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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

'Pathologic' Hits Different During a Real Pandemic

You probably haven’t played Pathologic, but maybe some pretentious gaming critic told you to. It’s a clunky game with bad animation and worse physics, but it’s become a cult legend for its clever writing and game design. It’s also set in a small town that will quickly be overrun by a deadly plague unless you can stop it. Which you can’t.

For reasons that baffle me, I started playing this after the real world was engulfed in the deadliest pandemic of my generation.

I am very late to the Pathologic party. Perhaps the last one in. I had never even heard about it until YouTuber hbomberguy uploaded a two hour video about it entitled “Pathologic Is Genius, and Here’s Why.” I’m sure it is, I thought, but that’s a lot of time for a game no one’s ever heard of. So, I put off watching it for a month or two. I almost forgot about it.

But when I finally sat down to watch it, I was convinced—very explicitly against the advice in the video—to play it for myself. Not just for a bit, either. I played all three of the playable characters to completion. I have 100 percented a game that less than 15 percent of players even make it through the first day on. A game widely known for being a plodding, uncomfortable slog that no reasonable person would willingly subject themselves to.

However, the pain is part of the experience, I was told. You’re meant to feel powerless. You’re meant to feel like all your efforts are futile. Somehow, the game makes failing at your quests feel satisfying. Or at least the dissatisfaction is meaningful. That’s the feeling I expected to get from this game.

I didn’t expect the wave of emotional nausea when one of my earliest quests was to prove to the people in charge that the very real pandemic that they know exists is real, so that they’ll do something about it.

It would not be the last time this game felt too real for comfort.

Denying the Science

The first main playable character, Daniil Dankovsky—otherwise known as the Bachelor—is a bachelor of science who dares not believe a thing unless he can see it with his own eyes. He’s the kind of man you would want during a plague. He’s the first to piece together that there is a disease, he’s identified some of the earliest patients, and he’s well on his way to a plan to quarantine the townsfolk to prevent it from spreading.


Except, it’s not that simple. The Bachelor has to prove to the three ruling families that the plague is real, not because they’re too dumb to figure it out, but because if it’s real it would mean they should hand over emergency powers to one ruling family, the Saburovs. It’s political. Always has been. In fact, you learn later that one of the three leaders, Vlad Olgimsky, already knew for a fact that the plague was real, but pretended not to know in order to play it down.

I live in Atlanta, Georgia. Back in late April, my state was one of the first to start reopening businesses, a little over three weeks after first instituting any lockdowns, which only began on April 3. To salt the wound, my governor justified the very late decision to take any measures whatsoever by implying that we’d only just learned that asymptomatic transmission was possible. This was not actually a new piece of information.

I was able to figure out, through Pathologic’s story, whether Big Vlad really knew about the disease ahead of time. (He did.) Maybe that’s what’s supposed to be satisfying about this miserable game. When a politician lies to your face in Pathologic, there’s a very good chance that you will eventually find out about it, even if it takes multiple playthroughs to do it.

The Existential Dread of Just Getting By

Pathologic is famous for its brutally unforgiving game mechanics. For example, on the first day of the game, prices are reasonable, and you can afford a fair amount of food with the money already in your pocket. On day two, as word gets around that a deadly disease is spreading across the town, prices skyrocket tenfold. All the money you have in the world is scarcely enough to buy a single meal, and nothing within the game prepares you for this transition. It just happens. Unless you intuitively figure out that people will charge more for food during a pandemic (or are told ahead of time), you will become broke and hungry overnight.

In real life, we have price-gouging laws (of varying effectiveness) to prevent the price of a roll of toilet paper from increasing tenfold. But even if the prices don’t rise, the emotional value of basic goods has. It’s hard to look at a bag of groceries or a pack of paper towels as quite so disposable. Even the experience of living in poverty can’t color the accessibility of goods quite the same way that a pandemic striking the economy can. When I was the brokest I’ve ever been, I still thought, “Well, if I can get some money, the store will have toilet paper.” And yet there was a period earlier this year when I worried that wouldn’t be the case. I eyed every roll, every sheet as though it might be the last I could get for a while.

As cases continue to rise, I wonder if that worry will return.

But the most grueling gameplay mechanic in Pathologic is the walking. Large chunks of the game are spent walking at a normal pace—there is no running in this game—from one building to another. At the best of times, you get to (get to!) wander through infected districts where you can spice up the gameplay by dodging plague clouds and people who mean to do you harm, which, unlike real life, are always separate things.

It’s the safe districts that are the hardest for me now, though. Others before me have charitably described the experience as a meditative one, a chance to be calm and quiet in a chaotic world. Now, this aspect of the game isn’t really for me to begin with. For mental-health-related reasons, silence isn’t something I’m all that comfortable with.

But now? After months of being stuck indoors, minimizing social contact, and feeling like everything and everyone I care about may as well be a million miles away? The slow, silent walk to get anywhere is agonizing. I can’t stand being so far away, so powerless to make the journey go any faster.

I have been alone with my thoughts enough. I would like some company now.

The Dream Machine

In one part of the town in Pathologic, there exists a tower called the Polyhedron that has no right to exist. Not by the laws of people but of physics is it a violation. It’s massive, jagged, seemingly made of nothing more than paper at times, yet it’s capable of holding people upon and within it. And its base, where it connects to the earth, is little more than a needle. How it can be made of what it’s made of, and do what it does, is nothing short of a miracle.

But in the end, it’s just a building. Children who live in it seem to believe it houses dreams, and the Kain family believes it houses the soul of their deceased patriarch, but none of those fanciful purposes—if they’re even true in the first place, none of the player characters see this with their own eyes—help the rest of the town. The tower doesn’t feed anyone. It doesn’t provide water. It doesn’t cure the plague. So what good is it to the rest of us? Dreams are fine, but we need bread.

To hear the Bachelor and the Kain family tell it, the Polyhedron is all that matters. By the end of the twelve days, Dankovsky is convinced that preserving the tower at the expense of the town is the only justifiable course of action. The plague can’t be stopped, it will kill countless people anyway, and besides, isn’t it worth the sacrifice of some of the townsfolk to preserve this glorious thing we have built?

It’s the kind of message that sounds great to the wealthy ruling families that have the power to abandon the town and start fresh across the river. To everyone else, it’s a nightmare. As Artemy Burakh, otherwise known as The Haruspex and the second playable character, you spend much more of your time with the lowly townsfolk. The workers, the children, even the criminals. The people who sustain the town and make it what it is. And throughout the entire playthrough, it’s hard to imagine most of these characters preferring the destruction of the town to save the tower. To them, it’s like sacrificing your head to preserve your foot.

Towards the end of the game you discover not only that the tower isn’t quite as impossible as it seems—the long piercing end of it is buried deep in the earth, holding it aloft like a spring—but that its construction was what unleashed the plague in the first place. Pools of bile and bacteria have been congealed under the surface of the earth for millennia, and when the Polyhedron cut into the earth, it unleashed the toxic sludge, which seeps out of the base of the tower like blood from a wound.

The dream machine is killing the town.

The Haruspex is a surgeon. He’s a doctor just like Dankovsky, if trained with more folksy methods. And yet he has compassion for the people who don’t know what he does. He believes everyone is worth saving, not just the accomplishments of the few and the wealthy who are better equipped to start over if the world ends. And because of that perspective, because of his humility, he’s not only able to figure out what’s causing the plague, but he even develops a cure.

The Bachelor, on the other hand, only creates a vaccine that protects those with the good fortune to never get infected in the first place. He barely even tries to save the people of the town, who are already exposed. Sure, it’s a tragedy that the townsfolk are dying, but it is what it is.

Hoping for a Miracle

While all three playable characters start with different goals, they converge on the same quest: save … something. For the Bachelor, he chooses to save the Polyhedron, which he believes to not only be a marvelous feat of engineering, but a device capable of literally preserving dreams and happiness itself. But to save it, the town must be sacrificed. The Haruspex, on the other hand, wants to save the town he grew up in, and the people in it. The Polyhedron is a worthless fantasy of wealthy madmen. It’s the people who matter.

It’s difficult for me to not empathize with both characters here. I have lived in Atlanta virtually my whole life. I never left it for a meaningful period of time, as the Haruspex did, but I have made a career working for companies not from where I’m from. My professional colleagues live in massive, powerful cities on the coasts, while my friends and loved ones live in suburbs and peripheral towns no one’s ever heard of.

I depend on the big grand machine (as we all generally do in some way), but my heart is with the people I know. I’ve found myself more worried that my favorite local bar will go under than any publication I write for. Maybe that means I’d side with the Haruspex given no other alternative, but the choice between the two is painful.

Only one character, a young girl named Clara or, alternatively, the Changeling, aims to save both the town itself and the Polyhedron. And what she does is described as a miracle. She arranges to sacrifice willing volunteers, who will give their own blood to create a cure for the plague, but the sacrifice will be required regularly, forever. Even the best-case scenario requires blood.

Something must always be sacrificed.

Her solution is a magic one. But this is one area where real life is a bit more merciful than Pathologic. 2020 has demanded sacrifices. We’ve had to sacrifice quality time with loved ones, we’ve sacrificed income, we’ve sacrificed stability. And I won’t pretend that no one has been forced to make impossible, devastating, no-win choices that no human should ever be faced with.

But we’ve also had the option of doing at least some things that are winnable. Wearing a mask is a simple, pure win. And, despite a frustrating and vocal minority, it’s something most people are actually doing. We can do Zoom calls and Discord chats to keep up with friends without risking infection. We can tell the people we care about that we love them a little more often than we’re used to. We’re isolated, but we’ve also never been more connected in that isolation. It’s a very small silver lining, but it’s there.

Pathologic never passes up an opportunity to make life harder for its players. Reality occasionally does so. And that makes it marginally more bearable than this game. Which is the kind of win that Pathologic has trained me to appreciate.

I expected Pathologic to be brutal. I didn’t expect it to accidentally give me hope.

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