Into the Void

T H E     V O I D

M E C H A N I C S

A character states “Color is life. It is our food, our strength, our hope. It is the essence and meaning of our suffering. And now yours.” Indeed, the player’s entrance to The Void makes them an inhabitant of The Void. The game’s mechanics revolve around securing and using color. Color operates as the character’s stats, resources, and health. Everything that the player does involves color in some way; it’s paramount to survival.

The Void takes place in a world of the same name. It dimly exists as a medium between life and death, a kind of purgatory. Here people experience an undying, yet unliving existence. Aptly named, it is one drained of color. Everything in this realm feeds on color, bleeds color, and yet color dwindles into non-existence. The Void’s denizens are starving to death and many have already succumbed. The Void is often called The Sleeper. That is to say, The Void is a living being, in an eternal slumber. The Void itself, is dying. The player character’s entry marks a sudden, but miniscule growth of color.

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Color is gathered and kept in containers on the right, called Lympha. Color can be taken from the right and placed into hearts. As time passes color will seep from the player’s hearts into containers on the left, called Nerva. Over the course of the game, the containers get larger as more color holding hearts are found. Nerva is used to interact with the game world and travel. Color resting in hearts provides the player stat bonuses. Each color in the hearts provide a different bonus. These bonuses include increased speed and damage, and reducing the color cost of certain actions. Time doesn’t pass within levels, only when traveling between them. So, color will only pass through hearts when traveling. The more Nerva spent traveling to an area, the faster the player will arrive at their destination. The destination must provide some color, otherwise the player wasted their resources.

If the player ever runs out of color, they game over. They must be constantly amassing Lympha to consume and stay alive. Given the shortage of color, they can’t waste their Nerva, which is needed for giving to sisters and for growing more color. Players also must maintain enough color in the Lympha to make use of any stat bonuses when needed. However, they also need enough free space to pick up any color spawns in the near future. Altogether players must: maintain a high enough value for stats and a low enough value for harvesting, keep at least one color in their heart to prevent death, and avoid the waste of Nerva. This establishes an ever-shifting balancing act of resource management that’s extremely stressful.

Every time the player exchanges color to interact with the world they must use a glyph by drawing a shape or line over the screen with the mouse, such as a figure 8 or an “L” shaped right angle. There is 21 in all, each bringing about different kinds of effects. Essentially, it replaces hotkeys or a generalized “interaction” button. The true value in this mechanic is how it reinforces and builds on the themes of the game. It demonstrates that the player is creating, as they literally use color to paint the screen.

The core gameplay of The Void settles into a bit of a cycle. Players plant limited trees, and tap limited mines when they can. This will provide multiplicative color rewards for them later. Then they roam the different areas of The Void and pick up any spawned color. This provides them with fresh Lympa, which they consume to make room, and develop more Nerva which allows for continuous travel. The traveling and harvesting will provide a moderate profit, so the player can spend the mine or tree yield to advance the game.

Simple enough in concept, but players can never know what colors will spawn, or where it will occur. Given this uncertainty, it would be natural for players to stockpile as much as they can. However, brothers will occasionally come by to sap up all of the color in a level. This means that players must constantly keep all sources of color empty to avoid this devastating swing in resources. While the player’s trees can be guarded, constantly spending color doing so will cost a lot. Some of my most visceral memories come from increasing my speed stat and spending a ton of color to zip across the map, beating a brother by half a second.

The Void expects the player to understand all of these mechanics from the start. While it does have a bit of a tutorial, there is no learning space. Players must immediately perform or they will quickly game over. Failing to progress far enough will have the brothers execute the player, and progressing without enough color to survive results in simple starvation. Any mistake or misjudgment won’t outright kill them, but it sends them down a worse path. A path with a bit less color, a bit less options, and a bit less chances at success. This is especially damning because players won’t be able to afford multiplying their color with trees.37000_screenshots_2015-05-05_00006

The brothers are the capstone of The Void’s restlessness. These include a man whose ribs form a cage, a man impaled who walks on spear-like stilts, and a man who rolls on a giant sphere in place of a lower body. These monsters wield the power to kill the player, with a distaste to match. When the player first enters the game, The Void is empty of any brothers, and the player is free to operate as they please. Brothers come back into The Void one by one, with a terrifying introduction. Perhaps the most intimidating part is their entrance. Interrupting the player, they’re sent to a dimly lit area. A loud noise resounds and the brother walks towards the screen. As they come closer, they become clearer in a red glow coming from below. Their menacing appearance and unfriendly demeanor makes these scenes very powerful. Shortly, they introduce themselves and express their opinion of the player.

As the player progresses from the early-mid to late game, they start fighting the brothers. This complete shift in scenario from avoidance to confrontation affects more subtle gameplay mechanics. Earlier, players focus on retaining color, efficient farming, and avoiding brothers. Late game, they must consume enough color so they can effectively kill brothers. Instead of hiding their color and running, players consume their color and fight. Management of color through hearts becomes more important than efficient farming at this stage. A consistently large supply of diverse Nerva is required since they will be continually challenging or be challenged by brothers. Time will be spent funneling masses of color into spendable Nerva, rather than carefully managing based on current mines and trees. Since players can hold much more color than in the early game and there are less brothers to steal, precise management is no longer a necessity.

After the consistent challenge of resource management, the boss fights in The Void make a shift to direct combat. Each one requires plenty of Nerva for spending and Lympha for stat bonuses. The bosses have a spinning color wheel that informs their current weakness. If players attack the boss with the active color on the wheel, it will deal critical damage. The spinning slows down to a stop as the fight escalates. Players need to be fast on their attacks to make sure they’re hitting while the color they’re using still provides a damage bonus. Fights are balanced around maximizing this bonus, so it’s necessary to make use of it. The brothers themselves are intense. These giant monstrosities have been bullying the player all game, and now it’s time to fight toe-to-toe. They loudly chant mantras, speaking to each color, requesting for their aid. Fights usually require a glyph to damage them down, combined with some defensive glyphs or dodging.37000_screenshots_2015-05-05_00005

The Whaler is a giant dual-wielding swordsman with his head sewn onto his back. When the fight starts, he slowly wanders the arena, unable to find the player. He chants, requesting color’s aid in his task to kill the player. An ominous feeling sets in, harmlessness contrasts with this bold threat. Ten flying heads descend, which wander the arena and attack if the player gets close. After about a minute he will become invincible and collect a head. With it, he can detect the player, and will begin to chase. He will continue to gather heads which increase his speed and damage, but lower his defense. If he is allowed to collects four heads, the fight is instantly lost. Players must decide how much risk they want to take to save color: spend more resources over time for an easier fight, or wait until the end and try to burst him down. If players succeed in this gambit, they can come out spending half the color. I waited and avoided the heads until he collected two. Then I put a bit of damage on him, and waited some more. Once he got his third head, I started attacking like a madman. Messing up at this point could lead to instant failure. The fight breaks into chaos as the player has to put out a ton of damage, while running from his increased speed, and the constant threat of the floating heads.

The Void embodies stress. The difficulty of the game makes discussions of creation and human life extremely potent. The weight of a human soul, and it sinking in apathy, wouldn’t be so evocative, if we didn’t have to claw our way up and out of The Void. Creation is so important, because we struggle to sustain ourselves. The Void’s challenge brings life to its themes. Instead of using words to convey its ideas, the mechanics do it for us. The power of breakthrough is understood through the mounds and mounds of color we must gather to cast it.  Without this deep difficulty, we wouldn’t feel The Void. The same things would happen, yeah, and we could understand them, sure. But would it matter, matter to us? This connection of theming to gameplay is what makes The Void so satisfying as a game and work of art.

T H E M E S  &  A E S T H E T I C

Our character is a mute, disembodied soul that happened to wander into The Void after death. Running dry of color brings absolute death, while understanding the essence and truth of color will undo death itself. The Void hosts a patriarchal society consisting of brothers and sisters. Brothers are divine beings, blind watchers, intimidating wonders, policing forces, deformed monstrosities. They achieved their status by ascending from the nightmare, a place completely devoid of color. In its past bounty of color, they viewed The Void as heaven, granted to them for their success. They operate as watchers to preserve The Void and stop color from being selfishly wasted. The very act of giving color is a crime punishable by death. They also take care of and rule over the sisters. They openly hate them, but still act as their keeper.

The sisters are delicate beings, dying of hunger. Unlike the brothers, color speaks to them and they can understand its will. They dream of a brighter world, of limitless color up on the surface. This is why the brothers hate them. Their dreams are blasphemy; belief in a better world is taboo. However, the sisters are a natural part of The Void, and therefore a part of what must be protected. These two conflicting views can’t be mended. The brothers know this void is paradise and the sisters know this void leads to hell. As it becomes clearer that The Void will die, this tenuous relationship is strained.

The player is tasked with utilizing the power of color to escape The Void. Harnessing the power of color is forbidden by the brothers, so the actor poses as a new brother. This deception gives it more room to use color without immediate execution. In exchange for feeding the sisters some color, they will help the player with their deception. Brothers don’t believe the player is one of them; several call for its death immediately. Only a few welcome the potential brother or take a moderate position.37000_screenshots_2015-03-29_00002

Since The Void is a world without color, it fosters a “beautiful yet dying” feel. Levels exist in variations of gray, decorated only with their architecture. Players can observe twisting rock formations that flow up into the sky, a ship grounded in between cliffs, and rocks that look like giant hands. These surrealist visuals combine with a dark atmosphere to remain attractive. In these levels, players can also plant trees, which grow color. These sprout in bright, luscious tones of the planted color. It provides a stark contrast against the otherwise dark environment, demonstrating the power of color. Additionally, there are places that refresh the palette with unrestricted use of color. The otherwise heavy restraint on color allows these areas to shine brighter and leave an especially great impact on players. Here players can explore and soak the environment before journeying back into the cold void. If it weren’t for these respites, The Void would be unrelenting in its darkness.

While navigating these dark environments, we’re collecting color, and being vaguely aware of any nearby predators. As long as the player keep their distance, these predators won’t chase them down, so they aren’t an immediate threat. The Void’s soundtrack matches this with a tone of apprehension: a dark, airy ambience that doesn’t quite fill the open space. Random sounds like rocks falling mix into the background of these foreboding tracks. Occasionally the brothers will threaten them for spending color with a loud whisper: “taboo.” Other times, color will whisper it’s encouragements: “Do not fear death, for there is no death in The Void.”

Tracks for a sister’s area bring an individuality that mirrors the level. These usually contain more traditional instruments and sounds, reflecting their goal of portraying beauty. Una’s Forge subverts this by conveying uneasiness with a fast-paced and sinister tone, juxtaposed to distant screams in the background. Giant mechanized hammers shake the ground, giant gears foster an uneasy feeling, amid unreachable areas which appear red-hot. Giving color to Una is uncomfortable; she appears to be burned from the color flowing through her. The intimidating music and visuals build up her importance as a character. She is the first sister to not support the player, but to blame them for their meandering. Her environment supports her characterization as somebody who will tell the player things they don’t want to hear. (Una’s Forge Theme)37000_screenshots_2015-03-29_00004

The Void takes heavy inspiration from poetry. It directly appears throughout the game in boss fights, in between acts, and in each end. The act card is a text screen that considers the implications of what the player will do, and how The Void is shifting. These set the mood for each act and are striking as white text on a pure black background. In a way, even the levels are poetic. They’re restrained, focused on individual beauty, and aren’t concerned with immediate connections. After the beginning tutorial, characters usually speak only 4-5 lines at a time. This short and succinct method of communication is sisterly with poetry.

Dialogue is short, so the game unfolds mysteriously. As the player gives color to the sisters, they will provide tidbits of information. While the game never actively poses these questions, these bits will make the player ask. What am I? Why? What or who is The Void? Sisters have their own interpretations on what The Void is and what has happened to it. Nothing seems to be outright falsities or truths: instead they’re different perceptions. The Void is kept vague, allowing for free interpretation.

Color itself speaks later, offering a more authoritative definition. It reveals that a void is truly a limit. A human soul is made up of a chain of limits, or voids. The Sleeper, the current void, is indeed dying, and the protagonist is its lost soul. To continue living, one must move up and destroy their limits. Souls can’t stay in one place, they move up or down. The sisters are the seeds of a new world on the surface. They represent different dreams and visions of The Sleeper’s. The way up and out of this void is through breakthrough, which can only be done after defeating enough brothers.

Casting breakthrough channels all of The Void’s color into the player and through a sister, sending them up to the surface, and destroying The Void. Alternatively, the player can cast it on themself, personally ascending to the surface instead. This ends the game and triggers a different cutscene depending on the choice made. If the actor refuses – or fails – to cast breakthrough on any target, they become a full-fledged brother. Their character is introduced the same way as all the brothers before them have been. In this dying void they remain as its sole keeper. Each scene where breakthrough is casted includes a cutscene from the perspective of a tinted, wandering camera on the surface. This is accompanied by a different poem for each character ascended.

The Void’s intro is a spoken poem about depression alongside imagery suggesting a descension. I interpret this as The Sleeper falling into depression, and how the player arrives in The Void. They become The Sleeper’s disembodied soul swimming through the husk of his mind, amidst his dreams and demons. Color tells the player they have no will, that their power of choice belongs to the one who lost them. This defines them as The Sleeper’s will to live, separated by depression. Some sisters say that “Suffering from hunger comes when it’s easy to live, but you’re sick of living. Hunger is when you don’t even have the strength to want for something.” Out of context, this confused me. But when considered through the lens of depression, it’s a very apt description. The Sleeper’s depressed apathy is starving the sisters – his dreams.

As the player progresses through the game, they’re continuously painting with color. Feeding sisters, planting gardens, it’s creation. With the stroke of a mouse, on the canvas of The Void, we color. One sister says, “But [The Void] isn’t a home. It’s a canvas, golden eyes. And we are your paints.” Our journey through The Void is the journey of creation. Through endless struggle and hunger, we create, create until we breakthrough. The sheer difficulty of the game channels this. The impossible uphill battle, the unsureness, the fear, the breakthrough. It resonates and echoes truth within me as a developer. The game can also be viewed as a metaphor for personal growth. Fostering different personality traits and gaining new experiences, culminating in a breakthrough as a different person: possibly a more empathetic person, or a more determined person, according to the sister they chose to ascend. This takes the concept of a chain of voids into a more literal application. As a soul is always moving up or down in voids, people’s personalities and traits are constantly changing based on their actions and environments.

These shouldn’t be viewed as completely separate themes. The human life/soul, creation, and depression are all inseparably linked to each other. The Void’s themes work together in tandem and should be viewed in tandem as well. Poetry exemplifies creation, creation informs the human life/soul, and these are all affected by depression. The poetic influences and themes are linked to the player’s own painting and creating, which contrasts The Sleeper’s dying depression, which illustrates the concept of the human life and requiring breakthrough to survive, which is creation itself. The Void decidedly lacks human influence in its monstrous wasteland, but reflects on creation masterfully. It strikes the deepest I’ve experienced in any work of art.

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