Pathologic

Tagged: Game

Videogame (2006; vt Pestilence: The Utopia in Russia). Ice-Pick Lodge. Designed by Nikolay Dybowskiy. Platforms: Win.

While Pathologic's gameplay resembles that seen in examples of the Survival Horror form, it is perhaps better described as a slow-paced action Adventure, viewed from a first person perspective. The majority of the player's time is spent exploring the game's urban environment, interacting with its inhabitants, and searching for scarce (and often desperately needed) resources, notably food and medical supplies. In tone, Pathologic is more philosophical and despairing than it is exciting and terrifying; violence is best avoided whenever possible.

Fundamentally, the game is more a work of speculative than of science fiction (see Speculative Fiction). The setting is a remote town on the Russian steppes, apparently in the early twentieth century. Shortly after the player has chosen their character and arrived in the community a mysterious disease is discovered amongst the population, and a quarantine is declared. From this point on the player has twelve days to solve the mystery of the plague and find a treatment. If the time elapses without a cure being found, the town will be destroyed. If the player fails to complete the single major task which a character will offer them each day, one of their character's friends or allies in the town will die. If the player's character fails to eat, sleep or stay free of disease, they too can die. As this list suggests, Pathologic can be a harsh and unforgiving game to play, in which the player must repeatedly trudge from one part of the town to another, negotiating and bartering with the natives within strict time limits to obtain the goods and information they need to survive and complete their daily mission. The town in which the game is set is grim and sometimes vile, subject to a metaphysical form of urban decay. While each of the characters whose role the player can choose to adopt is some kind of healer (the alternatives being a doctor of medicine, a shaman with divinatory powers and a tribal witch), their abilities can lead the player to make morally dubious choices, sacrificing one to save many.

Perhaps the most unusual aspect of Pathologic's construction is the way in which its designers have blurred the lines between the game and reality, between the player and the character. At intervals in the predesigned plot mysterious masked entities resembling bird headed men or faceless mimes will approach the protagonist and speak directly to the player who controls them, emphasizing the artificiality of the work and the arbitrary nature of its rules. This stratagem is used, for example, to explain the death of one of the protagonist's friends whenever the player fails, a mechanic which has no causal justification within the reality of the game. Such devices are reminiscent of Bertolt Brecht's "theatre of estrangement", in which an actor might address the audience directly in order to create "a sense of curiosity and astonishment".

In the game, it soon becomes apparent that not only the people but also the buildings are dying. Eventually, it can be deduced that it is not truly the population that is sick, but the town itself and the earth beneath it. The people's abuse of the land, and of the symbolic bull that provides the shape of their town, has made it ill, and the sickness of the land causes the disease of the people. For a cure to be found, humanity must recognize its abuse, and begin to end it. This pagan mystery can only be fully penetrated by finishing the game more than once; only part of the story can be understood from the viewpoint of any one of the player's three possible personas. All of these characters are present whenever the game is played, but two of them simply act out their prepared roles while the player performs the part they have chosen. Thus the shape of the plot is that of several intertwined linear narratives, a kind of multithreaded tapestry of story (see Interactive Narrative).

Pathologic is bleak, otherworldly, occasionally abhorrent, and very slow to play. It also suffers from a truly awful translation from the original Russian. Even allowing for this, it is often extremely pretentious. Nevertheless, it offers a genuinely compelling experience, an exercise in choosing ends over means in a morally ambiguous world and a vision of a kind of dirty transcendence which may also serve as an allegory of Russian society. The game is also almost unique in the world of Videogame design. Its closest artistic relatives may be Thomas M Disch's non-sf text Adventure Amnesia (1986) and (especially) Andrei Tarkovsky's agonizingly hypnotic film Stalker (1979). [NT]

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