The Crushing Beauty of Ice-Pick Lodge

I struggled with a subtitle for this article for a while.  Lots of overblown, lengthy things suggested themselves to me.  Something like “Stark Slavic Masterpieces of Struggle, Failure, and Death” or “The Seed of Hope Found Within a Meat Grinder”.  Something suitably theatrical and melancholy, you know?  Sadly, titles that are that long tend to look bad with my blog’s format.

Just as I did in my Zachtronics article, I’m going to be looking at three games by a particular studio that share a common theme or set of design principles.  In this case, I would like to tell you about Pathologic (Classic HD), Pathologic 2, and The Void.  Where Zachtronics games excel at providing the player with a mechanical and intellectual challenge, Ice-Pick Lodge explores dark and thickly layered emotional and metaphorical territory, using mechanics to reinforce themes.  That’s right, we’re going to talk about art games today!  Buckle up, fuckers.

Gamers like to say that “video games are art”, by which they mean “video games are beyond criticism” (???).  In practice, gamers and games “journalists” tend to dismiss most actual art games out of hand as “not games” or “walking simulators” or “budget Skyrim“.  No small part of this is down to gamers being terrible people, but most of this is America’s fault at a systemic, national level; our art education is shallow, out of date, and woefully incomplete.  Trying to talk with any American about art is basically resigning yourself to having the same conversation over and over.  Duchamp’s “Fountain” was 102 years ago, guys, and yes it was art.  Everyone but you knows what Warhol was all about by now, and yes.  Art.  Yes, “Piss Christ” is art.  Yes, Pollock is art.  Public art is art, your “tax dollars” aren’t being wronged by abstract sculpture.  Everything is art, you morons, you absolute buffoons.  You can’t even get to the proper critique of art because you’re constantly having to defend works as art to people who have no idea what the word means.

And no, Mr. and Mrs. America, your 5 year old could not “do that”.  Your 5 year old is still working with representational watercolors.

Add onto that the layers of smarmy, self-assured, ignorant arrogance that come with Gamer Culture, and you’ve got a recipe for colossal disaster, for the defilement of an entire medium.  Games are art, but don’t you dare perform art critique on them!  Games are art, but only if they’re not “political” (read: has a woman or person of color in it).  Diamonds are left deep in the rough and never found or appreciated.  Another rejected subtitle for this article was “Pearls Before Swine”.

With this context in mind, we turn to Ice-Pick Lodge, creators of no less than three truly arresting pieces of art that have the ill fortune to also be video games.  In their native Russia, the land of Dostoyevsky, Brecht and brutalism, their games are lauded and given high honors.  In America, the land of the backwards, childish, and soft, they languish on the Steam store with “mixed reviews” and are generally considered impenetrable.  Everything is impenetrable when your wits are sharp as a butter knife.

These are really really good games, y’all.  I’m not talking like, “monetized operant conditioning chamber” good.  Or “dopamine firehose” good.  I mean… GOOD good.  Thought-provoking.  Challenging.  Mature in the sense of “requires an adult’s brain to think about” rather than “boobies and butts haha”.  Though there are those too, particularly in The Void.

These are not the sorts of games that gamers like, is basically what I’m trying to say, here.  There’s no heroic monomyth to be found here, no grand tale of whatever.  No heroes, no villains, no epic quests.  No power curve, no sense of progression, no hamster wheels or daily chore lists.  There’s not even any loot boxes!  What is this trash?  It’s held back by its 2005 roots!

So, enough of this.  We know what these games aren’t, by now.  What are they, then?

At a surface level, Pathologic and Pathologic 2 are games in which the player inhabits the role of a doctor trying to fight against a plague, set in a timeless and eerie European steppe town.  The Void is a game in which the player is a spirit on the verge of death, trying to figure out how anything works in a barren, hostile world, which is driven and sustained by color.

I’ve been reading a lot of the discourse about these games, a lot of reviews and forum posts and such.  And a trend I’ve noticed is that a lot of the conversation assumes that the reader would never be interested in actually playing these games themselves, and so treats total or near-total spoilers and plot summaries as fair game.  I’d like to avoid this.  Being surprised by the twists and turns, learning how the rules of these games work, is most of the experience.  We can discuss the themes of these games without robbing you of that.  Because here’s the thing: unlike most reviewers, I expect you to play these games.  I want you to go and do likewise.  I’m not here to spoon-feed you vicarious experiences.  You’re not a child.  Having someone describe the Mona Lisa to you is most emphatically not the same thing as seeing it yourself.  And because Ice-Pick Lodge’s work takes the form of video games, an experiential medium, well.  You see my point.

So, these are games about death.  They’re about struggle, futility, oppressive atmosphere, frustration, betrayal, lies.  They’re games in which the rules are not clear, and your freedom is a curse.  Games in which you can easily get yourself into an unwinnable state, 5 or 10 hours in, and have to restart entirely, and that is very much an intended part of your experience.

Pathologic and Pathologic 2 explicitly break the fourth wall and include characters that talk directly to the player, or talk about the game and its development process and intentions.  The games’ conceit is that “Pathologic” is a stage play, one where the player is an actor playing “Daniil Dankovsky, Bachelor of Medicine”, or the native surgeon “Artemy Burakh, Haruspex”, or the witch-thief “Changeling” (saying anything about her is a spoiler; you’re required to beat the game first to play as her).  The second game has things to say about remakes/sequels in addition to being an incredibly strong story in its own right.

Pathologic and its sequel rely heavily on atmosphere and oppressive mechanics that actively strive to thwart the player’s efforts to complete it.  You are almost never able to straightforwardly achieve a goal and get a reward; you arrive to meetings to find characters have died, completing “side quests” will often net you nothing but damage to your stats and wasted time, and you are always in the wrong place at the wrong time, making the wrong decisions.  This is by design.  The sequel is less immediately hostile, but nevertheless ramps up until you are forced to make difficult decisions with extremely limited resources.  Eventually, you will be forced to fail, and to reckon with the consequences of failure.  Important NPCs will become infected and die.  You probably won’t be able to save the town, or even yourself.  But there is value in the struggle nonetheless.  We have to carry on, because that’s just what we do.

Pathologic 1 leans more into exhausting and confusing the player directly through long dull treks, constant shifting of objectives, and an obtuse UI.  It also has characters that have more explicit angles and agendas, and the player is lied to or manipulated quite often.  You have to stay on your toes, be wary, and trust no information at face value.  Its sequel is more “fun” to actually play initially, then poses gradually more impossible moral challenges through its mechanics.  Both are fantastic experiences, and neither can be truly “won” in the conventional sense without some bittersweet element.  For instance, in 2, treating a person for immunity can never 100% guarantee their safety.  You make your rounds and check on people and perform prophylaxis, but you might use valuable and scarce supplies only to have the person fall ill anyway.  And the game is designed to prevent save scumming.  You must live with whatever happens.

The Void is not so explicitly “game-y” and does not break the fourth wall, but deals with similar themes through its mechanics.  There is an additional layer of commentary on toxic masculinity here, as the game revolves heavily around a group of seemingly-helpless Sisters being “protected” and abused by a group of hypermasculine and terrifying Brothers.  You are a spirit on the verge of your final death, and you are brought back to a semblance of existence by the gift of one of these Sisters’ hearts.  In learning how to navigate the world and survive, you learn about Color and its uses, how it is the lifeblood of the world in which you find yourself, how you cannot exist without consuming it.  Just by living and giving Color, you push the Void ever closer to utter annihilation.  The more you learn, the more you become like a Brother yourself.  This is the only game I know of to ever say anything meaningful about masculinity, femininity, consumption, environmentalism, and the power dynamics of abuse.  This is a game in which women teach you to plant trees to survive, in which men police feminine expression of gender explicitly, as part of the text.

This process of figuring out how things work is the entire game in The Void, so I won’t be saying much more about its specifics.  I will say that there is a part of me that doubts it was ever meant to be fully completed.  The endings seem to exist as a vestigial relic of the medium in which The Void finds expression.  You can’t have a video game without an ending, right?  And they are not satisfying; at best, they are pyrrhic victories, almost a punishment for continuing to play and choosing to master the systems of the game.

The Void is particularly punishing in the long term.  Just as in Pathologic, NPCs will readily lie to you about what you should be doing, and following their advice will often land you in situations where you have no choice but to restart.  You aren’t told what the various Colors are for or what they can do, or anything substantial about how the world works.  Time is always against you, and the Brothers serve as both your antagonists and as a kind of twisted cabal of allies.  They are the gang you must impress to find meaning as a man, and the Sisters your paramours, whether they want you or not.  The whole scenario is grotesque, twisted, bleak and beautiful.

It is also deeply and surprisingly feminist.  I’ll take an excerpt from the “beginner’s guide to The Void” (though if you click, beware of Total Spoilers):

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.

It is important to realize that these are not games that should be approached with the usual mindset.  When you sit down to play Pathologic or The Void, you shouldn’t be thinking, “how can I win” or “what do I need to do to get the best reward here”.  Instead, what these games ask of you is the flexibility and the open-mindedness to let them buffet you about on the winds of circumstance and change.  You’ll want to let them steer you into dead ends, accept your failure as the intended effect, then try again with grace.  I think too many people approach these games thinking that their worth as a player is somehow tied to their success or failure in the game, which naturally leads to them getting frustrated.  You are meant to fail.  Don’t try to game the system.  Don’t try to get around it by reading spoilers.  You are doing yourself a disservice if you try to succeed.  Just let these games fuck you up.  That’s the whole point.

In a landscape of gaming where “failure” is not generally reckoned with, where the player’s hand is held tightly and we are led through a garden of earthly delights designed to zap all our pleasure centers, Ice-Pick Lodge is a rare group of auteurs indeed.  There is great value in these experiences, in learning how to deal with frustration and failure and struggle.  With these three games, IPL have demonstrated that it is entirely possible to capture stark futility and still lead the player to see the value in continuing to struggle against fate.  To act, despite knowing that we must die and that everything must end.  I can’t think of anyone else who’s even attempting this sort of work right now, and they deserve your support.  You owe it to yourself to play these games.  They’re all on Steam.

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