The Beginner’s Guide to The Void

The Void is my favourite game that I’ve never played.

Released in 2008 under the name Tension, it’s the second major release from Russian studio Ice-Pick Lodge, following 2005’s Pathologic. If you are familiar with this foreign indie art game, you are probably full to bursting already with indie gamer snob cred, but I implore you to help yourself to a bit more. If you’ve gone so far as to play it, you’ve got more snob cred than even I, so congratulations on that. For those of you interested in experiencing it, which will hopefully be all of you, it is available to PC users on Steam, but for the rest of you, I recommend CannibalK9’s spectacular Let’s Play.

Let me repay my debts right away. In this essay, I hope to open your eyes to some of the thematic through lines of The Void, encourage you to experience the game yourself, suggest that in the future you think more fully and deeply about the thematic core of your chosen games, and maybe expose you to a beautiful, little understood, and criminally under appreciated diamond of a video game. But if all I accomplished with this essay was CannibalK9 reading it and learning how much his LP affected my ability to read and appreciate games, media generally, and life, I would still consider it an unqualified success. CannibalK9 speaks beautifully, a trait I admire in others and seek to cultivate in myself, and he has a great deal of knowledge and wisdom regarding this game. Many if not all of my own ideas are indebted to his observations of and reflections on the game. If you know him, or are in contact with him, send him this way. I’d love a chance to thank him for everything he’s done for me.

And before we get down to it properly, one last thing. Ice-Pick Lodge is, at the time of writing, running a Kickstarter to fund their next game, called Knock-Knock. If you’re a fan of either The Void specifically, or atmospheric horror games generally, I’d highly recommend chucking them a few bucks. They’re only looking for a modest $30 000 to fund the game, and even a tiny donation gets you access to the finished game, so please do go check that out.

But enough sentiment for now, eh? Let’s get down to it.

A garden

Once, when asked what Neon Genesis Evangelion is about, I cherished the opportunity to glibly respond with “everything.” It’s an answer that only makes sense to those already familiar with the series, and as such, was completely unhelpful to the person who asked me. But I maintain that it’s true. On a textual level, of course, Evangelion is about children who pilot giant robots to fight against alien invaders. But thematically, Evangelion is about religion, death, parent/child relationships (and as an extension, God/creation relationships), sex, puberty, loneliness, identity, free will, science, and basically anything you care to name. The Void is similarly weighted with thematic theses. The primary difference is that even on a strictly textual level, The Void is borderline incomprehensible, particularly on a virgin playthrough.

Still, that’s all just stage setting. I’m here to provide as in-depth an analysis as I can manage for a couple of The Void’s thematic hearts. Like Evangelion, The Void has a lot to say, and it says it quietly and clearly. For the purposes of this essay, I will be examining The Void’s relationship with death and the afterlife, and feminism and patriarchy.

But first, crib notes! The Void is dense with information, and I’m going to be referring to characters and concepts by their names from now on. The section that follows is more comprehensive than a “Beginner’s Guide to The Void” probably should be, but nowhere near an all-encompassing overview of the game. Some of the elements of the game that are not of importance for the discussion to follow- like glyphs, the presence and role of predators, etc- have been excluded from this explanation to keep the focus tight and the length tolerable. Also, where multiple characters give conflicting information on a topic (which happens all the time in this game), I’ve either attempted to include all the information, or focus on whichever version of events ended up being most true.

It features what you might call spoilers, but in order to progress through this discussion it’s important that we all know the characters and terms I’m about to discuss. So if you’re hellbent on a blind playthrough (the best way to play, according to CannibalK9), go play the game and come back when you’re done, the essay will still be here. As for the rest of us, let’s dive on in.

The Void
The Spirit, The Guest, The Taboo Breaker
Colour
The Sisters
The Brothers
The Chain of Limits
Breakthrough

How do you feel? Dizzy? Overwhelmed? Confused? Well, believe me, it only gets worse. This information is presented gradually, obliquely, and resentfully by multiple characters all whispering different lies and half-truths in your ear over the entire game. Detangling this particular Gordian Knot has taken a lot of careful examination and consideration of the game’s glut of information. Even so, I am 100% open to the idea that I have misinterpreted or otherwise misunderstood some element of the game and its mythology. Necessarily, any summary of the events of the game is going to involve some conjecture, a bit of artistic interpretation, and your own interpretation may differ from my own. This is as close as I could come to the “truth” about this game, but the beautiful thing about The Void is that finding your own truth amid the cacophony is one of the most satisfying facets of the story. If the above summary doesn’t mesh with your interpretation of the events of the game, I’d love to hear about it. Otherwise, definition of terms aside, we can now jump into an examination of the thematic undercurrents of the game.

Life and Afterlife

The world of The Void is married to death. The first character you meet, the melancholic Nameless Sister, is called Sister Death by her siblings. Throughout your journey, when you are approaching death, it will be Sister Death who warns you. Towards the end of the game, Sister Death will also make the ultimate sacrifice: she rips out her final heart and surrenders the last of her Colour to you to aid you on your quest. This act of generosity deeply disturbs the Sisters and Brothers, and I don’t mind telling you it deeply disturbed me. The characters of the game were shocked because “giving” in this world is either impossible or taboo, depending on who you ask. I was shocked because I didn’t realize until her sacrifice how much I really cared for Sister Death, and how much she obviously cared for me.

But for all Sister Death does to keep you alive, it is implied from the very beginning that our character is dead already. The Sisters, or at least Sister Death seem to believe you fell into the Void from above, while the Brothers insist you came up from below. Brother Triumphator insists that the Guest is “not alive, he’s quite dead.” In any case, Master Colour makes it perfectly clear (if his word can really be taken on the subject) that the only way to travel between Limits is to die. In the final leg of the game, Master Colour will also tell you that you are the soul of the Void- that you are the reason the Void is dead. Should that be true, you would be the wandering spirit of the well and truly deceased Sleeper, and therefor quite dead indeed. No matter how you cut it, the Guest is almost certainly dead, as the accounts of the various factions of the game only disagree in this respect on where you came from.

In spite of your posthumous nature, the threat of death still looms large over The Void. The sprigs of Colour you harvest to survive will periodically tell you that “there is no death in the Void.” This is, of course, patently untrue. Sister Death warns you early that beneath the Void is the Nightmare, the realm of Absolute Death. Should your hearts empty, you will sink into the Nightmare. In addition to this, Brothers can be killed in combat, and Sisters can be cannibalized with Aya’s Vampire glyph. At the end of the game, you will allow a Sister ascend, and if Colour is to be believed, travelling up to a new Limit requires death in the current one. As if that wasn’t enough, it’s made unambiguously clear that one Sister will ascend to the detriment of her siblings: everybody but the selected Sister, including the player character, must die for her to reach Breakthrough.

#TeamYani

When we examine these elements of The Void’s mythology, then, we can reach a conclusion about its thesis regarding not only the afterlife, but life. Let’s sum up. In The Void, reality is described as being like a chain of Limits, one above the other, travelling up infinitely high, but with a definite bottom in the Nightmare. Travelling between Limits is only possible upon death, and the deceased will either travel down, or with a great deal of effort and sacrifice, up. The Brothers, nightmarish creatures themselves who believe yourself to be one of them, and believe you ascended to the Void from the Nightmare, refer to the Void as Paradise. The Sisters, beautiful human women in appearance, aspire either secretly or obviously to reach Breakthrough and ascend. Sister Ole and Sister Yani, the uppermost Sisters in the Void, occupy chambers almost uncannily similar to the Limit above, and Sister Yani even claims she has been there. From these elements we can draw the conclusion that afterlife and life are, essentially, one and the same.

What we perceive as the world of the living is merely our own Limit, and upon death our spirit will either sink into the Limit below, which we will perceive as either a purgatory like the Void or a kind of hell like the Nightmare, or we will travel up, to what we might call Paradise. The Void suggests that there is no after life: only life.

There is, however, an interesting caveat to that unique interpretation of the after life. The chain of Limits has a bottom, the Nightmare, which we could call Hell, but it is infinitely tall. The Brothers (who, it is my belief, ascended to the Void from the Nightmare) refer to the Void as Paradise, in spite of the fact that to our eyes it is miserably bleak. From this we can infer that the Limit above our own would be perceived as a Paradise. In fact, ascending a Sister with the Rite of Devotio is said to create a world “for” or “from” that Sister- a world both created from and perfectly suiting the ascended soul. This is all evidence that the Limit above our own is equivalent to the concept of Heaven. But, the chain of Limits is infinitely tall- meaning that “Paradise” is, essentially, relative.

In a couple of ways this is sort of depressing. First, it implies that something approximating “perfection” can never be achieved. Sister Aya refers to Breakthrough as “creating a life from mere existence”, but no matter how high you manage to ascend, you will never reach a sort of “Absolute Life” to counterbalance the Nightmare’s Absolute Death. The second way this chain of Limits can be interpreted negatively is the implication that there is a Hell, but no Heaven. The Nightmare is a very real and definitive dead end on the chain of Limits, but no such finish line exists at the top of the chain. This means traditional western concepts of Heaven- perfect happiness, tranquility, peace, and togetherness with God- simply do not exist in the world of The Void.

Sister Ole observes the Upper Limit

And yet in spite of this, I personally can’t help but interpret this positively. Consider it a facet of my- to borrow a phrase from CannibalK9- “gratingly optimistic” personality. For a start, as an atheist the idea of Heaven isn’t compatible with my belief system. But more than that, the idea of a final resting place in which souls spend the rest of time in perfect harmonious bliss is not in keeping with the tone of The Void. The Void is about struggle- tension, if you like- and it values hard work and dedication above all things. The idea of struggling your entire life to make the world around you a better place, and being rewarded with a higher Limit to work your craft on, is much more appealing to me than a kind of winner’s circle in which spirits congratulate themselves for the rest of eternity.

In his Let’s Play, CannibalK9 makes an inspired comparison between the infinitely tall chain of Limits and creative pursuits: you can always improve, but never perfect, your given craft. Perfection is dull. Everything interesting in life comes from tension, from learning, practicing, struggling, trying, failing, and succeeding. Why should the after life sanitize the most rewarding elements of life? In the cosmogony of The Void, there is no resting on laurels, no pats on the back, and no air of self congratulation. The end of every life represents a new opportunity to improve yourself and the world around you. How often have you looked back at your own life in abject embarrassment, wishing you knew then what you know now? Have you ever looked at something you wrote or drew several years ago and been repulsed by your own inexperience? Are you haunted by the time you were cruel or inconsiderate to someone who trusted you? Did reckless mistakes you made when you were younger have a disproportionately strong effect on the course your life took? In The Void, the end of every life represents an opportunity to approach the whole ordeal again with more and better wisdom, inspiration, trust, intelligence, and kindness. Consider it a New Game Plus mode for life. How many people here would prefer that option to an eternity spent strumming on a harp?

Feminism and Patriarchy

You might think it’s strange that a game in which a host of powerful male characters protect and repress a sorority of helpless little girls could be considered feminist. Is it possible for a game in which women are literally bound, have no power except their beauty, and depend on a male spirit for sustenance, could have a healthy and sympathetic tone for women? What are we to think of a game in which the only female characters are forced to provocatively pose and strip in exchange for the substance they need to live, like a gentleman’s club where the dancers beg for food stamps? Well, it’s my opinion that this game has deep, strong feminist themes in its very DNA.

When feminism and video games enter the same conversation, more often than not attention is drawn to female characters with strength and conviction. Well, no, when feminism and video games mix more often the result is entitled children throwing their toys out of the crib and making fools of themselves. But in the more civilized corners of the internet (they do exist), great attention is payed to Lara Croft, Jade, Samus- the girls who kick ass and take names. And rightly so- a woman who can accomplish any task a man can and doesn’t make a big thing out of it is commendable progress in an industry that is overwhelmingly male-dominated.

However, while these characters and games are great examples of feminist game icons, I think they all fall into the same category: feminist power fantasies. There’s nothing wrong with a good feminist power fantasy, of course, but it’s only a single facet of what could be a much larger jewel. The Void has a more subtle, more literary feminist streak. It’s my belief that The Void can be very satisfyingly read as an allegory for modern feminism- a woman’s eye view of life amidst the patriarchy.

The Void’s gender politics are extremely obvious, and impossible to ignore. The Brothers and the Sisters have gendered names even as factions. They are totally segregated by gender, and the Brothers are the exclusive wielders of all the power there is to be had in the Void. With the exceptions of Echo and Aya, the sisters are prisoners in their chambers, each one both guarded and dominated by their respective Brother. Even those ostensibly “liberated” sisters are only free to move about the Void at the behest of the Brothers. In other words, the women in this game are utterly repressed by the men. This isn’t a coincidence- the singularly male ruling class keeping the female population in their place is a literal manifestation of the concept of the patriarchy, silently handicapping women to benefit a small ruling class exclusively composed of men.

Brother Caterpillar with Sister Ima

Although women in video games being attractive by traditional standards is nothing new, the way the Sisters’ loveliness contrasts with the monstrousness of the Brothers is significant. Divorced from its here strictly physical manifestation, The Void seems to suggest in this way that all women are beautiful (intelligent, courageous, selfless, inquisitive, creative, etc) while all men are ugly (vain, egocentric, hypocritical, self-righteous, pompous, and so forth). This is an extremely strong stance to take, and contrary to the opinions of many a Youtube comments section feminists do not believe that women are superior to men, and certainly not to the degree seemingly hypothesized by The Void. But, The Void does not strive to create an allegory representative of the real world, remember. The Void represents the patriarchy as viewed through the lens of its female victims.

As long as we keep this in mind, the loveliness of the Sisters and the striking grotesqueness of the Brothers will make more thematic sense. Through this lens, many of the character decisions made by Ice-Pick Lodge will come into focus. For example, the fact that the Brothers consider themselves the infallible champions of the Sisters, or that the Brothers consider the Sisters somehow dangerous or threatening, or even that the Sisters resent rather than fear their Brothers. Using this interpretation we can also make sense of the seemingly problematic concept of the Sisters being unable to free themselves: one of the core tenets of a functioning patriarchy is that it is a system in which women are powerless, subservient, and subordinate. If the Sisters were capable of fighting the Brothers themselves, The Void would cross over into the above mentioned “feminist power fantasy”, and would not be representative of a “pure” patriarchy. In order to represent an airtight allegorical representation of the patriarchy, the female characters are necessarily powerless.

He also has an asshole for a face

There are two factions still to incorporate into this formula, though: Colour, and the Guest. Colour is certainly a masculine presence, and Colour in The Void is representative of power. The patriarchy is so entrenched in the Void that the very voice of “power” is male, and what’s more, power itself desires to remain exclusively in the hands of men. In the final leg of the game, Colour begins speaking to Golden Eyes constantly and aggressively. Although Colour introduces the player to the concept of Breakthrough, and teaches you that this rite ought to be performed on a Sister, as the game progresses Colour at first suggests, and then demands with increasing annoyance, that Golden Eyes perform the Rite of Devotio on himself. It is never suggested that a Brother could achieve Breakthrough- although they are explicitly referred to as being able to “take”, they consider Nerva to be poisonous- so Colour’s only option for keeping power in male hands is to ascend through his male vessel, the Spirit.

The final piece in this particular puzzle is the Guest. The Guest is by all accounts outwardly male. He has a masculine body when you view his hearts, and he spends much of the game successfully disguising himself as a Brother. However, the Guest lacks many of the qualities The Void associates with masculinity. He doesn’t speak, which contrasts him with the Brothers and their interminable self-righteous tirades. He also, strikingly, lacks genitals. Don’t dismiss this as censorship or authorial restraint either: any one of the Sisters will stand as naked as a newborn should you unlock all her hearts, and all their sex organs are clearly visible. In these ways The Void differentiates between a character who is a pillar of the oppressive patriarchy- the Brothers and Colour- and a character who is simply male.

But why is the Spirit male at all? The suggestion to me seems to be that overthrowing the patriarchy and creating a society in which women are truly considered equal to men is the responsibility of everybody, including men. In the Void, Colour is power. In a power-unbalanced society, evening the odds requires the empowered party to sacrifice power to the powerless party. The relationship between the Guest and the Sisters is collaborative- it represents men willingly and happily draining their own privilege and power and offering it to women. With this interpretation, it makes one male character offering power to women under the disapproving gaze of ten empowered men that much more significant: according to The Void, the power equalization between men and women is going to come slowly, from a dedicated minority of male feminist allies, and is going to be met with outrage and violence from the vast majority of men.

This makes Master Colour’s description of the barriers between Limits as a “glass ceiling” much more meaningful. By willfully surrendering his own power to a woman, against the wishes of the ruling patriarchy, the Spirit allows a Sister to literally break the so-called glass ceiling, and ascend to a position above that of even the Brothers. Now that we accept that it is the responsibility of men and women both to overthrow the patriarchy, we can make more sense of the Spirit’s systematic elimination of the Brothers. The Void’s contention is that for women to truly ascend, feminist men need to not only empower women, but actively destroy the patriarchal elements in their society and themselves. The Guest- the male feminist- literally destroys the patriarchy in his quest to empower a Sister.

If you can't tell which is which the public school system may have failed you

Finally, the ultimate goal of The Void is coloured, if you will, with feminist (or at the very least, feminine) themes. The Rite of Devotio will allow one Sister to ascend to the Upper Limit- creating life from mere existence. This is tantamount to a kind of birth. If the Upper Limit is where true “life” occurs, then the Void is not only an afterlife, but prelife. You could call the Void a kind of womb, in which there exists the possibility for many different lives, but only one can be chosen. Even the concept of the Void- vacant, hollow, accepting- is symbolically vaginal. The layout and design of the Void even echoes the appearance of a uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries. The Sisters in their chambers could be said to be unfertilized eggs. In this analogy, then, Colour becomes seminal. It’s the substance used to fertilize a Sister so that she can ascend to the Upper Limit to be born. After all, in order to perform Breakthrough, the Spirit must reach a state of Turgor- turgidity, the opposite of flaccidity, being the state of tissue that has become rigid with the absorption of fluid. In other words, for humans, an erection. In this light, try not to think too hard about the fact that the oldest Sister is nineteen.

Sister Eli is a fan favourite. She lives in a blimp!

Well, that represents just about the sum total of my most concrete theories regarding The Void. The Void is a spectacularly nourishing experience, and I had to trim away several potential avenues of thematic exploration to save on space and time. In the future, I may return to The Void, and use it as a jumping board to discuss art, love (platonic, familial, romantic, sexual, it’s all there in some form or another, and every player will have a different reaction to every Sister), religion, truth and lies, how we define ourselves against those around us… essentially any topic you care to mention can be meaningfully addressed using the language of The Void. For today, though, I hope I’ve managed to enrich your understanding of this and all games, the way CannibalK9 nourished my own understanding of this and all games. Once again, I’d like to implore you to check out Ice-Pick Lodge’s Kickstarter, and for any PC users, don’t forget that The Void is available on Steam. If you good folks have something to add about The Void (and anybody who has experienced it must have something to say about it), whether you’re building on or tearing down something I’ve said above or you’d like to pursue your own avenue of thought, please feel free to drop a comment, or even contact me personally. I could discuss this game to the end of time, so it certainly wouldn’t be an imposition.

Thanks so much for reading, and I’ll see you in the Upper Limit.