Thursday, August 25, 2011

Pathologic: Day 0.5: In which Kevin is almost reduced to tears by a videogame, then dies of starvation

Pathologic does not mess around. Within two minutes of clicking on the Haruspicus at the character selection screen, I watch my character, Artemiy Burakh, kill four men and fatally wound a fifth after they ambush him at a railroad station. When he wakes up in the weeds the next morning, a cloaked, bird-headed person called an Executor (below) informs Artemiy that he is close to bleeding to death from his injuries. Also, everybody in the neighboring town knows that he killed those men, and they would be perfectly happy to hasten his death.

Let’s back up a bit. A “Haruspicus,” as best as I can tell from the translated diary that Artemiy keeps with him, is a combination of an anatomist, shaman, and butcher. Translated another way, the word could mean “Ripper.” Artemiy uses the dead bodies of others to gain knowledge of matters scientific and … otherwise. So it’s understandable that the townspeople would be a little wary of him even if he hadn’t announced his arrival with the killing of five citizens. Never mind that it was self-defense—Artemiy is a Haruspicus.

I discover the depth of their mistrust the hard way when I enter town and the first person to see me tries to murder me with his bare hands.

Keep in mind that I’m five minutes in and am still figuring out how to play the game (since there’s no tutorial).

I quickly learn that I am going to spend a lot of my first day skulking around and avoiding just about everyone. This makes things difficult for two reasons.

1) It takes me forever to travel anywhere. I’ll be walking toward a promising-looking building, but a townsperson suddenly appears between me and my destination so I have to go hide in some bushes until he ambles past.

2) I am tired and hungry. If I get too tired or too hungry, I'll die. I don’t have any food of my own. Everyone in town is much more likely to punch me to death than, say, sell me a hamburger. I’m so desperate that, when I find a lemon in somebody’s trash bin, it qualifies as a feast. On the bright side, I’m able to keep my exertions to a minimum thanks to all of the hiding in bushes that I’m doing, so you know. There’s that.

It doesn’t take long for me to start seriously worrying about how I’m going to make it through the day alive. Unsure of what to do, I decide to check out the creepy-looking Abattoir in the northeast corner of town. On the way there I duck into a back alley to hide from a passerby, only to discover two men trying to assault a woman. Wow, this town really is messed up. I beat them up, expecting a reward or at least gratitude. Instead, she runs off in terror, and I’m left even more tired and hungry than before.

This is when I start to lose it a little bit. I just saved a woman from being raped! Doesn’t that win me at least a little trust from the townspeople? This isn’t fair. I’m getting that shaky, throat-tightening feeling of pure frustration. After checking the men’s bodies for supplies and coming up dry, I think, Screw it. If everyone’s going to hate me for being a Haruspicus, might as well own it. I search the bodies again, only this time I choose to harvest their organs. Maybe I can get some use out of these.

It’s too late. Eventually I figure out what Artemiy needs to do, but the sky is already darkening. Artemiy has been going an entire day on only two hours of rest and no food. I complete the mission given to me by one of the few friends I have and start walking back to let him know. Suddenly, I stumble, then keel over in the middle of a field. Dead.

On the drive home (by that time it was midnight, and I had work the next morning), I was genuinely exhausted. For the first time, I realized just how unforgiving this game was going to be. If I make the wrong decision, Artemiy won’t just miss out on some items or experience points. He will suffer for it.

Pathologic does not mess around.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Pathologic: Day One, by the end of which the Bachelor will have to begin his fight with a truly undefeatable foe

Look at me, all burdened-for-the-universe like.

So by the time I get to town, Simon Kain is dead. The town doctor, the unnaturally-old Isidor Burakh, is likewise missing, and I’m charged to investigate the murder. I spend most of the day scurrying around the town trying to find out what happened from any of the town’s three squabbling families—the self-righteous Kains in the West, the Saburov family in the Northeast, and the corrupt Olgimskiy house in the center. Being self-righteous myself, I play the Kains’ errand-boy most of the time.

Most of the evidence points to Isidor’s son, Artemiy, so I spend most of my time following his trail, occasionally getting sidetracked by nonsense stories about cannibalesses from the steppes and mind-numbing fetch quests. The investigation serves mostly to acquaint me with the three heads of proletariat and their numerous lackeys.

My primary enemy today is boredom. The chief puzzle: finding the best way through the city streets to accomplish each goal on time. This is not the Pathologic I’ve been told I would find. Or perhaps it is. The chief faults are here—slow combat, a maddening walking speed, boxy motion, and yes—the translation here is definitely more Russian than English.

All the same, the ambient music sets quite a tone, and the graphical limitations work in service of the game’s aesthetic rather than against it. Also present is the meta-narrative: I’m greeted by the executor and tragedian when I leave the gate, and they’ve put on a play in the theatre about me and my friends. The dialogue, though poorly translated, yields widely different results depending on what I say,

Some of the tasks seem pointless—during my search for the murderer, I stumble upon one waifish wench whose living room floor has a dead man who shambled in, took three gasping breaths, and inconveniently expired. After a bit of thought, I figure I’ll help the poor girl and hire the undertakers at the graveyard to dispose of the body, no questions asked. These undertakers, in turn, demand a high sum, which I am reluctant to pay, but do. Afterwards I’m sent onward, still clueless, fingering the ring of wench’s grandmother in my pocket.

After hours of long trekking, it finally becomes obvious that Simon Kain and Isidor Burakh’s murderer is not the dreaded she-cannibal, but the Sand Plague. Flush with my revelation, I warn Burakh’s old pupil Rubin before he exhumes the body and hurry back to George Kain to find him predictably skeptical. Moreover, he won’t allow me to examine the body myself, so I have to leave it to Rubin, who looks like anything but a legitimate doctor.

My reputation is at the max—everyone respects me, everyone loves me. In fact, I am regularly awarded a small stipend in the form of currency or little heirlooms. It’s too easy. Though it’s my understanding that the town around me will soon be transformed into a miasmic hell, I can’t help but wish that someone would try to shoot me, or that some plague-ridden housewife would run at me screaming. My wish is granted, of course, around midnight, when all the knife-wielding murderers come out to stalk the town. My first introduction with one of these ruffians comes as a surprise—I round the corner and there he is, grinning. I backpedal, all the while seeing him raise his arms to fling a small razor, which connects with grim accuracy, killing me instantly. Is this the true face of Pathologic?

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Pathologic: WHAT THE HECK?

In late April, early May, as I lay in a feverish haze in Southeast Asia, I stumbled upon this incredible analysis of Russian game Pathologic. After reading it, I couldn't do anything but think about it as my stricken body slowly recovered from what was, I think, the worst meal of ground-up intestines and fish paste I'd ever had or ever will have. The review captured my imagination and took me to some very dark places.

hold on a second
If you don't have the patience to read the analysis here's what this looks like: Pathologic is a game about disease. You play as one of three characters sent (by fate or otherwise) to play a part in the curing of what locals call "the Sand Plague" which, by the end of day one, will have begun to infiltrate the streets of this ill-fortuned town. There's so much going on here--between meta-narrative stagehands to questions of morality to commentaries on their (our) society. Quintin Smith describes all of this with much more eloquence on Rock Paper Shotgun; please read it.

I've teamed up with resident awesome Kevin to tackle the thing myself. After slavering for months, purchasing on Amazon, attempting to get the thing to work on multiple machines, I finally turned to OnLive, which allows me to play the thing on my mac no problem; the catch is that with OnLive one needs to possess A-Grade Internet, which I normally never have. We're playing through much like Quintin did--two buddies suffering through the same experience, stopping at the end of each game day to compare notes, cry, and maybe fall asleep watching Whose Line is it Anyway? or some disturbing Korean revenge flick.

If I can figure out how, I'll post screenshots. Otherwise I'll just rip photos from out there on the internet.

I've got reasons to be excited about this game. I've also got lots of reasons to dread every minute of playing it. In the end, I think it's important to note that, according to Ice Pick Lodge, Pathologic is not a game. I quote, verbatim, from the poorly translated instruction manual:
". . . we think it is necessary to higher up the level of people training in critical situations. Hereby we offer for your attention the simulator of a human being behaviour in the condition of pandemic. 'Pathologic' is the initial game prototype of the simulator. The environment assumes lack of scientific progress and public evolution of the most primitive level; the deseas and methods of fight with it are extremely conditional. The simulator is oriented first of all at a mechanism of taking right decisions. 

There's very little original material we can present aside from first hand experience. I mean, I guess we could re-create the game through photos. It's my understanding that this is a game that yields very different experiences depending both on temperament and the character you pick. I, for one, am a glutton for punishment, and I thrive off of repetition (just check out my iTunes plays). My understanding from the outside is that this is a game that fails all conventions, takes a piss on them, then puts you in a head-lock and lets you watch everything you love die. That makes no sense. I guess I really have no idea what to expect. 

the players

The Bachelor - Daniel Dankovskiy
The young, probably self-righteous intellectual with a microscope. Do you see his serious, piercing eyes?

The Haruspicus - Artemiy Burakh
The heir to a large fortune, now shunned, who will inherit a very strange and grisly legacy. Likewise, he gives a very serious look.

The Devotress - Klara
Joan-of-Arc figure, hailed both as saint and serpent by the townsfolk. Unlike the others, she just looks kinda high.

I'll be playing the Bachelor, and Kevin will be playing the Haruspicus. God help us both.