Thursday, December 1, 2011

Pathologic: Day Twelve—Endgame (Part 1)

(or, in which the game shows Kevin what a REAL existential crisis looks like)

The morning of the twelfth day has come.

Infected in the past 24 hours: 337 people
Died in the past 24 hours: 635 people
Gone missing: 133 people
Number of dead at the moment: 7620 people
Number of infected: 535 people

This day is the last. Less than fourteen hours remain to make a worthy decision.

I have no idea what to expect when the game clock ticks over to midnight on Day 12. I've been getting letters from General Blok and the Inquisitor, who both tell me that I will be responsible for deciding the town's fate by the end of the day. All the backbiting and power plays and lying have resulted in a stalemate, and it's up to me to break it before the Sand Plague surges permanently out of control. The final council convenes at 7 pm in the Cathedral. By then I will have to have sorted out what, if anything, needs to be destroyed to save the town.

Until yesterday, this would have been an easy choice for me. But after hearing that my father was involved with the work on the Polyhedron and after discussing it with Duke, I'm no longer quite so sure that Petr Stamatin's architectural marvel is the root cause of the epidemic. I'm simultaneously eager and apprehensive about what will happen before this evening: eager because I'm finally going to get some answers, apprehensive because I don't know what ordeals await me before then.

Nothing could have surprised me more than what I see when I finally set foot outside my door in the morning.

The streets are utterly, eerily deserted. No children, no thugs, no infected—even the soldiers have vanished, with the exception of a couple of sentries who have inexplicably remained at their posts. I wander around for an hour, searching for any sign of life, but the only sound I hear is my own footsteps on the cobblestones. Even the Sand Plague is mysteriously absent. What's going on? When I talk to the Bachelor about it, he reacts almost with a shrug. He plans to tell General Blok to destroy the town. Don't you care that that will kill everyone? I ask. "Look around you!" he counters. "Everyone is already dead. The two of us is all that's left."

That's not entirely true, of course—there is the matter of the still-living Adherents, mine and the Bachelor's and the Devotress's. It seems that now is the time to cure everyone I can with the panacea I've been hoarding. I visit all 18 Adherents, curing the six who had fallen ill in the last few days. When I've finished, I have one flask of panacea remaining, and I finally allow myself the luxury of drinking it and purging the Plague from my body. After over a week of worrying and slowly hemorrhaging blood, I can hardly believe the sight of a completely empty infection meter.

This final journey through the town also affords me the chance to speak one last time with my Adherents. It's a goodbye of sorts. Whatever happens tonight, I probably won't see them again, and the eleven days I've spent helping them and worrying about them has forged a bond between us. I'm not exaggerating when I say that I'll kind of miss them when this is all over. They're already preparing themselves for the future. With Kapella coming into her powers as a seer, she's told them what their lives will be like if the town survives today, and they're eager to share this information with me. Notkin will manage the warehouses and forage for supplies out in the steppe. Spichka will grow up to be a savvy leader and merchant. Mother Keeper will act as my right hand among the butchers of the Order. And poor damp Mishka says she will move out of her cramped railcar and blossom into a tall, raven-haired beauty. As I move from one child to another, hearing their hopeful stories, I'm touched. Surrounded as they are by the relentless despair of the rest of the game, these moments are startlingly, charmingly bittersweet.

Of course, this being Pathologic, nothing goes untempered by hints of darkness. Khan and Notkin persist in their feud and are already plotting intrigues against each other. Spichka sees this and plans on using their conflict to his own advantage. Mother Keeper says that part of her role as my right hand will be keeping the nobles-to-be from tearing each other apart. If I choose to destroy the Polyhedron and save the town, the children will raise civilization from the ashes, but it won't take much for them to return to the backstabbing ways of their forebears. In this place, nothing ever truly heals.

The exact spot in the trainyard where I woke up bleeding twelve days ago. I've come a long way since then, but some places look the same as they ever did.
After I finish with my Adherents, I don't know what to do other than wait for the meeting at the Cathedral to start. Then at 6 pm I receive a mysterious letter from "the Authorities" summoning me to the Inner Sanctum of the Polyhedron. Eager to see the interior of this building for the first time in the game (and find out who "the Authorities" are), I rush inside and am greeted with the same amazing sights that Duke saw on Day Nine: warm colors, strange decorations, vertiginous stairways. I descend to the very bottom, with crowds of children silently watching me. I step onto a complex design etched into the floor. Abruptly, I am transported to a courtyard in the middle of a featureless void, lit only by a single lamppost. Two children stand beside a sandbox, staring at me. I strike up a conversation with the boy, and that's when the bottom falls out of reality.

Note the subtle change in scale: These "children" are as big as I am.
All of this—the Sand Plague, the slaughter, people dying agonizing deaths in blood-spattered houses—has been nothing more than a children's game, two kids playing with dolls in a sandbox. The boy is amazed to see me standing before him, for of course the Haruspicus also was a doll, a prop moved from place to place within the model town. "You came to life!" the boy exclaims. "You have been doing whatever you want lately. It's impossible! You are spoiling the game!"

I read the words with a dizzy feeling. Is that all this was? All the things I was forced to do to stay alive, all the dark places I had to visit, all the random catastrophes that occurred day after day—it was just a charade, pointless. To these kids, they were just ripping the wings off flies and smashing sandcastles for kicks, but down there in their creation, people scrambled for salvation. And I have only been their tool, playing the part they wanted me to play. I open my journal to find a new entry scrawled there:
It seems that all this time he had been thinking that he was a living man, saving living people. That feeling, without doubt, added to his aspiration, helped him reach the endgame and even triumph.

In vain, all this is in vain ... He is a puppet, saving dolls in a drawn town.
Everything I've done, then, has been meaningless. I feel like a door has softly clicked shut behind me, stranding me in a dark room. (Duke, who was sitting near me at the time, can tell you that I kept saying "No. Oh, no" over and over.) My struggles to save the town only felt real because of the magic of the Polyhedron, which the boy tells me "brings things to life." "We only made the town," he says, "but it became a wonder all by itself. We put the dolls we didn't care for in it ... They were handicapped anyway."

"I'm not a doll. I am a human being!" I reply. It seems to be less a protest than a futile whimper.

The girl beside the boy agrees with him. "You were never loved, really. You have always been a scary doll, and playing with you wasn't much fun."

Not to be overly dramatic, but I imagine that this is what losing my faith might feel like: God is capricious and sadistic, and he doesn't give a shit about you. I turn to leave the courtyard.

Outside the Polyhedron, I am surprised to find that I feel defiant rather than listless or hopeless. When I receive a letter from "the Developers" calling me to the Theater, I immediately march off in that direction, passing the Cathedral, where the council is beginning. I don't know what awaits me at the Theater, but I'm already steeling myself against it. I still have a decision to make, and I am going to make it even if it does mean nothing.

I am surprised yet again. Inside the Theater, an Executor and a Tragedian are waiting for me. When I speak to the Tragedian, his tone is sad. We have the following exchange, in which I experience one of the most electrifying moments I've ever had as a gamer.

Tragedian: You see how sad our fate is. We are poor actors, who hoped you'd be the director of a new pantomime, because the old one is so boring. But you turned out to be a doll ...
Haruspicus: But I am not a doll.
Tragedian: Did I hear correctly? Who is speaking?
Haruspicus: It's me—the player.

The conversation that changes everything.
Up till now I was merely playing through the Haruspicus, pretending to be him, having my in-game avatar do and say the same things that I would do and say if I were there. In one swift movement, that slight remove is swept away. It is now I, the player, Kevin, who is talking to characters and deciding the town's fate. People talk about breaking the fourth wall, but even that is passive for the audience—they are still observers only. What if, instead of merely addressing the audience at the end of a play, an actor pulled a spectator on stage and he became the play's main character? It's no coincidence that I'm having this conversation inside a theater.

The Executor, meanwhile, speaks to me of free will. It all comes down to choices, he says. Why are you here? To stop the evil of the Sand Plague from spreading, I answer. But was the Plague the real enemy? "It's just as much a weapon for evil as a scalpel is for you," the Executor says. "The disease will leave, it'll devour itself. War will come instead, famine will come after war, heresy will come after famine." It's impossible to truly save the town from anything. The true evil is apathy, resignation to fate. I may be a plaything of the Authorities, but I am no slave. The Executor tells me that it's the difference between predestination and prophecy. Predestined, I have no choice in the matter; I move and speak the way I must. When I fulfill a prophecy, I have absolute freedom. I simply choose to walk along the road that has been laid before me. My path to the Cathedral for my judgment has already been set by the Authorities, but I, the player, Kevin, am the one who will enter and decide.

Clicking through the conversation, I feel thrilled, liberated in a way. Yes, I am responsible for him [the Haruspicus], I say. I will stay with him till the end. His words shall be my words. His deeds shall be my deeds.

While my meeting with the Authorities made me feel abandoned and powerless, my meeting with the Developers has filled me with a grim sense of purpose. I walk back to the Cathedral, noticing that the clouds have finally lifted and the sun is shining. Without the Plague-scarred buildings and the ever-present brown haze in the air, the town is startlingly pretty. For the first time in the game, it looks like a place that might be worth saving.

At the Cathedral, I tell another Executor guarding the doors to let me in. The Executor stands aside. "Enter, Haruspicus," he says. "The meeting awaits your decision. The Queens have paralyzed each other. A tragic stalemate is threatening the game at the moment. You are a pawn that's become a queen. Finish it, it is endgame!"

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.