Abstraction: An Introduction to Ice-Pick Lodge and the Abandonment of Tradition, Part 2A column article by: Michael Lavelle
Pathologic has been discussed in much greater detail previously by other journalists because of its importance as the experiment that it is but The Void feels as though it isn’t talked about as much in comparison. Coming from my experience with the game, the only reason I can attest to that is the ambiguity and inherent abstraction of its setting and mechanics. It’s not that it’s hard to talk about, it’s simply difficult to express into words what makes it the experience that Pathologic wasn’t without a first-hand account. Where Pathologic was gritty, dark, oppressive and horrendously difficult to reflect the mood of the setting, The Void pushes the idea of mechanics fueling the plot even more so through the use of color.
In The Void you play as a nameless limbo-lost spirit whose sole source of nourishment is literal color. Color is your life-bar, expended when attacking enemies and lost when planting gardens of it to cultivate more. You are tasked by a group named The Sisters to restore their hearts with that same color. As you use more color, be it to grow gardens, attack enemies, fill Sisters’ hearts or your own, the world around you starts to crumble and begins to reflect the pollution you cause by being foolhardy with your responsibilities. Another group, The Brothers, spirits who were lost like you and changed by the environment over eons and are now addicted to and hoard color, arrive from a level below the plane you and the Sisters exist on now. Some Brothers are inherently helpful, like Patriarch, the oldest, or Montgolfier, the first Brother you meet who explains to you the relationship between the Brothers, Sisters and color itself. Most will begin to attack your gardens and raid your color stocks, block you from moving through the cells of the world opened by healing the wounds of the Sisters, or out and out attacking you in a pseudo boss fight of sorts. The only true fighting you have to do past the tutorial stage is with the Brothers and even then it is optional. Where Pathologic had three avenues to play through, all three of which happened concurrently yet told a different story making you question how reliable the game was, The Void has replayability in that you can choose which Sister to raise up to the surface or to rebirth for yourself.
The Nameless Sister you first encounter as you start the game explains that as Sisters are reborn and raised to the surface a new era for the living starts and each of the Sisters’ cells reflect the world they would create. The interesting part here comes from the choice of healing a Sister, yourself or choosing to fight the Brothers and throwing the balance off even further. The Brothers and Sisters live in a near-symbiotic state - as the world crumbles, their health deteriorates. When a Brother ‘dies’ the Sister it was tied to feels it. You are constantly beset by conflict that you can’t solve simply by brute forcing your way to one specific ending and even the journey to get whatever ending of your choosing is difficult through game mechanics alone.
Survival is one of the most key elements of The Void and is what ties it and Pathologic together. Pathologic was more direct in that - you played one of three genuine healers trying to save a town and its people. The Void, again, takes that and while making it its key mechanic and forcing you to pre-plan your color usage and garden building from start to finish the idea isn’t totally forced onto you until it’s too late and you realize that there just isn’t enough color for you to realistic heal the hearts of the Sisters, keep the Brothers sated and keep yourself alive. The variables pile on, the Brothers steal more and more, the world crashes around you and are infested with more parasite and the Sisters beg for you to save them, only them, you are their dearest soul and you must save them but all the while you must remain a miser with your color and never forget that you are the most important aspect to what is happening as it happens.
My experience with Cargo has shown me that it is the easiest of the three current Ice-Pick Lodge games on the market right now to get into. There’s no true mass appeal button being pressed - it’s reminiscent of Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts, but it’s certainly not the existential life-questioning experience that was Pathologic and The Void. I’ll be doing a more in-depth article on Cargo in particular at a future date.
Ice-Pick Lodge is currently doing an ARG for their newest game, Knock-Knock, through the use of a Kickstarter page. The Kickstarter states that the idea behind Knock-Knock came from an anonymous email sent with art work, an outline of the game mechanics and an archive titled ‘lestplay’ filled with audio, video, and more detailed concept art. The game itself looks to be a comparatively very mainstream-friendly horror title if the video preview is anything to go by but conjecture is something I’ll be avoiding when it comes to the studio - knowing Ice-Pick Lodge, the game itself could be totally different and unconventionally horrifying. As it stands currently, in Knock-Knock you must survive one of ten nights in a haunted house, using lights to avoid ghosts and ghouls through what is essentially a game of hide-and-seek. Speaking as a fan I’m very excited for another IPL game but I’m dearly hoping that the edge that made them so important to me isn’t lost and that my fears are unfounded.
What’s been already very thoroughly tossed over is how bleak and sincerely dark both Pathologic and The Void are and it feels like something important is glossed over in the process. While they are genuinely depressing in their subject matter and execution there are so many brief glimpses of wonder and excitement, particularly in The Void. Those moments: seeing and entering the Polyhedron for the first time, realizing the core of Tanathica’s existence, experiencing every unique representation of the world that the Sisters bare to you, to name a few - are made even more overwhelming in how surprisingly and utterly pretty they are by just how bleak the surrounding stories are. They’re just as important to the overall enjoyment of the games and should never be overlooked.
I say all of this in an effort to explain why IPL and studios like it are so special in a business that has turned interactive entertainment into a multi-billion dollar enterprise. The gall to take chances and to experiment in an industry where failure could mean millions of dollars lost is becoming rarer and rarer in the mainstream developer circle. The indie scene is larger than it’s ever been and they’re tackling major issues that most AAA designers would avoid in favor of mass market appeal yet the majority of them simply aren’t doing what IPL is doing: taking the medium and using it to tell a story in only the way that medium can.
What Ice-Pick Lodge does well is the implementation of their ideas and more developers would do themselves a favor to take a note from their catalogue and attempt to twist and bend and stretch the medium for all its worth, using the unique interactivity of video games that separates it from storytelling in film or books and push those boundaries rather than the boundaries of graphics. Gameplay and story-tied-to-gameplay are the most important and key elements to making a game and to ignore that is fallacy.