Pathologic is a confusing game right from the start. Its opening scene unceremoniously throws the player into the body of an unspecified person watching a conversation between a trio of stiffly-animated characters hanging out in what looks like an empty cathedral. The dialogue concerns the three characters’ different approaches to curing an unspecified illness. Their lines are delivered in a disaffected monotone peppered with inscrutable proper nouns and Latin phrases. Every new sentence is a little puzzle with no apparent solution. When they’re done speaking, the cathedral darkens and the scene shifts to the player character’s arrival in the remote town where Pathologic takes place. The audience has no idea what’s going on, and the story only gets more bewildering as it moves forward.
Playing the first few hours of Pathologic, a 2005 release from Russian developer Ice-Pick Lodge recently remastered as Pathologic Classic HD, feels a bit like walking into a theater halfway through the showing of a complicated movie. This in itself isn’t an indictment of the game. Though the plot starts off almost completely opaque, gameplay systems go unexplained, and the cast speaks to the player in hazy, dream-like riddles, Pathologic’s sheer impenetrability inspires curiosity. The problem is, even if the player is engaged by the game’s surreal story, the mere task of understanding how to continue experiencing it is incredibly difficult.
Following Pathologic’s introduction, the player chooses a character to control, receives a notebook with an objective to follow—the medical student I played needed to speak to someone about beginning his research on an allegedly immortal town elder—and a map showing their place in the game’s town. These few prompts are coupled with a setting that begs to be explored, a wonderfully eerie, sepia-tinged network of cobblestoned streets and dry grass fields punctuated by strange black slabs of brutalist manor houses and public buildings. The world, the plot, and the few bread crumbs laid down by the notebook offer some guidance in the first hour of the game, but as Pathologic lets go of the player’s hand and begins to open up the experience becomes incredibly confusing.
Like many games emphasizing player choice, Pathologic lets the player talk to whoever they want and take on objectives in whatever order they choose. Pathologic isn’t like most other games, though. Its DNA contains more Salvador Dalí and Franz Kafka than Grand Theft Auto or Mass Effect. The freedom in narrative progression that’s inherent to games—the ability to control the pace at which the story is told—is complicated by how thoroughly weird Pathologic is on a basic, moment-to-moment level.
Once the first few objectives listed in the player’s notebook have been checked off, the game’s designers take a step back, asking their audience to learn about the world they’ve found themselves in without explicit guidance. This approach can work well for some games, but Pathologic is unforgiving. In one instance, after speaking to a character and exiting his house, a strange, ape-like monster appears and begins hopping through the town, apparently asking the player to follow its path. Once it gets to the end of its route, it turns and begins viciously attacking. Without understanding how these systems function, the player is left to figure out how to heal wounds, find food and weapons, and determine whether or not the game’s designers intended for them to follow the creature in the first place. This moment encapsulates the few hours I spent with Pathologic. It’s a bizarre scene that elicits interest before punishing that same interest by attacking you with a monkey monster and blocking any forward progress you were making.
Still, for all the annoyance it inspires, giving up on Pathologic didn’t feel good. It felt like giving up on the kind of video game we need more of—games unafraid to tell ambitious stories and experiment with form.
Pathologic isn’t weird for weird’s sake; it wants to give players the impression that they’ve wandered into a society completely alien to their own and, through experimentation, learn how to navigate (and maybe even understand) it. The confusing dialogue between characters; the byzantine inventory system; the slow movement speed and large scale of the town—all of these design elements are unlike anything modern video games have taught players to expect. Breaking the rules makes for a novel experience and developer Ice-Pick Lodge has created something that feels truly unique. But the frustration that eventually overwhelmed my interest in Pathologic speaks to a larger challenge faced by all boundary-pushing video games.
In other media, no matter how experimental the work, the audience only needs to pay attention to take part. A viewer can be disoriented while watching a film like David Lynch’s Eraserhead or reading a novel like James Joyce’s Ulysses, but they just have to take it in (even if it is a struggle). A video game’s interactive nature presents unique challenges.
In Pathologic it isn’t enough just to be willing to work through confusion in order to see what the game has to offer—the player also has to have the skill to overcome obstacles and the extraordinary patience required to learn the many systems that work to push the narrative forward. Interactivity adds another variable for the audience of an avant-garde work to contend with. Not only do they have to bring an open, critical and patient mind to the experience, but also a willingness to overcome unnatural forms of interaction.
This makes the creation and enjoyment of experimental games more challenging. But it also presents opportunities for developers willing to make concessions to accessibility in their work. For me, Pathologic is difficult to appreciate, but the hours spent exploring its world are memorable because controlling its protagonist creates a sense of presence that can only be found through interactivity. Walking its city streets—knowing it was my responsibility to make the setting come to life—makes Pathologic’s strange environments and conversations feel more immediately real than if they’d been presented through a different, non-interactive medium. The kind of potential that experimental games possess—the kind showed off in similarly strange, but more accessible titles like Limasse Five’s NaissanceE, Tale of Tales’ Fatale, or Lucas Pope’s Papers, Please—is exciting. As Pathologic shows, though, the developer must be willing to help its player fully discover it.
Reid McCarter is a writer and editor based in Toronto. His work has appeared in Kill Screen, Pixels or Death, Paste, VICE, and The Escapist. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER, runs Digital Love Child, and tweets @reidmccarter.
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