Friday, May 25, 2012

The Pathologic Dialogues - Part III

Kevin: I'm glad you brought up the question of free will, because in the end that's what everything in Pathologic circles back to. The conversation with the Authorities, the final dilemma at the Cathedral, and (most important of all) the theatrical conceit on which the game is built—I believe that it's all designed to push the player to confront the implications of his or her ostensible freedom in the game world. Is it even possible to have true agency inside a world that is strictly defined by somebody else?

From the beginning, Pathologic made it crystal clear that I was not in control of the situation. It confronted me with fluctuating store prices, the relentless march of the in-game clock, and the casualty tally that skyrocketed regardless of my performance. It even went so far as to unambiguously spell out its inflexible, predetermined endpoint: "The morning of the second day has come. Less than eleven days remain." I was kept in a constant state of reaction to the world around me. Ice Pick Lodge made no bones about it: I was in their world now, and it would unfold as they, not I, saw fit. They were the directors; I was just an actor—or should I say gamer?—playing a character.

This is the key to the theatrical conceit running throughout the game, which means that it's the key to the game, period. The Rock Paper Shotgun review labels this aspect of Pathologic as "wussy thespianism," but I think that does it a disservice. It's only by using the language of theater—the realm of scripts and directors and fourth walls, the universe where blatant artifice is somehow given breath and life—that the game's ideas about free will and good vs. evil gain their peculiar resonance. Pathologic is one of the most unforgettable games I've ever played, and that's because it's not just a game but also a drama. It's a drama where the actors are continually made aware of the director's hand.

Not that this absolves you and me of responsibility for our actions. The thing that keeps Pathologic kicking around in my head, months after I finished playing it, is that it's not content merely to tell us that we're dolls at the mercy of some other being's whims. I mean, it does tell us that (in the meeting with the Authorities in the Polyhedron), but then it gives us back our agency. At the time, I called it "one of the most electrifying moments I've ever had as a gamer," and that's still true. In the meeting with the Developers at (where else?) the Theater, the circle closes, the switch is flipped on, and suddenly we see what all this was for.

Here the Developers gave me a chance to step fully into the shoes of the beaten-down, exhausted Haruspicus: "Yes, I am responsible for him. I will stay with him till the end. His words shall be my words. His deeds shall be my deeds." Essentially, I would become him, changing him from the Authorities' "scary doll" to a free agent, from a pawn to a queen. And lest anyone think this is a wholly positive, happy-ending choice that's out of keeping with the darkness of the rest of the game, remember that I took responsibility for everything the Haruspicus did. By choosing this path, I cast myself in the role of healer and rescuer, but I also became a cultist and a murderer. Free will is a double-edged sword.

Really, I think the game features one of the most elegant engagements with the Problem of Evil that I've ever seen in any medium. All the world's a stage, and while the director has put limits on what can happen, the player can still choose freely once the curtain rises: to protect the sets or tear them down, to support his fellow actors or destroy them. I was stuck in Ice Pick Lodge's game, but it was I and no other who chose how to act in that game. I had agency. I was responsible for the Haruspicus. His deeds—all of them, good and bad—were my deeds.

This is the beauty of Pathologic, but it's a complicated beauty. You and I, Duke, persevered to the end and saved the town, but we also committed a lot of sins on the way. We're not even sure we ultimately did the right thing. In its final scene the game pronounced victory for me, but I was still aware of the depths to which I could sink as I floated away from the closed-down theater into the void. There were stars in the void, but also plenty of darkness.

Stay tuned for a few more thoughts in the next few weeks. Read the full dialog or dig into our playthrough here [Bachelor or Haruspicus]. For those new to the blog, go here to see what we're all about. Feel free to put in your two cents in the comments, too.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Pathologic Dialogues - Part II

Having finished the game, Duke and Kevin (Bachelor and Haruspicus, respectively) ask some questions and try to unpack Pathologic. Add your thoughts / questions in the comments section!

For those new to the blog, go here.

For Part I, go here.

Duke: As much as Pathologic gives players a stake in the lives of the townsfolk, it also works hard to drive home the worthlessness of the human animal. Bodies stacked in cattle corrals, the plague-ridden burned alive, the moans drowned out by gunfire: the game not only brings out the worst in the townsfolk, but in the players as well. The Apiary (a word for a collection of beehives) is teaming with men, expendable, soulless men. Bodies are so much meat lying on the ground, waiting to be burned off in the morning. As if to drive home their point, the Authorities appear on the last day to remind the player of their puppetry. We are mocked for how seriously we have taken the whole thing.

It's probably better to avoid the whole Problem Of Evil, and perhaps religion in general, but Pathologic is full of sacrifice. The Haruspicus performs sanctified murder. The Bachelor desecrates Kain's body in the hopes of finding a cure. Three of the endings are focused on exchange, as well. Destroy the Polyhedron for the children, he pleads. Burn the town for a new world. Or let things play out: sacrifice everyone to restore balance to nature.

Yet every large and small sacrifice is never enough to stop the evil in the Settlement. The bull at the Bone Pillar, which would have yielded panacea, is burned to a black hunk. The witch hunt on Day 6 leads nowhere. The succession of Bachelor to Inquisitor to General Blok: everyone wants someone to blame, a scapegoat, yet in the end the freedom of choice is given only to one person, much like in Dostoevsky's The Grand Inquisitor. The meat shouldn't be allowed to decide. It falls to the Bachelor, the Haruspicus, or the Devotress.

Kevin: Ah, now we're getting into deep waters. What do "good" and "evil" mean in games? This is going to be fun. Or perplexing. Probably both.

Here's the thing: Videogames take place entirely in abstraction. That is, the narratives, images, and mechanics are all just computer code being processed in the electrical depths of a machine. The significance we attach to these processes is entirely imaginative, similar to the imaginative ways we engage with the flickering pictures that a projector beams onto a screen at the cinema. Unlike movies, though, videogames give us an active hand in how this imaginative process unfolds. So the game's events are abstract—they are not literally happening in the real world to real individuals—yet at the same time they are being influenced by a real player who is situated in the real world. We're not just spectators—we're accomplices. So how much do the rules and morality of the real world apply to what we do in videogames? 

Before I (try to) answer that, it might be helpful to think about what "playing a game" really means. In order to play a game, you must first learn the rules. In the case of videogames, you do this by figuring out how to interact with the programmed world around you. Click the left mouse button and X happens. Two items combine to allow your character to do Y. The A.I. of other characters reacts in a certain way when you do Z. Most videogames start off with a tutorial section, designed specifically by the programmers to teach you these rules. By the end of these sections, you have gotten your sea legs. You've learned how you can and cannot affect the world around you, and you probably have a good idea of the game's tone and atmosphere as well.

But Pathologic didn't do this for me. There was no tutorial, no attempt by the designers to communicate to me the consequences of this or that action. After the brief opening cinematic, I was dropped in the middle of the game world and left to fend for myself. I had to construct my impressions about the town and my purpose in it from the ground up, without any outside force to contextualize what I experienced. Everything felt alien, right down to the labored, barely comprehensible dialogue translation. Essentially, Pathologic started me with a clean slate and left it up to me to determine what "normal" and "good" meant in this world.

I needed to have some orienting principles in order to make decisions, so I ended up extrapolating my own system of morality as I muddled through the first few days. I was tasked with fighting the Sand Plague, so I decided that my highest good was the salvation of the town and its residents. I was told that keeping my Adherents alive was important, so I prioritized their safety and wishes above others'. I discovered that my family was affiliated with the Cult of Bulls, so I sided with the people of the Abattoir against the supporters of the Polyhedron.

By the standards of my own in-game constructs, I made a moral choice (though perhaps not the best choice—acquiescing to the Devotress's suggestion at the Cathedral apparently offers true victory and healing for the town). I saved the children and allowed them to rebuild the town; my religious order jettisoned the corrupt influence of Fat Vlad and Elder Oyun; I frustrated the Kains' hubristic attempt to play God using the Polyhedron. To the Haruspicus, this was a righteous victory. 

Does that mean it was truly the right thing to do—that, if I were faced with an analogous choice in my real life, I would confidently make the same decision? At the time, I thought so. In my Day 12 writeup, I went on at some length about how the lives of the townspeople were valuable regardless of how evil they were—sure, they were small minded and selfish, but isn't everyone, to some extent? After reading what you wrote above, Duke, I'm not so sure. These weren't just people with everyday foibles, after all. They stole and lied and murdered without shame; they fastened like leeches onto the earth around them. Maybe I was working in service of a modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah, so irredeemably wicked that the only true cure for its sickness would be total annihilation. 

The town rubbed off on me. Because the game designers forced me to adapt myself to the town instead of outright telling me how to behave, I conformed to the dog-eat-dog world around me. When in Rome, do as the Romans do—even if the Romans are okay with killing people, ripping out their kidneys, and trading them to cult members for healing herbs. 

Pathologic conditions the player to treat life seriously. It does this by making survival and cure the primary motives for the three main characters. On the bright side, this suggests to me that the game designers want us to be shocked by the game's treatment of people as (in your words, Duke) "so much meat lying on the ground." On the dark side, this makes it all the more damning that I killed people to further my "moral" goal of stopping the Plague. Was I acting normally—even morally—within the context of the twisted world created inside the computer? Yes. But that doesn't necessarily make it right.

So what was "good" and "evil" for you while you were playing? Or did your experience as the Bachelor cause you to view everything in a more detached, calculating manner? Put another way: What was going through your mind as you played?

Duke: Pathologic wore me away. My compassion, my good will, made no difference in the world Ice Pick Lodge had fashioned. After a few days, I came to the conclusion that the moronic people of the Settlement were not worthy of my compassion. They didn't deserve what I as a moral human and a moral character had to offer. Organic reason--humanity--was the first thing to die in Pathologic.

I came to Pathologic with a set of principles, the same principles I apply in most every game. Save every little sister in Bioshock and you will ultimately be rewarded. Deliver something in Zelda and you'll get something good at the end. I didn't think I needed to learn the rules of Pathologic's game world in order to survive, and I ended up being used by everyone in the town with very little to show for it. There was no room for a Dudley Do-Right or a Christ figure in the Settlement. Many argue that there isn't room enough for them in the real world, either.

In this world, logic--not mysticism or morality--made the most sense. And that was what I came to prize most: logic, and the ability to make my own decisions.

Knowing I was being manipulated by the major families of the Settlement killed off any sense of "good" or "evil" and replaced it with a dichotomy of independence and slavery. That's the whole nature of a game, I guess--the designers, the programmers, the authorities, put you into a controlled sandbox, choose what you see, don't see, what you can and can't do, and then set an objective for you, the player. Pathologic asks a question. In the Bachelor's scenario, the question is "What constitutes true victory?" True victory become independence: not synergy, not blind faith. There's a reason the Polyhedron is completely outside, grafted on to the Authorities' model of the town: it represents the freedom of man, the objectivity of reason, the power of innovation. It is independence incarnate.

Isn't so much of Pathologic driving home the notion that we, as human animals, don't have true agency? That the only chance to live is to give up our independence for peace, to sacrifice innovation for stability? Isn't this the story of every natural disaster, too? When the chips are down, when Katrina is coming or Vesuvius erupting, humans either A) run and pillage or B) huddle and wait. This is human nature. This is exactly the response of the Settlement to the plague, as well. The nobles strategize from within their homes, the townsfolk curl up and die, and the bandits loot and murder.

Where I was content to accept the world, to euthanize my better half and turn bitter, you, Kevin, decided to hope against reason. You chose to accept the townsfolk for who they were--yes, petty squabbling myopics--and you wanted to give them a future. Maybe not the best future—as you said, the "true victory" is the unification of progress and stability, keeping the Polyhedron and the Settlement. But you kept them alive.

Me? Even with grandiose logic, self-assurance and no small measure of pride, I made my decision for myself. I survived the Sand Plague, but by no means can I claim any measure of moral high ground. Pathologic illuminated the worst in me.

We're working on Part III for next week. Stay tuned.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Pathologic: Infected Zones

I wrote this article for Kill Screen. So here it is--a piece on Pathologic. Like it on the website and your facebook page to get some buzz.

Read the original here.

In 1770, a strain of bubonic plague tore through Russian quarantine and infected Moscow. The plague took out maybe a third of the population of Moscow. As the dead piled up, city limits were extended to accommodate new graveyards. Quarantines were enforced and the economic paralysis sent shockwaves through the food supplies, until an army of starving and enraged Muscovites broke out into the streets and began the infamous Plague Riot. Once quarantine began to take effect, the plague died out relatively quickly, but at its peak, it was claiming a thousand lives per day. The event—both plague and riot—induced a complete breakdown of the infrastructure of Russian society, killing weak and strong, breaking down the economy, citizens’ rights, and basic human dignity.

In the manual for Pathologic, Russian developer Ice-Pick Lodge (which also madeThe Void) introduces its game with an appeal. Cataclysms and outbreaks of new diseases are the natural mechanism of pruning an overpopulated planet, it writes.Pathologic is a prototype of a “simulator of human behavior in the condition of pandemic”: it purports to test the user’s ability to make right decisions in times of crisis. It’s also agonizing to play, shoddily translated, and ugly as sin. Eurogamer’s John Walker called it “Oblivion with cancer ... a fascinating game. And a very broken one.” The game has cultivated a fiercely devoted fan base despite its poor reception in the West.

Pathologic shows the devolution of a society over the course of 12 days as plague overtakes a small, nameless Settlement. Events of the game closely mirror the real-world events of an epidemic. As the Sand Plague breaks, grows, and gradually consumes the settlement, characters research the cure and quarantine infected sections, until the military is summoned to suppress the growing chaos. By the end, it becomes nearly impossible to walk three steps without seeing a murder, as starvation drives people from their homes to be either infected or looted by raiders, and those raiders are in turn exterminated by soldiers.

Ice-Pick Lodge furnishes a mythologized restitching of the pandemic. Among the entrails of the Settlement’s history and the skeletal narrative, Pathologic paints a stirring portrait of the human condition and asks how we, as humans, have infected the earth. The Settlement in Pathologic is torn between past and future: the symbiosis of simple life on the steppe has been exchanged for modern life in the city. Innovation is bought by polluting the environment. In Pathologic, the environment retaliates through the natural mechanism of the Sand Plague.

It’s not surprising that a piece like Pathologic is distinctly Russian. Ice-Pick Lodge’s game functions as a sort of stylized reaction to key events in Russia and the Soviet Union’s history. Consider Chernobyl: the destruction of the reactor in 1986 scattered radioactive waste to the wind, resulting in untold deaths worldwide (the book Chernobyl estimates nearly a million premature deaths from the disaster). The testing, under direct orders from Moscow, is infamous. We won’t know the full effect of the disaster for years. It was inhumanly impossible to contain the radioactive fallout—400 times that of Hiroshima.

The Aral Sea was one of the world’s largest inbound bodies of water, yet 50 years of abuse under Soviet authority have reduced it to a fraction of its former breadth. Long piers extend over barren salt flats where the Aral has retreated. Between 1960 and 2008, the sea shrank from 26,300 square miles to a couple thousand, spread between several disparate lakes. The remaining waters are heavily polluted from chemical waste: the whole thing has been called one of the planet’s worst environmental disasters.

When viewed specifically as a Russian work, Pathologic becomes an apologetic of remorse. Mistakes made in the Soviet era were often glossed over or denied: Ice-Pick Lodge seeds Pathologic with increasingly overt symbolism. The Settlement’s districts are named for parts of the body, and the player’s map constantly evolves, tracking infected zones and objectives, until symbolism is thrown out the window and the map is replaced with a cutaway of the internal workings of a bull. The most powerful moments in the game lie in discovering, bit by bit, the extent to which the Settlement has ravaged the ground on which it was built. 

Pathologic acts as a statement, rising out of the Russian consciousness, that attempts to peel back the scars history has left and force players to ask questions. While it invites cliches like “humans are evil because they destroy the environment,” it doesn’t deserve such a simple interpretation. The developer invites players to spend 40 agonizing hours in a pandemic simulator not just to show how depraved and craven the human animal can become in such extreme circumstances, but to ask players what it is they want to believe. Do you believe in the power of logic and science? Do you cling to tradition? Or are you willing to trust in something more?

Monday, February 27, 2012

Pathologic: The ending, according to another Bachelor

I evangelized Pathologic to several different friends as I was writing this blog. My friend Ben Hess went out and bought it immediately after our conversation, and wrote me a compelling letter detailing his experience in the game. 

I have, after long hours and a particular kind of focus possibly best described as a 'mania' this week, completed Pathologic. As the executors say, the twelve days are finished... it is all over. I don't think I won.

Upon seeing the executors' unholy beaks outside the doors of some of my Adherents, I knew that the outcome would not be good. In fact, I had forgotten (in those months in absentia from the game) how to view letters I had received. This led to days seven and eight being a muddle of wandering and base survival. I sold my soul for food and healing, and only completed the main quests. I believe the disease appeared in Rubin first, then to Kapella after Big Vlad's suicide, then to Lara, Alexander, and finally Ospina. In short, I cashed in big time on my friends' willingness to die for me. I was able to manage, however, reasonably well without a gun for much of the game. Food became my undoing, and I wound up selling clothes and weapons in fear of starving to death well-armed and armored. Sleeping around (not like THAT) in whichever house was nearest became the norm, and my sense of security dwindled without a place to call "headquarters". After Eve's (apparent) suicide, I didn't have a reason to go to her house. Reading and following your blog left me more and more convinced that I would probably achieve a different ending (though I only read entries for day I had already completed), and this was further exacerbated by the side quests I was unable to complete as heroically as you... An unarmed doctor can only do so much against renegade soldiers, and so my Bachelor became more than willing to escape with his own life an leave riotous citizens to the unjust firing squads.

Apart from the desperate journey of scratching a living from the inhabitants of the town from hell, my own personal struggle with the disease and the larger questions of the town came to a head in a very different way from yours. Around day 10, I had decided that it was a sin to destroy the Polyhedron. Accident or no, it was plague-free. That, to me, became my guiding light in my quest. I was like a surgeon or a sculptor, excising the diseased flesh at will. Take out the tumors, and cut around it.... just to be sure. I carved the town to the bone. The Haruspicus confronted me with his solution on day 11, and I could not conceive of it. The thought of existing alongside the disease, eliminating its effects and the architectural (and so much more!) wonder on the other side of the river was weirdly repulsive to me. Not that I don't think it could work, but it was a panacea to a broken system; a further humanistic advance to fix more problems of humanity. It made the disease (and by extension its dark cause) okay. Or maybe not. Whatever the exact ultimate spiritual meaning of the butcher's suggestion, I rejected it in favor of a fresh start. I sided with Maria. 

Even taking into account the dark history of the Kain family, I was sure there should be no town here. Rebuild on the other side the river. Burn it all. Cut the flesh, graft on the new, and start over. In other words, I was perfectly unwilling to let the inhabitants live with the sins of their past and continue above the pathological and spiritual legacy of the Cult of Bulls. I wanted this place to be a dead shrine to a dead past; a silent stone monument to humanity's sins. I wanted to give the survivors a fresh start, and to maybe... just maybe do things differently. Salvation, in my mind, would come from new creation; from Armageddon and rebirth. Perhaps what this town needed was to spring from the Polyhedron, rather than the Polyhedron being birthed by the town. Sociologically, I didn't want to fix a broken system. But whatever feeble justification, I think my primary motivation was fatigue. 

The Kains were experienced in this sort of thing; the legacy of Simon lives on in George and Victor, and that of Nina lives on in Maria. This family, in many ways is the town as much as the buildings and inhabitants. But they represent the Western part as separate as possible from the Abbatoir and the Apiary. They are a new beginning for the town, as Vlad the Younger is different from boos Vlad. (Victor pointed out in one conversation on day 12 that boos meant "bull-like", and that he was, in many respects, representative of the old ways). This town, I thought, deserved the chance to make new and exciting mistakes, I guess. 

But, ultimately, if I chose utopia then I didn't choose it for myself. My Bachelor will not live in his creation; he doesn't deserve it. Though I went through twelve days in hell without killing a man in cold blood (only self-defense), the blood of every man, woman, and child in the infected zone is on my hands; not to mention the children expelled from the Polyhedron to accommodate the adult "survivors". I have killed the bull and kept the horns only.... I'm a poacher. But my trophy is at least alive. I have spared a few, and that's enough, I guess to sate my conscience. Cut away the flesh. And I assured Maria and everyone that I would leave with the soldiers at dawn. My decision, but not my life. And maybe refusing to live in the utopia I helped create is the proper atonement. After all, in the end I am only a doctor from the city. The plague is gone, and maybe that's enough to live with. 

Duke, this was by far the most difficult game I have ever played. Not only practically, with the clunky mechanics and extreme risk of death by stabbing or fire, but in every way. I have wrestled with the cryptic speeches, trying to figure the angles of each family and each Adherent while (for some reason) trying to keep them alive. I have been awestruck at the betrayals, traps, and pitfalls from those I trusted. I have found out things about myself that would have been happily underground if not for this game. I guess in the end, I was not the Bachelor... It was just me all along. In the end, thank you for showing this to me. I have been to a place that I cannot fully return from, and I have given this game (it feels a little lacking to call it a 'game', now) a part of myself in exchange for it giving me... something. Insight, maybe. Self-awareness... discovery? I can't name it at all, yet. But I'm more and more convinced that, even though my ending cutscene was accompanied by oddly distressing music, it wasn't really and totally wrong. I feel, here at the end of all things, that I have a story to tell. Like the Bachelor, I may have created a utopia, but it is not mine... I don't deserve it because of the blood on my hands. What I do have is a story to tell... and my Bachelor will live on in the Capital, perhaps to write an account of the town to which he performed the ultimate amputation. 

- Benjamin

Monday, February 13, 2012

Pathologic: The Ending, according to the Bachelor

If you haven't read the write-ups for Day 12 I suggest you go read them right now unless you've played the game through already. What we'd like to present to you right now is an overview of the endings.

As the Bachelor, I found three "choices" presented to me at the end of the game. I didn't have enough panacea to cure everyone's adherents, so the Devotress couldn't give me her input. So what I had--what I have to analyze here--is not the complete picture, though Kevin and Rory have filled me in, more or less.

The three choices I had were:

1. Let the Settlement be destroyed. But [the] Polyhedron may not be touched. The surviv[ors] will [rest] there until we vaccinate them, and the epidemic will finally [. . .] come to the end.
2. It is enough to destroy [the] Polyhedron to stop spreading of the infection. There is no sense to destroy the whole town.
3. So, I declare my decision to you. I refuse the choice. I shall not decide about the destiny of this town and [. . .] show my arguments to you.

Here's a quick summation of the results of each decision:

Destroy the Polyhedron; Save the Settlement.
We see the model of the town with the water jug that functions as the Polyhedron being slowly wrenched free.

It falls and lies, useless, on the ground. Then a vision of the Settlement with bluish skies, healthy. The kids, the Haruspicus, the turning of the wagon wheel: it looks like everything has turned out well.

"We aren't dying!"
After this, we're treated to an unsettling vision of the theatre, the three protagonists lying on stage like rag dolls with button eyes.

The game specifically notes that it "acknowledges the player's victory". We can walk around on stage, look at the dolls close up, before walking to the exit at stage left. Shimmering lights wait, suspended, in the void beyond the door, which slowly slips into the distance.

Destroy the Settlement; Save the Polyhedron.
The cutscene at the end shows the two Authorities--little kids--bashing the model of the town.

The artillery fires, the sun rises and Maria Kain stands looking very smug at the front of her entourage.

After a lovely view of the Polyhedron at dawn, silhouetted against the umber sky, the perspective shifts to the theater again, button-eyed dolls, the three protagonists arrayed at the back of the stage.

The game doesn't acknowledge the player's victory in this ending scenario. There's no text, no script. This ending is a defeat. The Kains won. The player let himself be manipulated, took the bait.

Again, floating lights, door, fade to black.

Refuse the choice.
The cutscene that plays exudes "bad ending vibes". The camera pans across the interior of a plague-ridden house, the light lingering on bloodstained bookshelves, the dirty floors, and so on.

Then we pull away to see the town bathed in red.

And eventually we see the corpses of the dead townsfolk.

The last shot is a fade-out on the Authorities' model of the town.

And then it's back to the town Theatre, on the stage with all the crumpled forms of the protagonists, buttons on their eyes. Door, fuzzy lights, fade to black.

Get this, though: at the end of this scenario, the game notes the player's victory.

I'll let Kevin fill you in on the other ending--the one supplied by the Devotress. For now I have some thoughts.

Concerning Victory.
There's a lot of conjecture about what the endings mean, but it's pretty easy to see the trajectory of each character and how it lines up with their "ending"--the one they contribute to the final reckoning if you save all their adherents.

Artemiy Burakh, the Haruspicus, has grown from the steppe dirt and inherited his father's legacy as shaman and curate of the Settlement. His relationships with the town's children, the way the scenario is shaped, leads him to demonize the Polyhedron. His "ending", so to speak, is to destroy the Polyhedron so that the town can return to the status quo. While the cinematic paints the ending in a positive light, I can't help but be grieved, because it's just as it was before--no better, no worse. The ending is reflective of the traditions and perpetuity of life the Haruspicus seeks so desperately to protect: it's stayed the same.

There are so many unanswered questions I have about Klara, the Devotress, having not played her story myself. She's an enigma. She's a miracle, a curse: she's a cookie-cutter messiah, loved by some and hated by the rest. And apparently her ending functions as a sort of deus-ex-machina, allowing the town to both sustain its own life, do away with the plague, and keep the Polyhedron. Rory's playthrough on his blog will certainly explore this in-depth when he writes up Day 12. Like the Haruspicus' ending, Klara's ending fits with her character: enigmatic, paradoxical, out of the blue.

Daniel Dankovskiy, the Bachelor, is an outsider, a scientist: a reserved and judgmental young man who thinks he knows best. It quickly becomes evident that he has neither the experience nor the wisdom to defend the town against the plague, so the Inquisitor, and later the General, are brought in to mop up his mess. He views the Sand Plague as an enemy: winning is the goal here, rather than curing the disease.

The suggestion the Bachelor brings to the final decision in the other games is to preserve the Polyhedron. This decision leads to the Kains building their "utopia". However, this choice doesn't acknowledge the player's victory. It's not the right decision to make; in fact, I believe it's the only patently wrong choice the player can make at the end of the game. I don't say this out of opinion: every ending except the Kains' Victory has an explicit statement of the player's victory.

If you've read through my playthrough as the Bachelor, you should see how my thinking, both as character and player, shifted over the course of the game. I began bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, so happy to save the town, save the world, and somehow, around midway through, I decided I hated the town. They were not worth saving. The crime, the politics, the horror of basic human nature. The problem was not the plague: it was the humans who were scarring the earth, doing violence by their very existence. I resolved that, on the final day, I would destroy the town when the decision was presented to me. The Polyhedron was a happy little coincidence--an inhuman marvel--that I wanted to save, and in the end, it was only a tool that would be misused.

The true enemy in this was never the Plague. The Bachelor realized it. His character introduction at the start of the game reads, "This is the story of a man who performed a miracle and defeated an opponent when victory seemed impossible." Could the conniving, clamoring people of the Settlement be this opponent?

Nukes and artillery aren't enough to kill the enemy, though. Men can escape shells. They can hide, reproduce, and rebuild. But the Sand Plague is a natural mechanism that, perhaps, was never evil to begin with. How does the Bachelor achieve the victory he has worked so hard to obtain? He walks away and allows the human parasite to devour itself. He lets the fever burn out.

Mother Nature: 7,776  -   Humanity: 0
Is this the "right" ending? For the Bachelor, who calculates in cold math, whose empathy has been steadily burned away by the shit-storm that is human nature, this ending makes perfect sense.

Edit [1-27-2013]: We've been hearing from other players who have differing reports about the way the Bachelor's scenario ends. If you are interested in reading about them, a few of our readers have kindly posted their own experiences in the comments below (and elsewhere on this site). Feel free to join the conversation, fellow players!

Pathologic: Hiatus

Apologies, dear readers. Kevin and I still have more thoughts on Pathologic, and we're itching to share them. We hope to have the next part of the Dialogues out in the next week or so. We'd also like to write something a bit more thorough on the endings. I'm also writing an essay on Pathologic for Kill Screen which I'll put here once it's finished.

Just understand: there are more things to come. If you're new to the blog, please read about us or start reading the playthroughs.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Pathologic Dialogues - Part I

Having finished the game, Duke and Kevin (Bachelor and Haruspicus, respectively) ask some questions and try to unpack Pathologic. Add your thoughts / questions in the comments section!

For those new to the blog, go here.

What was it all for?

Duke: Pathologic exists as a tightly-wound mechanism--exactly as Aglaja the Inquisitor put it in the game. I stick by what Ice Pick Lodge wrote in the first page of the game manual: Pathologic is an epidemic simulator. The game is constituted of many parts: an emotionally-draining scenario, mythology and meta-narrative, with symbols, philosophical rants, all adhering to gaming conventions. The game is an "epidemic simulator." Its purpose is to test players' moral fibre. We simulate the epidemic to test whether or not we would make right decisions amidst crisis.

At its base, Pathologic shares the same goal as good art: to show us something of ourselves we did not understand before.

Kevin: I'm not sure I'm fully on board with the idea that the point of Pathologic is "to test whether or not we would make right decisions" in certain situations. I tried to think about it that way at first and came away unsatisfied. It seemed to have the same problem as Bioshock: I would be presented with a choice between two mutually exclusive options, but the long-term outcome was the same regardless of which one I chose. As long as I completed all the main quests and made sure to save enough panacea for everyone's Adherents at the end, the in-game repercussions of my actions were fairly negligible (better/worse quest rewards, missed dialogue trees, etc.). Even when I was doing horrible things like stabbing innocent people for shopping discounts, the hit to my reputation meter was relatively small and my relations with other characters remained unchanged. Even the much-vaunted final dilemma at the Cathedral felt like more of a choice between abstractions than a genuine moral quandary. Where were the consequences? Where were the situations that forced me to pick the lesser of two evils? Pathologic never gave me a mind-blowing, everything-you-know-is-wrong twist like Bioshock's "Would you kindly?" reveal. I felt cheated.

But the more I thought about the experience after finishing the game, the more I realized that the consequences and morality I thought I was missing actually were there; they just weren't present in the game-narrative itself. When I killed that guy on Day Two, I felt like a monster, and it wasn't because the game punished me with a "bad" ending or decreased resources. I felt like a monster because my character had just acted like a monster. Somehow Pathologic had made me identify with my character much more closely than any other videogame had, to the point where my character's behavior and my behavior were one and the same. There was no comfortable distance between me and Artemiy Burakh. I couldn't act with reckless abandon and laugh it off as "just a game."

I think this gets at your larger point: Pathologic, like lots of other art, revealed me to myself. By playing as an organ-thieving shamanistic weirdo in an extreme setting, I was suddenly thinking about myself and my approach to games in whole new ways. Did it test whether I would make "right" decisions during a plague outbreak? Who cares. The point is, it made me think about what the concepts of "rightness" and "morality" actually mean to me. It made me engage in a far more immersive form of role-playing than any so-called RPG ever has. As you can probably attest, given the weird arguments we had with each other after our game sessions.

Duke: Those arguments were huge. I think that set the game apart to me more than anything else. I've gotten involved in some games before--I remember screaming in unison with some friends on the most intense scenes in Heavy Rain--but I've never fully synced with a character like I did with the Bachelor. This was a characterization that was carefully cultivated, both through situation and gameplay. Pathologic is engineered to make players desperate. It's not very hard to make a person care. Look at the success of Farmville. Millions of Facebook users are given an arbitrary set of assets at the start of the game--all of them the same--and suddenly people are waking up at 2 in the morning to feed their cows.

Most games give you a health bar you have to keep filled. Pathologic gives you hunger, exhaustion, infection and immunity in addition to health. Maintaining the survival of your character is a chore. Through that maintenance, you take ownership much more completely. The simulation is more demanding. Is this manipulative? Yes. But manipulation is gaming's specialty: as we affect the simulated reality, it affects us.

My state of mind in Pathologic is something that's difficult to translate into writing. I found myself in a constant state of tension. I was stressed at the mounting conflict in the town, the annoyance of the tasks with which I was being presented, while constantly worrying about the Bachelor's health. It follows naturally that I would become impatient with the petty squabbles I had to deal with. I think of myself as a compassionate person, yet by Day 6 I had settled into the cold, calculating method of the Bachelor, and had deemed the town not worth saving. Which, strangely enough, was exactly what the developers had intended for the Bachelor. It was not by choice but necessity that I started to hate the town--both as a player and character--and it follows that I would latch on to the one thing that made sense: simulated life, anesthesia, as embodied in the Polyhedron. I wasn't forced to dream of a better world--I chose to. With the simulated reality crumbling around me, I gravitated toward the closest thing to perfect that the game had to offer: the Polyhedron.

That's where it gets me, Kevin. As people, we have to impose some kind of order on the world around us. As ethical, empathic people, we brought our sensibilities to bear on Pathologic. And because of our different roles, our different treatments, we shored up different suppositions, different conclusions than the other. You turned into a weird mix of Pavel and Alyosha from The Brothers Karamazov, burying stray cats while espousing a universal hope--whereas I turned Ivan, the intellectual nihilist, consumed by the evil of the world around me.

Kevin: Consumed by evil, huh? I thought there was something different about you.

It was definitely interesting how we both could be absolutely convinced of our rightness despite being on completely opposite sides. Again, I can't think of another game that comes even close to offering that kind of multivalent storytelling (Deus Ex does, based on what I've heard, but I haven't played it myself—I know, I know). We both had good reasons for picking the sides we did, too. When I said in my final entry that I was almost swayed by the Bachelor to destroy the town, I wasn't exaggerating, and part of my uncertainty was due to the points you made during our discussions. You argued passionately for your side, probably because, at least at the time, you sincerely believed you were right. Neither of us was playing make-believe: we were in it for real. Pathologic made us feel that we genuinely had skin in the game.

So why did we care so much? As you said, part of it's because you and I have at least a basic sense of empathy and morals, and part of it's because we had to work so hard just to keep our characters alive. The big thing for me, though, was the fact that the whole game was predicated on the goal of saving lives. Most adult-oriented narratives in games these days have violence as the engine driving the story forward, as in "those aliens are attacking me so I must blast them in the face with my space-shotgun." There's violent combat in Pathologic, sure, but combat isn't the focus (I tried to avoid it whenever possible, if only because the control system made me want to throw my laptop through a window). At the beginning of each day, the game reminds you how many people have died, how many are close to dying. That's a great device; it was a constant reminder to me that the Plague was winning. It lent urgency to everything I did; even when I wasn't close to death myself (a relatively rare situation to begin with), I knew that other people were. Every quest and action felt terribly important, and I was constantly stressed out about the epidemic's tireless advance. No wonder I got so sucked in: lives were at stake.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Pathologic: The story continues . . .

Hey all. If you've been reading through these posts, we'd like to thank you. It was an incredible ride, and one we've enjoyed writing about. We'll be posting a few more things in the coming weeks--including a look at the other endings as well as a dialog about our reactions and interpretations as players.

Also, there's a project continuing, in a similar vein, that chronicles the Devotress' part of the story. You can read about it at this link:

We'd love to hear your reactions in the comments--thoughts, rants, whatever. If you just randomly clicked on this blog, then by all means start reading from the beginning.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Pathologic: Day Twelve—Endgame (Part 2)

(To read Part 1 of the Haruspicus's Day 12, go here. To read about the Bachelor's final decision, go here.)

My talk with the Developers at the Theater has empowered me, convincing me that I am more than just a toy at the mercy of unpredictable gods. Ultimately, I may be walking the Authorities' predetermined path, but it is I and no other who has been choosing how I walk it, and it will be I and no other who will decide the town's fate at the Cathedral. I am more than just my in-game avatar—I am the player, and my choices make all the difference.

The thing is, free will is a double-edged sword. It carries with it the responsibility to make right choices and the possibility of making wrong choices. I've done some pretty disturbing things over the last twelve days, and right now I am not at all sure what my final action should be. Of course, as a puppet I would not be responsible for anything I do. As a free agent, though, I'm responsible for everything I do. Total freedom can be terrifying.

So when I step inside the Cathedral on the evening of the last day and find the leading figures in this drama all waiting for me to make up my mind, anxiety suddenly hits me. This is it. "The Haruspicus's words shall be my words. His deeds shall be my deeds," I told the Developers. In a sense, then, the consequences of my choice will be very real. I personally will share Artemiy Burakh's victory—or his failure.

The Devotress's Argument

I choose to speak to the Devotress before anyone else, hoping to find out, at long last, what her angle is in all this. I learn precious little, other than that there apparently were at least two of her running around the town this entire time. "Perhaps I am not the Klara you knew before," she says. "There are a few of us, you know.... The face is the same, but who knows whose will is behind it this time?" This does not inspire my confidence in anything she suggests.

She suggests that it's not actually necessary to destroy the town or the Polyhedron. Whatever weird errands she has been running since Day 1, they have all been in service of forging a miracle that will preserve everything as it is while eradicating the Sand Plague once and for all. Her visits with Anna Angel and Catherina Saburov, the upsetting tales she told my Adherents, her offer of help yesterday with the Elder's final trial—all to bring about this supposed miracle.

This is all very confusing for me. Already I am disoriented—I was expecting something less heady when I first entered the Cathedral, and the translated dialogue isn't helping. The implications of this for what I already know are difficult to parse. The Haruspicus is a shaman of sorts, no stranger to the supernatural, but his is a mysticism of earth, flesh, and the harsh inevitability of death. The Devotress's talk of a miracle that can paradoxically save both the Polyhedron and the town is an alien concept. The Sand Plague did not arise spontaneously; it originated because of either the Abattoir or the Polyhedron. The only way to stop the Plague is to cut out its source. I tell the Devotress to keep her shadowy miracles and multiple personalities to herself and move on.

The Bachelor's Argument

As ever, the Bachelor is unbending in his contention that the town is a cancer and that salvation lies with the Kains and their Polyhedron. The only reason I think otherwise, he says, is that the Inquisitor has been lying to me, manipulating me to keep the town out of the crosshairs and her neck off the chopping block. When I ask him what makes him so sure of her cunning when I suspect her of nothing, he responds delicately that he's just better than I am at thinking logically. The Bachelor can be a bit of a prick sometimes.

Some of what he says makes sense to me: more sense than I anticipated, actually. I've been mulling over the revelation of my late father's involvement with the Polyhedron project, and I can't align it with my current beliefs. If my father, at one time the most important person in my Order, supported the Polyhedron's construction, shouldn't I as well? What if the Bachelor is right, and I've just been manipulated by everyone I've talked to? I have to trust someone if I am to decide, but maybe I've been trusting the wrong people all along.

The Final Decision

I talk to the Inquisitor, looking for confirmation of ... well, anything that I've heard so far. She seems cool and collected, deferring to me for a decision and not trying to guide me one way or another. I try to frighten her into giving something away by once again demolishing the fourth wall, speaking in my own voice instead of through the Haruspicus. It's a cool trick that I've discovered, and it does scare her ("Give me back my Haruspicus," she wails), but it gets me no closer to knowing what I should do. I turn to General Blok, pull up the options for my decision, and sit there, thinking.

I agonize for about ten minutes, turning over my options in my head. The Polyhedron has stirred up the Sand Plague. It's acting as a womb for some ... thing. I've thought it was the root of the epidemic for some time now. On the other hand, my father seemed to have no problem with it. Back at the Theater, one of the Developers told me that the town will always be imperiled by one thing or another: if not the Sand Plague, then war, famine, or plain old human depravity. Perhaps I should give up on the town as a lost cause and cast my lot with the Kains and their Utopia.

Then I remember the conversations I had with my Adherents this morning. They will grow up to be, in their own way, just as weak and selfish as their parents. They'll fall in love and rebuild their homes, scheme for power and double-cross each other, and eventually bring some new calamity on themselves. That is to say, they'll be human beings. Hotheaded Notkin, spacy Laska, bedraggled Mishka with her dreams of growing into a beauty—they deserve to live the normal, messy life that everyone lives. Unfortunately, the Polyhedron is a beautiful lie, with its false, unnatural promises of immortality and an earthly utopia. It's been siphoning the earth's lifeblood in pursuit of an impossibility. The lie must be destroyed and the lifeblood turned to curing the Plague if salvation is to be achieved.

I tell General Blok to train his guns on the Polyhedron and to fire at midnight, giving me enough time to herd the children inside to safety. Opening my journal, I write, "Will shall make my choice right." I push open the Cathedral's doors and step out into the clear night air.

I find myself back in the Theater, now cleaned up and closed down. A disembodied voice echoes off the walls: "We admit the victory of the Player." I am standing on stage, with little burlap dolls scattered around my feet. For the first time in the game, there is complete silence: no dour music, no industrial clanking in the distance. The only sound is my hollow footfalls on the wooden planks.

Up against the wall, I spy three life-sized dolls of the Bachelor, the Devotress, and the Haruspicus, all leaning against each other, huge among the smaller burlap figures. Here, at the end of the game, I feel a strange affection for the creepy little things. The Haruspicus figure in particular interests me. If that is Artemiy Burakh's body there against the wall, then what figure is standing before it? Whose eyes am I looking out of?

Mine, I realize. I, the player, Kevin, am quite literally standing onstage in the game. I've been there the whole time. The entire game was just a stage on which played out the drama of my decisions as a player. Maybe the town was all make-believe, but one thing was real: the choices I made within that imaginary world. Those decisions constituted the drama that took place here. Now the play is over.

I see a door to my right and open it, floating away from the Theater into a starry void.


Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Pathologic: Statistics

If you wanted to see the rate of deaths throughout the game, I've plotted the numbers on a convenient graph. Click it if you dare. In the end, the consequences were slightly more dire for the Bachelor than for the Haruspicus--but just barely.