Interview: Ice Pick Lodge On Pathologic HD And Preserving Madness

Last night Ice-Pick Lodge revealed a new collection of screenshots for their HD remake of the wonderful, bizarre and previously very broken Pathologic [official site]. Looking at them, I found I was bursting with questions, so I asked them. Ice-Pick’s Alexandra Golubeva replied, in splendid detail. Below you can find out how there came to be two remakes at once – a complete rebuild and reimagining of the game and an updated-but-preserved version of the original – plus what new directions this reimagining will take, and how they’re inventing brand new ways to tell those old stories. (Click on the pics to see the new screens all bigger.)

RPS: We’re still a bit confused about Pathologic HD and Pathologic Classic HD – can you explain a bit about what’s happening there, why both were being developed at the same time?

Alexandra Golubeva: I understand how this whole ordeal can be confusing. The new Pathologic – the “remake” – is what we’re working on now. It’s not an HD version of the old game. It’s not even truly a remake, although the project started as one, but rather a reimagining. The new Pathologic will feature new engine, mechanics, plots, visuals – everything is being redone from scratch.

How and why did it happen? Well, we tried an honest remake, but quickly realized that there’s no point in applying patches and palliative remedies. We can rebuild him! A lot of time has passed since the original release; the world has changed, and we have changed. The core ideas of the original game evolved in our minds, and some ideas that were meant to be included in the original game but failed to were also revived. But then we found ourselves in a very awkward situation. Whenever you have a beloved old game, a piece of work with its own myth, it becomes hard to muster up the courage to change anything. You just know that someone would be disappointed by the change, would think that we’ve lost the game’s identity (because, let’s be honest, every person has their own idea of what the core identity of everything is). And it felt unfair towards those who love the old Pathologic.

That’s when we decided to release Pathologic Classic HD – an honest-to-god HD re-release of the original game (I think these are called “definitive versions” or something). To preserve the game that people know and love – so that if they end up disliking the changes to the new Pathologic, they’ll still have a decent version of the original available to them. Basically, Pathologic Classic HD is our gesture of appreciation to the people who managed to love the original game in all its imperfection.

It’s a common sentiment, I think; whenever someone dislikes a remake, they are told, “Well, no one’s taking the original away from you, just play/watch/enjoy it!” But the reality is less straightforward. Works of art age. They become less accessible as time passes, and – personally – I think it’s unfair to accuse people of vanity if they find older graphics or easily-avoided-these-days bugs unappealing. Which is why we did our best to make the original Pathologic the opposite of that. It’s not like we were throwing all our forces to the task; Pathologic Classic HD was made with the help of Gambitious, and we owe the visual revamps to General Arcade. We did the new translation internally from scratch, but the translation team wasn’t working on anything else at that moment. And so Pathologic Classic HD was released in October, 2015.

As for the remake – like I said, it’s not a remake anymore, but rather a reimagining. (I’m linking a very structured description of what exactly is going to be different and what is going to be preserved in it.) Hopefully it clears that up. You can find out more about the Classic HD version and our reasoning behind making it in this Kickstarter post.

RPS: The original Pathologic, while a little primitive in its graphics, had a very distinct look and feel. Has it been difficult to preserve that washed-out bleakness in a more modern engine?

Alexandra Golubeva: Isn’t this for you, not us, to judge? Preserving the washed-out, worn-out appearance was one of our major goals. We wrote about it here (please disregard the very old, very poorly-made screenshots and refer to the text). We tried to give everything a used, imperfect look, while also preserving the ambience of various places.

And it’s not like there’s anything about modern engines that disallows things to look disheveled! We’d like to hope that it’s still the same town, only now the drops of rain form dynamic pools on the streets rather than disappear into the Grey Abyss of Homebrew Engines under your non-existent feet.

RPS: When I first reviewed Pathologic I described it as “Oblivion with cancer”, and meant it almost literally – this was a city dying of a terrible disease. What new ideas and tricks are you using this time to communicate this to the player?

Alexandra Golubeva: After I considered your question a bit, I came to the realization that almost everything we’re doing can be – after a fashion – regarded as a trick used to the end you’re describing, especially if one perceives the disease in a broader sense, as the game does. It’s not about a bacterium, after all; it’s about a town that is inherently sick, torn apart by paradoxes. A town that should have never been able to exist in the first place.

So nothing you see there is new, perfect, sturdy, and rose-cheeked (unless we’re talking about feverish blush). Sometimes things seem to be confused about what they are! Why does the Cathedral feature mechanical motifs? How can walls form blisters? Why do branches in warning fires seem to be bone-shaped? Why is everyone saying that Simon Kain’s private study is a state of being rather than a place and that the town is alive?!

However, the most important new feature (perhaps truly the most important new feature of this whole reimagining project) is the robust disease mechanics, which is two-fold, since the plague exists both in the outer world and inside your own body. In the outer world, we’ve added infected food and objects, both the ones you can take (like clothes) and external ones (like water barrels). Infected districts now feature more threats – subtler ones, like the so-called “draughts” floating above the ground that only infect you if you walk upstream, or “plague faces” – certain spots that can infect you if you turn your back to them. The very air itself can become poisonous, too. (Don’t worry though, different districts will feature different sets of threats, so they won’t become insurmountable messes.)

As for the disease inside your own body – i.e. the things that happen when your character gets infected – we’ve developed robust mechanics that change a lot of things, from the core gameplay routine to the character’s perception of the world, but going into more details would be spoiling it mercilessly, so I won’t. Let’s just say that in the original Pathologic, the player’s interaction with the infection within their organism was very much akin to that with, say, hunger; but it will be different now. (There are, of course, many old ideas and tricks we’re preserving to some extent, like the plot-related and awesome characters you came to know and love being able to just straight out get infected and die if you don’t care for them enough.)

RPS: Can we still expect to see those creepy-as-all-hell plays parodying the events of the previous day?

Alexandra Golubeva: Yes. We’ve also reached the Lucid Dreaming stretch goal, which means there are going to be dreams in the game. Interactive dreams that you’ll sometimes see – and play through – instead of blackscreening into a new timepoint. And they too are going to be related to the events you live through. (More on that here.)

RPS: Why is the beak-face looking at me? What did I do? Why won’t he stop looking at me?

Alexandra Golubeva: Oooh, that’s a good one! So good, in fact, that answering it would be a major spoiler. What did you do? Is his looking at you good or bad? Is he good or evil? How can he even look when you were explicitly told that these are not real eyes?

RPS: There was something poetically beautiful about the broken English of the original game. It also helped to make the experience even more obscure. What plans do you have for changes to the script this time out?

Alexandra Golubeva: When we were re-translating the original game, preserving the somewhat unnatural language of the old translation (and, for that matter, the original Russian text) was one of our chief goals. Whether we were successful is, once again, not for us to judge. Ask Adam’s opinion – as far as I understood, he tried the new translation. I like to hope that the non-broken poetry can sometimes work just as well as broken one does. The new translation, for example, keeps or rebuilds wordplay and puns – and it’s worth mentioning that one of the main twists of the Bachelor’s storyline is completely based on wordplay! You can read more about our approach to translation here. (Warning: a ridiculous wall of text.)

The new Pathologic, however, will only feature parts of the original script – since, well, a lot of events are going to change. We’re not just transposing old quests onto a new engine, we’re inventing new ways to tell old stories – more effectively. Actually, we’re getting rid of the whole idea of “quests” – they give this unnatural, errand-boy feeling. Players don’t accept quests out of conscious choice, but rather because that just what you do in video games. This is not the state of mind we’re after.

We’re implementing a new storytelling system of Events. It boils down to a very simple structure: things are happening in the town. Rumors are circulating about this. You are rarely summoned by letters (like you were in the original game), but rather gather information yourself, talking to people in the streets, and find out what to do – or not do. Everything that happens becomes a small mystery that has to be uncovered first (because it’s not like you are always told things in a straightforward manner; sometimes you have to connect two and two first).

All in all, a lot of things are going to be rewritten – out of necessity, if nothing else. We are also aiming towards more short dialogues rather than fewer long ones (a long discussion can be a great climax to a plot, but breaks the pacing of the game if used inappropriately; verbosity doesn’t equal literariness and is not actually a virtue).

We are, however, keeping the tone and general style of the script. Major plot points based on puns? Names that are charactonyms and have, like, thirteen layers of meaning? Having three various dialogue options that all sound condescending since you’re not roleplaying a random character, but rather the Bachelor, who is, in all honesty, a prick? Having characters lie to you, be mistaken, refuse to talk about the matter at hand – because that’s just what people do? Having them passionately discourage you from doing the thing that would yield the best rewards for your character – because, once again, that’s just what people do, and you’re not a friend to them? Town drunks talking in flowery metaphors? Children being more reasonable than adults? Yep. All of that remains.

RPS: Thank you for your time.

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20 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    basilisk says:

    The new screenshots are wonderful. This IS the town of Pathologic, no doubt about that. I’d recognise those streets anywhere.

    And everything I read from Ice-Pick Lodge confirms that these lovely people know perfectly well what they’re doing. Can’t wait for the result.

  2. FreshHands says:

    When I noticed this team (via the very phantastic/very crappy The Void) their older game was, well too old.

    Glad I get another chance of experiencing their strange vision in newer lights (browns).

    Thanks, God of GameDesign!

  3. TheAngriestHobo says:

    I bounced off the original pretty hard, since I was spending more time trying to decode the dialogue than actually playing the game. Despite being tempted to dip into the Classic HD version, I’m glad I’ve held off – this new remake sounds like it’s streets ahead in terms of complexity, and I suspect that going in without preconceptions of what the game should be will make the experience more enjoyable.

    Also, Ms. Golubeva interviews quite well. I laughed out loud at “We can rebuild him!”. Also the bit about rain disappearing into the grey abyss of homebrew engines. Lovely stuff.

    Question: Are these interviews conducted face-to-face? Through some chat program? Over the phone?

    • Premium User Badge

      DelrueOfDetroit says:

      Pierce, stop trying to make ‘streets ahead’ a thing.

  4. twaitsfan says:

    I kickstarted this and then wrote a disappointed post a year after when they announced that they now they were working not on a remake “rather a reimagining”. People killed me for it. My bad I guess. (shrug)

  5. jj2112 says:

    I finished the Classic HD version not a year ago, it’s one of the best games I’ve played and not broken at all. And the new translation is splendid.

  6. Premium User Badge

    caff says:

    So basically this is Skyrim with cancer?

    The screenshots look rather wonderful, everything I would hope for with a re-imagining of the original.

    The Classic HD is excellent too. I was most surprised by the dialogue updates which are superb – they retain the Bulgakov-style of hallucinogenic rapier like wit that made the original so absorbing and strange.

    • Unclepauly says:

      “Bulgakov-style of hallucinogenic rapier like wit”

      Careful, you almost took my eye out.

  7. ZedClampet says:

    I suspect I’m too stupid to play this satisfactorily. Sounds like there’s a lot of vagueness and nuance that would go right over my head. I’ll give it a try though because the I like the idea behind the story and the heavy atmosphere.

    • ZedClampet says:

      *because I like*

    • Unclepauly says:

      A lot of it goes over peoples heads who consider themselves above average intelligence. As long as you can sit down and think about things without chasing each butterfly that flutters about you’ll be alright.

  8. forddent says:

    If I were to be placed in some sort of desert island situation where I could only play the games of one developer for all eternity, it would be these dudes. I have never quite successfully completed any of them (the closest I’ve gotten is probably Cargo, though honestly who knows how close I actually am), but I have desperately loved each and every one of them.

    I have donated a frankly disgusting amount of money to this project, because I want these mad, wonderful people to be able to make video games forever. The amount of thought they put into simple things – like the post they wrote about furniture, for example – is more than most people seem to put into entire games, and the horror they produce is of a more subtle, existential sort that is the only sort I find any kind of interesting. That they give such entertaining interviews is something of a delightful little bonus.

  9. Premium User Badge

    john_silence says:

    The only Kickstarter I’ve ever backed, but I went in hard. I can only hope I’ll be worthy of peeking inside the Polyhedral Room. Either way I’m just happy to help. I mean, who else offers Lucid Dreaming as a stretch goal?

    I am keenly interested in the “games as art” conversation in spite of its cheesiness; however I’d point to Pathologic as a work that transcends the debate.

    That was a great interview by the way!

    • mike2R says:

      The Void was the game that answered the “can games be art” question for me. I’d been thinking about it at the time I picked up the game, and it only took about twenty minutes to get the answer. “Yup, and here is the proof.”

      I like that discussion as well, though I know that a lot of people are so utterly sick of it. Its got an obvious answer – a game can display pictures, video and music. All of these can be art. So a game that includes them can too.

      But the way I see it, a meaningful answer has to involve the core aspect of a game – ie player agency. Very few games really aim at that, even truly great games that include fantastic assets that are unquestionably art in their own right. The game as a whole is more… mechanical I guess, which isn’t a criticism since it is what it aimed for and what players (absolutely including myself) want.

      The Void was different, it used the fact that it was a game to suck me in. No movie could have done what it did to me, only a game could do that. Mechanically it wasn’t great, I never came close to finishing it. But even that didn’t much bother me, though perhaps that was because I bought it on the back of John’s eurogamer review for it, which made no bones of its flaws.

      So yeah, really really looking forward to Pathologic.

  10. neofit says:

    I was tempted to get the HD Classic version until I read it had a time constraint. Regardless of how awesome the rest can be, this sword of Damocles has always ruined the enjoyment for me whenever I encountered it. I hope the reimagining will not have this constraint, or have an option to disable it. Yeah yeah, I bet someone will go “but that’s the whole point” as usual, still, not for me.

    • Jetsetlemming says:

      The game doesn’t quite have time limits so much as time scales. Yes, you have to get things done by the end of each day, but each day is hours long. You’ll consume far more of that time sleeping in your room, hiding from the plague, than desperately running around trying to get things finished under the wire.

      • Premium User Badge

        basilisk says:

        Exactly. The time limit is more of a conceptual thing, and there really is a good reason why it’s there (it’s also probably the only story-driven game I’m aware of in which you can literally sleep through the entire story and reach the ending anyway). It’s not really a race against the clock in any sense of the word; you get more than enough time every day to walk across the entire town five times over.

        That being said, it’s a game that can (and will) screw you over without warning, so save early, save often still applies. Not just because of the time limit.

  11. theapeofnaples says:

    Is that… Bowie?