Pathologic - Remaking the best game you never played

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My impression of that review is that the original Pathologic (bad translation and all) was a sort of sweet suffering - the game mechanics made survival a primary concern. And the dialogue was very frustrating because it was basically incomprehensible. But, somewhere underneath it all, there was an engaging philosophical narrative. It was elusive and difficult to engage with, but it was somehow worth the struggle.


It intrigues me for that reason.


With a new translation, those overtly frustrating mechanics might take on a new meaning. I'm excited to play it, but sort of bracing myself for an intensely difficult experience that doesn't care about how much I "enjoy" it.


But that's just my impression. I don't expect to enjoy Pathologic. But I do expect to be enlightened by it.

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A lot of it isn't hard so much as boring - the 12 days is an immense amount of time, most of which is spent walking around rifling through bins (and quicksaving).  This is especially true if you play the Impostor, who is very easy to play; it's much more tense as the Bachelor or Haruspex, since they're more likely to have to take big risks and be creative.*  And almost all of the quests are simple fetch-quests or messenger-quests...  That's not all bad since the draw is the dialogue and the (incredible) visuals/sound design/atmosphere etc. - but there is a reason they're remaking it rather than just hi-deffing it.

*Still I recommend playing the Impostor first - you can unlock her with a cheat, which presumably will still work in the rerelease.

If you intend to try (even the remake rather than the rerelease) I also recommend not reading the three-part RPS article - it has huge spoilers.  As the article says, a lot of the atmosphere comes from not knowing what happens to the other two characters you aren't playing.

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I played through and finished Pathologic 2!  Only like 5 years after first becoming interested in the original game B)


Whew, what an exhausting, fascinating and engaging game. You can find a lot of more general thoughts on the game all around the internet, but most of what I've seen has been about the mechanics of the game, it's tone, or the disease elements. I want to talk about the games meta elements and its social commentary, neither of which I was expecting. The game is quite literally "theatric", part of its structure is that of a play. I'm not going to spoiler anything here, so reader beware. If you don't know anything about it, you play Artemy Burakh, a doctor in a remote Russian town that is suffering from a plague. You have 12 days to try and save the town and as many people as possible before the army destroys the town to contain the plague. Almost all events, conversations or interactions can be missed, as they are all time sensitive. You have to take care of your own hunger, thirst and exhaustion to be able to care for the people in town.


It is worth noting how much I appreciate a game that makes a player routinely question whether violence is the right tool to tackle a challenge. Games have greatly improved in the verbs they make available to players, but "shoot dude/stab dude" is still often presented with little to no alternative. This game makes you question every act of violence, and gives you an alternative to almost all of them.


Player as Actor and Death as Rebirth


I love games that do something interesting with death or failure. A simple reload or restart erases a player's actions in game. A player may learn something, but the main repercussion of failure is the loss of a player's real world time. Pathologic encourages players to live with mistakes, the game can be finished with a satisfactory resolution to the story even if a player has many failures (in this case, failure can be player death, a major character dying, or missing story events). But it does something with player death that few games do. Death stays with you, you can't reload a save to before you die. Every time you die, the game autosaves and remembers, so that death sticks with you even if you do back up time. Every death delivers you to the Theater, a surreal dream state in which the theatrical nature of the game is reinforced. Usually you have a conversation with the Director, who tells you that each death is real and that with each death, a new actor must be hired to reprise the role of surgeon Artemy Burakh and continue his path. The failures of each previous actor weigh down their successors though, and with each death the game becomes a little harder as the character's maximum health, stamina or hunger are reduced.


Late in the game, an exceedingly strange conversation happens with the character of the Inquisitor. The Inquisitor is a woman whose job is solving unsolvable problems for the government. She had been sent in to manage the plague response. The Inquisitor tells you that she has fallen in love with you and asks that you run away with her. There is almost no foreshadowing of this. It's a bizarre and out of character break. She insists that none of this is real, that she has finally understood that her and everyone else are puppets and she wants to cut the strings and stop playing. You can ask her who the puppet master is. Her reply is that they are the person who just put those words in your mouth. It's open to interpretation on if she is meaning society in the context of the game, the writer of the game's script, or the player themselves. If you choose to run away with her, you are both stopped outside of town and she is shot and killed. The player is instructed to return to town. The play is not yet finished, and the actors may not yet leave the stage if they still have a role to play.


Right before the finale, the player meets themselves, Artemy Burakh. Time has become confused, the Director has abandoned the play, and an Artemy successor has entered the stage before the previous one left. Which one came first? Who is the understudy?


Combined I think these all point to an interpretation of the Player as Actor. Artemy is replaced by a new actor each time he dies because the player themselves are constantly in a state of change, of becoming someone else, the cycle of birth and rebirth of the self as we are changed by the world around us. The player has learned something, the character carries the scars of that learning, and the player will have to be someone else if they do not want to repeat the same actions and die in the same way. That sounds like really stoned cliche philosophy even as I type it out, and mostly life isn't that dramatic, but as a piece of art what Pathologic is trying to do is to highlight that process that happens to all of us over time.  


Covid-19 and the Plague of Wealth and Inequality


The town in the game is divided into two dominant groups. the Kin are an indigenous group living in slavery serving as labor for the Town. Everyone else is "human". The Kin are presented and treated as an other with more in common with animals than people. Some of them look alien, others look like normal people. They are presented as being superstitious and foolish. Some of them are weirdly sexualized in a way that's deeply resonant with how America can sexualize women from other cultures. A half kin/half townsfolk person had spent years trying to incrementally bring the Kin into equality with townsfolk, and ultimately is the person who causes the plague. He decides that the town is unsavable in its current form, and only a radical upheaval of the status quo through catastrophe will change things. The town was diseased before there was ever a plague, and that disease was the enslavement of the Kin. Artemy is the son of this character. The player's final message from their father is to save the children, let the children grow up in a world that is not so painfully tainted as the one the adults have made.


This character is presented as more...problematic than that summary though. He also believes that the Kin must abandon their culture and assimilate if they are to survive. There are no real good or bad characters in this game, it is populated by deeply flawed people navigating a society that is unfair and broken in a myriad of ways.


But as I watch how America and the world have responded to covid-19, I cannot but help think about how immediately it laid bare the dangers of our own class system. The poor and working class continue to work and expose themselves so that many of us can safely shelter at home, those who were deemed essential and therefore sacrificial to the greater good. The rest are cut loose with little safety net. In game, the Kin are nearly wiped out by the plague. The father's attempt to save them doomed them as they were forcibly locked up and quarantined in their cramped, dormitory housing, while the wealthy and middle class sheltered in homes that had more protection from the plague and they have access to medical help. The dormitory of the Kin is off limits to the player until it is too late. In our real world, we will see the headlines about the famous who die, we will grieve the loss of their talent. But we already know that the people most affected are going to ones who are already vulnerable. And we will likely know few if any of their stories. The same as before.


The original Pathologic was written and developed in the early 2000s, and Pathologic 2 is a re-imagining drawing from the original. It feels tailor made to this time. Because the problems it sees predate the disease.


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