In some corners of the YouTube gaming space, where those who profess to more discerning tastes roam, there are videos about a game that recently got a good bit of attention. Pathologic is one of those Russian indie games, which could be its own genre—buggy, depressing, dreary, and Slav as fuck. It’s not a fun game to play—it’s like E.Y.E.: Divine Cybermancy without the cool armor and guns—but it’s quite interesting.
Perhaps you can say that Pathologic can be put in a holy trinity of Slav games, along with S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and The Witcher, like how War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, and Anna Karenina are the holy trinity of Russian novels.
In this post, I’d like to talk a bit about my experience in finding out about this game and everything I’ve learned about it. There’s much that can be taken from a game you don’t play, but learn about from those who have played them and care enough to publish their thoughts.
And yes, I call it “hipster fodder,” but not to mock it. There’s a certain audience it targets, at least among those outside Eastern Europe. Some may find them pretentious, but I believe that among the many who would like to claim they understand the message of Pathologic, there are those who are truly fascinated by it and would like to see more.l
NOTE: I’m never touching the original Pathologic, or its HD version. I don’t have the time, patience, or appropriate amount of masochism to put myself through that experience.
However, I might get into Pathologic 2. The lore is fascinating enough for me to get into it, but I want a less soul-draining experience.
What is Pathologic?
Pathologic is a role-playing game that was initially released in June 2005 by Ice-Pick Lodge, a Moscow-based developer. The game didn’t see much commercial success, but has since become a cult classic due to its immersive atmosphere, unique setting, and deconstruction of the role-playing genre.
Such deconstructions of the genre are not unique. Perhaps “deconstruction” isn’t the right word for it, but more like bringing RPG gameplay back down to earth. Instead of a hero’s journey going from strength to strength right from the beginning, the player learns how weak they are, how cruel the setting is, and/or how steep the climb is.
That’s what Kingdom Come: Deliverance and the Gothic series does, so it’s not unprecedented. However, Pathologic takes it further by completely subverting the idea of heroism in various ways. Each of the three playable characters in this game has a different idea of how to accomplish the main objective, and they even clash against each other and their efforts can end up in vain.
The sequel Pathologic 2 was released this year. It’s both a sequel and a streamlined remake of the original. While it doesn’t give the exact same experience as the first game (or its HD version), Pathologic 2 is better for more people.
It mostly has the same story and characters, but without the weird direct translations from Russian, the really long text boxes, the obtuse interface, all that walking, and everything else that made the original such a slog to play.
Pathologic is About the Disappointing Reality of Heroism
Most video games, especially role-playing games, are all about the monomyth—the hero’s journey. As Joseph Campbell described it:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
The call to adventure, the supernatural aid, the threshold with its guardians, a helper and mentor comes along to aid with challenges and temptations, the fall into the abyss as catalyst for death and rebirth, the transformation into the full-fledged hero, atonement for past sins, a gift from a goddess to bring certain triumph, and the cycle begins anew.
Pathologic says fuck that. Russian history shits on that fantasy with its cycles of suffering and despair. Russian art and literature have that distinct “slav-ness” that makes you want to don a gas mask and grab an AK-47 to protect yourself from the harsh tomorrow.
But that’s only once you’ve played it or know of its story. Pathologic is an exercise in disappointment for those who go into it with fresh eyes and hearts. It’s like you—the player—are a virus and the game is a human body with its immune system doing its best to exterminate you.
The first character, the Bachelor, is a pretentious 20-something who wants to save the world, like a Red Cross volunteer but with way more snark and sneer. He seeks to cure the town of the plague, only for the player to find out that the character they’re playing has his head way up his ass and there’s more to the plague and the town than what his secular education can inform him. Even his own dialogue choices are full of dismissive arrogance.
Meanwhile, the Haruspex is a local. He knows more about the town and the NPCs who are hostile towards the Bachelor are cordial to him. The Changeling seems similar to him, but with more magic and people wanting to kill her. They have a better handle of what may be causing the plague, unlike the glory-seeking Bachelor, but their efforts end up equally in vain for the most part.
And then it turns out it’s all a play and/or a sandbox. Then it gets meta. Or more like everything is meta, in a way. The way the narrative is in this game is quite fascinating as it was framed within the confines of theater to begin with, even having a play sum up each game day with all your activities recapped. There are also the tutorials that are given by essentially self-inserts of the developers.
All of this seems like quite the ride. Then again, I got all that from YouTube videos. There are also all the reviews of Pathologic 2, which make me want to play that game. Then again, perhaps I won’t get the full experience since I’ve already willingly spoiled myself.
Russian Literature and Historical Influence
Russian literature and art are shaped by the history of the country. Read a bit into it and you’ll see how harsh the land and the various governments had been towards the people to this day. Even now, there’s the archetype of the Russian gopnik, which isn’t that different from the Pinoy tambay other than the brutally cold weather.
What what adds to them is the Soviet era. We had the Marcos era, but Soviet Russia was a different beast. Even the time of the tsars was a different beast compared to our Spanish colonial times. I’m not saying they had it way harder, but it did steer their literature toward a certain direction. Russian literature in the 19th century, in particular, had a distinct tone.
Mind you, I’m not that well-read in this, and all I know of it is from what’s said in the periphery. But I can see from the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and Metro series, as well as Pathologic, how that influence may most of the story-driven games that come out of that part of the world. I’ve played S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl and Metro 2033, and it has that certain Slav flavor.
Because of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games, I also watched the film Stalker, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. I quite liked it, long train sequence included.
I hope to get more familiar with the media from this side of the world more in the near future. Maybe I’ll write about it when I get there. In the meantime, the only things I can say about it are my impression of them and how they’re said to influence video games made by those who are influenced by them.
Yeah, I’ll have to get around to reading Roadside Picnic one of these days. For real, this time.
“Video games need not be fun, but compelling.”
Games like Pathologic and Shadow of the Colossus have been discussed at length for their artistic merits, perhaps like how poncies talk about a Jackson Pollock painting.
The whole thing on video games as art has been drawn out to the point of general exasperation. If a game like Pathologic can be considered art, I don’t see why not. If there’s a game that exemplifies the adage of “video games should be compelling,” it’s Pathologic.
While plenty of high-minded gamers out there who champion indie games (especially “walking simulators”) would like it to be known that meaningful gaming means being able to appreciate games like this, not everyone can be on board. Most people view games made by developers like The Chinese Room to be boring drivel.
I say it’s more about what’s meaningful to you. Not everyone would look at Dear Esther and think that was a meaningful experience to them. Not everyone who played Gone Home could relate to that atmosphere and that twist at the end. Not everyone who picked up Pathologic would stick to it after all that walking and dying.
But does that mean everyone who enjoys Minecraft and Fortnite are immature children? Detractors may answer with a resounding “yes” to that question, but that’s like saying those who enjoy hamburgers and hotdogs don’t understand food.
There’s wine that’s swished around and spat out by bowtie-wearing snobs with notes of apricot and blueberry, then there’s Carlo Rossi in a jug for enjoyment. There’s also that inexpensive cabernet sauvignon in the middle shelf that’s great with both steak and a casual Friday night.
Alright, I’ll stop with those analogies now and just get to the point. I like what Pathologic is trying to say, and I can appreciate it at a certain level. As I’ve mentioned at the start of this post, I most likely won’t play the original, but I’m open to giving the sequel a try.
Well, fuck it. On the flipside, not every game is Fortnite, but they’re still games. Pathologic is both interesting and mind-numbing, to say the least. I’ll still follow it, one way or another.
Have something to say? Do you agree or am I off-base? Did I miss a crucial detail or get something wrong? Please leave whatever reactions, questions, or suggestions you may have on the comment section below.
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