Friday, May 25, 2012

The Pathologic Dialogues - Part III

Kevin: I'm glad you brought up the question of free will, because in the end that's what everything in Pathologic circles back to. The conversation with the Authorities, the final dilemma at the Cathedral, and (most important of all) the theatrical conceit on which the game is built—I believe that it's all designed to push the player to confront the implications of his or her ostensible freedom in the game world. Is it even possible to have true agency inside a world that is strictly defined by somebody else?

From the beginning, Pathologic made it crystal clear that I was not in control of the situation. It confronted me with fluctuating store prices, the relentless march of the in-game clock, and the casualty tally that skyrocketed regardless of my performance. It even went so far as to unambiguously spell out its inflexible, predetermined endpoint: "The morning of the second day has come. Less than eleven days remain." I was kept in a constant state of reaction to the world around me. Ice Pick Lodge made no bones about it: I was in their world now, and it would unfold as they, not I, saw fit. They were the directors; I was just an actor—or should I say gamer?—playing a character.

This is the key to the theatrical conceit running throughout the game, which means that it's the key to the game, period. The Rock Paper Shotgun review labels this aspect of Pathologic as "wussy thespianism," but I think that does it a disservice. It's only by using the language of theater—the realm of scripts and directors and fourth walls, the universe where blatant artifice is somehow given breath and life—that the game's ideas about free will and good vs. evil gain their peculiar resonance. Pathologic is one of the most unforgettable games I've ever played, and that's because it's not just a game but also a drama. It's a drama where the actors are continually made aware of the director's hand.

Not that this absolves you and me of responsibility for our actions. The thing that keeps Pathologic kicking around in my head, months after I finished playing it, is that it's not content merely to tell us that we're dolls at the mercy of some other being's whims. I mean, it does tell us that (in the meeting with the Authorities in the Polyhedron), but then it gives us back our agency. At the time, I called it "one of the most electrifying moments I've ever had as a gamer," and that's still true. In the meeting with the Developers at (where else?) the Theater, the circle closes, the switch is flipped on, and suddenly we see what all this was for.

Here the Developers gave me a chance to step fully into the shoes of the beaten-down, exhausted Haruspicus: "Yes, I am responsible for him. I will stay with him till the end. His words shall be my words. His deeds shall be my deeds." Essentially, I would become him, changing him from the Authorities' "scary doll" to a free agent, from a pawn to a queen. And lest anyone think this is a wholly positive, happy-ending choice that's out of keeping with the darkness of the rest of the game, remember that I took responsibility for everything the Haruspicus did. By choosing this path, I cast myself in the role of healer and rescuer, but I also became a cultist and a murderer. Free will is a double-edged sword.

Really, I think the game features one of the most elegant engagements with the Problem of Evil that I've ever seen in any medium. All the world's a stage, and while the director has put limits on what can happen, the player can still choose freely once the curtain rises: to protect the sets or tear them down, to support his fellow actors or destroy them. I was stuck in Ice Pick Lodge's game, but it was I and no other who chose how to act in that game. I had agency. I was responsible for the Haruspicus. His deeds—all of them, good and bad—were my deeds.

This is the beauty of Pathologic, but it's a complicated beauty. You and I, Duke, persevered to the end and saved the town, but we also committed a lot of sins on the way. We're not even sure we ultimately did the right thing. In its final scene the game pronounced victory for me, but I was still aware of the depths to which I could sink as I floated away from the closed-down theater into the void. There were stars in the void, but also plenty of darkness.

Stay tuned for a few more thoughts in the next few weeks. Read the full dialog or dig into our playthrough here [Bachelor or Haruspicus]. For those new to the blog, go here to see what we're all about. Feel free to put in your two cents in the comments, too.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Pathologic Dialogues - Part II

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.

For Part I, go here.

Duke: As much as Pathologic gives players a stake in the lives of the townsfolk, it also works hard to drive home the worthlessness of the human animal. Bodies stacked in cattle corrals, the plague-ridden burned alive, the moans drowned out by gunfire: the game not only brings out the worst in the townsfolk, but in the players as well. The Apiary (a word for a collection of beehives) is teaming with men, expendable, soulless men. Bodies are so much meat lying on the ground, waiting to be burned off in the morning. As if to drive home their point, the Authorities appear on the last day to remind the player of their puppetry. We are mocked for how seriously we have taken the whole thing.

It's probably better to avoid the whole Problem Of Evil, and perhaps religion in general, but Pathologic is full of sacrifice. The Haruspicus performs sanctified murder. The Bachelor desecrates Kain's body in the hopes of finding a cure. Three of the endings are focused on exchange, as well. Destroy the Polyhedron for the children, he pleads. Burn the town for a new world. Or let things play out: sacrifice everyone to restore balance to nature.

Yet every large and small sacrifice is never enough to stop the evil in the Settlement. The bull at the Bone Pillar, which would have yielded panacea, is burned to a black hunk. The witch hunt on Day 6 leads nowhere. The succession of Bachelor to Inquisitor to General Blok: everyone wants someone to blame, a scapegoat, yet in the end the freedom of choice is given only to one person, much like in Dostoevsky's The Grand Inquisitor. The meat shouldn't be allowed to decide. It falls to the Bachelor, the Haruspicus, or the Devotress.

Kevin: Ah, now we're getting into deep waters. What do "good" and "evil" mean in games? This is going to be fun. Or perplexing. Probably both.

Here's the thing: Videogames take place entirely in abstraction. That is, the narratives, images, and mechanics are all just computer code being processed in the electrical depths of a machine. The significance we attach to these processes is entirely imaginative, similar to the imaginative ways we engage with the flickering pictures that a projector beams onto a screen at the cinema. Unlike movies, though, videogames give us an active hand in how this imaginative process unfolds. So the game's events are abstract—they are not literally happening in the real world to real individuals—yet at the same time they are being influenced by a real player who is situated in the real world. We're not just spectators—we're accomplices. So how much do the rules and morality of the real world apply to what we do in videogames? 

Before I (try to) answer that, it might be helpful to think about what "playing a game" really means. In order to play a game, you must first learn the rules. In the case of videogames, you do this by figuring out how to interact with the programmed world around you. Click the left mouse button and X happens. Two items combine to allow your character to do Y. The A.I. of other characters reacts in a certain way when you do Z. Most videogames start off with a tutorial section, designed specifically by the programmers to teach you these rules. By the end of these sections, you have gotten your sea legs. You've learned how you can and cannot affect the world around you, and you probably have a good idea of the game's tone and atmosphere as well.

But Pathologic didn't do this for me. There was no tutorial, no attempt by the designers to communicate to me the consequences of this or that action. After the brief opening cinematic, I was dropped in the middle of the game world and left to fend for myself. I had to construct my impressions about the town and my purpose in it from the ground up, without any outside force to contextualize what I experienced. Everything felt alien, right down to the labored, barely comprehensible dialogue translation. Essentially, Pathologic started me with a clean slate and left it up to me to determine what "normal" and "good" meant in this world.

I needed to have some orienting principles in order to make decisions, so I ended up extrapolating my own system of morality as I muddled through the first few days. I was tasked with fighting the Sand Plague, so I decided that my highest good was the salvation of the town and its residents. I was told that keeping my Adherents alive was important, so I prioritized their safety and wishes above others'. I discovered that my family was affiliated with the Cult of Bulls, so I sided with the people of the Abattoir against the supporters of the Polyhedron.

By the standards of my own in-game constructs, I made a moral choice (though perhaps not the best choice—acquiescing to the Devotress's suggestion at the Cathedral apparently offers true victory and healing for the town). I saved the children and allowed them to rebuild the town; my religious order jettisoned the corrupt influence of Fat Vlad and Elder Oyun; I frustrated the Kains' hubristic attempt to play God using the Polyhedron. To the Haruspicus, this was a righteous victory. 

Does that mean it was truly the right thing to do—that, if I were faced with an analogous choice in my real life, I would confidently make the same decision? At the time, I thought so. In my Day 12 writeup, I went on at some length about how the lives of the townspeople were valuable regardless of how evil they were—sure, they were small minded and selfish, but isn't everyone, to some extent? After reading what you wrote above, Duke, I'm not so sure. These weren't just people with everyday foibles, after all. They stole and lied and murdered without shame; they fastened like leeches onto the earth around them. Maybe I was working in service of a modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah, so irredeemably wicked that the only true cure for its sickness would be total annihilation. 

The town rubbed off on me. Because the game designers forced me to adapt myself to the town instead of outright telling me how to behave, I conformed to the dog-eat-dog world around me. When in Rome, do as the Romans do—even if the Romans are okay with killing people, ripping out their kidneys, and trading them to cult members for healing herbs. 

Pathologic conditions the player to treat life seriously. It does this by making survival and cure the primary motives for the three main characters. On the bright side, this suggests to me that the game designers want us to be shocked by the game's treatment of people as (in your words, Duke) "so much meat lying on the ground." On the dark side, this makes it all the more damning that I killed people to further my "moral" goal of stopping the Plague. Was I acting normally—even morally—within the context of the twisted world created inside the computer? Yes. But that doesn't necessarily make it right.

So what was "good" and "evil" for you while you were playing? Or did your experience as the Bachelor cause you to view everything in a more detached, calculating manner? Put another way: What was going through your mind as you played?

Duke: Pathologic wore me away. My compassion, my good will, made no difference in the world Ice Pick Lodge had fashioned. After a few days, I came to the conclusion that the moronic people of the Settlement were not worthy of my compassion. They didn't deserve what I as a moral human and a moral character had to offer. Organic reason--humanity--was the first thing to die in Pathologic.

I came to Pathologic with a set of principles, the same principles I apply in most every game. Save every little sister in Bioshock and you will ultimately be rewarded. Deliver something in Zelda and you'll get something good at the end. I didn't think I needed to learn the rules of Pathologic's game world in order to survive, and I ended up being used by everyone in the town with very little to show for it. There was no room for a Dudley Do-Right or a Christ figure in the Settlement. Many argue that there isn't room enough for them in the real world, either.

In this world, logic--not mysticism or morality--made the most sense. And that was what I came to prize most: logic, and the ability to make my own decisions.

Knowing I was being manipulated by the major families of the Settlement killed off any sense of "good" or "evil" and replaced it with a dichotomy of independence and slavery. That's the whole nature of a game, I guess--the designers, the programmers, the authorities, put you into a controlled sandbox, choose what you see, don't see, what you can and can't do, and then set an objective for you, the player. Pathologic asks a question. In the Bachelor's scenario, the question is "What constitutes true victory?" True victory become independence: not synergy, not blind faith. There's a reason the Polyhedron is completely outside, grafted on to the Authorities' model of the town: it represents the freedom of man, the objectivity of reason, the power of innovation. It is independence incarnate.

Isn't so much of Pathologic driving home the notion that we, as human animals, don't have true agency? That the only chance to live is to give up our independence for peace, to sacrifice innovation for stability? Isn't this the story of every natural disaster, too? When the chips are down, when Katrina is coming or Vesuvius erupting, humans either A) run and pillage or B) huddle and wait. This is human nature. This is exactly the response of the Settlement to the plague, as well. The nobles strategize from within their homes, the townsfolk curl up and die, and the bandits loot and murder.

Where I was content to accept the world, to euthanize my better half and turn bitter, you, Kevin, decided to hope against reason. You chose to accept the townsfolk for who they were--yes, petty squabbling myopics--and you wanted to give them a future. Maybe not the best future—as you said, the "true victory" is the unification of progress and stability, keeping the Polyhedron and the Settlement. But you kept them alive.

Me? Even with grandiose logic, self-assurance and no small measure of pride, I made my decision for myself. I survived the Sand Plague, but by no means can I claim any measure of moral high ground. Pathologic illuminated the worst in me.

We're working on Part III for next week. Stay tuned.