Pathologic 2: The Immersive Play
You may have missed your chance to get The Marble Nest DLC for free, but there’s still work for me to do. I still have one last chance to convince you that Pathologic 2 is worth your time and money. Consider this my last effort. After this, the Town is yours to save next. I already saved it. I’ll tell you the ending of how I did it, but your path on the lines will be different than mine. Farewell.
Spoilers for the specific decision you have to make at the end of Pathologic 2 are going to follow. You’ll get a warning. I’m not gonna tell you why this decision has to be made, just that it’s key to the cure. The twist of the why is far too good to ever reveal in public writing for me.
In part one of my Pathologic discussion, I introduced the Town and reflected on conversations I may never forget. In part two I showcased the mechanics and designs that masterfully makes players feel vulnerable into giving something up to strive for uncertain outcomes. Now in part three I plan to weave it all together, drawing together how these things worked together in stunning fashion to make a game that does what so few, if any, games do.
Pathologic 2 is utterly dedicated to inserting the player into its story. Ice Pick Lodge succeed in this through, what do you know, three specific layers: The theater, the story, and the gameplay. Together, they create an effect that actively involves the player in a rotation of experiences that maintains a level of immersion with the game. I don’t want to sound like some sort of an advertising shill here, so I’ll make sure to try and just share my own experience of this effect in play. But first, let’s talk about the one layer I didn’t completely address in parts one or two.
Theatricality is, at a glance, a nice little piece of the design work to make Pathologic 2 all the more mysterious. The Executors that explain the game to you and provide commentary at the nightly plays are a sort of 4th-wall breaking mechanic of their own. They, and the theater, are a useful way for Ice Pick to explain away game mechanics in a tutorial without having to be all “video gamey”. The executors just straight-up tell you that this is a play, and in the play you have to do certain things (those things being player actions), and then they show you how to perform actions as a player. But the neat thing is that Ice Pick never shy away from this, and they really consider letting these actions take full effect on you. They didn’t just lightly consider it for use to explain away things that can’t be explained because you’re playing a video game. Ice Pick Lodge intentionally used it to try and chip away at some of the things we would typically call the artifice of the game itself. The idea of multiple deaths (or splitting a soul) is considered a method of overcoming defeat. Your participation in the game is likened to that of an actor on a stage. The mimes (Reflections) are both real to the game world, and blank slate actors that exist to explain to the player what certain characters are feeling. And when it’s all done the theater thanked me for playing. But because these elements are all put in place with full intention on Ice Pick’s part, it never comes across as “video gamey”. It comes across as earnest, honest, and kind of effective. You are in a constant performative dance with Mark Immortell and the theater’s production, coming to realizations that you really are an actor on a stage dedicating yourself to the performing of Artemy Burakh more and more as time goes onwards. And as this happens, the theater gives you more intentional rationalizations for how the theater is still chipping away at the artifice of the game itself. That’s when you notice the other parts of the game also doing this.
Your dedication to playing Artemy Burakh on the game’s stage really means your investment to continuing to play the game as time goes onwards and it becomes more challenging. You’re never really treated to a “game over” screen if you fail and die, you engage with the theater manager in conversation about that failure instead, like a performer who flubbed a line or missed their queue. This may seem like icing on the cake, an aesthetic of window dressing to rough the edges. But Ice Pick saw it as an opportunity to make sure the other two layers are more deeply rooted for the player to experience. After all, the gameplay that’s an environment of choices is as tense as walking the wire of performance. One wrong line or move, and the play could be ruined. This is also why so many thoughtful conversations in the game aren’t just conversations Artemy has with other characters, they’re also conversations the characters have with the player. This is why my conversations with Inquisitor Lilich from part one were so sealed in their capability to reach out and grab me. She was questioning whether or not Artemy’s struggles to finding a cure would be deemed morally acceptable if people were ultimately manipulating my lines of action in the end. She was also questioning my, the player’s, acceptance of this: If I was okay with the fact that the game still had some level of intentional control over Artemy, and by extension my own, actions or decisions. Later near the end of the game Inquisitor Lilich asked me (Artemy and the player) if it’s okay that I remain loyal to my quest to save the Town. She was suggesting that doing such a thing as this is utter dedication and loyalty to the Town and the people in it, that it was a story I was creating for someone else and not one for me.
She was telling me that my efforts weren’t going to fulfill something within me, they were going to fulfill something in someone else. And I already knew it to be true at that point. That was on day 10, by that point I knew creating the cure for everyone wouldn’t make me feel better. It’d make me feel relieved. And as for creating the story for someone else, well, I performed it and am relaying it to you now. But really I created a story that the characters who lived can tell, not me. And at the player level, this was also linked to the game’s core design of vulnerability. At this point in the game, Lilich was asking if I, the player, am okay with giving up on the idea of saving everyone. I was being asked if it’s okay that the outcome I’m striving for isn’t really one anyone in particular is going to appreciate, nor will I be crowned king of the world at the end of it. I, the player, was being asked if I’m willing to give up the traditional treatment as the center of importance in exchange for seeing this game through. And by this point in time, the theater’s design in this game had mixed so well with the game’s ability to wear you down that I had already accepted that fate.
The Meaning of Choice
One of the most common complaints in video games that give players choice is the fact that their “choices do not matter”. The reason for this is both simple and complex. When one looks at the great big picture of video games and narratives and choices, one can realize that choices do not matter because video games simply are not capable, at least yet, of creating experiences that are completely blended with reality. As discussed earlier, interfacing with art the way we do in video games means there is some degree of an artifice at play that attempts to suspend our disbelief and immerse us in the experience. This is partially a choice on the player’s end, partially a combination of executed game designs and mechanics, and partially the capabilities of technology to create something visually believable. But the artifice in video games is ultimately still a sham. It’s a layer of suspended disbelief that we still know exists because we put the controller down, quit the game, and go away from our place of “play” and into our own lives to make real decisions that have meaning and impact. We buy into the fact that video games have an artifice about them and choose to what degree we will suspend that disbelief based on our own desires to be immersed. So, to put it simply: We know our choices in the game don’t matter. When people say they are upset their choices don’t matter, what’s happening is the players are seeing beyond the artifice of the game’s mechanics and designs and can notice how some things are still destined to happen in a game regardless of the choice made. And upon realizing they can see the game being restrictive of certain outcomes regardless of player decisions, the player is frustrated by suddenly seeing past the artifice of it all. Even though life can be just as fateful, players do not often accept this type fatalism within video games.
In the excellently written first season of The Walking Dead video game, people feel cheated out of the fact that they chose to save Doug or Carley in the first episode only to see Doug or Carley shot dead in the third episode. “My choice was meaningless!” players cry. But that’s simply not true in the end. The choice mattered, but players still have this perception that everything they choose is vastly more important than the story being told or the forces at play that are influencing the fates of characters in stories (see The Stanley Parable). My go to answer to this debate has always been the statement that your choices matter to you. And that does remain true to many video games. Choosing to save Carley in episode one mattered to me because I thought she was resourceful with a firearm and she was one of the few people to trust me with my past as Lee. Choosing to save Doug mattered to others because he was resourceful with tools and technology and was thus able to set traps to protect your group later on and come up with good solutions to problems. And choosing to save either of them was important to those characters, and thus they wound up saving Lee down the road, sometimes in a way that brought about their own end in a moment of repayment or self-sacrifice.
The choices we made in video games, in those moments, are self-indulgent reflections of the reality we deep down desire in this artifice of an experience we call a “video game”. But here’s the rub:
In Pathologic 2, the artifice is nearly invisible.
Even amidst day nine when I was still semi-save scumming my way through the experience, the artifice of Pathologic’s play was still disappearing because defeat against the plague was still a reality I was fighting for by loading up old saves, treading the same streets again but just a little better this time around. I was still holding out for better options, refusing my performative failure as an actor on the stage. The theater, reinforced by challenging gameplay, and driven by a story that wasn’t afraid to ask questions that can be asked of both the character and the actor (i.e. the “player”) means it’s difficult to escape the reality of Pathologic 2’s experience. Sure, you’ll still hit “Exit Game”, and you won’t be sitting at lunch the next day steaming that Rubin is so utterly wrong (and, he is wrong, the bullheaded idiot). And this game isn’t some revolutionary piece of technology that makes you unsure of what reality is. But your feeble attempts to separate you, the actor, from Artemy, the surgeon, won’t work. The lines will only connect you more strongly. “The more we twist in the spider’s web, the worse we make it…for ourselves and others.”
Every new development across Pathologic 2’s story, mixed with the harshness and difficulty in making those developments happen, made them only matter more to me. I worked for hours to find a way to help Lara setup a shelter at her house for the sick and dying. I failed her. And as a result she kept her back to me for almost the rest of the game and didn’t talk to me. She never said she was upset to me, but it felt like I had betrayed her. She eventually fell ill and I never could save her. I tried to so badly, but I didn’t have a cure in time. By day seven or eight it really started to feel like the plague was killing those I loved so closely, and keeping those alive who I never cared for. Rubin, who I had a hot headed disagreement with time and time again, never was really at much risk of infection. Most of the characters did fall sick and die, but it seemed like the wealthy family and the judicial family lasted longer, even though I healed them less and cared for their pithy self-actualization struggles far far less than I cared about who would become the leader of the future generation of children. The one member of the bones I liked, Gregoriy Kain, who showed respect and provided advice to me, died faster than the others. Around day nine I found Bad Grief, the friend who I had avoided for most of the game due to his bad business as a gangster selling weapons, could be found in the Town cathedral, where the Inquisitor had just finished questioning him. Grief was now sick for his second day, and I didn’t have any real antibiotics I could give him to fight his sickness. He was going to die. And, just like those reflecting back on and regretting their lives, Bad Grief’s conversation with the Inquisitor convinced him to give up this way of life. Bad Grief wasn’t sure what he’d do next, he was actually convinced he wouldn’t do anything for the rest of his life. But he knew his mischievousness at the warehouses was bad, and he didn’t want any part of it anymore. I felt so sorry I hadn’t tried harder to save him, but I gave him a small infection booster before saying my goodbyes.
He died the next morning.
My struggles, the difficulties of this game, didn’t make me care less. They didn’t make my choices mean less (despite my actions sometimes not making a difference). The challenges of this game made my ways of confronting the dying individuals more important, because death can’t be meaningless. The foreman was wrong when he told me it was.
Let’s talk about that ending now. Because it’s where theater, story, and gameplay finally meet and create something special. You find out a cure exists, but to get the cure means destroying that beloved Polyhedron building. But others would see the Polyhedron live, as it suggestively can help humanity achieve their next stage of life. Doing so will let the Sand Pest run wild and kill those not destined for the future, simultaneously allowing the steppe people you’ve so constantly found yourself involved with, to thrive again. (it’s suggested they might kill a lot of humans in the process) If you play the game right, and maintain your quests, you are granted the choice of how this will all play out. Destroy the Polyhedron, cure the Town, or save the steppe people, and secure an evolutionary future with the Tower. For reasons that I will not explain, I chose the Town.
The aftermath was pure poetry. The Tower destroyed, the Town lives. Two of the eight people on my father’s list died. But the rest of the children lived by my own heavily dedicated tasks. The 8th lived too. I also just barely found one extra way to save an adult who showed great humility by offering to help in the hospital, to ease the suffering of the sick, and she wasn’t even a nurse or a doctor. She was a mathematician greatly in tune with the suffering of others. I’m glad I saw her through, even though I barely knew her. The only other adults who managed to survive being infected or avoid infection with my aid turned out to be the ones who loved the Tower more than the Town. And so the Town is set to be developed by a new generation of children, whom I have shown kindness and taught to hold compassion for each other, and I will help foster their growth into seeing this Town mend in ways it could not before. The adults left behind are ones upset, sorrowed, and deeply hurt by either the fading of their kind (the steppe), or by the destruction of the tower. I get to fully see how my actions have harmed and brought tragedy to those it affects, while having just the bare minimum to carry my people, the Children of Gorkhon, into the future.
And that is a role I played with every fiber of my being to execute. I couldn’t have found a more fitting ending if I tried. Because I did try to, I tried to save Lara, I tried to save Notkin and Khan. I did what I could for Bad Grief and Gergoriy. But the game’s die rolls, and my own struggles at learning this game’s systems over time, resulted in an ending that’s too poetic for me to even feel like walking back and hitting that “New Game” button. I might be able to do do it again one day. But for now, my role in this immersive play is done. The Town is yours to save now. Will you pick up your mask, come into your inheritance, and follow the lines yourself?
If any of this feels compelling, I’d say to give Pathologic 2 a try for yourself. Refunds are luckily an option in today’s society, and Ice Pick are still updating and optimizing this finely crafted experience . The game’s supporter bundle (DLC included) is now on sale for the season for less than $20 USD. It’s definitely one of the best uses of Kickstarter money I’ve put down in the past and I’m eager to see when I’ll be acting in this play again.