Monday, 7 February 2011

A Voyage to Ice Pick Lodge: Bombs, Bolsheviks & Homemade Absinthe

One week ago I came within a gnat's whisker of getting blown up. I was due to fly out of Moscow's Domodedovo airport the day of a major terrorist attack. The more hairy business by far was meeting Nikolay Dybowski (Founder, Lead Writer) and Aleksey Luchin (Programmer, Translator) of Ice Pick Lodge (Pathologic, The Void).

***UPDATE*** Snaps here. 

Friday 21st January 2011
5:30pm - The friends I'm staying with insist on taking time out from their recording session (check out their version of Donizetti's / The Fifth Element's Diva Song at 27m10s) to chaperon me to the irreputable central-Moscow bar where I'm meeting the guys.

5:50pm - I meet Nikolay on the way, he explaining candidly that a mistake on his part - the common games industry one of moving to posh offices then realising you can't pay the bills - has left the core team of seven or so working from a flat in the Moscow outskirts.

6pm - OGI Club is good. They have a free cloakroom and free music and expensive vodka. Although everywhere in Moscow has both the former and the latter: it's -15 degrees Celsius outside. Nikolay is the quieter, more intense of the pair (as you might expect of Pathologic's creator); he opens every sentence with your name yet rarely looks at you, and you know that when he does speak it's for good reason. Alex is a talkative multilingual; passionate and eloquent.

6:20pm - The guys spell out in no uncertain terms that they'd love me to take a pass at the English script on Cargo, their next release. Specifically they're talking about a batch of arrhythmic poetry inspired by (seemingly oxymoronically) both Marat/Sade and Lock/Stock. I order a Baltika beer to avoid the vodka and the guys order more Russian food than I know what to do with.

6:40pm - My vodka avoidance doesn't last long. Alex is out due to a recent operation, so Nikolay pours out two shots from a half litre carafe then watches patiently until I down mine. He refills our glasses and the process repeats. Our first toast is mine: to Ice Pick Lodge, and making some of the most exciting games ever made.

7pm - We talk about the tribulations of getting good stuff into commercial games. This covers my claim that a lot of my job involves sneaking good writing into games while convincing the publisher it's just about blowing shit up, and Nikolay's efforts to allow children to die in Pathologic by officially considering them midgets. The guys seem genuinely surprised and pleased to hear that there are games writers who care about art.

8pm - I have eaten a lot of dumplings and steak, and about ten large shots of vodka. We have not yet talked any business. The guys suggest relocating to their 'HQ' in Kuzminky. On the metro Nikolay starts singing "What shall we do with the Russian sailor". We also buy a £2 pack of cigars flavoured with cherry and talk about Cargo. The game is based heavily around Airat Zakirov's (Founder, Lead Programmer) physics and vehicle customisation engine; it's smaller in scale than the studio's previous output; and it's at least sort of aimed at kids.

9pm - We arrive at the HQ, a two bed flat 45 mins out of town where we find one man hard at work on delivering the beta, and the studio's intern (and Alex's girlfriend), a cute and inordinately shy girl called Nisa. I call my friends and when they hear which part of town I'm in they ask if I trust the guys I'm with and whether anyone's asked to 'borrow' my passport.

9:15pm - We decide it's best I look at the game before we start drinking the homemade absinthe. Over a cup of chi I play through the opening level of Cargo. Large sections of the story are filled in by Nikolay and Alex as I progress. The core game seems like a simple (if sumptuous) explore 'em up, and I only get limited time with the vehicle design system, but the snippets of allegory arriving in my ear give me hope for the final script: this a world where the gods have replaced imperfect humanity with a race of altruistic ubermenchen, who turn out to be mindless midgets that must be kicked ad infinitum. They would ideally like me to do the work while I'm here in time for their deadline in two days. I explain this may be pushing it but that I can do it to a higher standard once I get home.

10:15pm - We celebrate our collaboration with sambuca. I try to suggest we light it in our mouths like we did when we were 18, but we do it the proper way, burnt in the glass with a coffee bean. We have entirely failed to discuss rates, deadlines or any kind of logistical concern.

11pm - Home made absinthe comes in three different flavours. Against my better judgement I sample all of them while someone goes out to buy sugar so we can make traditional cocktails.

11:30pm - Against all the odds I think I am outdrinking the Russians. Alex's post-op fears have gone down with the absinthe, and Nikolay has started swaying and telling "It's bloody cold in Russia" stories. My favourite involves a man who runs to the shops at midnight in Siberia and is terrified when he hears the devil's hooves clanking behind him. He gets home and realises the clanking was coming from his sock-clad feet which have frozen solid. "The funny thing is," says Nikolay, "he had to have them amputated two weeks later."

Saturday 22nd January 2011
12am - Having finally worked out how to do the absinthe cocktails properly (stick the sugar lump on a fork, douse it in booze, then melt it with a lighter over the glass) the drinking games begin.

12:30am - We talk about Ice Pick's next project (Cargo's deadline is in the next few weeks). It's a kind of bildungsroman charting the lives of a large number of characters over a great space of time. This alone makes it fascinating. There's unsubstantiated talk of applying the dynamic interaction of something like Minecraft to narrative. There's also reference to a great play as central inspiration. And I could tell you more - Ice Pick is the only professional developer I know not to bother with NDAs - but I'm not going to.

1am - I have missed my last metro. The guys insist I don't get a cab and sleep on the sofa bed in the main room instead. By way of bargaining they produce a Russian copy of the Penumbra trilogy and get me to sign it (I wrote something naff like "Fucking relieved you enjoyed the games"). They also tell me about the only Penumbra easter egg that I'm aware of, hidden somewhere deep inside The Void.

1:30am - Everyone apart from Nisa and I has fallen over at least once. I decide now is the time to discuss logistics. I try to extract Nikolay from conversation but everyone joins in and it turns out Ice pick has an open business policy anyway. I look around the flat and ask straight up whether Ice Pick can afford to pay for the work. Of course they can. They ask my rates and I tell them it's probably best they just make me an offer. They ask again, I tell them, and they gawp and offer me half in a pleading kind of voice. Developers don't negotiate with me enough.

1:40am - I wind up telling the guys that it's studio's like theirs that make me want to stay in our industry and that it would be an honour to work with them. We agree that I'll do the requested scripts for a small set fee and take a full playthrough of the rest of the script on a royalties basis. I do not necessarily expect this approach to prove profitable. We shake hands and drink some more.

2am - Alex and Nisa go to bed (they live here), Nikolay walks home, and I'm left on the sofa bed in the half light of the glowing computer screen where a lone developer continues tapping away at the beta.

2:15am - Nikolay inexplicably crashes through the front door, produces a sleeping bag and lies down on the floor next to the sofa bed. I check to see if his feet have frozen over. They have not.

5am - I wake up to hear Nikolay singing "What shall we do with the drunken sailor" in his sleep.

11am - My alarm goes off. I am not as hungover as I should be, something Alex swore last night would be down to the absinthe. Everyone else is comatose. I shake Nikolay, realising this is the first business meeting I've had where I end up sleeping with the CEO. He wakes up and insists on walking me to the metro.

11:30am - Nikolay explains that he remembers agreeing to collaborate on Cargo but that he has forgotten the terms. I remind him. He seems a little surprised, but happy all the same. He tells me he'd like to meet again before I leave in a couple of days. I suggest coffee this time. 

Monday 24th January 2011
10pm - After some haphazard communication I have agreed to meet Nikolay and Alex in a bar in the centre of town. I dimly recall something about coffee but put it from my mind. I meet Alex and a bunch of other Ice Pick regulars, but no Nikolay. Turns out he's not answering his phone. Alex tells me he's glad we've reached a compromise on the writing. I ask him what compromise that is. He tells me it turns out he's not bad at writing arrhythmic poetry and that it's a shame we won't be working together but hopefully next time. I have sad face and confused face in equal measure.

10:10pm - I sign a man's chest.

10:15pm - We establish that Ice Pick's internal communication is not of the most consistent and that I am probably still working on the project. I resolve to get in touch with Nikolay once I'm home.

10:30pm - One of the guys looses his wallet, I've not yet had a beer, and the evening starts losing its gusto.

10:45pm - Alex walks me to the metro, talking about an indie project he's just about to kick off. I try to draw some last minute action points so that something actually gets done. We shake hands and I say goodbye to Ice Pick Lodge.


  1. As things stand I'm still talking to the guys about working on Cargo - as and when their hectic beta schedule allows. Watch this space for new developments.

  2. I am extremely jealous of a lot that story.

    As a result: *loses

  3. Your life is exciting and enviable. This is possibly the first time I have said this to someone without a shred of sarcasm. Ice Pick Lodge seem to have this kind of indomitable Russian charm that only a rag-tag band of developers could pull off, great to hear you're collaborating with them. No. Really great.

    Also, I don't need any more reasons to think about absinthe. As if the two bottles sitting on my shelf weren't frightening enough as it is.

  4. I pity you, Tom. Working on Cargo means you won't get to experience it fresh.

  5. Hey Tom!

    I'm primarily a programmer, and only then a translator actually. )

  6. My bad - fixed.

    And thanks everyone - Ice Pick deserves all the cred they can muster :-)

    There's a load of photos from the trip, I'll get them up as soon as Alex (the-lxr, above) is far enough out of crunch to process and send them over.

  7. Wow, thanks so much for the story. Ice Pick is my all-time developer for out-there, uncompromising vision of games. It's a real treat to get to read about them from the inside a bit.

    And the fact that you can turn a phrase doesn't hurt.

  8. Actually I think I wrote this in a bit of a hurry, the reality was far more interesting. I had to skip out the point where the guys started comparing scars like that scene out of Jaws. Alex had just had an operation, and Nikolay had just been stabbed in the chest a few months ago. No joke.

    However, it does feel like Ice Pick is in a rare position: low(ish) costs, small team, no massive commercial pressure and - perhaps most importantly - no internal, industry or social pressure to release games that fit inside the box.

  9. I think I'm more envious of the Lodge themselves - to have found a crew of open-minded lunatics willing to share a flat and work together so informally at this point in their lives 'n careers. Garh. While I sit with all of last year's projects cancelled because my programmer felt he wasn't making enough money and my artist is in Florida making music videos.

    Well, perhaps I'll get lucky. Glad you had a good time, Tom.


  11. For anyone that's interested, my business on Cargo is now concluded. After a frantic few weeks of trying to get information out of the guys - not least on what they expected to be delivered and when - I've completed my pass on the script (or at least the half of it I had time for before the deadline I didn't know existed passed) and it's gone off for recording.

    The script in Cargo isn't huge, about 6,000 words, and I can't say that any success or failure it experiences will be much to do with me. Ice Pick has a completely unique style that doesn't necessarily benefit from having every strange sentence or foreign sounding concept ripped out of it; my job has been to smooth some of it out and get it into a shape that allows it to show off its idiosyncracies without grammar getting in the way.

    For a studio like Ice Pick that's more responsibility than I deserve. Let's hope I can continue to help them out.

  12. Cargo! is out now on Steam and I just saw a link to this blog on the Steam forums (of Cargo!).
    I fell in love with IPL when playing The Void, bought Pathologic after that and they both were amazing and was very happy when Cargo! was announced.
    I laughed pretty hard when reading this blog entry. I didn't know they were 'that' crazy.
    Thanks for providing an insight behind the scenes. :)

  13. Ah, brings back memories!
    Any chance you'd come to Russia again anytime soon? :3

    1. :-) I would happily, though no plans in the near future I'm afraid! What are you guys up to? Drop me an email some time!

    2. Well, the core Ice-pick Lodge is finishing up a game called Knock-knock, that you might have seen on Kickstarter a while ago.

      As for me, I've gathered some of the Ice-picks and ex-Ice-picks and formed a small studio of my own - we're currently developing a dark-themed adventure game, a totally mind-fuck one, as you'd expect. ;)

      We've also done some work on social games (yuck!) for keeping us self-funded, and done some non-game related stuff. A control system for taxis, a Russian analogue of Disqus and such. The most interesting being an Android firmware what grants wi-fi to people in conditions, where it'd otherwise be jammed - such as mass protests. (Which are quite popular in Russia lately). The idea behind it is that you need a single targeted Wi-fi signal that points at the gathering area. Such signals are really hard to jam, unlike cellular or "normal" Wi-Fi. The patched Android acts as a re-translator for the signal, thus if anyone has wif-fi - everyone around will too. Including devices without the firmware, that'll act like they're just using wi-fi.