2. It Might Be The Most Brutal Game Ever Made
One of the biggest problems critics have with Pathologic is that the game isn’t very fun. That’s a fair criticism, but the thing is, it’s not supposed to be fun. Games that make the player feel hopeless are a little more common now than they were in 2005, but even a game like Telltale’s The Walking Dead can’t completely forget the importance of player agency. But this is Russian literature, baby, in the classical style – hopelessness isn’t just an emotion, it’s a way of life.
The goal of Pathologic is…well, you don’t exactly know. To treat the disease, presumably, or at least start to understand it. There’s one primary story quest which must be completed each day, and a number of side tasks, but if you think that Pathologic is just going to tell you what you should be doing, you haven’t been paying attention. Progress is achieved by going out and talking to people, trying to separate truth from lie in a town where everyone speaks in riddles, all while time continues to tick down far, far faster than it should. Oh, and those sidequests people give you? Just because it appears in your objectives menu doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do, or that completion of a task earns you a reward. It seems weird to say this about a game where two of the three playable characters are basically witches, but in terms of how you interact with the world, Pathologic might be one of the most realistic games ever made.
In fact, failure to complete even the essential story quests won’t result in a game over. Which is not to say that your inability to stop the spread of the Plague won’t have terrible, unthinkable consequences…
There’s only two ways for the game to end. The first: make it to the end of the twelfth day, one way or another. The second: die. I still think “RPG” is the best way to describe the game’s nebulous genre, but mechanically it’s mostly a survival game, one of those things where you have bars for hunger and sleep (and immunity to the disease) and have to collect consumables to keep everything in the green zone. But make no mistake: your first playthrough, likely your first several playthroughs, will end in death. Pathologic is hard, and just as it doesn’t care whether or not you were able to make the right decisions today, it also doesn’t seem to care whether or not you live. You may collect plenty of money for the next day only to find that a panicked rush on all the stores has tripled prices overnight, and that the only way to get food is to barter with the local children, whose specific desires might not align with the random crap you happen to have picked up on your adventure. There are games that use hopelessness as a story theme, but when you’re still getting used to the nightmare logic of Pathologic‘s’ world you’ll begin to feel like the game itself is impossible. But that’s a good thing, because…
3. It’s One Of The Deepest Stories In Gaming
“Deep” is a word that’s lost its context in modern criticism, to the point that it’s become memetic in every sense of the word. But I don’t know how else to describe a game with this many layers to its philosophical narrative. It’s deep in the way that a lot of my favorite films are deep: every time you experience it, you see new levels of meaning. Ice Pick Lodge must have been planning and mapping out this game for a few decades, because how else do you explain intricacies like the hunger and exhaustion meters using a color palette that gets friendlier as you get closer to death, matching the Executors’ entreaties that you just give up? Or the inspired map design, which complements the story brilliantly in moments like the Bachelor’s first day, where after finally finishing the long walk to your mentor’s house you turn the corner to open the front door and immediately see that something has gone horribly wrong.
It’s deep in the sense that it seems like every day you uncover new mysteries. A town ravaged by an unrelenting plague would be enough of a story on its own. But then you encounter the Masks, the mysterious mimes who are simultaneously the harbingers of the plague and the only ones who can help you understand what’s really going on, if only you’d listen. And then there’s the Odongh, the not-quite-human Worms who are used as slave labor but seem like they’re working for someone other than the town. And what about the two huge and mysterious buildings on either end of the town – the physics-defying Polyhedron and the enormous, blood-soaked Abbatoir that produces most of the town’s meat? What’s their role in this? And how does the town get so much meat, anyway? And what sort of toll will answering these questions take on your soul?
It’s deep in the sense that, most of the time, you’re only seeing the surface of the town’s problems. Disease, cannibalism, murder – these are only the symptoms of something much more horrible, much more all-encompassing. On day 8, you see the town for what it really is, a twist so perfectly executed and deeply chilling that I could write a whole second feature just on that singular moment of gameplay. For now, you’ll just have to play the game and experience it for yourself, and believe me when I say this: you will never see it coming.