One of the downsides of choosing not to shout into the black hole full of malice that is the internet anymore is that I don’t get to talk to people about things I really like.
A thing I’ve really liked the past few months: Pathologic 2.
Pathologic 2 was a video game that, from its first trailer, I was sure was gonna be my thing. It’s a remake/sequel (both!) to the cult Russian game Pathologic. When it first came out, it got mixed reviews for being too hard and oppressively dark and for being only one 50 hour campaign instead of a promised 3 (the other 2 will be free DLC).
I wasn’t really scared off by this. I like games that are more ambitious than they are polished, and for some reason, I was in the mood for a game that was oppressively difficult. Thankfully, the game actually is very polished, especially for an indie game. The art direction, in particular, is breathtaking. I played through it twice, and one of the endings was hands down one of the most beautiful things I have seen in a game, period.
One of the things that hurts Pathologic 2 is that it is so ambitious it is difficult to summarize. As I learned in pitching novels, plot first: You are an indigenous folk doctor and son of a folk doctor from a town in rural Russia who left to learn medicine in the city. Your father has called you back to the town urgently, but when you get back, he’s been murdered. The town is in chaos because the indigenous people have a taboo against cutting living bodies. You, one of the few people from a caste permitted to perform surgery, are the main suspect. Your father has left you the task of taking care of his legacy, but understanding what that means involves understanding a culture you left behind and no longer remember. It seems to involve protecting the city’s children.
And then a plague breaks out.
Like plot summaries of the best art, it falls woefully short. The game draws heavily from theater tradition. There are stage hands nobody else can see. “Extras” who died will occasionally return to comment on the the performance. Every night, there is a theater which has a play about the events of the previous or coming day. It repeatedly calls attention to the form, to the player as a performer, and it does it so that when the game needs to talk to you, the player, it can do so. It also, unlike most games, draws attention to the fact that every option in a video game, and therefore every choice, is predetermined by the programmers. This feels very strange because there’s so much to do and so much of it is high stakes, and not all of it can be done in one play through. You will fail.
But it also brilliantly deconstructs the expectation that “failure” results in less content in a game. If you fail to save one of your charges, it’ll change how events unfold. You’ll get hallucinogenic guilt dreams, some horrible, some comforting. Even death isn’t the end. You will die, often, and it comes with penalties that apply to every save of the game on that run through. Sometimes it’s a bite out of your health or stamina, but sometimes it’s worse. One of the early ones is your character loses the ability to hug. It’s not a huge impact on game play, but it’s a gut punch. Every time you die, the man giving you the penalty says it’s so you will appreciate life more.
This is the first time in a game where I’ve felt like my choices– not just the character’s, mine— really did matter. This couldn’t have been a novel. The fact this is performative and you are doing the choosing is central to the plot’s themes and events.
Penalties hurt. I was so busy managing my own hunger and the health of my kids, I had to let characters I wasn’t responsible for get sick and die. Some of the deaths were “unfair” by videogame standards. It’s really easy to end up in a situation where three guys sneak up on you, and you’re dead very quickly. Your own character even has the option of complaining it’s unfair. If you die enough, a fellow traveler, the first person you met in the game, will show up in your dreams and say, “Isn’t this hard? Isn’t this unfair? Don’t you want me to relieve you of the consequences of your choices?”
Pathologic 2 is not very gory, but it is very dark. I’ve heard it described as not dark like witnessing a murder, but dark like vising a beloved elderly relative after a few days away, opening the door, and smelling death. I keep coming back to it because ultimately makes an argument about how hope and perseverance are worth it by making you persevere. Despite the difficulty, because death isn’t the end, you will certainly finish the game if you keep playing. Time will pass. Even though you can’t possibly see everything or save everyone, it’s worth it. That’s the whole point. It’s a hope simulator. Not hope as a feeling, but hope as a practice you keep. I found it deeply cathartic.
Months later, I’m still in fucking awe at what the game pulled off as far as story and art direction. In a year where I played a lot of good games, this will probably be my favorite of the year. Hell, it’s probably in my top five of all time now.
Pick it up on GOG or Steam. They’re a small studio which was hit really hard by a recession in Russia, and they deserve your money.