There are some games that, while having some kind of cult status, I found ultimately disappointing. The usual case is the case of a game with great plot or themes, but abysmal gameplay that gets in the way of engaging with the former. Pathologic [Мор. Утопия]
is sometimes considered to be an example, with others claiming it's just misunderstood, but at the end of the day it stays a very controversial and hard to judge in an unambiguous way game. Pathologic 2
is nothing like that. It is a meticulously composed symphony where every part works well to deliver the final result.How it makes the player act - minor spoilersIt is the fifth day of my stay in this town, and the second day since the Sand Pest epidemic started. I do have some supplies stashed away at my place, but it's not nearly enough - some canned food, few bottles of water and a negligible amount of herbs. I could spend the day picking the steppe herbs, so that I can make more immunity-boosting medicine to prevent infection, or so that I can sell them for money, which could buy me some more food - and the threat of starvation is always at the doorstep. The time is ticking, and there is not enough.
Apart from securing the continued existence and functionality of my corporeal vessel, I have a personal investigation of mine to continue - which, for obvious reasons, has moved to the bottom of my priority list ever since the outbreak. I have also been entrusted with the care of a small group of local children. Shrewd and self-reliant they might be, the future of this Town is still helpless against the epidemic without my care. There are other people who, while not being bound to me in any meaningful way, also need my help against the plague - am I willing to sacrifice them so easily? It's easy to attach myself to children, adult-like they might seem, but I'm supposed to be a healer for everyone. One of just three operating in this town, supposed to help everybody - not just the ones I deeply care about. Even the ones I have a grudge with, like that stuck-up mayor or the local blood-sucking factory owner.
My main objective, trumping everything else, is finding a cure for the plague. Only one known so far is the "shmowder" - a mixture of random ground-up pills made by children during the previous outbreak 5 years ago. A scarce, insanely expensive cure, that isn't really supposed to work - and yet it does. While researching my panacea, I can't forget the ones hurting right here and now. Antibiotics, although unable to cure the disease, can sometimes postpone the inevitable just long enough to buy me time to acquire just one more shmowder or brew some panacea - provided I have the ingredients which are extremely limited and far between.
It is the fifth day of my stay in this town, and the second day since the Sand Pest epidemic started. Despite my best prophylactic efforts, two people under my care had become infected. First one is a childhood friend of mine, going under the nickname Bad Grief. A gang leader, but he seems to be a good person deep inside - or at least loyal. The other one is Notkin. Funnily enough, he's a gang leader too - but it's a children gang. Notkin himself is barely tall enough to reach my shoulders. Two infected, and only one shmowder, with no serum in sight yet.
Notkin has been entrusted to my care, and I'm responsible for him. Even if he does not see himself this way, he's still a child. A child placed under my care. He gets the shmowder. Bad Grief, a shadow of himself, a shivering, moaning, rag-covered figure, gets a hefty dose of monomycinium. A succesful treatment significantly lowers the chance of death. This will buy me some time, and hopefully Bad Grief will survive long enough for me to secure a second shmowder.
The following night, just around midnight, Bad Grief succumbed to Sand Plague. Not long after, I made my panacea. I was too late. Bad Grief was replaced by one of his gang members - a man with no soft edge whatsoever. a hardened criminal with a stone-cold heart.
Pathologic 2 is a game that excels at creating a vibrant, engaging atmosphere. It is the only game in my recent memory, with only exception being Disco Elysium
, that managed to grasp me like that on every level of being. It got me absolutely hyperfixated, with play time reaching double digits in a matter of two days. I sunk into this game like a dinosaur caught by a tar pit. Why? How did this happen?
Although there are limits to how far I can deconstruct my personal experience with a work of art, with some things being buried into inaccessible realm of subconscious emotional associations and reactions, I can with a degree of certainty distinguish some of the elements that make the game work as well as it does.
The game makes you care. First, because of the permanent punishments that come with death, it makes you care for yourself. Secondly, because of the great writing, because of how much character they have, it makes you care for the NPC`s - and it's not just positive feelings it arouses.. The plot makes you care for the Town, and for the Kin, and for the mystical knowledge that you learn with time spent in this irrational environment
The game makes you not care. During the first day of the plague, enticed by the city authorities fund and still full of optimism, I was eager to ease the suffering of everyone I could, with what little medicine I had. No amount of antibiotics could cure anybody, but I could still give the people some hope. But then, day after day, I found myself surrounded by more and more infected people. lying on the streets, their numbers ever increasing. More and more people in the hospital until there is no place left to house the infected and they must be placed on the staircase outside. The streets depopulate and the more and more desperate conditions force you to triage, and to make tough decisions about how you are going to prioritize with what little resources you have.How it makes the player think - major spoilers
The game makes you ask questions. Not just the obvious ones that come with the plot like who killed the father of Atremy Burakh?
There are many significant themes running in parallel to the story. I will list a few of them to make my point, but do keep in mind that the list is not exhaustive and that the meanings are always a matter of personal interpretation.
It is, first and foremost, an examination of accelerated decomposition of society under an existential threat. While I personally believe that the Sand Pest outbreak has more parallels with Spanish Flu or The Plague, some parallels with the recent COVID-19 outbreak can be drawn. The pushback against the discipline imposed by the authorities, the urban tales and conspiracy theories spreading with the speed of light, the transition from rigorous regime of preservation of health to a tired resignation and indifference, and the other little things I won't list here.
One of the most important concepts in the steppe folk belief system is the idea of The Lines, invisible strings connecting the people into an interwoven web of mutual influence... And not just the people but the places, things and concepts too. A death of a person irrevocably severs not just the line of their life, but whatever Lines connected them with others too. The structure of the all-encompasing web is changed forever. The game made me think a lot about my relationships with other people, about how we connect with each other and how every connection is something radically new on ontological level, how every single person creates something completely different with their every single connection, how what the people are and what they make with other people is never static but ever changing with different relations... And how valuable, how sacred and important the Lines connecting us are - even if sometimes they have to be severed, and woven anew.
There is an exploration of existentialist themes too, but I found that even though Pathologic 2 did the best it could, the gameplay itself worked against the message it tried to convey. The theme of death specifically is approached from two angles.
The death of Self is a theme that, while receiving a lot of lip service, is not impactful. The designers really did the best they could, they tried really hard, and it shows. There are permanent punishments, there is a lot of dialogue concerning the topic, there is a feeling of constant threat. However, when all is said and done, it crashes against the wall of the structure of the medium of videogame itself. Death is always but a nuisance, a mild annoyance, and it can't be any other way in a medium allowing repeated engagements and infinite recurrence of the same. Even save file erasure wouldn't hit home in a world when you can always start a new one. The Death of the Self can only ever be some kind of vague threat or an event on the horizon, but can never be approached as the thing in itself.
The second kind of death is the one that is actually approachable and understandable in any way. There is the death of the Other, which, while being engaged with as a theme (including some immensely memorable moments), is something you quickly become desensitized to. While this is sort of the point in case of the general population, I feel like it is the result of underexploration in case of named NPC's. The dead are not missed in any way and their deaths are not really that impactful, except for locking you out of certain quests, dialogues and solutions - which you probably won't even notice. They sort of just disappear from the game, and all the recognition of the event seems very shallow. This is especially the case for the ending of the game - you simply get a generic copy pasted line of dialogue for each dead NPC - why not an epitaph of sorts? What do their relatives think? Will they be missed in any way? Was anything of value lost?
The game engages with the ideas of utopian thought and the cost of progress. The Kain family are the prime representatives of the game's vision of utopianism providing convoluted schemes meant to improve the human beings with architecture and intricate designs. All the out-of-place buildings in the Town are their doing. The most important one is the Polyhedron, looming over the entire Town like a harbinger of doom, and at the same time the promise of transcendence. It is the tower of children
, letting them engage with ideas that elude the grasp of their parents, at the same time tearing them away from the parental embrace. It is a symbol loaded with potential for different readings, among them being an allegory of the generational replacement and the progressive ideals of youth, and how the young bring the change the old sometimes can't even understand. But then it comes clear there is a great human cost to the Polyhedron, and destroying it is crucial to defeating the plague. Are you willing to sacrifice human transcendence, whatever unclear shape it`s going to take, for the preservation as life? Or maybe the promise of Polyhedron is an empty one, and all the sacrifice would be for nothing? This clash is exemplified by the conflict of Haruspex, representing the Town, and the Bachelor wanting to preserve the Polyhedron at any cost.
I really enjoyed the metatextual, fourth-wall breaking motifs exploring the relationship between the player and the Artemy Burakh. Sometimes it's him that he's spoken to, sometimes it's you. This topic is approached many times throughout the game, and can easily be missed or dismissed as a gibberish talk meant to purely build the atmosphere of uncertainty. While the game provides no answers, it provides a lot of questions. Are you Artemy Burakh, are you playing Artemy Burakh, or are you playing the role of Artemy Burakh? While this is not the main topic of the game, it's always there in the background. After all, the game both starts, and ends, in the Theater, not the Town.Conclusion
Aside from asking questions, the game is also a pretty good story that keeps you interested and engaged while retaining the atmosphere of mystery that makes you move forward, always throwing you enough breadcrumbs to keep you engaged. The music is fine, and it is utilized to a great effect in some pivotal moments - like the intro, showing you the consequences of your potential failure with great impact. One of the most memorable moments of the game, along with the theater Pantomimes.
Pathologic 2 excels in creating memorable moments like these. It trusts you to engage with it, and to take itself seriously, and it delivers you something exceptional in exchange. It immerses you into events and atmosphere of the Town and doesn't let go until the play is over and done. It demands a lot from you. It makes you stressed, it makes you angry, it makes you relieved, it makes you pensive, but most often it makes you regretful. It made me think, it made me feel, it made me hyperfixated.
Give it a try, and see if it vibes with you. Accept the consequences of your mistakes, immerse yourself, take this game seriously. It offers you something special in return.