Void Stranger: The Sokoban’s Heart Laid Bare
the samsara sokoban we all need
There are games that don’t wish to be so easily completed. Void Stranger by System Erasure (ZeroRanger) is the latest and perhaps the greatest example. A sokoban game at first glance, it frustrates experienced players who are bored by how simple these puzzles are and others who are not so adept at figuring everything out. Most damning of all: the game punishes the stubborn, the people who resort to bruteforcing their way through the game.
This game refuses to be kind to any type of player. Even in the moments that offer a glimmer of hope, the game never reaches out. There are very few incentives to keep on playing the game; there are simply too many puzzles to make a good first impression on the game.
But there is an echo in the abyss.
It’s hard to figure out what the sound is: is this a trick and if not, is it actually worth pursuing? The game will never answer that. All one can do is dive deeper, deeper into this void.
Those who dare to venture further into the abyss will begin to learn what the game is actually about. Put simply, this game is and isn’t a sokoban title. The narrative breadcrumbs scattered around the area — I’m reminded of hours and hours of crawling through Labyrinth of Galleria before stumbling upon a morsel of exciting and interesting scenarios — suggest that there’s more to this game. Later, the tools and shortcuts reminiscent of the La-Mulana games point to the possibilities of what a sokoban game can and can’t be. Sokoban games can break rules as the recently released and innovative title Paquerette Down the Bunburrows show, but they can also be so much more nontraditional and pathbreaking.
This may be the sunk cost fallacy speaking, but I write this as someone who admires the games that love me by hating me.
I get that it might sound strange, especially since it’s so easy to feel hurt while playing this game. I’ve talked to people who wanted to love this game; one of them even said they’re tempted to wait for a good video essay instead of playing more. That’s fair. I wouldn’t have picked it up if I realized this was a far more ambitious game; I wasn’t in the mood for something like that. I groan every time I learn a new mechanic, a new worldbuilding idea, and more. I couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel because that tunnel was long and deep. It has been painful playing this game. But every time I come out of my sessions with the game, I think about how the little progress I’ve made is meaningful … and then, I think about the craft of the game.
Sylvie of Sylvie Lime fame once wrote an essay called “The Designer’s Heart Laid Bare” in which she reflects on the antagonistic and abrasive games she and others make and why they’re designed the way they are. It often feels like there’s a direct line of communication between designer and player. Instead of imagining the worst-case scenario that designers are out to get players, Sylvie asks readers to consider a more interesting proposition: what if it’s a way of speaking?
As she writes,
I take the perspective that these games are about the designer's vulnerability. To see why, let's think about the common threads between the sorts of games we discussed above. One common thread is that these games ask the player to do things that are often perceived as unpleasant or unreasonable. Another common thread is that these games create a sense of dialogue or conversation between the designer and player. Tying these threads together, we find that the designer is placed in an uncomfortable position. The designer knows how their requests are perceived, and is hoping the player will receive them warmly, because they ultimately want to be understood. But they know it's possible the player will react badly and quit in boredom or frustration, ending the conversation abruptly.
Much of Void Stranger is designed in this painful language that hurts not only the player and the designer. Video games (and other forms of media) are packaged as commodities that we buy to entertain ourselves. Even pretentious writers like me recognize that this transaction depersonalizes the game. But the game remains waiting for its players to understand that it hurts.
The more I play this game, the more I see its wounds and blisters around me. I cannot imagine how two developers could make this gigantic labyrinth of a game in a few years. After making a few short games, I find it stressful to think that they must’ve been sitting on this game for years when they could’ve been making another critically acclaimed shmup. I make games in short bursts to find some communicative value. Working on a game this deep and expansive that many people may never understand must be heartbreaking at best.
That pain is probably the echo I’ve heard through the many sokoban screens (good and bad) in this game. I must search for that sound wherever it takes me.
The Wound That Heals Me
People may have noticed that I haven’t written media criticism in this newsletter in a while. Much of it has to do with exhaustion, an aimlessness that pervades my thoughts that never coalesce into anything meaningful. Why write about niche media when we’re living in a hell of right-wing SEO ChatGPT garbage? No one but the devs, fans of the game, and readers of this newsletter will read this article anyway.
The analytics for this article are going to be so poor…
Why then did I write about this game after months of not writing any articles? Well, the game speaks to me about that desire to be heard — and more. The game’s punishing difficulty, its resistance to final conclusions, and the fact it’s simply “hard to play” (literally and figuratively) are all means of communication to express something about this kind of alienation. It is looking for someone to understand, comprehend, appreciate, and love this abrasive game design. Like me, it wants to be loved with all its imperfections and wounds. Void Stranger is a puzzle game that demands to be heard from the abyss from which it cries.
If any of this vagueposting sounds a little bit interesting to you, play this title. I don’t think this game changed my life or anything, but it reminds me that in a world of garbage, communication is still worth something. Even if we can barely hear it, we should at least say
Thanks for reading and I sincerely hope you play this game.