Thursday, November 17, 2011

Pathologic: Day Eleven, in which the Haruspicus falls into a trap, discovering that his dilemma connects two incompatible truths

(or, in which Kevin learns that he really needs to stop making assumptions)

The morning of the eleventh day has come.

Infected in the past 24 hours: 334 people
Died in the past 24 hours: 621 people
Gone missing: 127 people
Number of dead total: 6831 people
Number of infected: 570 people

Tomorrow everything will be over

Welcome to "Martha Stewart Living," Pathologic edition. Up next, we prepare a lovely quiche made
from spider eggs that hatch inside your mouth.
"Tomorrow everything will be over." Ominous words, but I can't help but feel relief when I read them. By now I, the player, have spent at least 40 hours in this hellhole of a town, struggling not to let the game wear me down. I have teetered on the brink of irrational frustration with it more than once. And I have been at the controls as my character has done the unthinkable. I've killed the guilty and the innocent. I've dragged myself in threadbare clothing through neighborhoods buzzing with the Plague. Frankly, I am exhausted. If one of Ice Pick Lodge's goals was to evoke in me a physical and emotional response analogous to what my in-game avatar is feeling, they have succeeded with flying colors. No other game has ever made me feel this hopeless.

I am determined to save this town, no matter the cost. The Haruspicus does not compromise. Yet the Bachelor, with his talk of wiping the town off the map, is not crazy. He too has witnessed the Sand Plague's devastation. Whether tomorrow brings salvation or annihilation, it will be a mercy.

The town is in the final stages of collapse, with the Sand Plague saturating every district. Even the thin veneer of civilization has fallen away. Food and medicine prices are astronomical; starving citizens on the street beg me for money, but I literally have none to give them. The infected seem to sense that society is crumbling and now attack other people with abandon, often in groups. Near the theater I witness a soldier running from a pack of infected. They chase him down and overwhelm him. Military discipline is breaking down—everywhere I see soldiers breaking ranks and fleeing from their guard posts. General Blok has finally lost control of his army.

... which means I get treated to the following sight when I arrive at the Bone Pillar to save the bull that was there yesterday.

Nothing but a blackened hunk of charcoal remains of it. I can't believe my eyes. Do these imbeciles have any idea how much panacea I could have made from that bull's blood? The nearest disinfector, impassive in his haz-mat suit, tells me to take it up with a low-ranking officer called "Captain Patroclus," who commands a mutinous band of soldiers that has taken control of the military's armory near the trainyards. Patroclus, in turn, says that he was only following orders to destroy whatever possible vectors of infection he found. Whose orders? I ask. Not the General's, surely. No, Patroclus says. The Bachelor gave the instructions.

Of course he would. Seething, I confront him about it, only to hear the same old routine about the importance of the Polyhedron. Apparently the Kains have convinced him that Simon Kain is not even dead but has transferred his soul into the Polyhedron. At best, this is superstition—I've seen the body, and he looked pretty dead to me. At worst—given my epiphany from last night—this is an abomination against nature. The Bachelor won't budge, though. The panacea doesn't seem to matter anymore to him. The Polyhedron is our only hope, he says.

Sure, whatever. I leave him with his microscope and misconceptions and strike out to pay my daily doctor's visits.

More Executors have appeared around town, holding vigil over ill Adherents. Fortunately, they are all the Bachelor's and Devotress's, not mine, but I still feel responsible for them. They are people, after all, and deserve to live. For the past two days I've been giving them antibiotics to keep them alive, making the rounds every day. With time running out, my supplies getting short, and my fatigue increasing, I decide to start healing some of them outright. I don't want to spend any of my precious panaceas in case I need them for some dire emergency on the final day, but I do have a couple of medicinal powders made by the town's children. Even the Executors seems shocked when I propose giving doses to the Adherents. It will destroy the patient, they warn. The medicine will burn the Plague right out of their veins, but it will take some of the veins along with it.

I shrug. Petr Stamatin, the Polyhedron's creator, should count himself lucky to make it out of this epidemic as a cripple. I feel a small stab of pity as I dose him with the powder, but only a small one.

While making my rounds, I begin hearing rumors surrounding Elder Oyun and the trial he has planned for me. First I receive a letter from the Devotress, who calls me to the cemetery to meet with her. She warns me that the Elder is going to try to kill me with this final task. Honestly, this doesn't seem like such a big deal to me; he's practically killed me with the last two trials too. The Devotress seems to think this time will be different, though, and she offers to help me out—in return for a favor on the final day. I immediately turn down her offer. Whatever favor she might want from me, I think, it can't be anything good. She accepts my refusal coolly, making me wonder briefly if I should not have been so hasty.

After this, I call on Young Vlad to make sure he's not bleeding from his eyes or something. He seems agitated to hear that I'm meeting with Elder Oyun later. He says I should be careful. After all, Oyun is the one who murdered my father.

Wait, what? I thought he died of the Plague! Young Vlad just shakes his head and tells me to ask the Elder myself. Then he, too, advises me to watch my back during the third task.

Back in the Abattoir, Elder Oyun tells me that it's time to enter "the belly of Suok"—that is, descend into the depths of the earth—and indicates the deep pit outside his personal chamber. Once I know the secrets of the earth, I will ascend to the status of hierophant within the Order. Despite my simmering anger at the Elder, I have to admit that I'm madly curious to discover what happens down there. On Day Five I saw some crazy things just by climbing down a 15-foot-deep well. What's going on in the darkness beneath the Abattoir?

Here I must apologize to you, faithful readers. Because I never find out.

Seriously, doesn't anyone in this town know what a rope is?
Apparently my paranoia in refusing the Devotress's assistance screwed me over. I die instantly when I jump down the hole, and no amount of creative thinking can reveal an alternate path. The belly of Suok, the strange place where the living earth feeds on the Order's sacrificial blood, will be a mystery to me forever.

Suddenly enraged, I return to the Elder's chamber. I'm sick of his arrogance and his murderously impossible quests. This guy has been a thorn in my side for long enough. It's time for a reckoning. You are responsible for my father's death, I tell him. Explain yourself.

Oyun doesn't try to lie. He admits to killing Isidor Burakh, having stabbed him to death with the sharpened horn of a bull. He's not sorry, either. Isidor Burakh was colluding with the Kains in their Polyhedron project, trying to pour old blood into new veins. He was betraying the Order. Oyun says he would do it again without hesitation. I coldly tell him to put up his fists and prepare to die, but a small grain of misgiving has settled into the back of my mind. My father was involved with the Polyhedron, too? Why?

The scene suddenly changes, and I find myself in a part of the Abattoir I've never seen before. In the center of the room is a bull, and torches line the walls. My weapons have vanished, leaving me with only my fists to defend myself. Then the Elder storms into the chamber, and the fight is on.

He looks pretty intimidating, what with his sheer size and the bull's-head helm, but I'm surprised to find that he's not terribly challenging. Maybe I shouldn't be: after all, I've spent the last week and a half scrabbling to survive among infected citizens, lunatics, and murderers in the world beyond the Abattoir's doors. Compared to that ordeal, it's practically therapeutic to vent a little righteous rage on a single target. It's the first time in this game that I've faced a straightforward videogame trope: the one-on-one boss battle.

The Elder, with his long reach and crushing strength, beats me down a few times, but I eventually succeed in exacting my revenge. I have to admit, it feels pretty good. I ignore the new entry in my diary that says that the Elder's death is "a disproportionate sacrifice." By now I've killed dozens of people in this town, with fists, guns, and knives. One more hardly seems to matter at this point, especially considering the sorts of things of which the Elder is guilty.

I spend the rest of the day running minor errands for Kapella, who is solidifying alliances with the other children in preparation for their forging of a new society birthed from the ashes. On a whim I check in with Ospina (one of the Devotress's Adherents) to make sure she hasn't fallen ill. When she hears that I've eliminated Elder Oyun, she hails me as the new Elder of the Abattoir. "I, Us-Pae-Nah, bend my knee to you," she says, apparently using her real name for the first time. I have finally come into my birthright as the head of the Order of Bulls. I have blood on my hands, but perhaps that is fitting. In that moment I feel unabashedly victorious.

My sense of triumph wears off as night falls. Brewing up the last of my panacea in my father's old laboratory, I remember what Oyun told me about Isidor Burakh's complicity in the creation of the Polyhedron. Where once I was so sure of my path, I now have a seed of doubt. Even my father seems to have been convinced of the Polyhedron's importance. How could he do that, though, with the knowledge of what it does? Were the Kains manipulating him in their pursuit of "utopia"? Was the Elder lying to me? Or did my father—the most respected member in the Order—know something that I don't?


  1. I think it might be impossible to survive the fall into the pit. In any event, Oyun told the Devotress that the pit was his plan to kill you outright.

    So excited to see you two get to the end of this. I've written up all twelve days of the Devotress story, which (hope this isn't a spoiler) is in many ways a sequel to the combined Bachelor/Haruspicus story. It's absolutely a story told with the knowledge that the player knows how this all ends, and that they might want some more. Anyway, once you two have finished out your series, I'll start publishing so as not to ruin the fun for new people experiencing.

    I'm curious what keeps you playing Pathologic even as it makes you exhausted and weary. What's the draw? Simply to see the finish? Stubbornness? Or do you think that you're gaining something deeper in the process of playing this, something that other games don't give you? I know my answer, but I'd like to hear your thoughts on this.

  2. According to the walkthrough I consult after finishing each day, it is possible to survive the pit, in a manner of speaking. If the Haruspicus accepts the Devotress's offer of help, she somehow saves him from harm by sacrificing one of her Adherents. I was really bummed to miss out on that part, but one of Duke's and my ground rules for our playthrough was that we're not allowed to undo a decision just because we dislike the outcome. I guess I'll just have to experience it vicariously through the descriptions of other players. Sigh.

    It's hard to put my finger on what exactly keeps me playing. Part of it is definitely stubbornness—I'll be damned if I let this game defeat me—and part of it is wanting to see what effect my choices will have on the final outcome. My scenario has been hinting for a while that I will face some pretty agonizing dilemmas before all's said and done, and I love games that force me to make decisions with very real (and different) consequences for my character. For instance, I loved the rescue/harvest dilemma of "Bioshock" ... until I realized that gameplay was more or less the same regardless of which one I picked. (What a squandered opportunity that was.)

    "Pathologic," on the other hand, cultivates an atmosphere of "everything matters." Can I spare a panacea for anyone other than my own Adherents? Should I sell medicine so I can buy food, or will I regret it later? When everything matters, and the goal of the game is to save lives instead of gunning down everything in my path, I find myself relating to the in-game avatars as actual people, not simulacra that act as simple objectives or obstacles in a game-system.

    To put it another way, Pathologic makes me want to save the characters I encounter instead of asserting my dominance over them. Like, I feel ambivalent about killing most enemies (as I would in real life, if given the option of shooting some random thug with a shotgun). In another game I wouldn't give it a second thought. My character's behavior in-game more closely approximates "real me" than any other 1st-person game I can think of, even though the setting itself may be more unrealistic. So any choices I make as that character actually carry a lot of weight for me personally.

    Did that make any sense at all? Duke and I might do a crosstalk-type post about this sort of thing once we've finished writing up Day 12, so I'm trying to sort out my thoughts as I type.

    Looking forward to reading the Devotress scenario!

  3. It does make sense, and it's interesting. Maybe it was different playing this time around, and I'm misremembering how it felt to play through the first time, but certainly I didn't feel the same unwillingness to engage enemies, and at one point attempted to kill a child out of pure convenience (but kids are very hard to kill).

    I think the "everything matters" atmosphere is exactly what they were going for, and it's at the core of their triumph with this game's design. It's weird, because so many things about Pathologic are frustrating, but having played this a second time, many video games have suddenly lost their appeal to me, and it's because no other game does that layer-within-layer thing where everything has to balance out. Not just the survival part, but the making your way through town, and the figuring out who to talk to and what to say, and then through those people deciding what to think of the town and the people who live within it. With each layer somehow informing the others, sometimes blatantly (like with the exhaustion-draining tests) and sometimes more subtly. The Devotress's storyline adds layers on top of the ones the Bachelor and Haruspicus get, though each of them get hints as to what comes next.

    (FWIW, here's another playthrough which explains a bit about what happens down in the pit:


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