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!

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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.