Pathologic 2 is a tight-knit confluence of many strange ideas–about bodies and disease, about acting and theater, about community and society, about individual and state, about children and grown-ups, about utopia and transcendence, and (of course) about life and death. Separating the strands is difficult and probably useless; the resulting game is something you accept as a whole, flaws and all, or reject.
And it’s easy to reject. Responses to the game have already divided into those who appreciate the game’s sheer uncanniness but find it hostile and difficult to the point of unplayability, and those who defend those decisions to the hilt as being the very essence of the game.
This dispute isn’t resolvable. A simple description of the game is likely to put off most people, while those who are entranced by it (including myself) can only shrug when presented with its faults, because those faults are what you put up with to get something you can’t get elsewhere—assuming you want that something. I can honestly say I enjoyed it a lot more than Nier: Automata, but I can’t convince you that you will. If it’s something that will appeal to you, you’ll probably know within the next few paragraphs. If it is, I think it’s worth the effort.
We intend to make games for our country and about our country. We want to create a deep game the Russian way.Nikolay Dybowski, lead designer (2001)
This is a very Russian game, so Russian it makes S.T.A.L.K.E.R. look like Duke Nukem. I strongly recommend playing with the dialogue in Russian, because the effect of hearing it in English is jarring, and not in a good way. I don’t speak Russian, but it sounds amazing in this game (and the sound design, overall, is incredible).
Art is activity that soaks all our everyday household life. It is not some elite high side of the human existence. It is some form of conscience, exactly that activity the aim of which is to reach perfection.Nikolay Dybowski, lead designer (2005)
It’s worth noting that Dybowski’s faith in art has practically vanished in America today, where artists desperately graft ephemeral politics on to works of art out of the fear of irrelevance. Pathologic 2‘s belief in art as fundamentally aesthetic experience is total. Politics are present, but they are sublimated into far less topical spiritual and folklore material. This material is not revisionist in the way that Vladimir Sorokin’s fiction is: the game never pulls the rug out from under the many traditional themes it invokes. But it does combine them in highly unusual ways.
You play Artemy Burakh, the Haruspex, called to return home to a small steppe town by his father, only to find that your father has been murdered. The town is soon overrun by the baffling and deadly “sand plague,” and you are tasked with finding a cure, along with simply keeping yourself fed and healthy for the twelve days of the game.
There is a central cast of around 30 people, seven of whom are children whom your father has tasked you with protecting. Every character represents one or another abstract principle, and plays a very particular role in the town.
Loosely speaking, there are three main factions:
- The Kin: the indigenous bull- and Earth-worshipping steppe residents who work in the enormous abattoir, the town’s central industry. They are a genuine hive mind, with little individualism and some brutal customs to match. Their much-beloved patriarch, Isidor Burakh, has just died.
- The Kains: an elite and remote family with grand utopian plans, which include a Cathedral to control time and the Polyhedron, an impossible architectural structure. Their much-beloved patriarch, Simon Kain, has just died.
- The Town Hall: technical governance of the city, headed by the well-meaning but officious Alexander Saburov, though a number of other players exert control, like “Big Vlad,” the abattoir boss, and a few other characters who show up as the plague worsens.
People speak in riddles and philosophy, folk (and other) magic is very real, and everything and everyone symbolize something. The Kin and the Kains are in clear opposition, yet both the Polyhedron and the Abattoir represent steps away from the “realistic” world of the town proper—just in opposite directions. You, Burakh, are in effect adjudicating a battle between humanity and nature and between past and future—when you’re not dying of hunger, getting shivved by looters, or being chased by plague clouds that is.
Much of the game’s symbolism draws from Vladimir Propp’s work on folklore, but I think the central conceit of the game is to cross Propp’s ideas with a gamified adaptation of Viktor Shklovsky’s ostranenie (остранение, defamiliarization) and its appropriation by Bertolt Brecht as V-effekt (Verfremdungseffekt, alienation effect). And that brings me to what I wanted to say in the first place, which is about how ostranenie figures into both the metafictional material and the game’s infuriating difficulty.
So let the player be in the very center, the very core of cosmos, in the game. And the game is some kind of mechanism, some labyrinth that he enters and won’t exit. This labyrinth places the player in the very heart of the Universe, and then his every deed sustains in all levels of this Universe. That’s when the player’s victory can become an astonishing, true victory.Nikolay Dybowski, lead designer (2006)
I have never played a game so hellbent on reminding players that they’re playing a game. Mark Immortell, the director of the large and seemingly quite well-funded theater in the center of town, hosts pantomimes every evening in which you witness yourself and other characters acting out scenes related to the main plot. Random townspeople are blatant “extras” with no personalities. Two “Executors” in reaper costumes bicker with you and each other over the meaning of the whole thing. Tragedian stagehands speak for the inner minds of the characters and assist with the whole pageant.
And whenever you die, which is frequently, Mark Immortell yells at you for making his life more difficult, then goes off on a rambling spiel. The most vicious aspect of the game’s difficulty is that player deaths count against your entire playthrough and carry harsh penalties, usually by lowering your maximum health. These penalties apply across all your saved games within a single playthrough, so restoring to an earlier point will not help.
There also appears to be some sort of terminal limit on maximum deaths. I luckily never reached it, though judging by the rapid development of the “tumor” outside the theater, I might have been getting close. This rat fellow outside bitterly complains about it:
I hope this is enough to establish that the game is quite antagonistic toward the player. Beyond the ever-shifting resource management obstacles the game throws in your way (supply and demand shift aptly as the plague progresses), the general level of obliqueness and unforgiveness really does resist the player at every turn. The game is clearly intended to “break” the player. But what exactly is being resisted, and what is being broken?
The game must construct a painful disharmony. This conflict is to be aimed at what the person is painstakingly living through, at this unfinished view that one sees before himself…We deliberately refuse to create a comfortable environment for the gamer.
And if, having walked the whole path, the player will realize that he will have restored harmony with his ritualistic or symbolic decisions, will see the result with his own eyes, see this small world change, – that’s where the game becomes art and the player the coauthor.Nikolay Dybowski, lead designer (2005)
I believe that the difficulty is, like the theatrical trappings, another form of ostranenie. The metafictional material points out that you’re not the character, but no one blinks an eye at that anymore. But the punishing difficulty works in a different way, by resisting one’s attempts to play as the character one wants to be.
That is, we’re given Artemy Burakh as the hero of the story, protector of children, curer of plague. However hard this goal is to reach, we know we’ll reach it because that’s the point of the game. So one plays as one normally would, acting out the archetype and following the implied heroic progression. This is where Propp’s structural analysis kicks in hard: despite Burakh’s many peculiarities, the player’s conception of him is going to be rooted in a handful of well-known archetypes. The player’s intuition will be to act in accordance with these archetypes.
You don’t need to understand Propp’s detailed breakdown to feel intuitively that Burakh is in a fairy tale of finding the magic cure to defeat the evil villain (the sand plague and, more generally, death) and save the children. That’s obviously what you’re here to do.
Except that the game does everything in its power to foil your attempt to fulfill the structural archetype. Survival becomes so paramount that a good chunk of the time you are less Burakh the Hero than Some Poor Soul caught in a massive disaster. The inevitable (and, I presume, intended) reaction is to say “Screw it” and let characters die of their own accord because you’ve got enough problems on your own. Mark Immortell’s nagging and philosophical bloviation is likely to accelerate this reaction. So much for heroism.
And I believe this is the disjunction the game is trying to force: not between the player and the character being played, but between the player and the archetype they are attempting to embody as the character. Loss and failure in games is generally treated, rather logically, as a necessary step toward success. Here, the goal is to pulverize the player into forgetting about greater success to the point where they think, “I’m not, and cannot be, and am not going to be Artemy Burakh, Hero,” while still playing the game “in character.” That is, to remove the luxury to consider ethics and purpose and reduce the player merely to struggling to continue playing. (Which, it must be said again, many will not do.)
This is a form of ostranenie and alienation that is unique to games, and one that I’ve never seen a non-joke game embrace as Pathologic 2 does. Ostranenie and V-effekt dictate that the alienation of player from their aspirational archetype makes victory, even a very limited one, far more meaningful and “real” than it would be in a normal game.
I admit that I’m uncertain on this point. Ostranenie is part of the game, but it is not the whole game, and I don’t know that it is integral to the story that the game tells. Despite the depressing material, most characters are portrayed far more sympathetically and sentimentally than in many Russian novels; even Death himself is a bowl of sunshine next to any character in Shchedrin’s The Golovlyov Family. I’m not sure if this helps relieve the punishing difficulty or if it clashes with it.
I’m also uncertain if this particular form of ostranenie simply gets swamped by the simple frustration at a game being too damn hard. The game asks, “How can anyone be made to feel the heroic torment of Sisyphus if they’re given a paper boulder to roll?” but I note that nowhere did the Greeks specify that Sisyphus’ boulder got heavier on each go-round. On the other hand, I was most absorbed in the early and middle days of the plague, when I found the difficulty to be the highest. Toward the end, the game seems to diverge into either isolated super-difficult challenges or more manageable resource tedium, and I felt restless in a way I had not in the earlier days.
This, too, might be an irresolvable debate. I don’t have enough insight into my own psychology to determine whether the peculiar combination of alienation and absorption foisted upon me by the game was essential to my experience of it, or how much it affected what I took away from the game. I did finish the main story before writing this essay—not with an “optimal” result, but things could have gone a lot worse (and, as Mark Immortell repeatedly pointed out, frequently did). The game appears generous in how it ultimately defines “success,” so bear in mind that the game is not asking for a perfect performance under such ridiculously brutal conditions.
It’s possible that Dybowski’s vision is specific to him and terminal, rather than an open door to a new catharsis. But there’s so much that’s unusual and special about Pathologic 2 (and playable, compared to its rather broken 2005 incarnation) that I remain inspired by it as an example of damn-it-all-to-hell art in an age of overstuffed indifference.
* The designers are planning to introduce easier modes in response to criticism over the difficulty, but made clear they are doing so reluctantly and hope people will not use them. This is probably a good thing, since the game is part of a triptych and broadening the appeal will raise the likelihood that the remaining two parts are completed (the scenario as played from two other points of view).