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…

стоп. (stop)

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…

сейчас. (now)

The Marble Nest

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as an early reward for Kickstarter backers of the project, later to be made available for all, before being quietly withdrawn from wider [Steam based] distribution.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 2: Alpha

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.

The Marble Nest

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. Gamersgate does 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.

The Marble Nest

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.

The Marble Nest

[Extracts from the manual are presented as originally printed from the 2005, Buka release of Pathologic. Syntax and translation errors remain intact]

We are given warnings of pandemics, nature re-establishing its balance as the strains placed on it reach a critical mass. Human science has been a long and pained race against nature as it seeks to subvert and control it to the aim of its own betterment and ego. It is only when nature pushes back, or conscience asserts itself, that an anxious attempt at sympathetic coexistence is attempted – until human desire for dominance once again takes hold in a cycle that our nature dooms us to.It is the presentation of the developer as a study lab, akin to the Bachelor’s Thanatica that maintains the fiction within a fiction – or perhaps is an early misdirection that covers the creativity of Ice-Pick Lodge and their ambitions with Pathologic.

You and I have been invited to take part in an experiment within an experiment. Its nature starts to reveal itself and its aspects of morality and ethics, its conflicts and justifications. Its overarching goals and ambition make themselves quietly apparent. It is a shame now that people rely on in-game tutorials and that the glory days of the printed manual have fallen by the wayside. The ability to reference, explore and embrace a physical manifestation of the fiction is seemingly gone or rapidly heading in that direction. The space afforded to expand upon the setting and ideas present within a game’s world without the pressures of maintaining the game’s pacing have a special value that is scantly taken advantage of now. That is unless they are a curiosity, included as a backer reward from a crowd-funding campaign, seemingly lavish anachronisms – along with cloth maps and sturdy, biodegradable packaging. Look at the manual for Falcon 4.0 to get a feel for where we once were and what we have lost in the name of perceived digital progress and convenience.

I hope that something of that sense of anticipation and almost ritual will be present prior to starting up the next incarnation of Pathologic. It may not have that physically printed manual – with its awkwardly translated fiction, inviting us to participate in its world and that illusion of being part of an experiment. But if there is a way to build that, or a new fiction with which to envelop and entice us – before we have even started the game, then the investment that will have been fostered, the connection created will bear fruit: if not for all, then at least some once they enter the town. Perhaps there will be someone else in a number of years doing what I am now: sharing the story of their time in that town on the River Gorkhon and how it began unexpectedly with teasing prose included with what would otherwise be an afterthought. There are steps to be taken before that can happen though. There is a game that is to be completed and released. The next visit to the town was successfully funded; that process of going to the audience, the people that have already been there and those that perhaps would like to, but for whatever reason hadn’t, created new options. Pathologic’s was to become a reality via Kickstarter.

When crowd funding is an integral part of the development of a project, there is introduced an opportunity for extended transparency, consultation and inclusion of other parties outside of the traditional method. The creation of a game, or for that matter any artistic or entertainment endeavour is no easy process. To make it a potentially collaborative effort where the extent and content of its vision is a shared investment with its audience, is oddly fitting for a game which asks and takes so much from its players. The Kickstarter campaign for the re-imagining of Pathologic had numerous goals, the crackling anticipation among those of us that contributed to it would agitate the skin, ripples of current leaping across hairs as we wondered what this new incarnation of the story would resemble, each update adding to that fervour.

The Marble Nest

The campaign, once looking to rebuild the game also sought to extend the life of the town, the events that transpired within it and beyond, out into the vast steppe. There were goals to extend the Termitary and the Abattoir turning them into full expeditions [these were unfortunately not met]. One of the other goals that was met however was the Lucid Dreaming goal. I won’t pretend to know what form it will take, but the idea and possibilities of encountering the game’s plague and figures from its internal fiction while in a dream state are very intriguing for me.

Extension of the game’s steppe environment and a seemingly renewed focus this time on Artemy [the Haruspex], the town’s traditions and it’s beating heart makes me wonder if this is not actually going to be the definitive version of the game, but instead another exploration of its body – watching it grow and change. Perhaps in a decade’s time, with advances in technology and rendering – a third visit may be made to the town, with the focus in this instance on Clara and the associated ideas that accompany her thread through the game. We all have our favourites after all, even developers. That favourite may take the form of an idea, a character or even an entire game. We will just have to wait and see on this account. I certainly can’t say I’d be opposed to a Pathologic trilogy, defined by technology as much as by ambition. I’d welcome it.

To feign impartiality also would be to fly in the face of the game’s character, its desire for your committal to embracing it’s ideological schisms – and the reflections on them, yourself, and the further associations it provokes. It will look to you and at you. Because of its character, I think it would be foolhardy to rule out another visit to the town in a number of years, it is Ice-Pick Lodge’s first-born after-all. To wish to watch it grow and to nurture it would be an understandable reaction. The difficulty of letting go, of drawing a line under the personal investment in its maturation would make me wonder if that desire to go back to the town once more will remain. If we build on and tell stories by revisiting the bones of what has gone before, why would this not come to pass?

The Marble Nest

With the story we have though; it is with one of two scrolling texts of jumbled English that the journey begins. When re-translated they tell a story of an epidemic that is sweeping through areas of the country, decimating settlements with a cruel awareness and seemingly vindictive and deliberate in its actions. Illustrated with vivid sketches it points to a time unknown, unknown but certainly before. An in-game animated cutscene shows us a funerary procession, led by children as they bury a sackcloth doll. The prologue is set. Questions are asked and scant answers given. You have already learnt so much, and all without knowing it.

When met by the in-game visuals it would be fair to say that now and at release, Pathologic is and was not a good-looking game. It is however an attractive one. There is a quality and thought that has gone into the game’s visual design that transcends initial impressions. It was when spending the time; poking and prodding the game’s files in order to create re-textures that this became easier to recognise and explain.

Pathologic has an earthy colour palette befitting its setting; the steppe’s sienna and ochres, the burnt umber of autumnal shades, lit by the sickly glare of a cold, white sun. From out of its earth, rise the buildings of the town; cold, dark and ominous, their blocks of granitesque foundation sit uneasily in the earth, grass intertwines through and around jagged stone streets, echoing the wrought iron railings and window fittings of the houses of the town. It is with this that the town sits in an uneasy balance with the land it sits on. Pestilence will bleed through the cracks of mortar and stain the earth, both will be joined in a misery that departs no sooner than it had arrived – the scars it leaves however will be deep and eternal.

I had tried to make the buildings more sympathetic to the natural surroundings, changing the blacks and greys to ruddy browns and wind-scarred sandstone. While the resolution of the textures had been doubled or further, the loss of the conflict between the natural and the man-made took something away from the setting when I would revisit it – testing and observing, poring over my changes. At that point: I left the textures alone, the choices of the developer made sense to me.

Blending loosely and more readily recognisable styles, the town’s architecture plays its role in creating a town that could have been from any time – from an industrial era onwards, and none in particular. The Berdan rifle and Webley-Fosbery revolver that feature as obtainable firearms would date the period to around 1905. You don’t need to know however: when it is occurring, or where. All you need to know is that you are present.

The Marble Nest

It is the town’s more unusual features, both architectural and otherwise that tend to more deliberately resist classification – much to their advantage. Clothing, miscellaneous items, they all borrow and mix influences and create an ever so slightly unsettling whole, their embellishment akin to stage decoration and costumery. Paintings decorate the walls of the homes of town figureheads – each offering a commentary on their character or the town as a whole. The feeling of being an interloper crawls at your skin with each minute, knowing that you will never truly belong, knowing too much of the outside you would always be an imposter – though perhaps that perspective is what’s needed.

The interface; with its portraits of real people [including Ice-Pick Lodge’s head: Nikolay Dybowskiy as Artemy Burakh] co-opted for this place, blur the lines between the digitally realised world and the real one. New faces are transposed over old acquaintances with the Classic HD release, similar but different. There is an ominous and cold feel to the menus with their stone bordering and onyx interiors that mirror the town’s cathedral. They are a void waiting to be filled with words, or images of people and objects, craving life to be brought to them.

So it may not be a technically good-looking game, possessed of advanced shaders or complex animation, nor vast draw distances and high poly-count meshes, but its thoughtful attention to detail and deliberate and careful choices make it an attractive one, to both myself and others that have become enamoured of it. First impressions are solely that, the gravity to attach to them; your issue.

With the release of Marble Nest a new approach was being taken; a more minimal and readily usable interface, its tonal neutrality losing some of the previous game’s character in favour of speed and ease of use. It has taken a different direction as cursor highlights animate, making the player wait; expectation flows to vividly realised illustrations and description of common objects transformed through the lens of the town’s perspective. Painterly backdrops of the player character shift through use onto rugged and lived documents – maps that have been scrawled on and used hurriedly: working records of a tragedy where defeat is snatched from success’ jaws as the clock ticks endlessly down. The deathly cold of Pathologic has given way to a clash of expression and a hunger for detail to be embroidered with clotted surgical thread on mottled skin.

The Marble Nest

It was in the game’s sound and music though that a clearer and more purposeful expression was found; a ghoulish vibrancy and delight in the setting that was less restrained by technology. With a situational soundtrack, bringing to mind the approach of Unreal and similarly featuring a selection of electronic thumps and howls; it provided the shifting, wailing pulse to a dying town’s heart, it would soothe the player’s nerves with waves when they would head out onto the steppe – a change of tone that for some people became part of their routine for playing – looking for an escape from the downward pressure being applied to their body and mind. The town would always call back the player though, the eventual invisible barriers of the steppe corralling them if they tried to resist or escape. If you would like to walk out onto the steppe and not turn back then you may wish to try Cradle.

Locations and characters would have themes, a non-verbal language would inform the player of what they could expect and ought to prepare for. When it came to the environmental and interaction sounds my tinkering did not cease. Footsteps, weapon discharge and ambient sound effects found themselves being tweaked. While the game’s visuals made sense to me – after I began manipulating and changing them, portions of the game’s sound still felt unnecessarily restrained in places and at odds with the otherwise solid sound design and especially when contrasted with the music and after the process of modifying and replacing them had begun.

As time has gone on I’ve grown to appreciate its softness more. Even with consideration of that; I would still choose to play with the slightly modified sound selection I clumsily mashed together. With that first modified crack of a rifle’s report in the distance causing me to jump – my eyes momentarily screwed tight with surprise at its impact – it was clear that another life had been lost, announced with no uncertainty. That event needs to declare itself with no quarter given. When a weapon is fired, you should be able to feel the projectile tumbling through flesh and muscle, tearing its way into tissue. The impact matters. Ask those that play FPS titles what makes a weapon memorable; sound will be one of those aspects. Both F.E.A.R. and the Battlefield series are notable for having a sense of impact to their gun-play, provided by sound, animation and the reactions of targets that are hit combining to produce the desired effect. That sense of weight provided by a well realised weapon is also a feeling of power when held by the player and vulnerability when used against them.

Heavy, tired footsteps of a burdened soul, cause the traversing of the town to create its own shifting music as the trinkling of the contents of pockets ring out amidst the heavy footfalls across stone and earth. The rapid burst of footsteps as the player descends a staircase compared to the slower ascent are motifs that add to this song that tells a story of fatigue. The ambient hum of the world and the running of water lull the player into a gentle daze, daring the town to shake them from this slumber. Sound matters.

Perhaps this fixation on the sounds of weapons and an heightened awareness of the importance of ambience comes from time spent in Thief: The Dark Project, a game which advanced sound technology and its implementation within games to notable effect; that and hundreds of hours in the Close Combat series of games and the creation of sound overhaul mods for the same. I do genuinely think that having authentic sounds: for weapons in particular – but also in general, adds an extra level to the experience. Finding a sound overhaul that scratched the itch for vivid sounding summer breezes and looming fogs in The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind became an obsession for a time, there is just something about being able to close your eyes and immerse yourself in a setting. Given the disproportionate focus put on games’ visuals it’s always nice to find extra care being put into the audio of a game by developers and modders.

Marble Nest has continued Pathologic’s more subtle soundscape. There is a greater detail to its world’s notes, but an understated presentation of them. You must equally strain to hear and be prepared to be caught unexpectantly off guard. The wet, haggard breathing of an Odongh, their abdomen gaping, the tissues torn. The quiet drumming of rain on pavements. The scratching coming from inside of the walls of houses, tentatively reaching out for you as infection spreads as with the vapours of the hot breath of a bull, quietly watching you stumble from your resting place.

The music however has become something else entirely; where the alien and synthetic nature of the game’s original soundtrack has been replaced with a genuinely menacing and unnerving combination of ethnic instrumentation and multi-layered droning. It is a musical record of the steppe. I’ll miss the original Andriesh Gandrabur soundtrack and its sometime reminders of Sunn O)))bassAliens ran through a trip-hop mangle. Be very glad that I cannot sing; otherwise you’d have now a parody song about Pathologic to the music of Losing My Religion. Instead you’ll have to make do with the lyrics and sing it yourself – pop open the banner below to read, and be glad I didn’t sing.

What is being created for the remake is different, yet fitting – and thankfully: not written by me. With contributions to the soundtrack being provided by Theodor Bastard, Pathologic has grown and sought to find a new identity that it would beg you listen to, asking you to hear what it has discovered about itself. The child has grown to a young adult and has something it wants to tell you.

The Marble Nest

It is in that challenge of communication that Pathologic thrives; the original translation had its problems and demanded a level of commitment from the player that was perhaps unreasonable to have asked. Classic HD made itself far more readily approachable, but still required a greater effort from the player than most titles would ask.

Its theatrical desires, conflicted nature and raw ambition though make it worth the commitment and as we reach the end of this collection of my ramblings; the parts of the puzzle will I hope fit together. Pathologic is a game because it allowed the experience to be presented in what appeared the most practical medium that was available. Whether it was to remain a dream, be a stage play, a game or committed to film – Pathologic was a story that was going to be told, one way or another. What we received however was not a passive experience, but one that was more eager to engage with its unwitting actor in unexpected ways than many games could hope, or in such a fiercely competitive market, dare to try.

That hunger to challenge and engage in the way of a teacher: nurturing a wayward pupil was given a new lease of life with Marble Nest. Whilst still as earnest as it is deceptive, it had also developed and extended a raw vein of wry humour, more apparent than in the original. As Ice-Pick Lodge’s confidence with the medium has grown, its palette has continually expanded – much to the betterment of what they have made. There is something to be said about the conviction of standing by declared design principles and philosophy, something which has brought low other developers; as in the case of Ion Storm and Daikatana. While the teacher has a relatively stable contract by most accounts, the video-game developer does not have that luxury. Ice-Pick Lodge’s devotion reminds me of the Dogme ’95 manifesto of Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg; without the stringent restrictions of the manifesto but maintaining the spirit in a similar vein.

Despite this skill and passion; the method of reaching out to the player – establishing an understanding with them and what they are expected to do or to find out along the way, was to be an awkward dance between the two parties. There were bound to be stumbles and toes stepped on as we learnt to dance together. By the end though, there would be harmony for those that learnt the steps.

The Marble Nest

The leading words of Marble Nest; the first dialogue of this vignette are a stage call and a call-back to Knock-Knock [my hearing must be declining as I was sure it originally said “bodies, bodies…” as an aside to the plague victims] the correct phrasing now sits in the image above. Pathologic is a game that is tied to its theatrics, a governing thread that binds the experience together, constantly informing and guiding with the demeanour of a wilfully schizophrenic director, watching gleefully as the rabble bend to its demands, either unaware or unwilling to accept that this ground is purposefully unstable. It is also outgrowing those lavish flurries and sleights of hand, seeking to present opportunities for questioning and reflection on a different basis.

Where Pathologic takes place over twelve days, Marble Nest is concentrated in one. Despite this, Marble Nest is no abridged version of the original story. It makes select incisions at pressure points and then lays those pieces out onto the earth to be picked over or quite literally walked past. It is done with a knowing forethought so as to spare it from becoming [admittedly] rich carrion.

All the multiple levels of Pathologic’s story and ambitions would be unable to fit in the condensed scale of Marble Nest, but even then, it manages to toy with and tease the player in the best traditions of its progenitor. With its focus shifted, blurring the lines of its fourth wall breaks and pitting the player directly against the conditioned mechanics and victory states we have been trained to chase after with – with more charity than the similar pursuance of the town’s invisible cat, it makes for a compelling experience in its own right.

The lines are being blurred – those same that Artemy would cut, in an advance of how the game may be developing and exploring its ambitions. There were concerns over the shift from remake, to reinterpretation, to something else entirely. While it may be preferable in some cases to have a 1:1 recreation – only with updated presentation, this renewed focus and hunger to push design boundaries is I think essential to Ice-Pick Lodge’s character and would do them an injustice to not reach towards these goals. That doesn’t mean that I and others will like what it becomes. I think that we would be able to find common ground in an appreciation for the ambition to try though. We can also hold onto a hope for what it will become. It’s nice to have faith in a developer and that enthusiasm is catching.

There are after all, few things as infectious as an idea – Pathologic’s strain is now evolving to adapt and overcome the body it is to find itself in. It is within the idea of theatrical flourish and delivery that Pathologic welcomes the player, it is within the same that it bookmarks and indeed ends the experience also. The game rehearses in preparation of introducing a new generation of players to its fiction.

Pathologic 2: Alpha

On starting the original game, you will begin in the town’s theatre before choosing the character you will play. Each of the three protagonists make their case for why they are the most qualified healer, cajoling one another and baiting the sole member of the audience: you. As the lights fade you are left to exit stage left and choose which persona you will assume for this drama.

Upon entering the town, you will be presented with a pre-rendered FMV that provides a loose introduction to the character’s scenario. Once given control however you will likely have your first encounter with another actor within the town when you visit the game’s tutorial: its advisers – the Tragedian and the Executor, who will give you an optional introduction to the game’s mechanics, rules and expectations. It will be caged within a flourish of language that provokes more questions than it answers and in some ways, I think functions as the perfect tutorial for Pathologic and for Pathologic only.

By creating that sense of ambiguous curiosity within the player, it subverts the expectations of a tutorial – we are well trained to expect consistency, clarity and predictable formalities. Pathologic, right from the opening of the gate shows its indifference to these expectations – or perhaps deliberately undermines them to establish the thematic foundations of what is to follow.

With this anti-tutorial, the player may at best relish its difference. More likely, they will implore the game to be less obtuse, or at worst end their time with the scenario at this juncture. Regardless, even if you knuckle down and face Pathologic’s challenge head on, it won’t overtly reward your perseverance. Pathologic isn’t a game that pats you on the head, extolling your virtues and rewarding you outright. If you make the effort to meet the game on its own conditions however, your reward is the experience that follows in the brief glimpses of hope and success it offers. You are to be party to a slow and laborious recovery, one with no guarantees, such is life.

These indirect tutorials lift the curtain a little for you. They are the enticement for you to approach the audience, you take a step, the boards creak underfoot and you hold your breath – your eyes widening as you snatch a glimpse between the curtains.

This nature of performance makes itself most strongly apparent in the ad hoc pantomime shows, which you can optionally attend at the end of each day. They will summarise and provide insight on what has transpired over the past twenty-four hours, what may happen next, and – as much as this, they’ll give misdirection to and further confuse the player. Performed by the Tragedians and Executors they only further add to the mystique of these figures, fleshing out their and your narrative arc. They provide an entirely optional flavour to proceedings and if you set yourself the goal of viewing them every night, it is likely you will push your time management to the brink.

It is that hunger for clarity and information though which pushes you to make these sacrifices and perhaps connects with the impression the game leaves on completion: scant desire to revisit the experience in fast succession. You are quite likely to find yourself keen to see and find out as much as you can within as few playthroughs as possible. Pathologic is a game that in equal parts encourages multiple runs through, as well as dissuading you from the same due to the impression it makes on the player throughout the process of playing the game – it is rare to find a title like this, eager and indifferent towards you at the same time.

The Marble Nest

This game does not care. It will punish you for your failures. Not as an encouragement or motivation to dust yourself down and overcome an obstacle, but because failure and loss are parts of life. It will let you fail and continue though, it expects and understands that you will stumble and it is trying to teach you to not be afraid of this; in a way similar to comforting a dying relative, as you are told by them: It will be alright. You know that it won’t. Every fibre of your being is straining against the illusion. But hearing it said helps in that instant.

We cannot always win. It is natural to be defeated. Pathologic in its small way is trying to teach you to not be afraid of failure, of events and circumstances bigger than yourself. Rugged individualism is a notion for fools that have the desire and will to delude themselves, it comes down to others to clean up the messes that they leave in their wake. When the situation has been stabilised, a hunger for knowledge and difference drives others to push boundaries and the cycle continues. With a collective group prepared to repair the damage that is done, this cycle can continue. Pathologic has the group failing and the individual trying to succeed. It is inevitable though that they will need to work with others, sooner or later, if they are to attain their goals. We can learn from those failures though because there will be a next time for if not us, then another.

Learning to manage and overcome failure I think is the game’s key mechanic; not movement, resource management or combat – but dealing with failure, that is the key to Pathologic. There are idioms about death and taxes and their nature as being unavoidable. In life though there is not a thing that you must do – only consequences for the refusal to do so, all the way to respiration. You do not have to breathe, if you refuse to though then asphyxiation is the consequence, hypoxia, brain damage and eventual death. So if even these most basic biological processes are voluntary then what does that make abstract and high level functions? There are things that we want, would like and may need. We prioritise these items and notions based on an internal hierarchy. Pathologic is no different.

You will be asked to monitor your physical health, represented as an artery that stretches across an user interface panel. As your condition deteriorates, it will be drained of colour, exsanguinated before your eyes. Fatigue, hunger, thirst, infection and immunity – these all will also need to be monitored. To maintain the body that you will inhabit within this setting it will be necessary to eat, sleep, drink and treat the infection coursing through your body with immune system boosters and antibiotics. Each action will have a reaction. The toll placed on your already weakened constitution by some of these medicines may be too much for it to survive. It is a careful balancing act where you may find yourself willingly letting your condition deteriorate as a sacrifice or simply because you have no other option. At each stage, you will be forced to compromise, negotiating with your own body in a position which gives a better sense of self than most games manage.

Pathologic 2: Alpha

This is a game where being able to sleep and eat can feel a greater relief than the defeat of an aggressor. Combat within Pathologic was held together with bailing wire and string at best. It was in investigation and verbal jousting that you scored your real victories – perhaps explaining why I so instinctively enjoyed Deus Ex: Human Revolution and it’s C.A.S.I.E. events compared to its predecessors. In Pathologic you will be required to listen, to read carefully and remember. You will need to be attentive and considerate. You will need, and need and need…

Or not…

Remember the key point of this section. What you must do? Within Pathologic there are no musts, only consequences. Just as the game; its characters and mechanics will lie to you, so you can to it. You can just as easily take the funds and resources given to you in good faith for your own desires; you can lie, cheat, betray and murder. If you can get away with it then the game will still persist, the world will continue to turn. It becomes a question of personal morality and ethics which will wait for the opportunity to push their way into your conscience, waiting for you to become open to them as opposed to the obsession with efficiency, the min-maxing of statistics and resources.

With each step you take away from mathematically derived and measured mechanics, you come closer to inhabiting this town. The feeling of accruing a vast sum of the game’s currency to the detriment of the town; those funds allocated for actions of mercy is tempered by the realisation that once you have this money; then what? The acquisition of ammunition, medication, rations; a hoarding of resources to be measured and divided. You have pursued a self-imposed goal, chased numbers to the exclusion of other considerations and you have little to show for it. Mathematics seeks an ideal of perfection; it chokes on errors and failure. The chaos of Pathologic thrives on these shortcomings. Pathologic feeds on language and emotion, the difficulties faced by the Bachelor, a rational man of science should make clear that the tenets held by Bachelor Dankovsky are the square peg in Pathologic’s hexagonal hole.

It reminded me of playing Uplink and stealing a vast sum of money through a bank hack as well as successfully covering my tracks. Failure in these circumstances gives a motivation to improve and try again, a feedback loop towards perfecting the performance of participating within the game’s systems. It provides the tense atmosphere that at its very best Uplink is incredible for. The elation of success though was fleeting, as I then had no reason to continue. I was not personally invested in the game’s challenge of cracking networks and data, crawling up a leader-board held no appeal to me either. I just don’t care about numbers. There was nothing left for me in this space. Pathologic gives you a place and people to invest in. It gives you ideologies to challenge and a personality test to face. Pathologic is less likely to make you feel elated, relieved is perhaps the more suitable choice of word; relief and realisation. Uplink has a story too somewhere, I have no doubt that it has its charms given the quality of Introversion as a developer. There is nothing compelling me to find it though – despite owning Uplink for well over a decade; that story? I have never experienced it. There is the ever-nagging realisation that when playing a game we are making and claiming back on an investment: of time and effort; we are embroiled in an economy and trying to maximise our return.

As players, we don’t give a great deal of thought to economies in games, as long as they function and the player can acquire the goods they want; then other considerations, concerns or ambitions tend to fall by the wayside. Clothing and armour all come pre-fit in the exact, correct size, [unless you’re playing Venetica where armour needs to be taken to a blacksmith to be altered to fit] goods and weaponry largely do not have hidden defects and shudder the thought of being scammed. Game economies outside of MMORPGs are predictable, reliable and largely boring; players have come to expect games to function on rule of good practise and honesty. Perhaps it is time to pipe Fleetwood MacSweet Little Lies into the offices and studios of developers and see if they can be subliminally convinced to shake things up a bit.

The Marble Nest

Consider this: in most games with a functioning economy – regardless of scale, items tend to have numerical values that are consistent [unless affected by a skill check] and what you see is what you get – mostly. Pathologic is no different and assigns values to the items within its world and depending on the level of inflation/deflation that takes place on each day you can reliably buy things for a consistent [daily] price at classes of retailer. Imagine now if there wasn’t a consistency to price, if you could hit it lucky and on the off-chance buy things at a lower price from one person in the streets or sell something to a desperate shop keeper for a vastly inflated amount – these wouldn’t be obvious or pronounced opportunities, but things the player would need to look for. Now add onto that a maximum quantity that they are willing to buy and your cunning plan to rake in the cash is foiled. They’re not going to signpost these limits though. You’re going to have to push and chance it.

A more organic and unpredictable economy would run equal risk of being overly advantageous or crippling to the player – depending on what they encounter in a more randomised economy, I can’t help but want this though, not just from a desire to be something of a contrarian with a hatred of numbers; but I think it would also fit the theme and setting. Accurate and reliable pricing in a situation of desperate opportunistic scalping and fear would seem more of a convention for the convenience of the player, than fitting for the location.

There are things that are difficult yet bearable, others intolerable. The protective layer offered by entertainment allows us to experience things that would otherwise be beyond our capability to withstand. In many cases, it would be fair to ask: “Why? Why subject yourself to such things?” when there are a wealth of carefree and untroubled experiences available for your enjoyment. Why [?] is one of the most challenging questions and one of the most frequently used by children. Pathologic is, if ever a game that respects and admires children [something we will be getting to shortly] so it is I think fitting, that by playing the game, choosing to inhabit its world and experience [if insulated from real harm] its dangers and challenges provokes an asking of that question: just why [?] you are doing this and what you hope to gain from the experience in doing so.

The Marble Nest

Pathologic asks a lot of the player, more than most other titles would – as referenced earlier. As a title that contains various survival mechanics it requires the player to connect with their character’s needs, to anticipate the demands of their temporarily inhabited body and to adjust to the rhythm and changes imposed by the game’s time-scale.

Compare it to a title like FIFA: when playing the game’s Managerial mode [in this instance the FIFA 15 release of the game] you will be required to monitor your squad’s fitness and fatigue, their form and morale. You will need to [if players are available] rotate reserves into your squad and carefully plan your team-sheets for your fixtures. When playing a full domestic season with League, Cup competitions and an European campaign your squad run the risk of burning out if not carefully maintained – that’s if, in the best case you avoid any injuries to your squad. I still shudder at the memory of Daniel Sturridge’s ability to get himself injured; I needed to buy Harry Kane for more money than I’d care to admit for the next season.

Connections are formed, stories told. I found a deeper bond with a reserve right-back who was desperate for first-team football, shone in his role after being given a chance to play and would send messages to thank me, the manager. There was a stronger investment into this squad for me than watching the basic rise and fall of character statistics in most games – like I said before; I don’t care much for numbers.

Pathologic uses bars that look like arteries, filling and draining with blood to represent the increase and lowering of numerical values. It is inaccurate, clumsy and inefficient, despite this, I love it. Managing drug intake and addressing hunger are awkward and estimated processes that can and will go badly – no matter how hard society tries, organic life is chaotic and messy, trying to make it neatly arranged and easily quantifiable is a puzzling, fool’s errand. You find yourself developing an instinct for what you need and when, as opposed to relying on the game or other devices *cough* Razer Drinks Cup *cough* to tell you what to do and when; much the same as knowing that one of my attacking mid-fielders in FIFA fatigues quickly, so I’ll need to substitute him at half-time. He works well [and eagerly] with strikers that rush behind the opponent’s defensive line which exacerbates the rate of his fatigue. I don’t need raw numbers to record and tell me this, it comes from experience and instinct – the commentator can be relied upon to remind me if he’s dragging his arse around the pitch like an old, tired dog anyway. The relationship and understanding that is formed is more organic and less mechanical, so it is with Pathologic.

Pathologic 2: Alpha

It is in the process of recognising these instincts and the associations that are related to them that Pathologic can become a very personal journey. The variety of unique experiences and recollections that each of us possess are without number. What you bring and give to the game will be multiplied by the action of interacting with it, forming the connections with your memories and its mechanics to create a whole.

You, the reader are both: as a person and a player: unique; I can only share my associations and memories in hopes of demonstrating what the game gives and takes in the course of playing it. What you discover and remember through its associations while playing will be unique to you.

 

Pathologic made its way under my skin in ways that very few books, films or music – let alone games have managed. How it did this, the impression it left and what the game contains in the recesses of its being are to follow. It would help though I think to also look at the entities that make up the town and what they can represent both inside and out of the setting.

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