Your jellyfish-clear body is capable of containing 21 Hearts, and the first one is always given to you by Sister Death. She gives you this Heart in a gesture of condensed altruism, ripping it from herself so that you do not disappear from this place known only as The Void. In that moment, she preserves you and damns you to a state of struggle in a world in which everything is already dead. The Void is said in whispers from unknown winds to be the remnants of the soul of a dead man, and you are an uninvited guest.
The Void is a game snuck ashore from Russian developer Ice-Pick Lodge in 2009. Though the Lodge is most infamous for their existentialist plague game Pathologic (2005), The Void was the game that introduced me to their particular brand of high-art awkwardness and mechanical brutality. You start the game and are immediately thrust into a Beckettian landscape that leads to minimalist surrealist vignette after vignette, through a neuron-ganglia overworld. The Guest, your avatar, has to navigate the game’s survival cycles of gathering whatever slim cultivated resources you can muster (Color, lifeblood and currency), giving up said resources to unlock lore, plot, and progress (pouring Color into dead landmarks to grow more Color, into the Sisters who are your few companions in order to gain their trust and knowledge by unlocking their Hearts, and into runes to fight the scavengers who cling to unlife), and eventually finding a way of escaping The Void altogether in a surplus of Color.
“Do not fear death,” the Color whispers to you as you gather it, “there is no death in The Void.” A sweet and enticing lie, for not only is this realm a dead soul—not only is there True Death if no Color remains in you—but also, the first Sister you meet is one named Death, though she asks you not to listen to those who call her that…
The Void is not a game of convenience. Kill the Pangolin, the monstrous tree creature in the petrified forest, in the wrong way and you will find your reward of Color sunk down into a kill plane before you get flung out of the level, and all the Color you spent will be irretrievably lost. Cultivate too much Color, and the Brothers—Clive Barker-esque mutilated cultists who torture and oppress the Sisters and greedily hoard Color as though it were a god—will strip-farm it from the landscape and threaten to kill you. Oftentimes, the Brothers might not even bother with the threat, and instead will corner you in some back alley to duel you and grind you into non-existence, into True Death. At times, it will be pure luck that determines if you get to complete the game this playthrough; will Color spontaneously manifest enough this cycle, or will you starve and be unable to make it to visit the Sister you need to continue forward at all?
This is precisely what makes it interesting. Pathologic is an all-too-topical piece of Ice-Pick Lodge’s ludography because of its focus on the Sand Plague, but to write yet again about that game would be to accede to an interpretive austerity that wants to argue for a game almost exclusively through the critical lens of the headline. I already live in a world playing at collapse. I want to investigate and hurtle myself through an abstract world of the dead, filled with the whisperings and half-said fragments of the specific obsessions of Color and its many manifestations and conspirators (the Sisters, the Brothers, your own desires). I want to plant even a seed of a mad philosophy from a world created with no immediate consideration for my own, some half-rendered star bleeding through the screen…
Gold: Color of trust, love, unity, respect, pity, dedication, and self-sacrifice. The Brothers do not pray to this color, proving their illiteracy, for this color is perhaps the most secretly destructive of all. A telos runs through this color. The two most present Sisters in your journey, Sister Death and Ole, the Sister born in the wake of your arrival, both hold Gold as one of their two colors. Sister Death preserves you by tearing her own Heart out and giving it to you, pushing herself just to the point of catatonic obliteration. Ole, on the other side of The Void, constantly speaks to you in your dreams, urging you to her Chamber so that, on your arrival, she can teach you the meaning of Turgor, the forbidden mystery of Breakthrough, wherein with your 21 Hearts you fill yourself to bursting with all the Color of The Void and project it into a soul—Ole's? another Sister's? your own?—in order to ascend and incarnate in the world above once more, but at the cost of the killing of everything and everyone.