I stand, my chest full of wool, gazing out the window. Rain trickles down the face of the glass, as though cold, longing fingers pressing to my skin; the indentations falling, easing – trying to make their way through, probing to my bones. I am once-more back in that town. You have had thirteen years to visit this place, thirteen years to learn its secrets. Thirteen is a difficult number. For many, the town’s name would be Silent Hill; though not for me. This town is a miraculous blight on the steppe, an anachronism – cruel and fascinating, sliced into slabs by the river Gorkhon. It has no name, but is known by the story based around it. Its title is Pathologic.
It is my town.
Pathologic is a game of masks and roles, of coming to terms with death and of those same roles we must play until we reach the end of the Act. Pathologic is cruel and knowing, a participatory performance of the game we play of life. It is also brilliant in ways we don’t expect from videogames; to be honest, I’m not sure if we should. It exists though, it has left its mark, and there are lessons to be learned.
The town is going to give up a portion of its secrets over these following pages, and if you wish to discover them for yourself, you would be advised to stop reading now. If you need any more warning beyond this point, that myriad fragments of the soul of the town are going to be bared in their pained glory, then you are again reminded…
If you haven’t already experienced it, I would urge you to do so – it is available to purchase here, and then play the game…
The in-game images that are contained within this article are largely taken from The Marble Nest, which was a pre-pre-alpha for the – as of the time of writing, in production remake/reinterpretation of Pathologic, now being titled: Pathologic 2. Released in December 2016, The Marble Nest was put together for trade shows by Ice-Pick Lodge [the developer] and subsequently released as an early reward for Kickstarter backers of the project, later to be made available for all, before being quietly withdrawn from wider [Steam based] distribution. It is still available officially from here however, and may potentially be included as an extra in Pathologic 2. While The Marble Nest may not present all the mechanics and features of the intended full game, it stands on its own merits; acting as a mood piece, a portioned sample. It is a vignette that can stand independently, but also shares DNA with the game that it is intended to become as well as inspired by, and is worth experiencing in its own right for those reasons.
This image source has been chosen, not as an act of deception; the header image for Part One has received a colour overlay to bring back memories of the original game, aside from this, the only adjustments have been the editing out of the crosshair graphic from screenshots and when resizing some others, filling the blank area with a fade to black. I will be linking a review to the October 2015 Classic HD release of Pathologic that contains relevant images for that version of the game for those interested. I use images from The Marble Nest, not just because of an itchy PrintScrn finger, but due to their charm and their pertinence to what follows. It is not just The Marble Nest that I’m going to be looking at however. We’re going to the depths of the original and Classic HD releases of Pathologic also, I’ll be sharing my time in the town and the interpretations and reflections that came of it, so both an analysis and a story in its own right.
You had over thirteen years to do so already. I don’t think you did – and that doesn’t surprise me. Not many people had. This article I hope will encourage you to do so in preparation for the town’s rebirth.
Pathologic was the début title for Ice-Pick Lodge. Created by a group almost entirely fresh to game development, there is a great joy to be had in reading the reflections of the team’s sense of accomplishment felt by them at each successful milestone met, as ideas held in the imagination were realised and brought to life on screen. My favourites were comments about seeing the player character’s arm and the hand holding a scalpel animate, this disembodied limb brought to life for purposes yet to be explored. That and the write up of the 2005 KRI exhibition.
While even at its time of release it was outdated in terms of technology; there is something to be said, and encouraged to recognise in the sense of satisfaction in making a system work, creating something and being able to share it with others. Pathologic functioned as it needed to and would surprise the player in ways beyond its deceptively understated technology’s initial presentation. Without these first steps being taken, including the trips and falls, there is going to be no progression or movement. We may hope for a perfect début, an ideal end destination, but sometimes a worthwhile journey is of a higher value for what it teaches. This is a journey that has led us to a re-imagining of the game in the form of Pathologic 2.
On release, the game was met with a highly positive critical reception in its native Russia. Winning game of the year awards in the Russian press including: The Most Non-standard Game, [Russia GDC 2005] it then began to make the journey to other lands, another gift of expression from Russia – part of a long legacy of compelling works that are as much a frustration to understand as a delight to find the sublime in. There was however to be a problem.
There is no getting round it and there is indeed little reason to; the initial translation of Pathologic to English was to put it mildly, something of a mess. The challenges of translating between languages is one thing, but it is an entire other matter to bring across idioms, expressions – concepts and cultural mindsets from one nationality and language to another. Fortunately, the translations to German and Polish met with more success in their native markets – something I think which explains the strength of the game’s German following. Given that English is my mother tongue, my German is scant and since I can only swear in Polish I will be concentrating on the English version of the game.
The very nature of Pathologic’s frequently ornate prose make it a particularly challenging prospect to translate. Its theatrical nature, ambition and concealed meanings all add to the challenge of converting it to another language. The more tongue-in-cheek descriptions regard it as having been ran through an amalgamation of a blender and babble-fish. If I am honest though, there is a charm to the awkward translation that – even with its issues, I would still tentatively recommend it for the atmosphere it induces.
Getting a hold of this original: Buka [owned by 1C since 2008] published release of the game is now something of a challenge, with less online retailers making it available for sale and no reprint of a physical version. Gamersgatedoes still have it available for sale however if you are so inclined – also it is included as an extra when purchasing Classic HD from GOG, [thank you to the IPL Discord for making me aware of this] I’d purchased the original version a second time via GOG prior to Classic HD’s release. The reason for this scarcity and withdrawal from sale – it would be reasonable to assume, would primarily be due to the release of that other version of the game: Pathologic: Classic HD. After the announcement of, and completion of a Kickstarter campaign for the remaster/remake of Pathologic, the decision was taken to update and fix for compatibility the original release of Pathologic, in parallel to the ongoing remake.
It wasn’t just the technical issues that were to be rectified and compatibility improved however, but the translation – the salient issue that Pathologic struggled with outside of its native Russia. It was to be redone, in-house, with the first-hand knowledge and understanding that would so help a translation process, and with that; Pathologic was to be preserved for posterity regardless of the direction that the remake would take.
Using the character descriptions from the player select screen as an example: Names were changed, ideas clarified and expanded, and a greater clarity given to expression. You could be forgiven for wanting some level of ambiguity though. When a game such as Pathologic serves up as many mysteries as it does, then that sense of puzzlement is going to be essential. Where the original translation struggled was in how it was needlessly confusing. It wasn’t a deliberate choice to omit details but one of human error. The original translation was puzzling; not because it was intended to be at the level it was, but due to it being translated so poorly. That the Bachelor’s scenario received the lion’s share of attention is testament to this.
If you were to play through the game in the logical sequence of: Bachelor, Haruspex, Changeling then the translations grew increasingly worse. This along with the mechanical nature and atmosphere of the game unfortunately pushed people away that were trying to love this game. I’m not sure what it says about myself and others, those of us that forced our way through to the end of all three scenarios; perhaps we are masochists, or maybe we simply saw the gem hidden underneath the rough in Pathologic.
The occasional nature of the original translation to take on the qualities of a fever dream may have been lost in the process of revised translation, but I think the trade-off was worth it. The original, glorious mess of a translation is still out there and playable – you just need to look for and choose to play it – of course, having a Windows XP machine available may help with issues of compatibility; flickering textures, glitches with the oil lamp and the firing of weapons together with intermittent slow-downs are likely to be encountered otherwise.
Work done on the translation was both considered and extensive. Journal entries posted to Kickstarter and received via newsletters made during the development of Pathologic’s continuance discuss the process of translation. They are fascinating for the debate and challenge over the choice of individual words and names for people and places; the consideration that goes into every element of this world from a linguistic perspective.
Associations that we make with certain words, be they revulsion or happiness can carry as baggage into our entertainment. Perhaps you recoil and shudder at the sound of certain words, maybe the name of former acquaintances or lovers carry a weight that is hard to shake? You may just find the name of a place unduly funny. All these things need to be considered; the surface meaning and etymology of words can provide deeper meanings for those that go looking for them. Even if you are not interested in such things, they are still going to be there, waiting for the time that you are perhaps curious about them.
I must admit that there is a hint of jealousy on my part for those that are able to read and understand Russian. To be able to play the game in its intended language, the tongue that it is initially created in would no doubt contain a greater wealth of references and associations than a translated version. That Ice-Pick Lodge are taking the time and care to try to carry these elements over through the process of translation owes as much to the process of localisation as a love for and desire to share the world they are creating.
When it comes to flavour text and introductory descriptions, they were not to be overlooked either. Embellishment was provided, a flow more sympathetic to the English language and its grammatical quirks and foibles was given also. The language used has become more playful, more grounded in the readily recognisable. It is helpful when looking to make an immediate connection with the player, to give them a sense of familiarity, but I do wonder if this will lessen some of the impact of the town, its inhabitants and its contents. When things are easier to understand they become less intimidating. Make no mistake, Pathologic and its town in the Classic HD edition are by no means going to welcome you with open arms, it was just that little bit more friendly – and having played the original version, that did feel odd. With its re-translation; Pathologic had been in some ways made more accessible, easier to understand. Its improvement in clarity has consequently came at a cost to the mystique and perhaps to its reputation for being a challenge to access. There is a tendency with in-groups to hold to a desire for having some sort of esoteric connection to an idea or an object.
By becoming more accessible, there will be some that resent that change. That is just the nature of the beast, perhaps going back to the childhood feeling of exclusively playing with a toy in a sandpit and the desire to not share it with others. Pathologic was not hurt by being changed in this way, the original version is still – with some effort, still playable. The game now though can reach a wider audience – and for those that have been through its original iteration, they can perhaps find greater understanding and answers to questions they may have with the benefit of a clearer translation.
Inevitably it becomes a question of effort: the amount that the player is willing to put in to understand, to revisit and to give to the game in hopes of gaining the maximum possible return.
It was both a pleasant and welcome surprise to see a pro-active approach taken to protecting and preserving Pathologic both as a game and an expression of a creative medium. There is currently a haphazard approach [where even present] towards the safeguarding of videogames for posterity. While I can understand arguments of cost and relevance, the constant march of technological innovation and fickle audiences – I still believe that we should be encouraging the preservation of these works as a record of their achievements in design.
I’m not sure what exactly it was that drew me to Pathologic. I have mixed memories; some clear and others likely to have had blanks filled in with the suggestion of others. Algorithm determined recommendations, tucked away reviews and pull quotes, forum posts and miscellaneous screenshots; it would have been a mixture of these. No matter the way, I ended up tracking down a copy of the game – I can’t remember from where, I’m sure there’ll be a receipt saved though that would tell me. Shortly after, a package arrived and I was about to start a journey that I hadn’t expected to resonate with me to the extent it has, and left as indelible a mark as was caused.
First impressions matter, so we are told. While admittedly the process of opening a game’s box – the fresh cardboard and paper smells, and sitting, leafing through the manual while sat on the toilet is something perhaps lost on players now, with the shift to digital distribution gaining ever more ground. You would be fair to assume that such a mangled translation to English would raise concerns in the player in regards to what they had bought, regardless of the form the game’s ancillary material takes. It is one thing to be able to switch to another window or to close a PDF document, but to have a manual in your hands and to hold its weight has a different feel to it. My copy of the game was somewhere between the two camps; a physical medium and a PDF manual on disc. I’ll admit that it caught me by surprise: the content of Pathologic’s manual, but the text strangely struck a chord with me. I wasn’t expecting either what I read, or the manner in which it communicated its body text. And with that, Pathologic had begun to work its way under my skin.