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!

For those new to the blog, go here.

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.


  1. Is there going to be a part II? I was waiting to comment until there was more to read. But, regarding this:

    "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?"

    The game doesn't really deal with moral quandaries, except for your own voluntary choices as the player (killing civilians and children), and even then the quandaries only exist to make you reflect upon the deeper game. Each abstracted level of gameplay tends to push you up to the next one: trying to survive forces you to understand the town's ecosystem, trying to live within the town influences the way you feel about how it behaves.

    Conversations with characters becomes a game as you try and figure out how to make them reveal things you didn't already know, but of course those revelations don't change the game's course either. All they're giving you is a tool to help you understand a little bit more about how the town works, and you want to know that because understanding the nature of the town is what'll ultimately determine your final choice at the cathedral. That cathedral choice is yet another gameplay test: it's not meant to shock you, it's just meant to see what you think about right decisions. Since Josiah did ultimately reflect on his own behavior and pick the non-intended Bachelor ending, there was clearly some reflection on the final choice.

    I think the intention is for the player to pick the Devotress ending on their first playthrough, if they've unlocked it. That ending is meant to be the catalyst that reveals who the game's "real" winner is, so that you pick the Devotress and play through again and figure out, hypothetically, what the correct answer is, and why you pick it, and then you get the final ending regardless of if you've saved all the Adherents. (I'm annoyed that saving the Adherents gets you that ending cut scene; on my Bachelor playthrough it meant practically nothing to me and I was bothered by its glibness, but it mattered SO much more on the Devotress run.)

    It's so frustrating getting to the last day and having the Devotress show up and go, "Hey I figured it all out! We can save everybody! But I can't tell you how because it's a secret!" And then you pick her and you get soft, tinkly music and bright skies and every single person is still alive and it's like, what the hell? Did I just get told that I lost the game?"

    The nature of the Devotress decision leads to a much greater moral quandary than the Bachelor's, I think; and because I didn't play as the Haruspicus I don't know what his quandary is supposed to be. The final scene with the Devotress says that Artemiy is given a hint that he might be able to use to win, but that he likely won't take it; any thoughts on what that might be?

  2. Also, I'm wondering if either of you two have read the book Homo Ludens, by Johan Huizenga. It's a classic in the field of play theory, and many of its ideas are similar to ones Pathologic incorporates into its gameplay. I feel like if I'd read it before playing, I might have figured out the ending in advance.

  3. Your thoughts are always really interesting, Rory. I've got some conclusions I've drawn about the ending which I'll be sharing in the dialogue--which should be up within the next week, if Kevin and I are prompt. I will say that I don't believe letting the Kains take the town is the intended Bachelor's ending--but I'll back that up more in the dialogue.

    I haven't read Homo Ludens, though I can't speak for Kevin. I'll have to check it out.

  4. "The final scene with the Devotress says that Artemiy is given a hint that he might be able to use to win, but that he likely won't take it; any thoughts on what that might be?"

    On Day 11, when the Haruspicus has his final test with the Elder of the Abattoir, the Devotress offers her help. As you know, I turned her down and missed out on what was down that hole in the Abattoir. According to the walkthrough, the Haruspicus is killed by his descent, but the Devotress sacrifices the life of one of her Adherents to bring him back. Apparently, her miracle at the Cathedral involves something similar, though of course I didn't realize that until after I finished the game.

    In my defense, the Devotress is built up throughout the Haruspicus's scenario as creepy, unreliable, and dangerous. By Day 11 there was no way I wanted to have anything to do with her.


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