Whose blood is this?




Pathologic: Love, Death, Tension

Originally Posted: [2022-04-16].

(Or: Two Consecutive Days Of Microbelog Posts...? Someone Check On Dan!)

I make no secret of my love for Ice-Pick Lodge's Pathologic, which was released originally in 2005 and remastered a decade later. The graphics on this site's homepage used to be ripped straight from the game's files (retrieved care of The Gorkhon Archives, of course) and I did make this site originally with the intention of making something like this page very early on. The archived original site layout still shows a derelict link on the Text page where it would've gone. I've probably spent more time reading through the transcript (and comparing the Russian/English versions to work on my limited vocabulary) than I've actually spent in the game world across a full playthrough and a few one-off runs through campaigns. It is a sad, beautiful, and truly deep story, and, in my opinion... (gasp) an actually fun video game.

If you found out about the game the way I did, you'll probably have heard that Pathologic itself is a case for video games not needing to be "fun" to be "good". I agree with the sentiment, but I don't know if it's quite applicable. I mean, personally, I have fun getting overly particular about the look of my website, writing dreary fiction, and reading about infectious diseases and their sequelae. Maybe that's not how you have fun, and that's alright. Everybody's different, and that's the wonderful truth. In the case of Pathologic, though, I think I've spent enough time playing the game and reading through its thousands of words of text to attempt an answer to the question: "Is Pathologic fun...?"

Firstly, we will need to get a few things out of the way. There is a lot to cover when we're talking Pathologic. I think it's fair to try and categorize it by genre from the outset. Ostensibly, it's an adventure RPG with quite a few other elements. I'd count it under "mystery" and "horror" (as well as maybe "philosophy"), but really, it's not that easy to stick a definite label on it. Pathologic is unique because of its scope. It's a story of high mysticism, a medical drama, a series of theatre productions, an exploration of survival despite all-too-human frailties... It wears many masks, but the execution (hehe) is a masterclass in focusing on such themes and others - sometimes all at once, sometimes spread out across the interwoven storylines.

Second: what is Pathologic "about"? Well, it's about a plague, and the efforts of a chosen few (playable characters) and their allies to catch it by the tail. It's also about life and death, culture and schism, progress and tradition, truth and deception, politics and ideology... and any number of other "corresponding pairs". I could go on, but I won't because I'd be here all night. We'll say, then, that the game is about tension. It certainly feels very tense to play at times, but that's not really what I mean. I'm talking pretty specifically about a conflict between ideas.

But that's not all, is it? I got stuck here in writing because I really don't know quite how to answer this new question I've posed. I wanted to talk about it a bit and offer some suggestions, but I don't think one can really define it so concisely. I'm content with the conclusion I've reached, but I think there's more to it, and my own reading is not necessarily the "right" one. I guess here we can loop back to the "central" question: I think the room for speculation and for argument is incredibly fun.

Maybe that's to the game's credit, and maybe it isn't. I can understand a counterpoint that suggests that the game itself isn't fun by my logic here and I'm talking about exploring the story, but where do you draw the line? Can you separate a game from its story? In some cases, sure, but I don't think it's reasonable here. The game is experienced almost exclusively through dialogue with its characters. Outside of that, yes, there are fights and survival mechanics, but generally, most of your time will be spent talking to people, then walking (and I do mean walking) to talk to other people. On its own, no, that does not sound particularly fun, but you are always walking to the next little piece of the mystery that leads you to a deeper understanding of the world.

Sometimes it's not so straightforward. Part of the fun, again, is in the room for argument and speculation... the mind games. The dialogue gives layers and layers to every character, playable or otherwise, and often, characters will lie to you in one way or the other. Sometimes it's by concealing what they know, and sometimes it's by sharing something misleading that they have every reason to believe is true. Pathologic doesn't have speech checks, just dialogue options that might give you different information, so what you see is what you get unless you're savescumming to read everything. Unless you're Klara, you have no way of knowing (within the trappings of the game, anyway) whether what you're hearing is true.

You can usually figure it out if you're paying attention, though, regardless of which healer you're playing. Sometimes (and this is one of my very favorite things about the game!), playing another route will give you different insight into an event you thought you might've understood. That's part of why I'm holding off on playing through Pathologic 2, but I already wrote that post. I think the ability to explore the story from three interconnected but different perspectives is fascinating, and I credit it partially for the remarkable depth of the world.

Depending on which character you're playing, your interactions with the world and its characters can differ immensely. Almost all of the dialogues (except for some of those between the player and most unnamed NPCs, and parts of a few late-game story fixtures) are tailored to your chosen character, and there are certain locations that may be off limits, or hostile to some but not others. The differences in dialogue give the game three passes at characterization, but contrastingly with, say, a game like Fallout that has checks which can result in various outcomes, you get what you get when you're playing the Bachelor, Haruspex or Impostress.

Point: having multiple mindfully developed playable Characters results in tight, always-meaningful conversations between them and the other Characters. Counterpoint: there is little freedom to decide what kind of person you want to be, since your role is predetermined.

In dialogue, you do get several options in most cases. A lot of the time, they do admittedly boil down to "useful option"/"slightly less useful option"/"asshole option", but you do still get to choose how you want to roleplay your healer, and the target of your rage or your inquisitive temperament will be reactive. It's also worth noting that I don't think there's a word wasted across the thousands that make up the game's full text.

This is more about choices in gameplay than dialogue, but I have played through the twelve game days as Artemy Burakh twice from start to finish. The first time I played, I thought I had little choice but to play our dearest Haruspex as a cold-blooded killer. The reputation mechanic is pretty brutal to Artemy from the outset, and if you're not careful, you can start yourself on a dark path very early. I talked about this a little bit in the walkthrough, but generally, yes, you can decide how you want to play the game. It will punish you for your choices like any other RPG with a strong story, but if you wanted to play a trigger-happy Klara Alexandrovna Saburova-Block, the game can't really stop you with anything other than limited ammo and gradual weapon degradation. You can still complete your commitments and finish out the story, though some of its secrets may remain hidden if you're not careful.

In the case of my vastly different Haruspex/Haruspicus playthroughs, I wasn't even able to get to the side-quests a lot of the time on my first run (Haruspex, in Classic HD) because I was too busy trying to keep myself from starving to death every hour thanks to being a public enemy from about word "go". I had little choice other than to murder patrolmen for crackers about ten times a day if I wanted to keep playing the game. It wasn't pretty. Still, though, I was able to get my ending and "save the town".

You can stick yourself in fail-states, you can make your life harder in various ways for various reasons, but you as the player really are able to choose, and the world reacts. There are ways I could've restored my reputation; for example, spilling painkillers on dying people in the street is a pretty good one, but that only works as long as you have access to painkillers in the first place which, generally, I didn't. I barely had time to sneak from one place to another, let alone scrape together enough resources to trade with the various NPCs who didn't particularly mind my reputation.

So, I've played Haruspices on either far end of the spectrum. I played the unfortunate Ripper as well as the diligent public servant. There's room for quite a lot inbetween, and I think it's pretty neat how you really can play with your chosen role, even though it is, ultimately, predetermined in its ends and contours. Without spoiling too much, there is quite a lot to be said about the idea of predetermined destiny in Pathologic, but I'm trying to keep most of my postings about the game here from going too deep. Sorry, you will not find too many spoilers on this site. My walkthrough doesn't even show the game's ending. Just go play it, dammit!

I guess I haven't answered the question I've posed here, but I don't think it's a very good question in the first place, really. I can't tell you that the game is "fun" beyond a shadow of a doubt, I can really only say what I think about the matter. I personally have a lot of fun with Pathologic, and you probably will too if you like compelling characters and narratives. If you do end up playing the game because of anything I've written here, tell me what you think once you've finished it if you're so inclined! Pathologic (Classic HD) is on sale on Steam for $1.29 until April 18th, 2022. x_x