Secrets Of The Ice-Pick Lodge: Pathologic Reimagined

I’ve been waiting for a Pathologic remake for years. My reaction to the announcement of a Kickstarter campaign to fund a remake was odd. I worried, I fretted. My concern was that a re-engineered version of the game would remove rough edges, sandpaper the strange angles and anomalies, and somehow expose the whole experience as more sterile, and less esoteric and unusual than the broken machinery of the original release. Now that the Kickstarter is live, here are details of a conversation with Ice-Pick Lodge about the project and the original game. Time to cast the major concerns aside, and to embrace the horror and the beauty.

Conceptually, Pathologic is a delicate creation, shot through with metanarrative and commentary on the idea of play as performance. It’s a difficult game, in many ways, and that is part of its appeal – there is always a fear that polishing and perfecting a structure can remove necessary confusions, obstructions and dirt.

When I met Ivan Slovtsov and Alexandra Golubeva of Ice Pick Lodge at Gamescom, my first question was about what might be lost in (a new) translation. Looking back, that was a ridiculous way to start a conversation with two of the people responsible for the remake. There I was, letting them know that I’d seen through the original release’s shoddy English translation and had found the diamonds in the rough. I understood the game’s themes and I jolly well hoped they did as well.

Two hours of talk later left me absolutely convinced that nobody understands how to communicate the beauty, terror and complexity of Pathologic’s decaying world and people better than Ice Pick Lodge themselves. The game is certainly unusual and allusive enough to allow many interpretations, and encourages the player to participate in the creation of meaning, but that doesn’t mean the creators aren’t doing most of the heavy lifting themselves.

There’s a tendency with those who summon the vague spirit of the Death of the Author to enjoy their own cleverly constructed eulogy far more than the (exquisite) corpse laid out behind them. I’m guilty of that – fully prepared to fill any gaps in Pathologic with my own reading. My main concern was that a remake would plug those gaps with its own reasoning and explanation, and that in doing so it would become less mysterious and capable of tickling the intellect. In short, I was worried that a perfected Pathologic wouldn’t live up to the half-imagined version that has been a foundation of my gaming life since I first played it.

What a relief to realise that Pathologic was always the smartest game though. The audience are involved but they don’t need to tear the script to pieces.

“It wasn’t a game to begin with. Not a computer game.” Alexandra is explaining the origins of Pathologic and I’m about to find out that the story of its creation is so snug a fit that I scarcely believe it. “The setting was created as part of an RPG campaign, a pen and paper RPG. It all begins with the City.”

Tempting to consider the City as Pathologic’s star rather than its stage. Perhaps it’d be fair to do so – I refer to it as a character at one point and bite my point, but Alexandra shrugs. “That’s fine. It has character.” But where does it come from? Why was it born? I ask if it is inspired by elements of Russian urban landscapes and life.

“Partly, yes. If you come to Russia, you will see Pathologic.” Not a quote that’s going to make it onto the tourist board’s website. “Like Russia, in Pathologic, everybody dies in the end?”
Isn’t that true everywhere in the world?

“Yes, but in Russia – faster.”

Pathologic was inspired by its country of origin, to an extent, but it doesn’t derive from gaming traditions. “The way that the City works and how the narrative behaves is not something that we could take from games.” Alexandra explains. “Literature, film and theatre. When the RPG campaign ended, Nikolay (Dybowskiy, studio founder and creator of Pathologic) looked for new ways to tell the story. He wrote a stage play based on it.”

At that point, it all starts to make sense. Pathologic starts to make sense.

“Games are more like theatre than cinema. They have actors, the performance can change to fit the audience, the set and the props have roles and limits.” It’s a thought process I’ve explored many times but have never followed to any definite conclusions. The notion that games perform for a player is fascinating and in that sense, Pathologic’s City certainly is a character because the actual stage is the screen.

Within its own narrative structure, it’s a game that invites the player to take on several roles and to act within their constraints as well as possible, all the while pushing at the liminal aspects and trying to see what waits in the wings, hiding in the darkness. There’s a direct albiet bizarre correlation with another of my favourite games – Ultima VII literally positions the player as precisely that, sitting in front of a screen, mouse in hand. One key difference is that Ultima recognises the player-Avatar as a protagonist, whereas Pathologic sees them as a participant. A potentially disruptive participant.

For the theatrical theme to work as intended, it’s important for actors and extras to behave as intended. That wasn’t the case in the original release. The translation was deeply flawed, Alexandra argues, even more so than I thought. Almost every piece of dialogue that manages to communicate the intentions of the original script does so accidentally and the sheer amount of work that is going into every detail of the remake’s English version is astonishing.

“We can spend weeks with a name, trying to find the right words to express some meaning.” The difficulty is in making references. A character’s name in Russian might carry three meanings, through homonyms, puns and allusions. Almost all of those references are lost in the gap beteen languages but rather than having an English translation that simply sheds several layers of skin, Ice Pick discover alternatives.

The chances of finding an English word that will fit even an approximation of the multi-facted Russian original is slim so, in a curious and intriguing literary exercise, characters in each version might present a different face to the player. What’s in a name? I don’t know what The Mystery of Edwin Drood’s noisy philanthropist Luke Honeythunder is called in Russian translations of the semi-novel, but lose either the ‘honey’ or the ‘thunder’ and the first impression changes.

Pathologic wants to engage with language on a level that most games don’t even acknowledge, which is why my first questions, about the possible benefits of the shoddy original translation, were so inappropriate. Ice Pick care about the sound and meaning of every word, and are entirely capable of fashioning something surreal and decayed without relying on a text that is literally wounded.

The Kickstarter is not an attempt to fund a new translation though, it’s an attempt to fund a new Pathologic. A great deal will remain, including the map of the City and the dissected narrative structure, but there are changes beyond the script and reworked visuals. There will be more content for starters, with additional plotlines and quests. Some content will be removed as well, as the original game contained ‘filler’. All content should work toward the entire composition rather than taking up time along the way. No small talk.

Perhaps the biggest change will be to the systems that drive the life and death of the City. The disease will have its own processes, as will NPCs, to create the sense of a functional but dying place. Combat will still be tense and difficult, but won’t involve pursuits across entire districts, with no sense of reaction from onlookers or those involved. All of the new behaviours will feed back into the game’s central struggle to survive, and the City’s ‘economy’ will make scavenging more comprehsible and comprehensive.

Pathologic was not made because its creator loved games, or because he wanted to work in the field of digital entertainment. It was made because a writer had a story to tell and found a medium that not only suited the story, but changed the story for the better. The existence of Pathologic, even in its flawed state, made the medium better as well.

The remake isn’t just a case of correcting mistakes or polishing the surface. Ice Pick are a studio that makes games now, with a catalogue of diverse and unusual releases. Pathologic is the document of a first encounter with the medium, a story that moved from page to stage to screen and carried many of its ideas throughout the journey. The remake has been devised with a firmer understanding of how the medium can continue to enhance the systems that are in play, and if the people who play and work with games take notice, it’ll push the medium forward again. Harder.

Compulsory reading: Quintin’s words on Pathologic (part 1, 2, 3).

Upcoming: more details of the conversation and an Ice-Pick studio profile.

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54 Comments

  1. dare says:

    Backed first, asked questions later.

    The original is still my greatest videogame of all time.

    • Hicks233 says:

      Same here! I donated far more than I really ought to of :D

    • deadfolk says:

      Thirded.

    • Atrocious says:

      Damn RPS for making me pledge!

      PS: I played the 2005 version. I wouldn’t call those rough edges, it was a damn awful experience (because of bugs and technical issues), but I expect a lot from these guys. They definitely have the right mindset to produce interesting games and with a good budget, it will hopefully become very “nice”!

    • Zanchito says:

      This is the only Ice Pick lodge game I’ve not played, backed at near relativistic speed.

  2. thebigJ_A says:

    I bounced off the writing, so I’m glad they’re trying again.

  3. Veldzhes says:

    YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES!
    SHUT UP AND TAKE ALL THE MONEY I HAVE

  4. Freud says:

    Hoping for regenerating health and a cover system.

    • crumbsucker says:

      Motion captured Kevin Spacey in the cutscenes – confirmed as a strech goal

      • JoeX111 says:

        Vehicles which can be driven around the city and over the inhabitants.

  5. kevmscotland says:

    Looks interesting.

  6. twaitsfan says:

    I had kindof sworn off kickstarter. Until this.

  7. J. Cosmo Cohen says:

    Appears to be a near instantly funded Kickstarter, too.

    Edit: Release date November 2016. That seems…so far away.

    • Damien Stark says:

      At least it’s realistic. I’d prefer a far-off date upfront compared to the common Kickstarter practice of:
      “release date: 9 months from now”
      [7 months later]
      “Oh, turns out it’s big, and we committed to all these stretch goals, and making a game is hard. New release date is a year and a half from now…”

  8. BadDancing says:

    Great article.

    Do we know who the English writers are? The Void & Cargo! had different localizers than Knock-Knock and it seems likely they’ll be changing it again. I think the KS page was done by Alphyna, for whatever that’s worth, since he’s the only person I associate with Ice-Pick that’s addicted to em dashes.

    • Niko says:

      He’s a she. Not that it really matters, just to clarify.

      • danielfath says:

        @Niko: Goddamned transgender persons. Why can’t they decide which gender they are. /sarcasm.

    • alphyna says:

      Niko there is correct: I’m a she, and these are indeed my dashes.

      • BadDancing says:

        Sorry about that. I’m really happy that you’re writing for Pathologic’s KS, “The first Ice-Pick game without an evil” update was brilliant.

        • alphyna says:

          Thank you! I’m very flattered you remember that update. :)

      • AXAXAXAS MLO II: MLO HARDER says:

        Are you the only translator?

  9. Premium User Badge

    The Sombrero Kid says:

    I write ice pick lodge blank cheques any time they ask but this is going to be extra special.

  10. Drakedude says:

    They’ve got confidence, funding this game while Ebola’s in the background. I read the reviews here, and from the sound of it it’s a genuinely good game. The kickstarter says it want to make a game that leaves an real impact. I hope so.

  11. Premium User Badge

    caff says:

    Yes this is a definite must back for me.

    Pathologic was the first thing I’ve “played” that felt close to an interactive Kafka/Bulgakov novel.

  12. Premium User Badge

    Rhygadon says:

    That “but in Russia — faster” point is no joke:

    link to nybooks.com

    I’ve found that much of the news (and dashcams, etc.) out of Russia this decade has made more sense against the background of that death rate. At times it can seem like the entire country has adopted the “Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon” schtick as a philosophy of life …

  13. 9of9 says:

    The only question is:

    ALL of my money, or simply MOST?

  14. Dave Tosser says:

    Pathologic is the most important PC game ever made. Pathologic is so brilliant and so cruelly ignored and I cringe when I see nonsense like Gone Home hoover up awards when no-one outside of Russia and this blog ever cared about Pathologic. It cured my blindness. I was blind until I played Pathologic.

    “With those graphics, Dave?”

    Exactly. With those graphics.

    I don’t feel Pathologic needs a remake especially given that Pathologic is not a game that could ever happen again, and the likelihood that giving internet morons a voice in development won’t make everything immediately worse is slim to fuck all. It’s like wot Churchill said about democracy. You want a reason why Kickstarter will destroy us all? Talk to the nearest gamesplayer at hand. See what they understand about games development and want they want to see in games.

    But God bless Ice Pick Lodge in all things they do, even if they are Cargo: The Quest For Gravity. May ye bright stars shine on in the howling black night, a waymark for all who would dare to walk paths unknown. And make fucking unplayable games. Make sure it’s good or I’ll complain on the internet.

    EDIT: I’ve improved their Kickstarter campaign for them:
    link to postimg.org

    • AXAXAXAS MLO II: MLO HARDER says:

      I literally laughed out loud (LLOL?) at your stupid, stupid picture. I especially loved the in-game day taking two years.

    • Oozo says:

      @dave tosser
      I wouldn’t worry too much. Knock-Knock was proof positive that they have far too strong a voice and a vision to let it be tarnished by the less fortunate aspects of crowdfunding.

  15. equatorian says:

    I’ve been waiting to back this for the longest time. I’ve set aside one sizeable dollop just in case it shows up, so I’m very happy that it has done so at last.

    Backed like a boss.

  16. Don Reba says:

    One of my top three games, up there with Shenmue. The remake looks extremely promising!

  17. MrEvilGuy says:

    Please back this game. Ice Pick Lodge Studios is tremendously important for the future of gaming.

    Peace

  18. DrScuttles says:

    Can’t think of many other games where you end up desperate enough to trade bullets for bread.
    Pathologic was horrible. And brilliant. I played the original during a week my housemates went on holiday leaving me alone to sit in its world and fester. Felt a bit funny toward the end.
    Though very happy to back this, I do wish I could eternal sunshine all memory of the original from my mind for the remake.

  19. Shazbut says:

    This is the only kickstarter I’ve ever backed because this absolutely must happen.

  20. -funkstar- says:

    Backed, pretty much solely on the strength of the writing about Ice Pick Lodge on RPS.

  21. cptgone says:

    [Beethoven] knock knock knock knock [/Beethoven]

    lovely artwork!

    i just made a very wise investment :)
    what will you have to say for yourself when your kids ask you what you did when Pathologic knocked at your door?

  22. jnqvist says:

    I need to stop reading about this game. I have never played it. I already know more of it than I should. Curiously I have learned all of this in the past 24 hours. I need to play it. Soon.

  23. Frank says:

    I’ve never managed to play far into the game, but that video was excellent. You win my money, Ice Pick Lodge.

  24. malkav11 says:

    Most of the time I see Kickstarter as a way to preorder stuff with some gubbins. Yesyes, you’re not supposed to, it’s not a store, etc. But functionally, most of the time, that’s what it’s about. Every now and then a project comes along that I need to give way more money than actually necessary to get whatever it is because it is that important to me that it exist. Wasteland 2, Torment, Pillars of Eternity, Knock-Knock, and now Pathologic. That’s it. That’s pretty much the list.

  25. RogerioFM says:

    Ah this game, never before or after was I forced to trade a weapon for a loaf of bread.

  26. Dominic White says:

    I’ve got great faith in this project. Pathologic had great concepts, and apparently a great script in Russian, held back by technical shortcomings and an outsourced, babelfish’d translation.

    The Void has proven to me that Ice-Pick have the technical know-how now, or at least the ability to create some stunning environments without a cutting-edge engine. They also proved with that game that they’re able to do great translation work in-house, and also that they’re serious about getting a well-matched voice cast to boot.

    To top it all off, they proved they can work efficiently within Kickstarter budget limitations, as we saw with Knock Knock.

    Bring on Pathologic Redux, says I.

  27. Premium User Badge

    Oakreef says:

    A board game? Oh yes. Backed for way too much money!

  28. Rakombo says:

    The thing that I find kind of disconcerting is the art and the screen shots look way too clean,if it makes any sense.The presentation of the original looked like there is always dirt or dust in the air,everyplace you saw looked cold or dead,it was very fitting and looked gritty.These screenshots look almost cel shaded.This is a knee jerk reaction and these are the same guys that made two of the most interesting games I ever played but still the graphics look like they belong in a different game.

  29. Premium User Badge

    cpt_freakout says:

    Great article! Man, I love Ice-Pick Lodge, and not only for Pathologic itself.

  30. manny says:

    Can someboy suggest that Ice Pick Lodge put in a $1 kickstarter donation level so I can get updates about the game? And maybe lock the price at $25? So those that don’t have the money right now cans till buy it in the future.

  31. manny says:

    Also can someone tell them to get a new website cause the one they have is terrible. Can’t even find it and can’t buy games from it.

    • alphyna says:

      Yeah, it is. We know that, just failed to redesign it in time.

  32. JoeX111 says:

    Important question: Which pen and paper RPG system were they using for the pre-video game Pathologic?

  33. Charles de Goal says:

    A Linux version! Thank you very much!

  34. Mera says:

    No one’s happier to hear any of this than I am! I retranslated quite a bit of the game and released an alpha patch earlier this year – I ceased efforts when I heard about the remake, because I figured many people would donate to the Kickstarter solely to get a new translation of a game they love, and the final effort was barely a rough draft, I don’t know if anyone I don’t personally know ever downloaded it – but I stressed over what little I accomplished for the better part of a year. The language of Pathologic somehow managed to become my baby, and I’ve been worrying all this time over whether or not it’s going to be in good hands.