On feminine representation in 'The Void'

5 January 2010
2:47 am

I have already written an exhaustive review of Ice-Pick Lodge's The Void. My holiday week was spent playing it to a rather addicted degree, and after completing it twice I have been impressed both with the challenge it presented and the breadth of its story. It's been a long time since I've played a game so strategically involving that I had to start over from scratch three times. After the game stumped me for the 50th time, I went searching for walkthroughs online in the vain hope that someone could give me a clue of what to do. Unfortunately, due to the game's limited awareness in the wider world, there aren't really any such walkthroughs to speak of, and the game's official forums were the one and only real resource available to me for hints. Whilst reading around, I came across this rather negative review of the game itself. A lot of Andrea Morstabilini's gripes are over purely subjective stuff and I can't necessarily argue with personal taste, but some of the criticism (the complaints about male bias and female representation in particular) verge on intellectually dishonest. I originally left a short comment on the site responding to some things, but I quickly got an email back that it had been rejected due to length (??) and if I wanted to rebut anything, I should sign up for their forums and create a thread there.

Well. Not particularly interested in that, I instead have decided to broaden the scope of my comment and write a rebuttal here. This will be particularly in-depth, both because the game has really interested me in a way that few titles have, and also because I think it would be a shame for anyone to take a look at The Void and go "oh look, breasts" and dismiss the title as sexist. I have to admit, that's what I felt at first when I initially started playing the game, but I'm happy that I gave it a chance and didn't assume that just because nude and semi-nude women were featured prevalently in the game that there was no further substance to the title. While I have tried to keep spoilers to a minimum, to explore this fully it was unfortunately impossible to keep them out entirely. If you haven't finished the game or played through a significant part of it, you might want to bookmark this for later. Also, some of the content here is rather NSFW; this is the price to pay when you're discussing pixelated breasts.

First, getting a bit of backstory out of the way is necessary. In The Void, you play the role of a lost soul that has arrived in a purgatory-like existence after death. There are two main factions, the Brothers and Sisters; the Sisters are the intended vessel through which another world will be reincarnated, and the Brothers are intended to be the shepherds that tend to them until this process actually happens. Before your arrival, relationships have broken down between the two groups and the Sisters have ended up enslaved and paired to the Brothers, starved and kept chained and abused. Color is the main resource of this afterlife and it is a source of sustenance for both the Brothers and Sisters; in its pure form it is Lympha, and it is the role of Brothers to convert this into Nerva to provide to the Sisters. This process has broken down and instead the Brothers keep their thralls on the verge of death, not trusting them and consistently accusing them of manufacturing trickery and lies. There are nine Sisters in total and each has a corresponding Brother. (There are two other Sisters who are unattached, both lacking a Brother and a domain of their own; they flit about the map of their own accord and interact with the player from time to time). The Sisters in turn oversee their own Chambers, a set of two explorable "rooms" and a third room that consists of their living area. The majority of gameplay takes place between the Sisters' Chambers, whether cultivating gardens or fighting Predators and Brothers. A Sister's living area, heretofore referred to as a "bedroom" for lack of a better term (or me forgetting it) is in many ways a representation of the Sisters themselves; Sister Nameless (also known as Sister Death) is the first character you encounter and she lives at the center of a deserted island, within the center of a giant dead tree. Ava is a sultry Sister you also meet early on who entices you to ignore the "taboo" of feeding a Sister and give her your Color in order to receive her help. Her "bedroom" is lavish and well-decorated, reflective of her superficial interests towards matters of the present, like pleasure and immediate satiation. Uta rests serenely in a hammock floating above a lake, looking off into the stars.

This established, I begin to take issue with many of the assertions Andrea Morstabilini made in one paragraph towards the end of the review; moving past the subjective opinions of the game's story or controls, it was the section of the review devoted towards "sexist stereotypes" that concerned me. Here is the relevant portion of the review quoted for the purposes of my subsequent dissection.

I’m also compelled to mention one thing that deeply offended me about The Void: its sexist stereotypes. At first I found it intriguing that the way to “talk” to the Sisters was by lavishing Colors on their faces, but as soon as I saw how the Sisters communicate in return, I felt a sudden rush of anger. 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 (the naked body of the male protagonist, on the other hand, is depicted in a nearly asexual way, like a Ken doll). Even the women of Leisure Suit Larry felt more real and less like inflatable dolls whose sole purpose is to entice with their artsy but seductive nudity. Many titles today are full of strong female protagonists, so it’s disappointing that games like The Void still feel the need to use a woman’s body – and, generally speaking, human sexuality – not as a theme but as a cheap visual tactic.

It's difficult to tell where the line between accidental misunderstanding and deliberate misrepresentation begins. Ever the optimist, I will assume the former and make some things clear. Yes, there is nudity in The Void; while certainly Europe as a whole has a blase attitude towards sex compared to the United States, I don't know how reflective that is on Russia's stance. I was surprised when I picked the game up and was confronted with breasts and nipples within my first five minutes of gameplay, but it was something I quickly got used to.

To interact with anything in The Void, you hold down the left ctrl key in order to access your "pallet" of Color; from here you move the mouse to choose which of the seven shades of Color you want to use, then you use the mouse to draw this Color in the game world. This can be in the form of specific Glyphs, like the one used to "donate" Color to the Sisters, or Glyphs that animate Color into golems to fight for you. When you enter a Sister's "bedroom" you see her in a "physical" form, like Uta lying in her hammock. When you draw a line of Color across a Sister, you have indicated to the game that you wish to interact with this Sister. The easiest analogy would be double-clicking on an icon to execute a program; by drawing Color on a Sister inside her Chamber, you "double-click" her and the game then shows you her Soul Obscura, the interface where your soul communicates with her's. Within the Obscura the Sister is represented in a nude form surrounded by various constricting ethereal chains of light around her body. This is where I believe the reviewer was confused about giving Color to the Sisters and having them remove their clothing; it doesn't work quite that way, and the Sisters never "undress" at any point.

Admittedly the transition from the game environment to the Obscura is a bit unexplained and not something I picked up on immediately, but it's still a strong departure from the reviewer's implication that giving Color to the Sisters is rewarded with them stripping for you like prostitutes. The review makes no distinction that there is very much a transition between the two states, and giving the Sisters Color isn't rewarded with a peep show.

While talking to a Sister, much of the interaction is particularly static. They don't do very much throughout the course of the conversation, and any gamers hoping to watch their chosen Sister "caresses her thighs, stroke her breasts, cross her legs like an albino version of Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, and wriggle her hips seductively" are going to be sorely disappointed; having explored all of the Sister's Chambers several times, I'm at a loss to figure out what the reviewer was referring to in this particular instance. The conversations and interactions are decidedly unsexy, even when you're standing before a nude seraphim talking to you in a melancholy voice. There are no seductive caresses or masturbatory invitations for the player to get their jollies off on, and from this paragraph you would deduce that the game gets downright pornographic.

Once you've activated a Sister you can donate one of two particular shades of Color to her (the shades that the Sister "loves," and each Sister has her own combinations). This becomes the focal point of the gameplay; each Sister has four Hearts, containers to hold Color, and halfway through the game you're tasked with selecting a Sister, filling all four of her Hearts to the brim, and then sending her to reincarnate a new world in order to end the game. When you donate Color, a reception animation plays for that Sister; most of these are rather chaste– Yani's version of the Obscura is her balancing on top of a giant sphere, and when she's fed Color she does a quiet ballet dance on top of it. Sister Nameless simply swims around underwater, moving back and forth beneath the surface of a black lake. Eli, whose "bedroom" is represented as a massive blimp tethered to a floating cliff, alternates between stretching her legs in preparation for a marathon sprint and throwing sports balls off into the distance. Color, as said, is the fuel that powers this world, and when you give it to a Sister you are replenishing a resource that has been starved from her by the Brothers. Restoring her reserves replenishes her and strengthens her; this is made clear in the way that, as you fill a Sister's Hearts, the ethereal chains surrounding her break free and float away, signifying that she's gotten that much stronger.

Obviously, doing this works against the edicts of the Brothers and angers them; a player who donates Color simply to get the Sisters "naked" faster will lose the game, both between not having necessary resources to continue playing and because the Brothers will come and rip the opened Hearts from the Sisters and then attack the player.

Most of the time the Sisters respond demurely to being given Color, but there are a few where this isn't the case. As mentioned before, Ava is very sexualized, but so is Sister Ire, who is one of the few Sisters to be unclothed when you first meet her in her non-soul state. When Ire is given Color, she tends to breathe a sigh of relief, running her hands over her body in a pleasurable capacity for a moment before returning to her perch against a tree-stump. Ire is probably the most sexually explicit of any Sister interaction and even the extent to which she relishes being fed with Color is rather demure. The fact that she is unclothed in the non-soul state as well is interesting, because she is dressed like some sort of concubine or geisha when you see her outside of her Obscura; when you speak to her soul to soul, the Obscura seems to represent her "purer" form. By contrast, Sister Una is depicted as the overseer of a forge; in her Obscura she sits nude above fiery coals and instead of chains, she's wrapped in flame. When she's fed with Color her reactions are not sexual, but shuddering and violent as if enraptured in some religious experience. She thrashes and writhes on the floor, gasping for air, her response almost painful and unwelcome. Below I've included quick clips of what happens when you give Una and Ire Color, and then provided the same clip for Yani to show contrast between the three Sisters.

One of the Sisters, Ima, lives perpetually chained to a cross with a dangling pendulum blade above her; as you open her Hearts, this blade creeps closer and closer towards slicing her in half, and when all four Hearts are full, she barely breaks free of the chains in time to dodge it. The metaphor of imprisonment is literal here, as Ima's Obscura represents her state in the "normal" world as well. She is chained to the same cross in both existences, and as you fill her with Color you give her the necessary strength to set her free. That is your role in the game; finding the Sisters, gathering the resources necessary to save them, strengthening them and then setting them free. The nudity is more indicative of their angelic states than anything sexual, and the chains that surround all of the Sisters are both an allusion and a literal representation of the enslavement they're forced into by the stronger Brothers.

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.

And on the subject of the Brothers, themselves. The Sisters are all represented in nymphic beauty, while the Brothers are ghastly monstrosities of flesh warped beyond any human recognition. They're all blind (physically, and in yet another metaphor, intellectually, as much of the gameplay is spent listening to their close-minded, dogmatic regurgitations of taboos and laws as custodians of the realm) and their bodies are mutilated and distorted. One is a creature that lacks a head entirely and is stricken to a chariot-slash-wheelchair, another is something in the shape of a man whose limbs have been pulled into spikes like a praying mantis, while yet another has no mobility at all and is some sort of hybrid centaur between a person and a pipe organ. Compared to the Sisters, these creatures are on the opposite end of the spectrum. They're frightening, authoritarian and violent– one act of the game has you necessarily challenging them as they go about a religious interrogation against the Sisters, accusing them of criminal acts.

Even with the nudity of the Sisters, it's difficult to act as if the Brothers have any sort of advantageous male bias. They may be stronger and "in charge," but clearly they are depicted as poisoned and suffering– when you kill one, the mysterious voice of Color tells you that the Brothers are born of fear, and defeating them relieves them of their pain. To battle such a keeper and win is a positive experience for the Brother, as you finally lay its soul to rest.

Having spent a good forty hours with The Void, I thought that it was beautiful and compelling in story and scope; I have a hard time relating to Andrea Morstabilini's accusations of inherent sexism– the nudity, while prevalent, 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 Brothers are clearly the "bad" guys while the Sisters, if manipulative at times, are under their thumbs and control.

As a gay male used to hypersexualized representations of women in video games, I admit that initially I saw nude breasts and rolled my eyes thinking, "Oh, it's going to be one of those games." I was prepared for the women to pant and coo towards my character, begging listlessly for his attention. I did not expect the sexuality to be so understated and the objectification to be non-existent, however, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that was the case. Ultimately, I think anyone who takes a look at the game, sees the cornucopia of nude angelic beings and declares "Sexism!" is really not giving the game a fair go. Certainly if I had read Andrea Morstabilini's criticisms before I picked up the game, I would have expected this to be some sort of borderline virtual pornography thinly disguised as a video game. However, such a dismissal is truly unfair to the title and sells itself short. There's a lot more to be found within The Void and even with the veneer of beauty this game has an incredible amount of depth.

Additional screenshots:

8 Responses to \'On feminine representation in 'The Void'\'

    It is interesting to see the reaction to nudity in this game and its rationalization, and still – sexism is probably not an important concept in Russia. At least, I have never heard about sexist parades or things like that. I didn't even hear about sexism, not until the game was translated into English and released in English-speaking countries.

    Could it be that people are over-analyzing it? It scares me that some reviews of the game DON'T EVEN MENTION NUDITY AND EROTICISM. As if it was some very embarassing element of the game one really shouldn't know about. It seems strange to me that someone might not notice that these "improper" elements are integral part of the game's aesthetics. This game is probably one of the very few (except hentai, of course) that have nudity and er.. "suggestive themes" as one of its core elements and would become completely different game without them.

    I definitely think there's a degree of over-analyzing going on; there is an interesting discussion on the official Ice-Pick Lodge forums that I've been participating in, which was where I found the Adventure Gamers review in the first place.

    Nevertheless I think it's cool that we can have this discussion in the first place. There's so much symbolism in The Void that it lends itself well to this conversation and it's interesting to me to see how people approach it from different angles.

    […] any intent to objectify them, or any desire to sexualize victimization. I really don't, and others agree with me. I feel that The Void is, taken as a whole, a piece of art and that, like some pieces of art, it […]

    Its funny to think of this game as anything other than a remarkable work of art. The complaint of objectifying women in the game can hardly be supported. I dont know about the others, but the majority of my time in the game was spent just looking at the beautiful environments, pondering the interesting lines, and just soaking up the atmosphere as a whole. If even a person like me, who usually plays FPS and RPGs and such could appreciate the beauty of such a game, im sure people should be able to enjoy the game more rather than complain about brief nudity

    A feminist assertion that the game is sexist in its portrayal of women is also an assertion that any woman who expresses physicality and/or sexuality is invalid, an exception to what a woman should be and antagonist to women's issues.

    The Sisters of the Void clearly are not meant to represent the role of women, they are expressions of extreme emotions that apply to both men and women. Personally I believe that the game's story explores the irony of gender and does in fact have anti-sexism undertones. Despite the story basis appearing to be female "Sisters" vs. male "Brothers", it's discovered that those labels have nothing to do with the actions, emotions, or standing of the characters. Some of the Sisters are aggressive and considered masculine in our culture, while some of the Brothers make attempts at being nurturing and passive, clearly identified to us as feminine. This just adds to the complexity of the non-linear plot and quickly dissuades players from compartmentalizing the game's plot as the traditional good vs. evil. By not allowing players to use social gender as a tool of thought, the deconstruction of gender roles serves as an added subconscious layer of despair, the kind of which psychological horror is based upon.

    The idea that the void is not sexist is absurd. It's clearly an engaging peice of art, but come on. First of all, just because something is artistic and symbolic doesn't make it not a strip tease.

    A feminist assertion that the game is sexist in its portrayal of women is also an assertion that any woman who expresses physicality and/or sexuality is invalid

    The sisters in the void don't express anything. They have no free will to decline your 'gifts' and you can punish them if you fee like it. They are totally captive and you can 'control' them completely (once you defeat the brothers)

    The 'sexism' in the game has nothing to do with female sexuality or sexual expressiveness. It's all about controlling women who are dependent on you, and in a sexualized context

    (Never seen this blog before, I found it googling for some information about the sisters. But it's obviously just rationalization from people who don't like the idea that they enjoyed some sexist art)

    example: (Never seen this blog before, I found it googling for some information about the sisters. But it's obviously just rationalization from people who don't like the idea that they enjoyed some sexist art)

    As a gay man and with this site covering a predominantly LGBT-focused slant, I'm not sure why you would come to the conclusion that I "enjoy some sexist art."

    At any rate, I disagree with the crux of your comment for the reasons I laid out at length above, but I think it's fascinating that a game like this can engineer such disparate viewpoints on this issue.

    […] physical manifestation from that of her Soul Obscura comes from a chap called Joshua Meadows, whose own article on the game's representation of sex and nudity was an inspiration on this […]

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