Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Pathologic: Day Two, the only day during which the Haruspicus will gain more than he loses under any circumstances

(Or, in which money proves that it really is the root of all evil)

The morning of the second day has come.
Infected in the past 24 hours: 26 people
Died in the past 24 hours: 15 people
Gone missing: 9 people
Number of dead at the moment: 38 people
Number of infected total: 25 people

I am beginning to see where this game is taking me, and I am nervous.

When I start it up to play Day Two, I am immediately confronted by the fact that I (that is, my character) am ravenously hungry: almost dead from hunger, in fact. The slow creep of hunger in Pathologic is relentless; Artemiy’s body doesn’t stop burning calories just because he’s asleep, as it would in a more forgiving game. I was so proud to survive Day One while meeting my objectives that I’d almost forgotten that I still have eleven more days to get through. Eleven days of just trying to stay alive on top of everything else. It feels like being brought to heel by a leash. Don’t get cocky—this is only the beginning.

Just after midnight, I climb out of bed, drinking my last bit of water to quiet my stomach a jot. I step outside into the darkness, squinting through the thin gray drizzle that seems almost to seep from the clouds overhead. I set off through the streets. One of the storefronts had better be open, or I’ll have another dead Haruspicus on my hands.

Fortunately, I find one and spend my last pennies on some bread and meat. Rested and well-fed for the first time since my arrival, I contemplate my next move. I haven’t received any indication of what I should do next, so it seems like a good time to explore the more remote corners of the town.

My first stop is the town hall, an important-looking building just north of the Clot. It has two entrances. One opens on a clerk’s office. It’s the middle of the night, so the office is deserted. The other entrance leads to the jail, and it’s here that I receive my first real shock of the game.

The Sand Plague has already begun to spread.

And it’s not just the disease that’s claiming lives. As I wander down lamp-lit streets, I keep encountering knife-wielding maniacs who seem to have no other goal than to kill and rob people, in that order. Their murderous efforts are focused primarily on the townsfolk caught out of doors after nightfall, though they come after me too if we cross paths in a deserted area. As the proud new owner of a good reputation, I’m reluctant to get into any fights, but I can’t just stroll past innocent people getting stabbed to death. Coming to their aid rewards me with extra cash and the opportunity to harvest the would-be murderers’ organs. Unaware of the uses for organs and still suffering from the aforementioned reputation paranoia, I harvest only a few, leaving most of the bodies untouched. I feel proud of myself for acting so uprightly. I’ll regret my caution later.

With the sky beginning to brighten in the east, I strike up conversations around town, trying to ascertain what to do next. A shady-looking man in a tavern informs me that supplies around town are about to get very, very scarce. The herb twyrine, which is known to have medicinal properties, will become quite valuable once news of the Sand Plague spreads. Conspiratorially, he says that if I bring him ten stalks of twyrine, he can use it to work the town’s economics to our advantage. Having seen the already outrageous rates for a loaf of bread, I can’t imagine surviving if prices climb even higher and readily agree. I don’t know where to find twyrine yet, but I’m hopeful that I can find it before the end of the day.

Other people point me toward a small, dilapidated house on the edge of town. There, I’m told, I will finally receive the inheritance that my father left me.

Inside I meet a girl named Ospina, who is easily the most upsetting character I’ve met so far. For a kid she seems to know an awful lot about the Sand Plague, describing its effects in detail (“It makes your blood boil in your veins like eggs in a pot”). Maybe it’s her monkish clothing or the dank, rotting house that surrounds her, but practically everything she says in her wispy little-girl voice seems creepy:

“Can you tell me what is wrong with my eyes?” (Okay …)
“I have a hole under my heart.” (That’s ... kinda disturbing.)
“Needles still stick out of me.” (WHAT)

She even hints that she may not be entirely human, that she’s some sort of harbinger of doom. I don’t know whether this is a translation issue or some sort of figurative expression, but standing with her in that dim room, I have a hard time believing that she is anything but absolutely serious.

Needless to say, as soon as she gives me the box containing my inheritance, I beat a hasty retreat. The box contains a couple of recipes for twyrine medicine, information about my father’s secret laboratory, and a strangely shaped object that, according to my cryptic-as-ever diary, belongs to “the Betrothed.” This new mystery adds another yet layer to my long-term goals, as the Betrothed is an extremely important person—probably the most important person in the entire town. The problem is that I have no idea who this person is or why he or she is so vital to my plans. So I push that question to the back of my mind. I’ve got things to do, after all—the shadows are lengthening, and I still haven’t figured out how to get those herbs for Comrade Shady back at the tavern. I’m substantially richer, but my windfall has merely reminded me that prices are going to skyrocket soon. I need those herbs badly.

The way is made clear to me when I find the Odonghe people. Their name translates as “the Worms,” and they form the town’s underclass. Thousands of them are controlled by Fat Vlad, who employs them as cowherds, butchers, and factory workers. They are responsible for keeping the town’s supply of meat flowing steadily in from the fields. If not for this fact and their deep knowledge of twyrine’s properties, it’s doubtful that the rest of the townsfolk could stomach their offputting appearance and primitive culture. As things are, they barely tolerate the Worms, who have been forced to settle in the marshes outside town.

The Worms have plenty of twyrine available—for a price. All they ask for in return are healthy human organs. The trade screen comes up, and my heart sinks. I don’t have nearly enough to trade for the ten herbs required by the man at the tavern. I barely have enough for one.

I hurry back to town, my mind racing. I have to get enough twyrine to keep prices low for myself in the future. I have to. Where am I going to come up with enough organs to satisfy the Worms? The knife-wielding maniacs only come out at night. Everyone else is just a regular townsperson. They’re unarmed, innocent people.

But I need those organs. I need them now.

I’m on the riverwalk on the town’s west side, debating with myself, when a man walks by. I make a sudden decision. Looking around to make sure no one will see, I stab him in the back.

My reputation bar shrinks, but not by too much. Considering how many people’s organs I’ll need to get ten stalks of twyrine, that’s a good thing. My stomach crawls slightly at the thought, but desperate times call for desperate measures. I bend over the body, contemplating what I need to drop from my inventory in order to make space.

Then the reality of what I’ve done hits me. I murdered an innocent man. Just so I could accomplish a task given me by a none-too-savory character. Just so I could make survival easier for myself. I pause over the dead body, my fingers hovering uncertainly over the keyboard. What did I just do?

I end up harvesting him, in a twisted variation on “waste not, want not,” but I don’t kill anyone else, giving up the tavern man’s quest as a lost cause. I trek back to my father’s abandoned laboratory to complete the primary objective of the day (brew up a twyrine concoction for the Bachelor, using one of the recipes in my inheritance box). That crawling sensation in my stomach persists, fed equally by my dismay at what I had done and by a selfish fear of what will happen to me tomorrow when I’m at the mercy of drastically inflated prices.

There’s also a deeper unease underlying all of this. Already I’m beginning to see the game’s general trajectory, bearing me toward some dark horizon. If I resorted to murder just to save money, what will I be capable of once I’m really desperate?


  1. Wow. That's actually fairly deep. This sounds like a thoroughly disturbing game. I kinda want to play it.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Stephen! One of the interesting things about Pathologic is how it makes you value life, even the lives of blank, nameless NPCs. In most games like this, killing random passersby happens almost as a matter of course. But it's days after the fact and I *still* feel kind of ashamed for what I did. Pretty crazy.

  3. Hahaha. I know exactly how you feel. This game shows you what you are really like when things get desperate. As the Bachelor, I found myself truly desperate for money even on the first day. As I was walking around town, I noticed that people were chasing and beating up some women. I was appalled at this, because their superstitious beliefs were clouding their judgement and humanity.

    Until I realized I could look at the dead womens' inventories. They had money. And a substantial amount, too. I reeeaallly needed money.
    I started to hover around the groups of people killing more women, waiting for the poor girls to die and the crowd to leave (not that it mattered if the sprites saw me looting the bodies, but it felt like something that needed to be kept secret) before I searched the bodies.

    Then, once, I watched a woman being chased down a hill with two men in hot pursuit. I watched, like I had with the others, like a scavenger waiting for the lions to finish and leave before I could collect my ill-begotten spoils. But this girl was either faster or the men were just timing their punches incorrectly. They were taking forever to finish their task. The day's clock was running out and I grew impatient. I didn't want to kill her myself and risk my reputation. So I did the next best thing and ran in front of her, stalling her and letting the men catch up to her so they could finish her off, which they did. They left without a word to me and my reputation never took a blow. In their eyes (albeit just NPCs), I had done good by helping them.

    It wasn't until I had taken her money and the gold ring in her inventory that I realized what exactly had just transpired. I had helped those savages kill an innocent young woman so I could profit from the death.

    I might be a horrible person.

    1. Du Xinyi: If you're a horrible person, at least you're no worse than the rest of us. One interesting aspect of the early days in the town, which rarely gets mentioned, is the way it'll show occasionally show you some genuine NPC-on-NPC violence *and allow you to benefit from it.* I don't know if the designers' intent was to encourage the player to engage in some morally questionable murder-through-inaction (thus setting up the "what have I done?!" realization that both you and I had), but it seems to have occurred often enough in different players' experiences that I'm gonna go ahead and say "yes." Just another fascinating example of Pathologic's twisted methods of shaping the player's in-game moral perspective, solely through gameplay.

      Thanks for sharing!

    2. I always helped the poor women. I killed their assailants.
      But I broke into houses, traded with the kids inside, got my items repaired, looted the kitchens (on the first 4-5 days all food, then only lemons [they are useful and hard to come by]) and then checked bedside tables for jewelry.
      All that time, I kept saying to myself "My main concern is the town, not individuals,"
      This game has balls selling items that you won't be able to buy if you play as a good charachter.

  4. When I first played the game, the Burakh was introduced as a surgeon and I thought to myself, "How is he keeping these organ fresh for transplantation?" Only later, when I started investigating the strange map markers in the swamp I found that the organs were for sale...

    I then bought all the wrong herbs and never had enough of the right ones when the quest came up. X-|


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