Critical Distance is proud to present the first in its 2020 series of Critical Compilations: Ice-Pick Lodge’s cult classic Pathologic and its sequel, Pathologic 2. This compilation is curated by Andrew Bailey, a Ph.D. candidate within the Art History and Visual Culture program at York University in Toronto. He can be found on Twitter at @andrew_r_bailey.
When Pathologic was first released in Russia in 2005 it went on to quickly receive a number of prestigious awards and accolades from a variety of Russian games conferences, websites, and magazines. A year later the game was localized into English and distributed around the world. However, the reception outside of Russia was nowhere near as positive, with many English-language critics taking issue with the game’s poor translation, unpolished graphics, janky systems, and completely unforgiving difficulty.
Although this initially negative reception would indicate that Pathologic was destined for obscurity, the ongoing work of a small collection of very passionate writers over time slowly allowed the game to grow a unique and loyal international audience.
Travel Journals and Desperate Reviews
Duncan Fyfe’s 2008 blog article “Badlands” is one of the earliest reviews of Pathologic written in English. Here Fyfe takes an approach informed by the travelogue-inspired aspects of the then recently trendy New Games Journalism, comparatively setting both Pathologic and STALKER as distinctly Eastern European virtual spaces that the player could visit:
Playing video games affords the role of the constant tourist. Gamers will forever explore new and different spaces, which themselves are becoming ever more like simulations. Game worlds are increasingly places to visit as much as they are challenges to complete…Where do you want to go? America and Japan are booking your flights and they recommend exotic alien planets and lush uncharted islands and historical battlefields. All places to realise power fantasies; all backdrops for tales of extraordinary adventure. America and Japan entice, allure and sell you on your destination. Pathologic and Stalker take your money and strand you in deplorable shitholes.
In his 2006 review of Pathologic for Eurogamer, John Walker grapples with the then-standard practice of numerically scoring a game. Although Walker seems to find the game critically significant, indulgently recounting a number of memorable anecdotes and experiences, in the end of his review he also describes his utter frustration with how to actually give a rating:
Pathologic offers a dying city. It’s Oblivion with cancer. A pustule encrusted town where events carry on regardless of your presence, slowly wasting away despite you. This is a fascinating game. And a very broken one. And as such, I’m in something of a pickle. Cards on the table: I really don’t know what to do. Everyone sensible hates the stupid blue numbers at the bottom of the page, that the awful people skip to before stamping their feet in ill-informed puff-chested fury. This is why. There’s no reasonable mark here.
Not all sites were pushing so hard for the traditionally scored review though, and Quintin Smith’s three-part “evisceration of the game [John] Walker described as ‘Oblivion with Cancer’” for Rock Paper Shotgun is a perfect example of what can be achieved when a reviewer is allowed to experiment with the style and structure of their article. Smith’s sequential review has not only frequently been referenced by other critics discussing Pathologic, it has also often been used as an early signifier for some of the broader progressive changes in games criticism that occurred during the 2010s. It is difficult to pick any single passage from Smith’s review as it is sprawling and quickly oscillates between many topics, but his conclusion is worth noting as an interesting contrast to Walker’s review:
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.
Smith finishes his article by calling for his readers to try and pay more attention to obscure or lesser-known games, an issue within gaming discourse that would only become more relevant in the ensuing years.
To this point, much more recently and largely in conjunction with the release of the HD remaster and the sequel, many younger game critics have aimed to emulate Smith’s highly influential review and respond to his call to save such games from falling into obscurity. Youtube critic hbomberguy’s long-form video review of the original game (video, autocaptions) is a relatively recent and quite popular example of this trend. Similarly, MandaloreGaming has also produced extensive and in-depth video reviews for Pathologic HD and Pathologic 2 (video, manual subtitles).
Both of these critics use a critically humorous tone that openly acknowledges the games’ many faults, but also desperately encourage viewers to play games and work to frame them as being critically important. Both critics also work heavily to frame the series as pushing the medium forward in terms of ongoing conversations around the relationship between videogames and other art forms, but also repeatedly acknowledge that the game is not for everyone due to its at-times abrasive aesthetic sensibilities.
Essays on a Dying Town
Much akin to Fyfe’s blog post summarized above, Danill Leiderman approaches Pathologic through the lens of Eastern European aesthetics, though he takes a much more formally academic style. Also like Fyfe, Leiderman comparatively analyzes the original game alongside S.T.A.L.K.E.R., however rather than using tourism as a metaphor to frame the two games, Leiderman instead digs a bit more specifically into their historical and political relevance:
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and Pathologic make arguments about violence, survival and nostalgia for the communist past by forcing players to work through their own relationship to personal and institutional violence in the course of exploring the games’ systems. I argue that these games use the trashed landscape of the former Soviet bloc to advance a procedural rhetoric that constellates brutality, survival and nostalgic images of ruination akin to the vanitas, to point to the impossibility and desirability of utopia and to Eastern Europe as a laboratory for rhetorical and violent experiments with the utopian.
Similarly, Youtube critic SulMatul analyzes many of the series’ links to Russian history, art, and architecture (video, autocaptions) in their lengthy video essay on the original game. Like Leiderman, SulMatual quickly picks up on the games’ underlying themes of utopia and dystopia:
I’d worked so hard to fight death and to build a utopia against everything that had opposed me and that it had been usurped by a selfish elite in order to further their own personal agenda. I’m sure that I don’t need to point out how many Russian people must have felt similarly after observing the events of the years following the 1917 revolution, but at the same time I feel like I was omitting a big part of the undercurrent of the game if I didn’t mention this at least once the dreams utopia are so easily usurped and spoiled.
In an essay for Heterotopias, Jared Mitchell also goes the route of analyzing Pathologic’s Russian historical roots, however, instead of focusing on aesthetics or politics, Mitchell makes connections with the way that the Russians experienced the bubonic plague back in the late 1700s:
When looking back to the horrific events in Moscow for inspiration, Ice-Pick Lodge had to figure out how to simulate being in the middle of them. While most studios would be content referencing and recreating historical architecture, from the classes of citizens found in each corresponding district to having canals form the borders of neighborhoods, the developers here went further.
Writing for Cliqist, Andrew Gerdes makes an unexpected, existentially historical connection between Laika, the famous Russian canine cosmonaut, and Lika, a young character within Pathologic 2 who wears a dog mask. Gerdes argues that both figures are thematically imbued with a deathly significance that is beyond their control, prompting the reader with the question: “Is mortality met through the guided hand of others, or are we all subject to deliberate paths towards individual doom?
Ignoring the trend described above of examining Pathologic from the specific perspectives of Russian history or art, in his academic paper Julian Novitz instead works to analyze the game’s economic system and how it functions as a critique of capitalism. Although he does not proclaim the game as being explicitly communist, Novitz’s examination of how scarcity, meritocracy, and survival operate within Pathologic forms a distinctly anti-capitalist framing of Ice-Pick Lodge’s artistic intentions.
The town and its populace are reduced to a simple understanding of their role within a vast, uncaring economic system. Both the surrounding narrative of the game and many of its ludic elements work to invert or counter the idealised version of capitalist arrangements that are implied through the in-game economies…The capitalist system and its attendant meritocratic assumptions, as represented in Pathologic through its in-game economy and narrative, does not principally work to promote the rising success of the individuals within it, but rather reduce them to disposable components.
Edwin Evans-Thirlwell adds to this focus on the various items and economies scattered throughout Pathologic, comparing its inventory system to other survival games but also more significantly to Ursula K Le Guin’s carrier bag theory (which functions in contrast to the model the hero’s journey).
You are not the narrative’s propulsive force, dragging a chain of events behind you, but a single cell churning through the body of a town that changes, day to day, without your permission or awareness. Understanding that body as it sprouts, bleeds and decays requires curiosity, patience and a sensitivity to the resonances between people and possibilities, rather than the mere drive to overcome. You must become not a conqueror but a ‘weaver.’
Evans-Thirlwell pulls this last term “weaver” from a presentation by one of Pathologic 2’s narrative designers, Alexandra Golubeva, who has largely acted as the public spokesperson for Ice-Pick Lodge in English-speaking press.
Over the years since the original game’s release, Golubeva has given numerous presentations and interviews that have all helped give further context to the studio’s intentions for the game. In this section, I will briefly review some of the more significant examples of these.
In an interview with Adam Smith for Rock Paper Shotgun, Golubeva identifies much of the inspiration for Pathologic comes from both tabletop roleplaying games and theatre:
The way that the City works and how the narrative behaves is not something that we could take from games…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.
Continuing with the focus on the language of theatre, in an interview with Rashid Sayed for Gaming Bolt, Golubeva describes the ideas behind the visual design of the Tragedians, the strange masked mime-like figures that exist within all of the games in the series:
Tragedians are, well, tragedians. They work in The Theatre, trying to make sense of what goes on around them and representing it with silent pantomimes. Remember the Faceless guy from Spirited Away before he turned all weird? That’s what they are—the dolls that require no face, hero platzhalters, actors in the play that bears an uncanny resemblance to life. Or is it the other way round?
Although Golubeva works to emphasize the developmental and artistic connections to TTRPGs and theatre. In an interview with Kirill Ilukhin for SciFi Fantasy Network she is also quick to argue against the game’s common categorization as a role-playing game:
Oh, I’ve always found this so funny, you know. That Pathologic is considered an RPG. That reminds me of old-school rock fans (such as Deep Purple and King Crimson) who count The Beatles as one of the ‘old rock’. Why? What [do] The Beatles have to do with rock? Perhaps these fans call everything they like ‘rock’. I think the same applies to RPGs. There are plenty of games with role-playing. Kentucky Route Zero requires it. Telltale Games require it. Visual novellas require it. Are they all RPGs? Of course not. Whether you like it or not, RPG has evolved from ‘role-playing’ to a very specific genre – with levels, training and all that. And Pathologic is not within that genre.
As time moved on, the HD remaster of the original was released and Ice-Pick Lodge also announced their work on the sequel. In an interview for Rock Paper Shotgun, Golubeva talks to John Walker, answering his questions behind the whole process. In both Walker’s questions and Golubeva’s responses there is a keen awareness of the original game’s legacy and its small but passionate fanbase:
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…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).
Following the release of Pathologic 2, a large portion of the central development team at Ice-Pick Lodge took part in an interview with Oleg Chimde for the Russian games site DTF. Here, Golubeva recounts the many financial and scheduling difficulties involved with finishing the sequel, as well as her feeling on how crunch culture relates to smaller art projects such as theirs:
Crunch is a bad thing. It’s always something that follows after erroneous planning. Crunch affects a person’s health and generally speaking shortens the life span…But, could it actually be another way? You always sacrifice something for the right cause. Any work will eventually chip away your health. Our life is not endless anyway (really far from endless), we have a reserve that will be consumed eventually; we can only select on what we will spend it. For myself, personally, it’s hard to imagine a better choice than a project that you really love and a project you truly believe in.
A few months later Oleg Chimde would conduct another follow-up interview with Ice-Pick Lodge for DTF (English translation provided by Maksim Kuroshev) asking many specific questions regarding the team’s expectations for the game prior to and following its release. Within the interview studio founder Nikolay Dybovskiy recounts the experience of deciding to create Pathologic 2 stating that
We underestimated it. For all that, we came out with minimal losses. Firstly, we did not give up and went through it all with dignity. They pulled out a very complex project that had no funding for a long time: funds from Kickstarter ended rather quickly, and the investment transaction fell through. It was like taking an all-terrain vehicle across the desert, counting on an oasis of fuel, but forgetting to bring fuel… and you couldn’t just drop the vehicle, and there was nothing else to drive, had to push it with your own hands.
In another article summarizing for Russian website Igromania, Egor Sonin (English translation provided by Maksim Kuroshev) documents many of the the at times tumultuous sounding history of Dybovskiy and his influence on not just the Pathologic series but also Ice-Pick Lodge’s other games such as The Void.
Then lastly for this section on Ice-Pick Lodge and Pathologic’s development history is Carl Johannson’s (translated by ScreamingPineapple) sprawling 44 page article for the now defunct Swedish videogame magazine Fienden. Due to its sheer size the article is tough to succinctly summarize or to select a singular pull-quote from, but like many of the articles and interviews listed above gets into the difficulties that Ice-Pick Lodge had in developing the Pathologic series. This hidden gem of an article is currently only available as scanned copy through the Internet Archive and is definitely an amazing resource for anyone interested in Pathologic or the history of Ice-Pick Lodge.
The Difficulty of the Sequel
Although there were many production-related difficulties in finishing and shipping Pathologic 2, following its 2019 release the discourse on difficulty took a different turn, and much of the critical games writing focused on how difficulty and accessibility operated in relation to one another.
In one of the earlier reviews of the sequel, for Rock Paper Shotgun Brendan Caldwell zeroes in on the frustration and difficulty of managing the game’s survival mechanics. Here he argues that “If the intent here is to follow a [Dark Souls-like] ‘hard is good’ philosophy and apply it to the survival genre, this is misplaced.” Although many of his arguments seem unnecessarily focused and whether the game is fun or not, Caldwell’s review works as one of the first examples of a writer critiquing Pathologic 2 based on its difficulty.
In a review for Slant, Steven Nguyen Scaife also notes that Pathologic 2’s survival mechanics are perhaps a little bit too difficult:
The only thing that significantly hinders the game’s apocalyptic despair is the sense that its difficulties have been tuned a little too sharply. For as much as the game’s survival systems are designed to be overbearing and exhausting, they often feel unnecessarily harsh, somewhere beyond the point that has already been so clearly made. In such moments, you begin to wonder if scavenging wouldn’t still convey a huge amount of stress if food satisfied just a little more of your hunger, and if the meters ticked down just a little more slowly.
However, unlike Caldwell, Nguyen Scaife does not attempt to compare the game to other immersive sims in terms of the amount of fun the player will have: “If ‘fun’ is on one extreme of the video game emotional spectrum, Ice-Pick Lodge’s Pathologic 2 is on the other…Playing Pathologic 2 feels like suffering, and it’s meant to be that way.”
In her review for Paste, Dia Lacina also sees the survival mechanics as a potential hindrance to much of the game’s more conceptually interesting narrative and aesthetic content. Like Scaife, she ultimately writes quite positively about Pathologic 2 but sees aspects of its system design as slightly miring some of the game’s other components:
I love Pathologic 2. But I love it in spite of the majority of its mechanics. I love it because it’s just so damn weird, confident, and taps into literary traditions like Epic Theater transparently and with tremendous bravado. Where the lockpicking minigame and survival mechanics alternate between frustrating and boring, every other aspect of this game is shot through with tension, menace, and wonder.
On his personal blog, David Auerbach also dwells upon Pathologic 2’s difficulty, working to connect it to a concept from Russian Formalism called ‘ostranenie’. This term is typically used to describe a process where authors try to make their readers feel at odds with or alienated by the literature they are reading:
Much of the game’s symbolism draws from Vladimir Propp’s work on folklore, but I think the central conceit of the game is to cross Propp’s ideas with a gamified adaptation of Viktor Shklovsky’s ostranenie [defamiliarization] and its appropriation by Bertolt Brecht as V-effekt (Verfremdungseffekt, alienation effect). And that brings me to what I wanted to say in the first place, which is about how ostranenie figures into both the metafictional material and the game’s infuriating difficulty.
Holly Green, writing for Paste, delves into the problem of Pathologic 2’s difficulty following the developers’ announcement that they would be patching in tools to allow the player to adjust the game’s survival mechanics to their preferred setting. Although Green describes the frustration she initially felt with the game’s unflinching difficulty, she also ponders the meaning behind the developer’s choice to be slightly more accommodating to the player:
In the few days it took to write this piece, the developers of Pathologic 2 announced a difficulty slider bar would be coming in a future update, and explained their philosophy behind how hard they made the game. Admittedly, it takes the wind out of my sails. The designers meant it to be this hard and meant us to feel this hopeless. Complaining about it is missing the point. But while I respect that the developers are principled in their commitment to a theme, the point they make comes at the player’s expense.
Responding to both Green’s piece and Ice-Pick Lodge’s decision to include the difficulty sliders, writing for Paste Dia Lacina contextualizes Pathologic 2 within the discourse around difficulty and accessibility that went on throughout 2019 following the release of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. Like many other critics during this time, Lacina tries to frame difficulty as being a subjective experience that depends on a wide variety of factors that are different within each separate player:
Systems are meant to be interrogated, exploded, and understood from multiple angles. “Cheating,” exploiting the underlying logic of a game to gain advantage over it, is a valid way of engaging. And for many, this is where their enjoyment is derived. Just look at speedrunners for a culturally accepted version of this. People will cheat. That’s okay. Other people will tailor the experience to meet their skill levels and abilities. That’s really great! Does that meaningfully impact players who want to enjoy the stock Pathologic 2 experience? Not one bit. If you’re upset by this, get a less fragile ego.
In another article focused on the game’s difficulty for EGM, Nguyen Scaife interviews some of Pathologic 2’s developers on their eventual decision to patch in the difficulty sliders for the player to be able to adjust their experience. Here they firmly state that their original creative intention behind the game was for the player to repeatedly fail, but not in a way that could they immediately learn from or work to correct. In the interview, Golubeva states that “Pathologic 2 was designed around an incomplete playthrough…The idea is for the player to fail, miss quests, and overall play suboptimally.” Even after the inclusion of the difficulty sliders that allow for easier survival mechanics, Scaife sees the game as still achieving its intended goal of forcing a suboptimal playthrough: “All the while, the clock ticks down, forcing decisions and compromises without an obvious path of which storylines to follow up on, or which ones you can afford to ignore. You have to manage your time, and there’s never enough of it.”
Although much of the discussion surrounding Pathologic 2’s release was centered around its difficulty, in the months following this initial trend the game discourse began to approach the game from a wider variety of angles. In the next section of this compilation, some of these articles and essays will be reviewed.
Lists and Legacies
Most of these articles look at the combined significance of the original game and the sequel from the perspective of the end-of-decade reflection that was prominent during the end of 2019, but there are also other categories too.
In an article for WIRED, Julie Muncy includes Pathologic 2 in a list of the most influential games of the 2010s. Although the game only came out in the last year of the decade, Muncy works hard to argue that its influence will be long-lasting:
After all, it hasn’t had time to influence anything. But mark my words: Pathologic 2, with its impeccable blend of terror, scarcity, and fascination, will influence a whole new crop of independent developers. A sequel/remake to an underrated Russian gem…Mixing poetic writing, stirring theatrical design, and a meditative grimness, it accomplishes feats of tone and presentation that I’ve never seen a game accomplish before. It should be lauded and imitated. I think it will be.
Similarly, Heather Alexandra writing for Kotaku includes Pathologic 2 on her list of most underrated games of the decade. Unlike Muncy, Alexandra works to include the legacy of the original as being relevant to the appreciation of the sequel:
Pathologic 2 reimagines that experience and hones it into an even better experience. This is a game where a single stray bullet can spell disaster, where wasting too much time creates a ripple effect of tragedy. Newcomers will bristle at how inhospitable Pathologic 2 is, but sticking with it reveals an uncomparable story of alienation and pain.
In a list of the best videogame moments of the decade written for Eurogamer, Matt Wales describes the moment that it becomes clear that the plague has broken out as being particularly memorable:
But on the third day, when the plague finally breaks free, a sudden bell begins to ring an end to all that once was as you walk the streets that now feel a little something like home. And as the bell continues its interminable drone, realisation strikes that hope, like much else in Pathologic 2, has merely been used as a cruel tool to further your despair.
For EGM’s best of 2019 list, Andreas Inderwaldi argues that despite its extreme difficulty, Pathologic 2 is a kind of all-encompassing lesson that students of game design should be looking toward for years to come:
It’s uncompromising in ways that are often grueling, but this is a game that asks us to challenge our understanding of why we play games; struggling and failing is an entirely valid outcome of our doomed efforts, one that can be strangely rewarding in its own grim way. Pathologic 2 is an underappreciated masterpiece and will still be talked about by its admirers when most of this year’s more popular and successful games will be long forgotten.
Then lastly, in her best of 2019 list for Giant Bomb Dia Lacina takes a intensely minimal and experimental approach to games criticism, explaining why Pathologic 2 meant so much to her through the form of a small poetic block of text:
The surgeon probes my flat peg teeth with city fingers. Stares into my black eyes. Haruspex. A fly skirts the waterline. He judges me for my offal.
You will die here. You and this terrible woman.
They haggle. He tears off a hunk of bread. Swallows it with vodka.
A white mask gestures on the corner, his face blank and stupid. They’re everywhere.
I’ll die too.
The fly considers laying its eggs. Tiny legs on wet cornea, twice its size.
But I’ll belch my cud while this town burns.
Not yet. Too warm. Too alive. But so much meat. Soon.
This leads us to our last category. Most of these pieces have been written after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and use this external context to help frame the game’s approach to depicting its fictional plague.
Writing for Bullet Points’ issue on Pathologic 2 Julie Muncy writes about the game again in a way that recalls both the travelogue inspired writing that began this compilation as well as some of the previous discourse on the game’s difficulty. She calls her article “A Travel Guide to the Town With No Name” and explains the odd and unexpected ways that space and time function within the game:
The Town’s cruel layout is, then, an intentional challenge—it is intended, for both the player and Artemy, as a catalyst, a means to create affect and shape certain kinds of engagement. Geography in game design is always already metaphorical, but the Town wears its reality as a psychoscape openly in both textual and design terms. You are meant to feel harried, exhausted, embattled. You are not meant to zone out or move automatically. Walking in Pathologic 2 is a space for contemplation, wallowing, and planning. Maybe, even, a space for growth.
Writing for WIRED in the summer before the pandemic, Julie Muncy uses the game’s explicit theatrical referencing as an opportunity to encourage more developers to look to the world outside of games for design inspiration. More recently Muncy also wrote another article for WIRED where this call for external significance is exemplified through her contextualization of the game with the global COVID-19 pandemic. Here Muncy acknowledges the importance of the sequel but also highlights the original as it is older and will be technically accessible to a wider range of people (especially those with older computers). Muncy is so enthusiastic for her readers to try the game as she feels that it is a uniquely interactive way to deal with the anxiety of the very real plague:
Again: not a soothing, escapist game to play right now, as the deadly Covid-19 pandemic makes its way around the globe. Yet, it might also be the most accurate game ever made about the experience so many people are having at this moment, the experience of living through a plague. People panic, and horde the supplies everyone needs to survive. The authorities fight amongst themselves on how to handle it, revealing all the cultural faults and incompetencies that were already present. People die, and no matter how hard you try, there is a harrowing number who cannot be saved.
Responding to Muncy’s article on her personal blog, @grumpwitch reflects on the experience of playing through Pathologic 2 during the middle of a global pandemic. From the beginning of the outbreak to its full spread throughout the rest of the world, she played through the game multiple times and had different thoughts based on both new details gleaned in the game, but also from the increasingly dire news she was observing through the media:
I picked up Pathologic 2 just as reports about the new, highly contagious coronavirus started emerging from China. I finished the game in a week. I dreamt about it. I spent days mapping out the fictional town. I memorised the quarantined districts and herbal recipes for tinctures that would not cure the plague, but bring some relief to those suffering with it. I memorised the barter economy. I felt real, actual guilt when I stockpiled food on the first day, suspecting that (as with the first game) prices would double or triple when word of a pandemic got out. I researched the fictional languages and real-life equivalents of the Steppe religions. I finished the game, found the cure and immediately started again. Now COVID-19 was in Italy, who were preparing for a complete lockdown. Images of masked healthcare workers weeping in hospital corridors filled my screens.
Writing for Bullet Points, Yussef Cole also works to frame Pathologic 2 as a tool to help parse the experience of the COVID-19 pandemic. Making contrasting comparisons to a number of other notoriously difficult games, Cole ends up finding solace in the way that Pathologic 2 consistently asks the player to recognize and work within their own limits.
What is ironic is that, in addition to predicting every other aspect of our experience with the pandemic (children aren’t affected, “essential workers” are sacrificed for the broader good, the transformation of public places into triage units, the flailing authoritarianism of the state, and so on), Pathologic 2 manages to model this precise form of exhaustion, the general shape of this pandemic-induced stress. Because, despite the conversations around difficulty that colored Pathologic 2’s release, it is not so much a game about difficulty as it is one about dealing with, and being humbled by stress. Where other hard games offer challenges to the player to overcome and thus prove, and feel good about themselves, Pathologic 2 uses its challenges to slow us down, to force us to think about what we’re doing and why we’re even doing it.
Also for Bullet Points, Reid McCarter identifies many of the more explicit epidemiological connections between COVID-19 and Pathologic’s sand pest (the name of the fictional plague). However, McCarter also looks deeper and outlines the way the game’s town reflects many of the broader political and social problems of the current moment as well.
There’s a captivating horror to watching the Town-on-Gorkhon flail in the grasp of a deadly disease. The game’s dialogue, which often touches on the need to maintain quarantines or to properly wash hands after being out in public, references subjects now familiar enough to warrant a resigned laugh of recognition…But Pathologic 2, despite drawing heavily from the historical background of late-Tsarist Russia, is a game that abstracts and contorts its real-world details into a hazy, more universal sort of nightmare than these comparisons might suggest. The Town works as a microcosm for how we’ve seen many countries around the world react to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but it also exaggerates the underlying systems of a state by making them fantastic and immediate.
Lotus similarly works to uncover the unintentional similarities that exist between Pathologic 2 and COVID-19. Unlike the other authors within this section, however, Lotus takes this a step further and additionally connects the game’s various endings to both the global BLM movement as well as using them to critically reflect on Pathologic 2’s representation of its fictional indigenous Steppe people.
The plague is surely the antagonist of the story, and therefore, the story must end with the defeat of the plague and the salvation of the world. But there’s a question here, a gnawing question, one that threatens to undermine this salvation narrative. A question that dares to assail the unassailable morality of doctors and heroes, a question that ripples in the present moment and sets fire to the cop cars, the banks, the Confederate statues: Why should we want to save the world?
Written a few months earlier than lotus’ essay, Reno Evangelista also works to unpack the way that the game represents indigeneity and how Pathologic 2’s multiple endings treat the indeginous Steppe people:
Nowhere is the strange duality of the game’s world more pronounced than in the presence of the Kin, the indigenous people who live among but not quite within the Town and its people. See, the Town-on-Gorkhon is a colonial town on the verge of industrialization, or perhaps even more than that: transcendence, ascension. And it is being pulled two ways the way colonial settlements at the turn of the century often were. That’s right, it’s Ye Olde Postcolonialism discourse.
Evangelista also makes some very interesting art historical comparisons between the Steppe people’s “herb brides” and the way that the colonization of the Americas was anthropomorphized as a female figure within late Rococo and Romantic painting. Definitely well worth a read.
Then finally the last piece within this compilation is from @grace_machine’s blog Grace In The Machine where she thematically deconstructs Pathologic 2 into several different categories. Like Lotus, @grace_machine focuses on the way the game concludes itself, however unlike many of the other recent authors in this section she explicitly notes that their article makes no deliberate attempt to directly grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic. The essay is written with a wonderfully poetic cadence that in its conclusion does great justice to the slightly incomplete or imperfect nature of the game. This pondering reflection on the game’s epilogue will also serve as my way of concluding this critical compilation:
There is no montage at the end of Pathologic 2. No grand recounting of deeds or where-are-they-nows. You are instead, cut off. There are the suggestions of futures, both unattainable and possible. When the curtain closes, a door opens. What remains are memories, selves, and a final bow.
After all, the only thing you can ever offer is your hand.
Know a great article that should go in this compilation? Let us know!
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