Death is a Disease: Lessons of Pathologic and The Void (Part 2)

[This is the concluding part of an examination into the design of Pathologic, and how it influenced its successor, The Void. Part 1 can be found here]

“Our bodies are prisons for our souls. Our skin and blood, the iron bars of confinement. But, fear not. All flesh decays. Death turns all to ash. And thus, death frees every soul.” – Grand Inquisitor Silecio (The Fountain)

In the previous part of this article I wrote extensively about Pathologic, about its mechanics, some of its plot devices and you may have thought I was laying it on a bit too thick. I sort of was, because I don’t think you’ll really play it. There’s a ton of new and exciting games coming out all the time, and Pathologic is, for want of a better word, a chore to play. It contained a plethora of ideas and themes that were expressed in and around the core ludology in a wonderful way, but it is beset with problems to the contemporary gamer.

It was a big ugly, beautiful, mess of morality, tension, and drudgery. I think it deserves a lot of attention for its successes, but there are equally vocal critics saying it’s a bloated, overblown, pretentious and, most damningly, “dull” experience. So… what became of its creators? What did they make next? The Void, I already told you, but what is The Void? I have elected to refrain from going to the same level of detail discussing The Void’s plot-points and anecdotal experiences. This is for a few simple reasons – The Void only saw an English release last year and Russian the year before; the game is widely available on Steam; and finally it’s more polished a game, you might actually want to play this one (and as loathe as I am to cite it, Pathologic has a Metacritic score of 67, and The Void scores 77).

“Pathologic is just a first attempt for us…” Nikolay Dybowski explains in an interview with Rock Paper Shotgun. Candidly he admits that the thematic feeling of discomfort was expressed a little too well in the mechanics, in ways they hadn’t necessarily intended. This is not really a surprise to me, I left all my gamer feelings of entitlement, praying that I had none, at the door when I got into my head the idea I was playing not a game per se but a simulator, but even that didn’t stop me noticing little niggles. The user interface was at times bewildering (an indecipherable symbol appeared on your map when you received a letter or mission update, with no explanation – causing me to spend a lot of time on the first day being hardly aware of a great deal of the UI – never mind able to navigate it), and of course I mentioned the translation previously. My appreciation for Pathologic stems partly from the fact that the gameplay seems orientated toward catharsis, a release from these issues, (something Dybowski confirms) – evident in the daily time limits, this stress & release that is ever-present from the drudging beat of the industrial soundtrack to the danger of travel and safety of arrival, like a sickly heart somehow still beating. Mainly, my appreciation stems from Pathologic’s humongous potential, and the fact that as far as statements of intent go Pathologic makes a wonderful case for giving us faith in Ice Pick Lodge one day delivering the goods. But what did they make of it?

When asked what they’ve learned after making Pathologic and The Void they said this;

“We’re not ready to talk about the results just yet. To harvest and process the result of artistic work there needs to be an important twist or change in your outlook, or you must achieve some new level of maturity.”

This is important to note, because it betrays that they admit to being in something approaching the same head-space when making The Void as they were when they made Pathologic. This makes my comparison more tenable, and most importantly fairer on the studio. It, of course, hints that lessons learned from one could have been carried forward directly into the next – and as I’ll explain, some of the themes from Pathologic made their way into The Void. Let me introduce you…

Welcome to the void…

“You died.”

I have paraphrased there, but that is essentially all the back-story you will ever learn in The Void. There are no avatars to choose from. Unlike Pathologic, where the town had no name, the void is eponymous – but it doesn’t mean anything. We have no associations with it. The void, in the game’s lore, is an in-between space between life and death. What was once a colourful collection of gardens has drained of colour (or mana, or “nerva” in the game) and become a desolate, melancholy, wasteland (with beautifully conceived and realized art and sound design). It is populated by a collection of “sisters” women who were initially residing in the colourful gardens I mentioned, but now, drained of colour, languish almost bedridden out of weakness and apathy. They are protected/used/abused by gruesome “brothers” that managed to escape the death beyond the void. These brothers spend their in the game harvesting the colour from the world, and monitoring your actions. They each have different personalities and will react to you and your actions differently. Your role as the avatar is to collect and maintain colour, so as to survive, and maybe leave.

The treatment of the avatar and setting is very different from Pathologic, but the ultimate goal is the same. They both want to drag you into the plight of the avatar. Pathologic did it by playing with the avatar/player relationship very explicitly with the theatrics, by applying logic for your avatar to be receiving messages directed at you, and by using the avatar’s level of familiarity with the world to be a window into your own (or vice/versa – it balances itself). The latter is a point I wouldn’t push ordinarily as it seems a bit tenuous, but my reasoning is that you can choose three avatars, and the difficulty of their campaigns (and placement on the avatar selection screen) implies that there is a scaled increase in difficulty for each one, going from The Bachelor, to the Haruspicus, and then the Devotress. The Bachelor is a well received stranger to the town, the Haruspicus begins his campaign the worse for wear after a fight, and the Devotress’ campaign begins with her sleeping in a graveyard in the town, and hinges on the fact that everybody hates her as she is infamous for being a murderer. Each campaign begins with them being more familiar with the town and its peoples, and each requires the player to be more familiar also to succeed. In fact, the Devotress campaign is only playable once you have completed the game with one of the males, and is usually only attempted by those who have done it with both.

The Void attempts to drag you in a somewhat similar way, that sounds at first totally different.  It is one of the few games in which the avatar is a true tabula rasa (except it is probably male). We learn nothing of the avatar’s existence before the events, there is no implication of what your morality would be in any given situation – in fact the world is so alien it defies cursory judgments of morality. It only offers one campaign, but presents a world that you only understand via the drip feeding of observations you’ll make playing it. It’s a little like that in Pathologic, but where The Void differs is that it doesn’t drip feed story or plot information (which Pathologic does I’d say about half the time), but almost always tweaks and hints into the complex systems at play with the colours. This makes for different experiences on repeat playthroughs, which is something Pathologic does via its multiple campaigns (there are multiple endings to each, but your narrative experience, while capable of being different one time to the next, is very much like the act of changing lanes on a dual carriageway when heading to the end of the road – you end up in the same place). With The Void you are, naturally, heading toward a climax of one kind or another, and it is based very much in the “catharsis model” of Pathologic with its time limits, drawn out tasks, and its general theme of survival – yet you are not watching the same inevitability thunder on from different perspectives of set avatars. It is your perspective that alters, knowing what you know from your previous playthrough – you are a different soul, a different avatar. This quote will help me explain;

“For now I can only say that the material turned out unsuspectedly and is proving exceptionally difficult and refractory. The root of everything is the player’s freedom of choice. The rich variation in the player’s possible behavior rarely allows us to create “predictable environments and situations” (as proposed by Stanislavsky for the theatre). Frankly, a man is usually not ready to entertain himself — he wants to have a shooting range built for him, then be solemnly led into it, given a gun and offered a variety of targets to shoot at.” – (sic)

Ice Pick Lodge have probably realized that telling people a game about harvesting colour in the afterlife cannot be called a simulation by anyone’s standards. However, I feel there’s perhaps a place deep down where they still think it is. Pathologic and The Void compare very well in this regard. I postulate that the “predictable environments and situations” is something they’ve been aiming for since they began. There is a thread running through Pathologic of the absurd existing alongside the understandable – it is how it can be a simulation and remain ludically interesting at the same time. For instance the panic and hysteria of the epidemic is sometimes displayed in all too real manners – street crime, lynchings, and economic instability, yet marries this with situations in which we have to figure out the logic of the game world to have any hope of predicting the outcome of an action. An example of that is figuring out how the children like to be spoken to, considering your avatar’s place in society and the children’s relationship with adults – which is almost understandable, but then they want such crazy things from you (see my previous post).

The problem with Pathologic’s implementation of this is that too much of it occurred in the storyline, and not in the ludology. As plot points were revealed to you, they made more sense, yes, but you didn’t feel as though you were really progressing (a central conflict with the game’s catharsis perhaps?), and what you were learning was not all that useful except for more efficiently completing certain quests in repeat plays. In Pathologic the future is a set menu, you cannot plan for the next day, and unfortunately this is true for the same stretch of time from each character’s perspectives every time. The Void is an improvement on this because its implementation of the “predictable environments and situations” (shall I just say “simulation”) occurs at an ecosystem level, which is more importantly, ludic.


The void is an ecosystem. It has a nutrient cycle, in which the phosphorous, nitrogen, and carbon are all colour, colour, and colour. And, like gardening, you’ll find that you get out what you put in, but that there are also many underlying factors to consider. As someone with an ecology based degree it’s very tempting for me to go off on one here but I said I wouldn’t spoil the game for you. The point is this is its simulation. Colour is how The Void conveys its message. Colour, and the various opinions other characters have about the use, existence, and harvesting of it raise many questions about its symbolic connotations. What does colour represent? Do you have the right to hoard it? It gives you the power to kill, is that right? It gives you life, literally, and purpose. It makes those devoid of it happy in a transitory fashion, and more or less is a tool to manipulate and use those whose help you require. Is colour money? Is it lust? Is it love? I’m not trying to answer those questions, but simply applaud The Void for letting me ask them, and by inspiring me not through the dialogue, but through my interactions with it.

The simulation extends to the NPCs of The Void. The Void offers you a third less NPCs than in Pathologic, but your interactions with them are more fluid and natural than the stilted, stationary, conversations of its predecessor. Not the sisters so much, for thematic reasons, but you will find that your actions will cause unforeseen, and procedural, activities from the brothers. This imitation of life, this back and forth between player and system, is exactly what Ice Pick Lodge wanted to accomplish with Pathologic but couldn’t quite manage. Pathologic rested lightly on a few lines of code that dictated how infected you got, or how visible you were to predators, but The Void makes the important interactions with the key NPCs part of the living simulation. Previously NPC interactions were obviously scripted in their frequency, and binary in their outcome. This is not a problem in The Void, and if it is it is not obvious by any stretch.These brothers have almost all of the humanity stripped from them, making their reactions and personalities difficult to gauge on appearance – forcing the player not to make their own assumptions. What is known is that they will stomp around your gardens almost randomly, and destroy your work if you’re not careful. It makes repeat playthroughs much less of a drudgery, and in the first playthrough leaves you feeling strangely muted, and respectful, even though you can fall into the same trap as you can in Pathologic – irreversible failure that you were not alerted to the moment you passed the point of no return.

That could have been a spoiler, but then having many hours of your time spent turn out to be for nothing could also be considered a spoiler. The Void is easily as difficult a game as its predecessor, but what separates it is how much calmer and contemplative the mood of the piece is. While it is no serene bonsai garden, The Void is a place of thoughtful reflection as much as it is a battle-ground. The whole game is one long series of exercises in which you must ponder the nature of your motivations, much like Pathologic, and while you have the constant fear of death hanging over you, it is not as immediate as Pathologic’s once you have acquired a set of skills and dedicated time to the cultivation of your colour. Time spent transferring your colour from your hearts to be used elsewhere is also an almost meditative, ceremonial, process – synthesizing the cathartic theme once more.

So looking at The Void, despite its appearance to the contrary, it is a sort of extension on the themes and philosophies that were the underlying mechanics of Pathologic. They seem to have realized that by leaving more to the imagination, and by trying to remove the barrier between player and avatar (notice that the player character in The Void never shows his hands during regular play, as opposed to Pathologic), rather than try to justify it, they can create something equally as affecting, or even more so with less time and energy spent on convoluted back-story and an excess of dialogue the player has no input in creating. The Void is undoubtedly a better game than Pathologic but I feel is perhaps not quite as evocative with its visual imagery. The only certainty is that Ice Pick Lodge is one of the most interesting studios at work today, and I will be greatly interested in whatever their next project will be. In fact, I’m very interested in what they’ll have to say if they reach that new level of maturity they were talking about.

Mike Dunbar (Follow me on Twitter at MikeDunbar and for Chronoludic updates click here)

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  1. Ava Avane Dawn
    Posted September 17, 2010 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    For me, The Void was harder to appreciate, to get into, than Pathologic. Sure the translation is broken, but it feels less “gamey” and more confusing. The approach of letting me contemplate on things more freely doesn’t always work for me as I tire of just walking around, and also in this case being afraid of doing something wrong. It is my being a gamer that is afraid of not having understood something, of not being able to work out the logic and rules of the game. I get anxious, which is a shame.

    • Posted September 17, 2010 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

      I do think my impressions of it were based somewhat on the fact I was looki ng at it in the wake of playing Pathologic. Potentially some subconcious links may have been made that wouldn’t have been as obvious approaching it without that expeirence.

      The walking around, I thought, gave you the opportunity to collect your thoughts and think about what to do next, because you often found yourself with a bit of free time after finishing that cycle’s quest (a bit like in Pathologic).

      I do get the anxiety though. My first playthrough was full of that. Then it failed me without letting me know explicitly when that point had occured. I was actually really annoyed by that at the time, but once I’d figured out why I was sort of kicking myself. It’s not very transparent about what it asks you to do. The tutorial has a hard job as it’s protrayed entirely in character (Pathologic’s way around that was wonderful), and there are far too many confusing terms to introduce. The whole process of converting lympha into nerva in one heart and moving it around seems totally arbitrary at first.

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