Pathologic 2 Helped Me Cope With The Pandemic (video and transcript!)

Hi, all! So, I make videos now! Check it out:

And as part of making videos, I’m going to be posting the transcript. Reason: not everyone finds videos accessible, and I don’t want people to to miss out!

It’s going to be a straight transcript, no descriptions of the images. I figure it’s easy enough to do given that I write subtitles. Here you go!


MK: My first career was eldercare, and from it, I learned the signs that someone’s about to die. In early March 2020, my grandma—who was in her nineties and had dementia— started talking about going on a long back trip home. I told my family it was time to say goodbye, so we made travel plans.

And then, suddenly lockdown.

My sister, the only family member who lived in the same state, insisted on being allowed to visit. Grandma’s nursing home couldn’t do that. They had other clients to protect. But because it was so early in the pandemic, and because my sister cannot be stopped, they came to an arrangement. My sister moved into the tiny room my grandma lived in for ten days—without leaving once— while my grandma died.

Grandma didn’t die alone, but I couldn’t be there. I live over a thousand miles away. I did call her, but I wasn’t entirely there. I was having flashbacks for hours per day. Unlike a lot of media depictions, they’re not much like hallucinations (at least not for me). It’s more like, the bad thing just happened five minutes ago. That kind of vivid. And when you spend that much time two inches away from something horrific, you cope—I coped [laughs] by trying to imagine it could have gone differently. What if I’d left earlier?] What if I’d said something else? What if I’d—

Pathologic 2 is my favorite game of all time.

I saw the trailer about a month before it came out, when I didn’t have a computer that could run it. This was the game that finally persuaded me I needed to finally join the PC big boy club for real gamers.  I hadn’t even heard of the first one, but aside from looking up whether I needed to play it in order to understand what was going on—no, by the way—I decided I didn’t want to be spoiled. There was just something about it that called to me. It’s really that I get that excited about… anything? Yeah, anything. [laughs] But because I was that excited, I fully expected to be let down.

I wasn’t.

As hyped as I was, Pathologic 2 blew my expectations out of the water.

Now, I’m not here to say Pathologic 2 is the greatest game of all time. I don’t actually believe that’s true,  and I’m not a sophisticated enough consumer of games to even describe its flaws in a technical way.  I also don’t have the stamina to do something comprehensive. I’m just going to pick a couple of themes which spoke to me. Honestly, I think that’s a big enough challenge. The biggest obstacle to talking about Pathologic 2—to discuss it or to try and sell it to other people— is that it’s about so many things.

So. Really elementary. Let’s start with the plot.

Artemy Burakh is a menkhu—  part of a caste of indigenous steppe doctors from a culture called the Kin who live in a remote and newly industrialized town. Artemy’s studying modern surgery in the capital when he gets a letter from his father asking him to come home. So you hitch a train ride home with this trustworthy guy who falls out of a casket— just as the town loses its absolute shit over your father’s murder. The townspeople suspect you and start attacking you in the street. Just as they figure out you didn’t do it, a plague breaks out. Your (competing) goals become to find out who killed your father and to inherit your father’s legacy— whatever that means. You’re only half Kin and you’ve been away a long time. Your father’s culture and his role in it are foreign and completely incomprehensible to an outsider. Your clues—which you get when you inherit your dad’s stuff— are the names of the seven future leaders of the town (children) and an eighth—the “udurgh.” Okay, not English, but can get a translation and—”a body that contains the universe.” Okay that—that doesn’t help. What the fuck does that mean!? So you have to divide your limited time between gathering clues, avoiding getting stabbed, trying not to get the plague, saving whoever you can in case they have an answer or they’re part of your mission, oh and by the way, you have all these meters to babysit, some of which kill you if they deplete all the way—and if they don’t, then those empty meters deplete health, which will kill you. That’s the game! Have fun, asshole!

Right now, people who have played it are probably a little frustrated with me. Like, yes, that’s what it’s about, but like, that’s not what it’s about-about. If Pathologic 2 were a novel, I’d call it literary. Not in the sense that “literary” works are somehow superior to genre works or whatever. No, I mean that the writing on the line level, the presentation, the thematic underpinnings are as important—maybe even more important— to the forward momentum of the story than the literal plot events.

For example, Pathologic 2 has a framing device. It begins in media res, which is fancy ass Latin for “in the middle of things,” at the end of the story. You, the player, are being scolded by Mark Immortell—who runs the theater— about your failed run-through of the game. The town is occupied by an army. There are corpses in the street and the survivors have given up. When you go to beg for more time from the powers that be, they are done. They’re discussing how to bomb the town off the map to protect the rest of the country. Game over. The game begins with your failure—and because Mark Immortell is breaking the fourth wall, your inevitable failure as the player — and you demanding another shot at making it right.

Let’s take a step back. Why would you play a game where you’re gonna fail? I suppose technically you fail at all games until you beat them. But narratively, here, the game is telling you two things: first, that it’s going to be about futility, and second, that it’s a horror game. It’s here to scare the shit out of you. And my reaction to this was: fuck yes! Sign me up. If you speak to people who are not horror fans, they don’t really understand this reaction. Horror is scary. At its most skillful, it’s harrowing, it’s unfair, it makes you feel small and terrified. And all of us horror fans are like, “hell yeah it does!” But if that’s not your bent, it sounds like I’m enthusing about pain. And that takes some explanation, doesn’t it?

Stephen King has written two books on craft: one of them On Writing, is his most recent one, and it’s more general writing advice. The second one is Danse Macabre, which is about writing horror.

A significant portion of each book is memoir. They’re meditations on what made him a writer, and more specifically, why he writes horror. Part of that story is a childhood watching movies with rubber suited monsters who menace helpless blondes.

But he also talks about ear infections that required repeated, excruciating, and traumatic lancing of his ear drums.

Stephen King: The puncturing of my eardrum was pain beyond the world. I screamed. There was a sound inside my head—a loud kissing sound. Hot fluid ran out of my ear—it was as if I had started to cry out of the wrong hole.

King also spends a significant portion of his memoirs talking about his alcoholism and his drug addiction.

But he’s not the only person to write about the experiences that formed him. Stephen King is famous and he has biographers. And there’s a story they put in biographies he never shares in his memoirs. When he was little he watched one of his friends get hit by a train. According to biographers, this was a formative experience and it made him into a horror writer. I don’t know, maybe.

What struck me about this is that stories about Stephen King, even the stories he chooses to tell about himself, answer the following question: What’s wrong with him? Ever since I realized that was the theme of stories about Stephen king, I’ve started looking for it in stories people who write or who love horror tell about themselves. And with rare exceptions, I usually find it. It’s almost like there are genre conventions for this kind of story. Now, I’m not sure if Stephen King does think there’s something wrong with him. What I think is he knows what you expect to hear when he tells you a story about his life. I think Stephen King is telling you the story you want to hear.

I love horror myself. Obviously. I’m doing a whole video on why I love a horror game. So… what’s wrong with me? Let’s put a pin in that.

Pathologic 2’s opening promises you will fail, and it keeps that promise. You need to eat, you need to sleep. You need to pick a time to sleep when nothing’s going on so you won’t miss important events. So unless you know the game, like really know it, something has to give. One of your primary goals is saving specific characters—again, mostly children. You can boost their immunity with store bought pills or tinctures you make yourself, but there’s really nothing that increases their immunity beyond about 80%. Once they get sick, you can treat them with antibiotics to increase their chances. But even that isn’t a sure thing. Early on, the only reliable way to save anyone once they’re infected is a medicine called a “shmowder.” They’re these crushed pills you can find for barter with little girls or in chests around town… sometimes.

Oh hey, it’s the fellow traveler from the train!

And he’s buying organs!

Good thing I’m carrying.

They spawn so rarely that you really hesitate to use them. But if you don’t, at midnight any named character who is infected is subject to a dice roll versus the plague. And if they lose….

So I start looking for shmowders early in the game. You can find at least one before the outbreak by completing a quest.

This guy’s gonna try and kill me.

I also start hoarding ammo, not because I have a gun—guns are too expensive and jam too often to be worth it early on— but because ammo is small and it’s expensive, and goes up in value quickly once the plague hits. And ammo’s easy to get. You can dig scraps of metal out of the trash, and then trade those to small boys, so it’s cheap and ethical to get ahold of. Then you sell the ammo for food. Easy!

At least until rationing hits.

Frankly, I’ve never gotten through a run without spending most of my early game hoarding food—and while there are in-game hints you should do this (mostly from a guy offering you a sweet deal on a bull that totally talks, he swears, it just won’t talk to you)—

I bought a talking bull!

Thanks for waiting… [laughs] fuuuu—

—that’s only foreshadowing if you know for sure what’s coming.

So there’s what the character you’re playing knows, and there’s what I, the player know.  This is a difficult game, but a “perfect” run, where nobody dies is possible. Well it’s—I mean, it—it can be done, I, promise. If you know how to do it, it’s not more difficult than getting all the rings in a Mario game. But Artemy Burakh, the character, would have no reason to know how to do it. There’s also spectacularly little incentive to avoid failure. Unlike most games, where failure walls off content, you see more of the game when you fail. You have dreams where your friends and wards forgive you or reproach you. Failure also changes how you perceive the game. There’s this nice scene early on where you gather together your childhood friends to begin reconciling a rift between the four of you. It’s this great, quiet narrative moment. The plague has just started, shit is about to hit the fan, and you’re setting aside your differences. This took work, I had to run around town to ask them to show up. On this run through, I ended up not doing a quest and one of the kids I was looking after got sick because I was doing this instead. This cost me something to see. And in a game where that’s possible, where you have knowledge of other playthroughs where this didn’t happen, this scene hits very different.

So in the strictest Pavlovian sense, the game “rewards” failure.  But strangely, the result of that for me is that I feel so much more devastated much when I do fail. There was this one run through where I didn’t make it in time to give Taya Tycheek—who is six— a shmowder. Um, I hadn’t planned my run through and I ran out of food and I was starving. She died. I had to go take a break, get a cup of tea. No other game has affected me like that. And yes, it is because it’s well made. But it’s also because of who I am.

2019 was a bad year for me, and 2020, for obvious reasons, was worse. At the beginning of the pandemic, my therapist asked me to list my coping strategies. And Pathologic 2 did make the list. It wasn’t the top, but it was there. And she asked me about it. Um, I don’t know what I was expecting. She told me to maybe take a break. Um, and this was fair of her. I had PTSD— I have PTSD— and I had lost my job. Partially because of the pandemic, but also because I wasn’t attending. Work the way I needed to. I’m getting older and the stuff I used to be able to power through I just can’t anymore. When I’m tired, I’m in more pain. When I’m in pain I don’t sleep. When I don’t sleep I’m more anxious, when I’m more anxious I get flashbacks. All of these factors made it so much more difficult for me to just get through the day. So I wasn’t doing well. And it made sense for my therapist to really challenge me on whether what I was doing to get through my life was working. She was just doing her job. I took her advice, I took a step back from playing Pathologic, at least while there was a crisis going on. But I also kind of took a step back from my therapist.

Beyond failing to save someone or not doing a quest in time, there’s another kind of failure: your own death. But your death also isn’t the end. You wake up in the theater again to be lectured by Mark Immortell. He starts penalizing you— usually it’s a few points off your health, or your stamina. These are permanent penalties. They get written onto every save on a playthrough all the way back to the beginning of the game, so you can’t just reload. Once— and this really got to me—the penalty is that he takes away your ability to hug. It’s one of the first things he takes from you. At that fireside meeting you organize, Laura needs a hug—and of course she does, there’s a plague— and you just… can’t.

After you’ve died over and over and OVER, the fellow traveler—the coffin man from the tutorial— shows up in the theater instead of Mark Immortell. Instead of taking some of your life or damaging your psychological ability to be close to other people, he offers you a deal. He’ll take away the consequences of your failures—no more penalties, in exchange for… something.

So, there’s a repeated return to the theater. It’s where you work each day. At midnight, there are surreal plays that function like Greek choruses commenting on the action or telling the future. It’s where you go when you die. This underlines a major theme of the game: performance. Calling attention to a theater performance as a performance within the context of a play is called “Brechtian” after director and philosopher Berthold Brecht. The midnight review of what happened during the day on a text card, the fourth wall breaks, the use of stagehands to point you in the right direction or tell you other characters’ thoughts all count as Brechtian. As in theater, these techniques have an intended function: to alienate you from immersion in the story. You are not meant to identify as Artemy Burakh. You’re meant to take your experiences as a player, the knowledge you know but Artemy can’t to get through the game. In fact, it’s the only way to get through it.

Actually… that’s only partially true. I could have let Rubin, my—

Artemy Burakh’s childhood friend die. And there’s no consequences if you do, he’s not story essential. He’s not even that good a friend.

So, why am I doing this? Why would I put myself through this? This is hard and a little bit unpleasant. These people aren’t real and if they don’t live it’s not gonna change my life. What am I performing here?

In my own life, I think a lot about performativity. I’m nonbinary. And I’m not what you’d call neurotypical. I of course have PTSD and I have a head injury that I got simultaneous to the trauma that gave me PTSD. I also was, about 30 years ago, diagnosed with some sensory integration issues that, if I’d been evaluated for them today, almost certainly would have resulted in an autism diagnosis. As a result of those ways in which I’m not neurotypical, I don’t necessarily intuitively know how to do all the performances I’m expected to do. And some of them I really want to do. I mean, I want to be engaging, I want to be likable, I want people to know that I love them. And that means that I have to perform certain actions that let them know that I feel that way about them. But there are other roles like woman that I feel really uncomfortable in.

Judith Butler in her book Gender Trouble says that gender is performative. Now, that’s slightly different than saying it’s a performance. When we say gender is performative, that means there’s a way you present yourself to the world, not all of it intentional. Like, you’re not always “on.” But either way, these behaviors are categorized as “womanly” or “mannish” by society. Then, other people give you feedback on your assigned role and how well you fit it. You react to that feedback, and then get feedback on that reaction. In other words, it’s a continual forging of an identity as part of a conversation.

I find performativity theory really useful in explaining some specific ways I have difficulties. Now I’m gonna pause here. I’m only speaking about my experience. Please don’t stereotype other nonbinary people based on this. Thank you very much. My two difficulties are: one, I don’t really feel comfortable in the role of woman, it doesn’t make me feel happy. It feels kind of like a hairshirt. And second, that when people reflect back on me that based on my role as a woman they have certain expectations of me, I have trouble understanding those expectations, and I have even more trouble meeting them as a result.

Now there are a lot of trans, nonbinary, gender nonconforming people who are also autistic. In fact, it’s common line of attack from transphobes to say, “maybe you’re not actually trans. Maybe you’re just autistic.” And my response to that is maybe I am just autistic. But if that’s the case, if it’s neurological, that’s my body. My brain is in my body. My neurological system is in my body. So… what am I supposed to do about that.

Your two main goals are first, to solve dad’s murder, and the other is to inherit your father’s legacy—become menkhu and also to find out what the hell a menkhu is. It’s really roughly translated as folk doctor, but as time goes on you learn it’s a kind of a hybrid priest, leader, doctor. You’re the only person permitted to break certain taboos: cut open a body, butcher meat, dig deeply into the earth. You start seeing the world as miraculous and take on the weight of saving your people. Not just from the plague. Nearly all of the Kin are trapped in a giant building called the termitary. It’s housing attached to a slaughterhouse where they work. You don’t know why they were locked in the termitary early on—it was locked before the plague hit— but rumor has it that the Olgimskys, one of the three ruling families, headed off an anticipated strike through forced lockdown. The industrial business of the town, the Bull Enterprise, is headed by Vlad Olgimsky and his family. The Olgimskys are commerce overlords. The two other ruling families aren’t as central to Artemy’s narrative, but they exert a similar level of control over the town. The Kains have built the town as part of a utopian project to change the way people think and the limits of their imagination. Hence the Polyhedron, the impossible tower the town’s children are enthralled with. The Sabarovs, the third ruling family, have imposed order on the town. Govenor Sabarov deputizes police and is investigating your father’s murder. These three families impose their own image onto your indigenous people and their land. You can still visit a traditional village on the outskirts of town. The skin tents are still up, which means this was a way of life they were living a generation or two ago, at most. When you finally get inside the termitary [many people screaming]— the plague is here, as is starvation. Most of the people inside have died, including one of the leaders of the Kin you’ve been trying to talk to. His daughter, Taya Tycheek, is now their Mother Superior, a religious figurehead. Did I mention she’s six? Artemy finds this alarming. She’s not a precocious six, she’s SIX. So… how is she leading? Well, members of the Kin don’t see themselves as individuals. She’s not the “boss,” like industrialist Vlad. She’s the head of the bull. Unlike the ruling families who place themselves over the town, Taya, by contrast literally doesn’t know the word “alone.” The key to solving the mystery of who killed your father, why they did it, is to stop seeing the plague as separate from the town, from its recent industrialization and the new and impossible building stabbing into the living earth. It’s to stop seeing the origin of the plague and your father’s murder as separate mysteries, but as part of a contiguous whole. You find two ways to end the plague, two different endings. Whichever one, you pick, you win. It just depends on what future you want.

Remember when this guy offered me a deal to spare me the penalty for dying? I took it. That means I don’t get an ending. That’s what I traded away. So this is how the game ends, with everything undone.

PTSD lies to me. It says if I don’t go anywhere, don’t trust anyone, don’t feel anything, I can’t get hurt. I’ll be who I was before. But all of that is… me. What I carry is who I am. The Fellow Traveler took away the consequences of the bad things that happened to me on this run through. But when I finally accomplished something worthwhile, he took that from me too.

So. Narrative obligation fulfilled. Bummer achieved! I have told the story that people expect of horror fans and queer people and mentally ill people. This is what people want to hear. When I first started recovery, I really had a difficult time with it, because I had to challenge everything about me, about myself. Whether it was healthy, whether it was good. And unfortunately, “is this healthy or is she just sick?” is the same question people ask about me when they don’t like me and don’t want me to succeed. When I chose that framing, “What’s wrong with me?” I set myself on a path, where I was inevitably going to dredge something up, come up with an answer, even if there’s not that much wrong with me.

So, let’s unask the question.

We started with the idea I must like pain. But is that really true? I have a severe needle phobia. I hadn’t managed a shot in about twenty years, but I worked really hard the last three of four in therapy. Still, it was up in the air over whether I could get vaccinated. I did it. My husband cheered and I laughed, and all the nurses in earshot—we were at this big stadium place— heard and they also cheered. It was one of the best experiences of my life. Does that mean the shot, which was sore for a few days, was pleasurable? Well… let’s ask the hedonists. Specifically the philosophical school, not the gentle perverts of the world (although there is some overlap). The hedonists distinguish between pleasure the physical feeling and cognitive pleasure, which is any desirable mental state. So even though the shot physically hurt I took pleasure in overcoming a phobia. This same logic can apply to aesthetics.  Really, if we’re going to discuss art, who better to look to than a school of thought devoted pleasure? Hume, who highly influenced later hedonists, was writing about seventy years before horror really gelled as a genre, but he does have an essay on tragedy. And in it, he points out that even the distinction between pleasure and pain is… maybe fuzzier than some like to admit.

Hume: “Pleasure and pain,” says he, “which are two sentiments so different in themselves, differ not so much in their cause.  From the instance of tickling, it appears, that the movement of pleasure, pushed a little too far, becomes pain; and that the movement of pain, a little moderated, becomes pleasure.  Hence it proceeds, that there is such a thing as a sorrow, soft and agreeable.”

MK: Something can startle me or make my guts squirm or make me cry but cognitively, I can still admire it as a piece of craft. Just by how I choose to think about something, I can turn something painful into something I take joy in.

So earlier on, I said my therapist suggested, at least in the middle of a crisis, that I take a step back from playing Pathologic 2. And I did withdraw from the relationship for a couple of months as a result of that. In retrospect, I think the reason why is that I genuinely love the game very much and I was being protective of my joy. I didn’t want it to me medicalized, I didn’t want it to be dissected. I didn’t pick the game back up until after I was vaccinated. And I still thought about it every day. Pathologic 2 has a lot to say about persevering in hopeless situations. It talks a lot about living through a pandemic. And I needed that. That’s one of the best things about horror. Horror finds meaning and beauty in some of the worst experiences in life.

And, I mean… look at this thing. It’s gorgeous, it’s beautifully written. That’s enough. I got treatment for my PTSD. I went into a part time-intensive program, and I’m doing better. I still experience myself as “other”—in part because people tell me I am an “other”—can’t get away from that— and I think that probably does influence how much I enjoy horror. In many ways, horror is a mode that explores and even celebrates “the other.” But aside from that, it just makes me happy. And my happiness doesn’t need to be picked apart because it doesn’t require further justification.

If you don’t take the deal, there are two endings. The earth is alive. The plague is just an immune response to the pollution of the town and the Polyhedron stabbing into the earth. If you find the cure to the plague, the army will be at your disposal to enact one of two possible solutions.

In the first ending, you leave the Polyhedron in place and shell the town, whose pollution and digging for the sake of development has harmed the earth. Miracles return in force. But the non-indigenous adults—and the older children—wander off into the wilderness and perish. The plague will come back generation after generation.

In the second ending, you choose to shell the Polyhedron. This rips the knife out of the wound and the earth bleeds out. An attack on the miraculous floating tower is an attack on the miraculous itself. Miracles, including the plague, die. But the town and its people live. This ending is the one I think the game heavily favors.

In the end this isn’t a game about futility. It’s about performing persistence in the face of futility. What better definition of hope is there? This was a hard game. And it’s been a hard year for everyone. But surviving was worth it.

Acknowledgments: Thanks to Erik Hane and Jon Greenaway for voicing Stephen King and David Hume respectively. And for all their encouragement. This video wouldn’t have happened without them. Thank you. Additionally, I should mention PhilosophyTube’s video on Jordan Peterson covers Brecht and the hedonists in a little more depth. I also have a philosophy background, but it’d feel wrong not to mention. I also want to thank Hbomberguy for his video on the first Pathologic. It’s one of my favorites on this website and I wouldn’t have thought to do a video at all on this at all if I hadn’t seen his. Anyway, I’m going to get off the mic now. Goodnight or good morning wherever you are.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s