contexts or consequences of moving those pieces across the board.

Every aspect of the game is presented in this open-ended way: you are given tasks to perform, but the overall goal is left for you to put together. Characters will say one thing, but a suggestion later on may change the meaning of what was said into something very different to your first assumption. Although the dialogue is sometimes a little overwritten, the game's writing has an amazing economy in twisting players' perceptions with a single sentence or image. Motivations and themes are hinted at rather than stated, leaving it up to you to give the Void meaning. You will be given clues, easy to see once you know they're there, but by the time their full meaning is revealed, it may be too late to salvage your game and everything you worked for.



If you're now wondering the extent to which I meant that previous sentence, take your worst fear and stick it to your computer monitor. It's not only possible to ruin your game by making a bad decision, but it is virtually impossible for it not to happen. More hours will be lost following a hopeless cause than will be spent making progress. The worst part is, you'll have no-one to blame but yourself. As I said, the game will give you clues and present you with everything you need to know, but with the explicit explanations omitted. Once moving beyond what passes for a tutorial stage, you have almost total freedom to explore and interact with the Void as you wish. Developer guidance is close to non-existent, to the extent that the distribution of key items is randomised. There has never been a game quite so objectively fair as this, but with the consequence of meanwhile being utterly unforgiving.

To your surprise, you will find yourself reloading a save from several hours back and retreading all that old ground because being able to rectify all those misjudgments, applying that learning acquired in the most brutal circumstances, is one thing that can be done in the Void but not in real life. Here we have to live with our bad decisions. The Void's single act of mercy is that if you're willing to take the punishment, you have the ability to rewrite your mistakes. It's a trait shared with developer Ice-Pick Lodge's previous game, Patholgic, and a perfect judgment both of how games can give us powers we wish we had in real-life, but also how much more impact they have when left understated and for the player to discover on their own. Step by step, brick by brick, you learn to understand the world, your place in it and where you need to go.

It's taking considerable restraint not to discuss every aspect of the game and my interpretations of them, but to do so would negate the one aspect of the game that will be constant amongst everyone who plays it: The Void, as a game and a place, is about you. How you read it, how you see it, how you play it, you cannot fail but to learn something about yourself and how you fill the unknown spaces in your life and knowledge. Because you may discover that the Void is not as empty as you first thought it was after taking your first steps into that scary new world. Sometimes it takes a little push and new perspective to appreciate how full it really is.


http://www.tension-game.com/index_en.php

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