If games development companies could be anthropomorphized, Ice-Pick Lodge would be the haunted eccentric, the self-made thespian with a taste for the ghoulish, the genius with a sunken stare and a boxful of shoddy miracles. There's a feverish strangeness to all of their games, a splash of darkness that is wholly and identifiably theirs. Which is impressive, all things taken into consideration, as at first glance none of the Russian company's works share any similarities.
It's difficult to talk about Ice-Pick Lodge without mentioning their first and greatest claim to immortality, a psychological horror game that stormed Russian award ceremonies and the hearts of the English-speaking press. Entitled Pathologic (2005), it takes place within what initially appears as a small and unremarkable town. It is here that the game's three playable characters—a doctor, a savage, and a woman with terrible prowess—converge, each burdened with their own purpose and unique history. It is also here that a virulent outbreak takes place.
Pathologic spares no one, both metaphorically and not. The disease isn't ornamental, but a hostile presence sweeping invisibly through the streets, flensing them of characters major and minor. Pathologic is a game that isn't afraid to intimidate. It fights its players. Every mistake, no matter how small it might initially appear, can be potentially game-ending. Even the act of basic survival is a Herculean ordeal, made complicated by dwindling supplies, the tireless assault of the plague, and a fumbling combat system. Winning Pathologic, it seems, isn't a show of skill but a case of serendipity.
But this poisoned environment also serves as home for a breathtakingly complex tale, teeming with bizarre secrets and capped with a shocking ending. Over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun, Quintin Smith authors what is arguably the most comprehensive ode to the game, a three-part series that divides Pathologic into The Body, The Mind, and the Soul. There are spoilers, of course. But Smith imbues his words with such grim, giddy passion that it's almost enough to read his lush account instead of playing the game yourself.
For instance, you hear that the meat-men inside the Abattoir think of themselves as an animal brotherhood. And you hear that inmates have been wrenching themselves out of the Aviary's windows, trying to escape something inside. You hear the smaller children of the Polyhedron have been sent out into the town to gather powders and pills for the big kids. These black rumours are endless, and the more you hear the more fascinating AND terrifying these buildings become. Yet as much as you don't want to go inside them, the fact that you can't enter them anyway makes them oh so intriguing. Ain't human nature a bitch.
The town you're trying to save isn't built on hot slaughter, or cold execution, but something in between. It's built on the lukewarm killing of perceived necessity. The efficient industry of the town's abattoir seems to leak out onto the streets somehow- gangs of kids, madmen and drunkards all kill unthinkingly with empty heads and scavenged blades. Life feels cheap, a notion not helped by that daily deathtoll in the hundreds or thousands.
For an even more intimate analysis of Pathologic, there is the Pathologistics blog where two friends have documented their experiences as the Bachelor and the Haruspicus. Their accounts detail all twelve days of game-time, including ruminations about plot and excerpts from important conversation. What's interesting about the Pathologistics blog, however, is not our historians' thoroughness but their gradual transition from detached storytellers to authentic residents of the town. The first few days are bracketed with references to game mechanics:
When I start it up to play Day Two, I am immediately confronted by the fact that I (that is, my character) am ravenously hungry: almost dead from hunger, in fact. The slow creep of hunger in Pathologic is relentless; Artemiy's body doesn't stop burning calories just because he's asleep, as it would in a more forgiving game. I was so proud to survive Day One while meeting my objectives that I'd almost forgotten that I still have eleven more days to get through. Eleven days of just trying to stay alive on top of everything else. It feels like being brought to heel by a leash. Don't get cocky—this is only the beginning.
But even as the embattled town changes, so too does the shape of their language. Towards the twelve days, their anecdotes read like private diaries, anointed with loathing and hopelessness and fierce desperation.
Then I remember the conversations I had with my Adherents this morning. They will grow up to be, in their own way, just as weak and selfish as their parents. They'll fall in love and rebuild their homes, scheme for power and double-cross each other, and eventually bring some new calamity on themselves. That is to say, they'll be human beings. Hotheaded Notkin, spacy Laska, bedraggled Mishka with her dreams of growing into a beauty—they deserve to live the normal, messy life that everyone lives. Unfortunately, the Polyhedron is a beautiful lie, with its false, unnatural promises of immortality and an earthly utopia. It's been siphoning the earth's lifeblood in pursuit of an impossibility. The lie must be destroyed and the lifeblood turned to curing the Plague if salvation is to be achieved.
Sadly, neither Smith nor the pair at Pathologistics shed any real light on the Devotress' tale, leaving her a cipher still. But, Josiah Harrist does write a short but fascinating exploration of Pathologic's usage of symbolism, the devolution of human society, and its effectiveness as a pandemic simulator.
Moving on, we have The Void (2008). Where Pathologic pivots around death and disease, The Void concerns itself with the aftermath. Caged within the eponymous locale, the last stop before absolute death, you're a dead soul floating through the eponymous, grey world. Here, you meet the monstrous Brothers who obsessively police their captive Sisters. Where most games would have you battling the Brothers, The Void takes a different route, asking players to shepherd the growth of Color—the only thing of any significance in this dead world—even as they puzzle together the truth of their surroundings.
Like Pathologic, it is a complex beast, one that does not hesitate to present falsehoods and challenges, obfuscating the path from initiation to victory. The Void, however, has accrued a greater wealth of criticism. Much has it been said about the game's portrayal of women, ranging from accusations of sexism to contemplations about whether it might indeed be a subtly feminist piece. AdventureGamers' Andrea Morstabilini is scathing in her takedown of the game:
When you feed Color to a Sister, first she undresses and only then speaks with the player. For instance, one of the Sisters is dressed in a long, white robe, and she is gently rolling on a hammock. As soon as the player feeds her, she is suddenly nude with only tiny lights to cover her genitalia, and while she speaks she caresses her thighs, strokes her breasts, crosses her legs like an albino version of Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, wriggling her hips seductively. Now, I have nothing against nudity, as long as the artistic choice feels coherent and non-gratuitous. I do resent this kind of objectifying representation that reduces women to mere sexual toys
Quintin Smith provides a more measured analysis of gender representation in the game, musing if the nakedness of the Sisters is a method for "illustrating their vulnerability and inescapable situation," and pondering our own responses to naked flesh.
I'm more curious about my own reaction to seeing the nudity in the game for the first time. My instinctive response was "Oh, God", because why else would a girl have no clothes on in a videogame but as a cheap way to keep the player interested? It took far, far too long for the other possibility to enter my mind—that this was a commercial game that was trying to use female nudity for artistic purposes.
In a similar vein, CTRLClick argues that the nudity in The Void "isn't sexual any moreso than in Renaissance paintings and is intended to depict the ultimate purity of communicating directly to each of the Sisters' souls." The write-up goes into detail about the Sisters, the symbolisms used, and whether the Brothers are granted any real male bias.
Feeding the Sisters Color is both a physical act and a metaphysical one; you are restoring their strength and giving them something that has been denied to them for an unspoken length of time. When you enter the Void, all of the Sisters are dying, and giving them Color is like water to a man in the desert. In this context, which isn't explained at all in the aforementioned review, some pleasurable utterances and relieved stretching makes sense. After all, you're giving the Sisters something they crave to continue living, going behind the backs of the Brothers to repair their strength.
The Beginner's Guide to the Void is possibly the most thorough of the articles the game has inspired. Certainly, it's one of the few, if not the only, to come paired with illustrations. It's a fascinating take on The Void's cosmology, detailing hypotheses about the environment and the characters themselves.
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.
Crucially, it dives again into the game's complicated sexual politics, vivisecting design choices and The Void's handling of gender, down to the decision to make the main character male in nature.
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.
Since the release of The Void, Ice-Pick Lodge has gone on to launch two more games: Cargo! The Quest for Gravity (2011) and Knock-Knock (2013), both of which are informed by the developers' phantasmagorical style but are also less impressive in scope. Cargo! The Quest for Gravity is possibly Ice-Pick Lodge's cutest game, but even it is informed with a bizarre artstyle. As for Knock Knock, it is a game about hide and go seek, except with night terrors and a dreadful certainty the dawn will not make it much better.
That said, a remake of Pathologic, Ice-Pick Lodge's brightest and bleakest spawn, is looming on the horizon. With luck, its release will bring more people to the unnamed Settlement and its quiet, unsettling secrets.
From the ghoulish to the familiar: in the next instalment of this column we continue to explore the borderlands between prose and play by looking at the reception of the fantastic Gone Home. See you there!