Pathologic 2: Struggles & Failures
Alert: Pathologic 2 is available on Steam and GOG for purchase. Ice Pick Lodge are also releasing a DLC called “The Marble Nest” in a few hours and if you manage to nab the game before the DLC launches, you’ll be getting the DLC for free with your purchase. If I haven’t convinced you to get and play this incredible experience yet, one more piece is coming soon. But by then, you’ll need to buy the DLC. How’s that for vulnerable choices? Not sure what I meant yet? Read onwards.
In part one of my Pathologic discussion, I introduced the Town and reflected on conversations I may never forget. And I implied that I absolutely would forget those things if it weren’t for Pathologic 2’s absolutely cold-hearted brutal game design. The design of Pathologic 2 is massively dedicated to improving a nearly 15 year old concept in what most would consider a niche or dying genre, and it succeeds wildly. I’ll try to explain why in two halves.
The Design of Struggling
It’s wild to think that the biggest thing keeping people from enjoying Pathologic 2 are the very systems that make it a fantastic experience. But then again survival horror always has been dealt a bad hand. The systems here are different than other survival horror games too. Silent Hill and Resident Evil were about making you feel weak and just capable enough to defeat what you struggle against, posed in environments that were difficult to get your bearings. They’re about confusion and disorientation. Amnesia was about putting players through arduous, utterly defenseless experiences, understanding the feeling of being at the mercy of nothing but the cold dark you hide in and fear of that dark while set in the wilds of Lovecraftian horror. Amnesia was, in a sense, about torture. Pathologic is about putting yourself at the mercy of everyone else’s whims, fancies, and needs instead of your own self-serving desires while bound to limitations and time. Either way, surival horror systems have rarely made for the most engaging and exciting of gameplay to the masses. They’re not power fantasies. Story, atmosphere, and the mystery of horrific things have often been what pulled people through these types of games because you certainly won’t feel great about narrowly escaping that water monster in Amnesia. You’ll feel relieved it’s just over now. And I’m not going to say that Pathologic 2 is superior to the previous successful horror game designs, but just that its systems are equally as well built to replicate the simulative horror the game is designed to put you through.
It’s also equally wild to think that Pathologic’s game design has been reduced to a “Soulsian” concept of a game where “get good” or “hard for the sake of difficulty being its reward” are the mantras. Pathologic isn’t hard for the sake of overcoming a struggle being some sort of a reward.
It’s hard so it can make you vulnerable.
That’s Pathologic’s horror design. It’s about being vulnerable.
That sounds bad. But in the end it is still a video game, and it is making you vulnerable only for the purposes of the game’s core designs, not to harm you as a person. It’s also the first time I think I’ve ever said a game was designed to make me or anyone feel vulnerable. Emotions? Yes. And by proxy being emotional can make you vulnerable if you’re around other people when experiencing said emotions. But truly vulnerable? That’s a whole other status to discuss. How did Ice Pick Lodge achieve making me vulnerable?
So let’s start with time, as it’s the most important one that you never really think of if you’re someone who plays games. In so many other open world or survival games, time is practically meaningless. You can sit in the same room and not progress until you need to. You can complete a quest any time of a day or night cycle. In some cases you may need to do a mission at day or night, but it doesn’t matter if it’s this day or the next night. Survival horror games work on a more scripted basis typically, and so managing things like hunger or thirst aren’t as common in ones like Amnesia or Silent Hill as provided resources in linear experiences requires more specific moment to moment design work. One meter or two (insanity, health) can be in place for players to manage, but those are semi-designed by the developers to craft a path players take in managing those resources. In horror games, time is similarly designed. Matters are only pressing or urgent if that moment in the game is designed to be that way, and typically they’re not. However, Pathologic 2’s design is that things are always (seemingly) pressing and urgent because of some genius designs that turn time not into a mechanic, but into a resource.
More recent games that have come about like Dying Light, The Long Dark, Subnautica, or Minecraft (or the many base-building exploration derivatives) that utilize time as an endless cycling resource (emphasis on cycling). Daylight is important as it keeps away the scarier monsters. Nightfall can be time wasted as it might reward you bonuses for continuing to play through it or it might just mean you need to consider staying indoors throughout until you’re strong enough to journey out at dark. But in Pathologic 2, time is the invisible resource meter. Each day’s events can be missed by not managing your time, and by doing so, people can die, events can be altered, and the journey can be made more difficult. And when you reach the end of the 12th day, it’s done. We as common players of video games don’t necessarily notice the strain of time being a limited resource right away in Pathologic 2. In fact, we’re so used to time mechanics in video games as more of a feature instead of a resource that we practically don’t realize just how ridiculously effective this design implementation is. I explained to my girlfriend that the game is 12 days long, that each day has events that you can just miss, and by doing so, fail to save people, she responded in shock. It seemed like such a cruel and ridiculous thing. And that’s because it is. It’s one of the most genius things going on under the surface in this game (aside from the mental map).
I didn’t feel it right away myself either. And that’s likely because the plague isn’t present at first in the game. But by the time I was hitting day 4 or 5, really getting into the meat of a typical day in the Plagued Town, the weight of time fleeting was suddenly ever present. It puts pressure on decisions and when you decide to go do things. The fact that a person’s chance of being infected is part of a die roll that takes place past a certain invisible point in the day is another cruel reality. Players have to figure out the optimal route to get to places, how to swing through the town, infected districts, important characters to visit, all under the weight of time itself ticking away every second. And sometimes, even though you won’t know till an hour later, you’re already too late. Time is the one resource in the game you can’t just replenish with supplies anew. Time is, by design, reflective of our reality itself and the most precious and expensive resource we have. The finality of time in Pathologic 2 is not to be underestimated. It drains into everything else. It’s no wonder that the clock in the Town’s cathedral is still animated even if you’ve paused the game. Time spent not in the game is still a resource spent outside it, worrying about your own real life problems instead of the Town’s. Because make no mistake, playing Pathologic 2 is going to really make you focus on just the Town’s problems instead of your own when you’re actively playing it.
Then there’s the resources you can manage and how the plague makes them unpredictable to gather. We’ve heard this before, but I want to stress just how wild and challenging it gets for those that haven’t touched this game yet. There’s a fantastic bit in the original Butchering Pathologic series on Rock, Paper, Shotgun where the writer traded away an extremely difficult to obtain pistol for a loaf of bread in the original game. A gun for food. That’s how desperate the writer was. Pathologic 2 is no different if you cannot figure out how to manage and engage in the game’s economy. And even then you will still struggle. I spent literal days trying to find someone who would trade with me or sell me red thread so I could repair some of my clothes. Two days later I wound up selling some extra pills and valuables and the cloak off my back that was in dire shape for a new one because I had a surplus of pills and some spare change from the work fund. But by day 10 I wasn’t being given money anymore because the army had taken over the Town and closed up the hospital, my source of daily work and income. On day 11 I nearly got down to the equivalent of pennies in Pathologic 2 buying food because I hadn’t smartly gathered food vouchers in days 9 and 10. What was even more debilitating was eventually finding people who had red thread, that oh-so-hard to find repair resource, but I had nothing they wanted. And so I couldn’t barter it from them. As time goes on in Pathologic, as the town becomes more dire, most of the people don’t want your water, your pills, or even your food (they’re afraid the army will notice you giving away the now-sanctioned bread). I found myself hitting the same mindset at times too, not caring about some of the things I was grasping onto because none of it was mattering anymore. I’d give away medicine or even a perfectly good knife so I could get my hands on a potato chip. A potato chip. The dynamic designs that change what resource becomes scarce each day are a constant problem shifting your mood each day while you deal with every day’s actual ongoing defeats.
And defeat is a big one. Defeat is the one that means I gotta take a little tangent away from all this struggle stuff so I can come back to it at the end to show you how failure and struggle tie into vulnerability.
The Design of Failure
Failure really is the greatest teacher. The active design of time will create an environment where failures don’t just frustrate you. They compound upon each other and every failure given time to take effect means you will find yourself debating heading back and redoing a day’s worth of actions. I am positive I reconsidered and replayed all of, if not most of, the days between days 4–9 in Pathologic 2. Every time I reached an end to those days I found another reason to potentially run through the day differently as more knowledge was peeled back. And so each day you’ll make failures or fail to comprehend what’s happening across each day until you learn about it later. You will fail to even grasp what your decisions actually mean sometimes.
Some of the stronger decision making mechanics in recent years hail from games that make you uncertain of whether or not your choices will be effective and to what degree later on. Life is Strange’s rewind mechanic is a short-term focused decision making tool that puts you into the mindset of a teenager who flip-flops on decisions, uncertain of where they want to go in life. Meanwhile, The Witcher 3 shows how seemingly instantaneous small decisions ripple outwards into the fates of others weeks or even months into the future. Pathologic 2 propels its established mechanics into an environment where every player decision (large or small) is an exercise. I don’t like want to give too much credit to that Rock, Paper, Shotgun piece, but it really did effortlessly summarize the game as “an exercise in decision making.” You’ll see the impacts of your choices far enough forward in time that they won’t completely be out of your reach. A full 24-hour cycle in the Town is about 2 hours long in gameplay. It’s not impossible to load up one of the (hopefully) numerous saves you’ve made at every opportunity in the game to re-tread previous mistakes and hopefully make the changes you want. But re-doing anything in this game comes with challenge, weight, and rough odds. It’s an exercise to decide to replay a day in this game. And it’s an exercise of choices even after you’ve made that decision. One explosive infection cloud is enough to bring your immunity bar down by half (it typically leveled-out at just above half for me every time I rested / stayed out of infected zones long enough). One fight with a looter, if not executed swiftly and perfectly, is enough to put you in dire need of a healing bandage or two. And typically when there’s one looter, another one is at least a block away. Resources are scarce, which means if you have to use too many tinctures to boost your immunity, you may not have enough of them to use on actual sick people who need boosting against their infected status. I’ve even reloaded earlier saves at times right before losing a fight because death penalties are incurred across all saves, even old ones. This makes the decision to re-tread the town again in time frames of 15 minutes of gameplay or more is enough to make you consider putting the game down for the evening. 15 minutes of gameplay can mean rushing through infected zones to treat people at risk or already infected, barter for certain supplies you might need, find people around to give you repairs, and fight a looter or two. In that time you can get infected, killed, miss out on trading the right supplies, drain a good chunk of your own supplies to stave off thirst and hunger, and all of this doesn’t include the reasons you actually re-load a save: To not miss out on important events occurring through the town. You might be optimizing your path this time around so you don’t miss anything and thus take a more dangerous route through risky zones or skipping events that seemed utterly useless to you. It’s hard to comprehend it until you’ve really experienced it, but I’ll try to give a great example, one of my first ones too.
On the first day of working at the hospital, I was tasked with delivering painkillers to all living patients. I was so caught up in the frenzy of the several sick people I could interact with, that I wound up actually diagnosing and treating everyone in the hospital. This is also the first full day you will spend going into infected zones, boosting important people with immunity medicines, potentially looking for a baby, you’ll be pulled to the judge’s house to potentially identify your father’s killer, and you’ll be digging more into why the Termitary got closed. By the time I got to the end of day 4, my events were summarized in a nice little paragraph. And the paragraph said I had failed to perform my duties at the hospital. I couldn’t understand why. It made no sense. And then upon double checking my mental map and reading it very clearly, I discovered my mistake. Half a day ago when I was at the hospital, I treated everyone to try and lower their infections. I didn’t need to. All Rubin asked me to do was treat everyone there with painkillers. I didn’t. And so I wouldn’t be rewarded with the desperately needed fund money the next day, money that helps you more easily buy the more expensive supplies like medicine, clothing, or upgrade materials. I distinctly remember being right outside Aspity’s door, the bell had tolled, I read the paragraph, and was utterly floored. I had to reconsider playing an entire hour of this game, half of the day, so I could have fund money for day 5.
Remember when I said there wasn’t a single day from days 4–9 that I didn’t finish the day without considering replaying the entire day again? Yeah, I missed things a lot. Or learned outcomes a lot that I wanted to undo. Some days I realized certain characters were not going to die that day with the treatments I had given them (but I did want to cure them!), but they would be living in an infected district on day 7 and I was infected at the end of day 6 as well. So I wound up curing myself and gave the character meds to get them through day 6 and 7. But they died at the end of day 7 anyways. My efforts kept me from infection, but still ultimately wound up not saving this person. Certain events only happen if you find ways to make them happen as well. As mentioned in part one, I once found a way to make my character give up on making a cure and have a dream. But then I didn’t save, and when I got back to the game a week or two later, I found myself not sure how to make the event happen. And I played through an entire day waiting for my character to go through that process again. I eventually had to replay that same day a third time once I figured it out.
So failures teaching me constantly about what I did wrong is linked to the passage of time and these gruesome designs that make even a 15 minute rush through parts of the town something hard to consider re-doing. It all creates an environment where players are made to be vulnerable. You’ll be put into situations where you are vulnerable to giving up. What you choose to give up can be anything. You can be giving up your resources in exchange for something important. You can be giving up your own literal time to get an outcome you prefer (that might render itself meaningless later). You can be giving up the literal fate of characters because you only have enough to save so many. But the fact that Pathologic 2 is designed to ensure you do not feel empopwered with choosing who to save like so many other games is an excellent summation of what makes this game so good. Much like the way Life is Strange reflects that the idea of having time travel powers can’t be a good thing in the end, Pathologic 2 shows you that having to make a decision of who gets meds to potentially live one day longer should make players feel awful, and like their decisions are meaningless. And it does.
Pathologic 2 feels like a game intentionally made to spit in the eye of the phrase “perfect run”. Your first time through, if unspoiled, is utterly challenging, difficult, and absolutely the biggest exercise in decision making in a video game you’ll ever experience. These designs are masterfully executed on in ways that will severely be underappreciated by many many people, because this game is already a niche genre, receiving mediocre marketing, and it has been crowned with a “Soulsian get good” label.
What’s wild is that I eventually felt like I could do it. Not just in the first run, but somewhere around day 8 or 9, when I had really started to master the economy and the systems at play and find ways to survive, I found myself super excited to replay the game again. I was almost 100% convinced I’d play Pathologic 2 again almost immediately after I would finish it. Because I knew now. I knew what zones would be infected on each day, I knew what characters might fall ill when, what events involve people just wasting my time and what events involve people actually in need. I knew how to manage my resources best as each day’s trials arrived. And that would make a replay a better chance, the best chance compared to my first chance. And that’s a fantastic thing too. But once I actually wrapped up the game, those feelings faded away. Not because you shouldn’t replay Pathologic 2. I’m pretty sure if you so feel inclined, you should do so. I changed my mind about replaying Pathologic 2 because the way my time with it ended was something deserving of its own part.