By Quintin Smith on April 12th, 2008 at 9:49 am.
[Following on from the first two parts, this is the grand finale of Quinns’ evisceration of the game Walker described as “Oblivion with Cancer”. As a compliment. Lots of spoilers, but you should read it anyway.]
Part III: The Soul
There are two themes that run through Pathologic like a couple of sharks lurking in a swimming pool. By themes I mean something that’s vital to the vision of the game yet is detached from the structure of the game proper- something like Half-Life 2’s Orwellian influence, or Beyond Good and Evil’s cartoon imagery. In the case of Half-Life 2, there’s nothing about City 17’s hi-tech tyranny that directly affects your running and gunning. Likewise in Beyond Good and Evil the fact that your hovercraft is repaired by walruses doesn’t make a difference when you’ve got a puzzle in front of you.
In the case of Pathologic, the two themes are meat and theater. And at least to my mind, they’re what propel the game from being interesting and brave to being beautiful. It’s an ugly, ugly beauty though.
The game’s obsession with the theatrical is what you encounter first. After selecting New Game you first find yourself up in the dress circle of an empty theater, looking down at the stage. On it are the three healers, and they play out a short scene for you where they argue fiercely over which of them has the potential to save the town. The house lights then dim, and the actors fall silent. There’s nothing for you to do but make your way to the doorway that leads down from the stalls, and it’s only when you go through that door that you’re finally faced with the character selection screen. Oh, yes.
Subsequently, when you start playing the game proper it’s difficult to see yourself as anything other than an actor fretting upon a stage. This is in a large part down to the Executors.
The easiest way to describe the Executors is as the game’s stage hands, or maybe directors. They’re six feet tall, and all you can ever see of them is a floor-length cloak and a huge raven mask. Everyone in town can see them yet no one ever questions their existence, so neither do you. The first time you meet one they’ll calmly explains the rules of the game to you, but from then on all they do is watch events unfold like curious narrators. And while you never see them move, they still take on a terrible dark weight because as time goes on you start to think of them as the city’s death-dealers. You learn to dread them because the first sign of any significant character falling ill or dying is an Executor standing outside their door. It’s not long before you start wondering if that raven head is even a mask at all.
And this is, by the way, what happens when you fail to complete a day’s quests. A relevant NPC who may be vital in future quests has an Executor posted outside their house who bars your entry. It’s all the more disastrous because it’s always your allies who fall. I think the Executors’ exact words are along the lines of “These people must die because of you, because these are the only people who would die for you”.
But all these dramatic devices feel a little unfinished and fluffy. Yeah, there are optional vignettes played out at the town’s theater every night, and there are the abstract mime creatures that make appearances as supernatural messengers, and it all adds colour to the game while still letting it remain a suitable shade of dark brown. But I’m pretty sure these fourth-wall breaking theatrics were only meant as some kind of failsafe to ensure the player knows just how dramatic the game is. I’m only really writing about them here to give you a better sense of Pathologic’s mad ambition.
Or maybe I’m being unfair. It’s hard to tell, because Pathologic’s wussy thespianism pales in comparison to its meat story. Oh, man. Let me tell you the meat story.
The town you’re trying to save isn’t built on hot slaughter, or cold execution, but something in between. It’s built on the lukewarm killing of perceived necessity. The efficient industry of the town’s abattoir seems to leak out onto the streets somehow- gangs of kids, madmen and drunkards all kill unthinkingly with empty heads and scavenged blades. Life feels cheap, a notion not helped by that daily deathtoll in the hundreds or thousands.
In fact, one of Pathologic’s great secrets is that each of the healers has to resort to inflicting death in order to keep living themselves. Anyone playing the Bachelor is going to find themselves roaming the streets at night with a gun, killing would-be murderers for their valuable possessions. The Devotress can only stay alive by harming more than she heals with her supernatural touch. And I’m probably biased but I think it’s the worst if you play the Haruspicus, like I did.
As the Haruspicus you get access to your father’s arcane laboratory, a place of dusty scrolls and copper pots hidden in a locked warehouse. Here you can make tinctures and tonics using recipes you can find or buy, but you’re a busy man. You rarely have the time to go on rambles in the countryside beyond the town to harvest roots and herbs, and even when you do it’s a tricky process finding them in the crispy grass. So instead you have to trek out into the marshes and consult with the Worms, strange inhuman nomads who talk in a language that’s already ruined even before it undergoes a cheap translation from Russian to English. The Worms have the plants you need, but they want to ‘water’ the earth with human organs and blood in return. And so, playing as the Haruspicus, you’re often thigh deep in swamp water, your arms are red to the elbows with blood and your pockets run over with stolen human livers.
It’s another of the game’s bizarre divides. The sole purpose of your character in his or her life, and your sole purpose in the game, is to save lives. Yet the humans in this game are only ever made out to be so much water and gristle. In Pathologic, life is cheap, life is weak, blood is thin, and water is thick.
This de-mystifying of human meat continues with the town’s ancient past, which hints at a worship of bulls. There are references to a horned earth mother, and near the Abattoir there’s a huge sacrificial plinth. But at the same time, this is a town that’s only ever bred these holy bulls and cows for their meat and skin, so the town is eating and selling the same meat that they consider their God. There’s a general blurring of flesh and life here. The town’s river is referred to as the Spine, the main streets are veins and the industrialist’s manor is called the Heart. If you ask for directions from any townsperson they always give them to you in these biological terms. “Go down the neck and through the mind”. And remember earlier, the rumours of dead bodies being disposed of with the madmen in the Aviary. Cannibalism is never mentioned- that would be crude. But the game does play with the notion that we are all one flesh, and that this flesh is cheap.
Okay. So far, all this is so much surface froth, just like the theatrical side of the game. Where the theme of meat eventually differs is that it ties into the game’s plot. The theater is never anything more than a whimsical idea, but the meat grows deep. The meat story actually comes to a frightening, disgusting conclusion.
It happens towards the end of the game’s time span, maybe day eight or nine. By this point you’ll have felt out the limits and rules of the game and built yourself a routine. You’ll probably start the day by visiting one of the big kids who, for a price, will mark new infected areas on your map. And you’ll definitely be chatting to everyone you pass on the way, seeing if they’ve got anything you need that they could be persuaded to part with. You’ll probably be gathering up whole armfuls of empty bottles too, and filling them at wells on your way to check up on whoever’s assuming command of the town on that day.
In theory you should be calm in your own security at this point, but really as a player you’re more tired and sick than ever. For twenty five, maybe thirty hours of game time you’ve been listening to nothing but the lies of the healthy, the moans of the sick and that endless industrial thumping, and it’s been for nothing. Trekking across town and ducking danger has become exhausting, and the longer you play the game the more the illness spreads and bigger the mystery gets.
Then, for one mission or another, you hit M to bring up your fullscreen map and plan your route. But the game doesn’t give you your map. With all the gentleness of one of those cheap scare websites that make sure they have your attention before flashing something gory and noisy up on the screen, Pathologic instead gives you a primitive anatomical cutaway of a bull, drawn in the same style as your map. It’s the most singularly gut-wrenching moment you can imagine because after it’s done scaring you, you start scaring yourself. You start understanding, and everything clunks (not clicks) slowly into place.
First, you see that those district nicknames actually apply to the parts of the animal. You see the spine, the veins, the heart and the neck, and more besides. You see that the Aviary is the kidneys, the Abattoir is the bowels, the train yard is the genitals.
At last you understand what the town is, and it’s all the worse because you’re trapped inside it. And because you understand the town, at last you can understand the disease. Your realisation of its true nature happens slowly, like a sun disappearing over the horizon. It’s not the town that’s sick. It’s the earth that’s fallen ill. That’s why the quarantines aren’t working, that’s why the wells are drying up, that’s why the buildings themselves are darkening and rotting and growing great scabs on top of their brickwork.
All flesh is earth, all earth is flesh.
As the Haruspicus you eventually get access to the Abattoir. There you find out that whenever a cow is killed, the blood is always drained into the same hungry pit where it slips away into the darkness. You figure out that over thousands of years the blood has pooled beneath the town, and now it’s that same blood that’s become infected. You start siphoning buckets of blood back out, and with this sample of the infection you can finally fall back to your laboratory and start manufacturing a panacea.
As the Bachelor you talk to the architect who designed the Polyhedron, and you learn what allows the Escher-like structure to stand. The spike at its base pierces deep, deep into the earth, where the bull’s brain is on your map. It’s that wound that’s gotten infected. Your achievement as the Bachelor is in rallying the town to pull down the Polyhedron, which has the side effect of forcing the kids out of it to take the place of the deceased adults.
Incidentally, the microcosm of kids within the town takes on greater significance once all this has happened. The kids are uncaring of the adults that built the town, the adults are uncaring of the earth bull they live on, the bulls are eaten by the adults, and at the end of the game the deceased adults are replaced by the kids forced to leave the Polyhedron. So it goes.
As the Devotress I’ve got absolutely no idea what you do. Sorry. She seems to disappear around day 8, and I’m not a big enough masochist to play through this game again as her to find out why. My time with Pathologic is over. And before anyone points this out as a problem with the game, I should point out that on finishing Schindler’s List there’s no great desire to rewind the tape, crack open another beer and watch that sucker again.
So the healers do beat the disease in the end, and they do it by forgetting everything they know and coming to believe in something bigger than themselves. Maybe it’s a message about wisdom, and about not losing sight of your past and your nature as you grow. Or maybe it’s about something else entirely. I think anyone who plays this game to the end is going to come away with a different message, just because it’s thought provoking. There’s no need for it to be conclusive. It’s just an experiment in decision making. It’s just a game.
An awesome game.
Back when it was released in Mother Russia, Pathologic was drenched in awards. Game of the Year, in many cases. And yet no one outside its home country has even heard of it. That makes me more upset than if it were a book or movie, because a great book or movie can still be discovered years after release. Games only have a limited lifespan in which to achieve recognition because after that they become outdated, and few people are going to want to go near them. Pathologic’s barely five years old and it’s already almost unplayable, and if you don’t believe that then hunt down a copy and bear witness to your own revulsion at the hideous visuals, the repetition and the slow pace that make it such a great game in the first place.
In a few more years Pathologic’s going to be permanently lost to time, and I don’t think there’s anything we can do about that. But I think some good can still come of the loss.
Now you have an idea of what you missed this time around, maybe you’ll help prevent this from happening next time. Maybe next time a game like this comes along we can both grab it, and scream about it in a way that I failed to do at the time. It’s the Internet age now, hype and excitement are easy to spread! We can spread them! I’m sure that together we can save whatever comes next, I know we can. We’ve got to do something. Otherwise we’re all going to be stuck playing Roboman: The Fightening for the rest of our adult lives.