A segement of Void One based on German painter Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau installation.
The game begins in what could be Silent Hill: a low-quality flashback to games we once played and off-putting towns we may have sifted through, chunky pixels of snow float down in foggy streets.
The man playing in front of me is trying to find his way out, searching the red brick walls for hidden alleys and hopping against the chain-link fences. The actual exit to this stage is a small wooden shack behind a brush of forest. Approaching it and it fades to a hopeless desert, imposed with two floating pyramids. A wall of drone music floods in. Metal.
Void One is not a game made for gaming. The player makes their way from one point to the next, but it's not about victory or success. Its creator, Luis Hernandez, a studio technician and part-time game developer, had a specific outset. He wanted "a game that plays how I feel when I listen to doom metal."
"What I like about doom metal is a sort of acceptance of insignificance," says Hernandez of the subgenre of plodding, extremely loud, often epically-scaled droning that has spawned heavies like Sunn O))) and Electric Wizard. "It's dishuman in a very particular way, a simulacra of human, but so removed. You can't even get the guitar plucks in your head because it's a wall of changing sound instead of the presence of a guy there. In Void you go to all these places, and it's kind of irrelevant what your scale is because ultimately it doesn't matter."
"I'm always on the offensive," Hernandez told me before a panel at game art conference Vector, where he also sat on another panel about heavy metal and video games. Hernandez bristled at how on-the-nose much of the discussion was, citing games like God of War, Brütal Legend and other titles that could pass as Bolt Thrower album covers.
"I think imagery is important," says Hernandez, "but I also think it is important to not personify it. I think things like God of War and Brütal Legend are quick to anthropomorphise, caricature male power fantasies, and that's not what I think of when I think of good metal. I'm thinking of bigger things, beyond people... If God of War is a metal game it's a Korn album."
Void One was on display during Vector in a space named Other Worlds. When I got my hands around the controller, the previous player left me in the middle of a dangerous IKEA nightmare, an impeccably rendered but intimidating stage: white rooms overwhelmed by pikes and geometrical lashings, escape routes shrouded by sharp turns. I didn't know which way the previous player had come from, or which direction would lead me out. The swarms of drone had faded, and in its place are twangs and clanks of noise. Strangely, these alienating sounds were my guide. Recognizing patterns and progression would get me through.
To Hernandez, this sequence of Void One is about musical sequencing, not coherency. "I put that in there because I knew I wanted to, much like how you'd construct an album, have dynamic variation. Present a slight break or point of perspective from the harsher landscape."
Many of the ‘themes' within Void One are revisited. The Silent Hill grove returns incoherently glitched. You float through a cosmic galaxy twice, once in clarity, a second time as a hyper-colour assault. After the geometrical nightmare, you remerge in a second desert, one on the barren surface of some moon during an eclipse. With floating space dust caking in the air, you lurch over a moon hill to discover the remnant of two modern towers, leaning over, crippled by some long ago destruction. The drone kicks back in with your approach. Metal.
Short as it is, around five minutes long, Hernandez is happy with Void One, saying that his self-imposed one month deadline was an exercise in discipline. It may be revisited as a different entity, as Hernandez believes the smothering, ‘J.G. Ballardian death sex' themes of doom metal have more games to father. "Void One is the half-baked tadpole of a frog that's going to get me in a lot of trouble."
This week, Hernandez is at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, to make deals regarding an upcoming comedy adventure, JazzPunk. He doesn't see Void One as a commercial release, and he's torn about bringing it up at GDC. "They'd go into it really wanting a game," says Hernandez, "I need to present it at MDC, Metal Developers Conference."