Pathologic – The best game you’ve never played

Discussion in 'Gaming' started by Egeau, Mar 6, 2020.

  1. Enter three characters in a theatre, rehearsing their lines on stage.

    "So, it's all about trickery to you? Wherever have you come from?"
    "No, no… I detest trickery. But if we, ourselves, are to suffer deception, our hands are no longer tied. Where ARE we?"
    "Well, a muscular contraction is there… means we're already inside of him. This must be one of the ventricles, right here."
    "What a silly place… It's stuffed! So it's not real for now? I don't think it has started yet."
    "Does it matter what it's made of? It's definitely struggling. We need to perform sectio transversalis. Cut the wall. There's no other way out! What else is there to do?"
    "I know what to do. Those who favour hard logic and direct action are bound to be misguided. Only a miracle can set us free without us having to destroy something. And I can do miracles. Just let me!"
    "Will you please be quiet? You're a liar and a thief. Who is going to believe you when you keep lying to yourself? The truth is my shepherd. Whatever happens, I will find answers. And justice will be restored. I will perform the operation. Medicum morbo adhibere."
    "Don't you go all bossy on me, Clever Cloaks! You will act justly, but your justice will blind you and become his demise. This calls for the gentle hand of a surgeon. Step aside, both of you."
    "Your "gentle hands" are used to killing, not giving life. You will inevitably do harm. As for brainy, he has no regard for casualties at all. Neither of you knows compassion."
    "Yes… it seems unlikely that we'll get along well. But there's only one truth. We should each take our separate paths"
    "Off we go then? Time is of the greatest essence."
    "Off we go."

    Theatre lights fade

    Pathologic is the best game ever made, that's a hill I’m willing to die on. It’s genius.
    What you’ve just read is the opening of the game, the first thing you hear when the game starts up. After this, you can choose one of these three characters to play as. The Changeling is locked until you finish either of the other two, but, ideally, you want to play the Bachelor first and then the Haruspex, the story makes more sense that way.

    In its core, it would be a survival horror game, but that doesn’t really capture what it feels like to play it. Some people have joked it’s “playable Russian literature,” which I guess describes the feeling it gives quite nicely. It feels like a Fyodor Dostoyevsky novel, more than it feels like a game. It is also about as dense with story as your typical novel, with an equal amount of words to read and metaphors to deconstruct.
    In many ways, it is more fun to talk about than it is to actually play, which would also be the case for most of my favourite books, so that all holds up quite nicely.

    So, what is Pathologic, then?

    Playing as the Bachelor, you start out by going to a small town in the Russian steppe, as you heard there lives a man who has lived a remarkably long life, and has survived remarkable things. You are a bachelor of medicine, and you want to know if he can help you defeat death itself.
    It is presented as an immersive sim. You have an inventory, a health bar, reputation meter, everything.
    When you arrive you are informed he has died shortly before your arrival, the townspeople ask you to help solve the murder, which you have to agree on to progress the story.
    After two hours of play and talking with various people with various ideas on what might be going on, you find out that it was not murder, but a plague bacterium that killed this man. You go to the town doctor to tell him, to find out he has also died of the plague, This plague quickly goes on to strike most of the town, killing everyone who gets infected.
    There is a shortage of food, of water, of clothes, and you, yourself, are trying to survive. You are not some invincible hero, you are human, and reminded of that at every step.
    You’re a doctor, not a fighter. A 2-on-1 fight is a death sentence, additionally guards or thieves, with more fighting skills then you, can kill you in what feels like a single hit. This game has fighting mechanics in the same way that a car being driven off a cliff has flight mechanics. Don’t go into conflict and, when you have to, shoot them in the back, or kill them in their sleep. It is not pretty, no, but life has never been. Even something as sure as bringing a gun to a knife fight is dangerous. You will probably play most of the game on the edge of starvation and dehydration and exhaustion all other forms of death.
    The only way to get health back is by buying expensive healing items. Food is also extremely expensive, and even time is difficult to have. This game has time mechanics, each day takes roughly two hours, which is all the time you get to do all the things you want to do. This is never enough, and you will probably try to sacrifice sleep, until you find out you will then die of exhaustion directly or indirectly. You cannot do everything, you cannot save everyone. All you can do is try to make the best judgements of what would be the best moral choose in this scenario. The bachelor’s actions, after the first day, are your actions. You do what you can, and sometimes make mistakes.
    You cannot go back to redo the things you did wrong, yes, you can safespam, but most mistakes only show themselves several hours after you’ve made them. This game encourages you to live with your mistakes, instead of create the perfect run by going back every now and then.

    Because of this, this game is punishingly difficult. The achievement for making it through the first day I am not dead is only acquired by roughly 13% of the people who have tried it on steam.
    It’s not fun, not in the traditional sense of the word, anyway. It’s interesting, but you won’t be able to relax with it. This game lacks basically everything that normally keeps a person playing a game, and yet there still are critics who will sing its praises day and night. People keep saying it’s great, and I think it’s great too. It is an incredible game that barely anyone will have the resilience to actually appreciate, and that’s maybe even the point

    There is an old adage that the happiest people are the most altruistic, with the implication that altruism and moral heroism cause happiness, but I wonder: perhaps this correlation is the wrong way around, that it isn’t that giving stuff away causes happiness, but that happier people are more prone to giving themselves away. If a person is already in a position of safety and security and happiness, they have a surplus that they can afford to give. Ultimately, if you don’t have that surplus of resources, be it physical or emotional, it becomes so much harder to act as that moral hero. It is very human to stubble, and very human to falter in ideals, especially when what you have is stripped from you, or limited from the start.

    This, at least partially, is what Pathologic is about. You’re not the main character of the story and no one is. Ultimately, all your actions will be futile in isolation. No one has true agency and everyone has a secret agenda. This is, you think after you’ve played the first of the three characters, a game about futility and disempowerment.

    At the end of your playthough of the bachelor, you will find that the polyhedron, (a structure at the edge of town suspended by unknown means and made partially out of its own blueprints) does have the possibility of defeating death itself in general. You ask The Powers That Be to burn the entirety of the town down, killing all of the residents, and save this structure together with the few idealists who made it.
    This, to me, looks like a metaphor for communism, especially knowing this is a Russian game, and most people seem to agree. But wasn’t this a game about futility and disempowerment? Didn’t I just spent 500 words arguing how it deconstructs the traditional hero narrative, and mocks it?
    Well, we have only played as one character jet, haven’t we?

    Playing as the Haruspex, most of these elements of the human condition are still there. It arguably is even harder now, as the townspeople hate him at the start. He starts with low reputation, low health and whilst actively starving. You’re playing through the exact same story of this town getting hit with a plague, but now, you’re a traditional healer from the town, who has been away for several years.
    During this playthough, you will end up finding out that it is the polyhedron that caused the plague to begin with, and you try to argue with the bachelor, who basically is previous you, why he should try to convince The Powers That Be to destroy it.
    This is brilliant asymmetrical storytelling that I feel like fits perfectly within the medium of the game. You’ve acted as both of these characters, Their actions are your decisions, but because of the difference in information you have as different people, you won’t be able to properly communicate.
    When you play as the Haruspex, the Bachelor messes up most of his storyline, meaning it is possible to get the polyhedron destroyed as the Haruspex, but the game doesn’t let you feel good about it. It continues punching down and showing how little influence you have over the world.

    By the way, why are all the districts of the town named after various internal body parts? You’ve got the spleen, the backbone, the heart, the guts. Also, why is it framed as a theatre performance? Why do I hear kids crying an laughing when I get high up on a mountain or building? Besides, are those human organs in your inventory?

    This game gets really dark about the human condition. It’s thematically far too dense to discuss in a single forum post. Most essays I have read dissecting it are several tens of thousands of words long.
    In many ways, it is all the things I feel gaming could have been. I am often tiered by the power fantasies most games present, and I have, in general, been disillusioned about the hero narrative of western culture. This, to me, is one of the few games that isn’t plain escapism, but actually is art. Most other games could have just as well presented their themes and stories as a book or film, in most, the gaming aspect is only getting to do the cool shit the main character does. Pathologic is one of the few games that could not have done that. It needs to be in the medium it is in. It’s a genius game, not a genius story or a genius set of puzzles.

    I cannot, however, recommend you to play it. As you may have noticed at the start, most of this game is translated from Russian by a mouse that only speaks in riddles; it is effectively incomprehensible without any knowledge of Russian history, or a philosophy degree. The gameplay itself is outdated at best. It is released in 2005, so most of the “atmospheric” nature of the game is lost over time, as other games got better. And the gameplay… It is effectively a walking simulator, you walk from person A’s house to person B’s house. Try to decide where you are going to try to buy food, and avoid combat at all time. It often feels more like the game plays you than you play the game.
    Pathologic is, and will probably always be, a flawed masterpiece, that I simply cannot recommend to most people. The first six hours of gameplay are neither fun nor interesting, and the rest of the sixty hours I played it were only the later. It does not hold up, and I cannot recommend it at this point in gaming history

    The other reason I cannot recommend you to play Pathologic now is because now, there is pathologic 2. It got released a few months ago, and I have since spent a lot of time on it. It is honestly amazing. It does all the things right I loved about the original, but fixes most of problems people had with it.
    It is both a sequel and a remake. You don’t need to have played one to understand two and most of the main plot points are still the same, but the people do acknowledge that the first game has happened already. Or, as some characters say themselves: history repeats itself.
    It really is amazing, and if the ideas I have been talking about in this post have sparked your interest, you should definitely try to play 2. It is everything gaming should be. Yes, you still won’t understand everything without a basic knowledge of Russian history, yes, it still is easier to understand some references when you have a basis in philosophy, but it’s not necessary to have an interesting time with it anymore. If you’re in to pretentious stuff, this really is the game for you.
  2. Honestly there’s a whole bunch of great but really god damn strange games that have come out of Russia that get no love at all from European and American audiences, and I can’t imagine that the Asian market likes them either.

    Pathologic, Vangers, Hello Neighbour, It’s Winter, for example.

    Pathologic is a glitchy but lovable mess. Vangers is a voxel-based game where you can destroy stuff like Minecraft, except it’s a racing game that’s also a post-apocalyptic RPG. Hello Neighbour is basically a horror game for kids that just ends up giving you more questions than answers about the plot, and ends up as a weird trippy... THING. It’s Winter is so damn mundane that it’s good.

    Weird games.

    Shoutout to S.T.A.L.K.E.R as well, even though it’s Ukrainian and is pretty big in the European gaming community.