Today I want to talk to you about a game, it is a divisive game. A game that has been praised to hell and back by those that like it and pretty much outright ignored by the rest of the world.
Rock paper shotgun has called it the best game you’ve never played.
Yup, today I want to talk about Pathologic.
Pathologic is a 2005 survival game developed by Russian studio Ice-Pick Lodge. It was released in Russia in June 2005 to a strong positive response. It was then released to English audiences in 2006 to a less positive response, in large part due to a poor translation. A re-release with a new translation took place in October 2015 and currently a remake is in progress, with part of it being released in 2019.
I don’t want to spoil too much of this game and am also aware that if I say here and described every single-story element we would be here for a very, very long time. So, I will try to keep this short but useful.
The story revolves around three main characters, the Bachelor, the Haruspex, and the Devotress/Changeling, who you can play in turn, each of their stories runs simultaneously to the other two characters and all take place in a small town in the Russian countryside. As I said there is only one storyline, that takes place over 12 days, and that, in a nutshell, is, to uncover the source of a strange lethal sickness known as the “sand plague” that has befallen the town. Your goal is to cure the sickness and protect the townsfolk under your care.
Each character has a different experience of the town and its inhabitants, the townsfolk’s view of characters will affect how you play the game, what places you can go, and how easy or hard the game is for you.
As you play each character receives quests from the NPC characters, however, the game continues regardless of whether they are completed or not. If your character completes the quests then hooray, if they don’t manage it before time runs out the game continues to the next day and claims that the quest was completed by an NPC in the character’s care who has now fallen sick.
First of all, this game is not for everyone, it is punishing, I won’t lie. But on the whole, it is worth your time.
Many people have sung the praises of this game and have done so in a far higher quality way than I could. So, I am going to focus on the horror aspect of the game and explore/discuss it from that angle.
The game taps into multiple fears, initially it taps into the instinctive fear that all people have of sickness. An invisible and unstoppable killer, something that you cannot see, hear or taste but which can still hurt and kill you. However, the game also taps into the supernatural fears as the sickness is claimed to not be of normal origin, but instead a potential curse, or another supernatural attack on the town.
Various story elements also build on the supernatural angel, particularly the Lovecraftian angel of unfeeling and careless gods, the sense of smallness we feel when we compare ourselves to an infinite universe that we cannot possibly understand, and which is filled with monstrous, unfeeling gods.
Lastly, the game also taps into a more real-world fear, being societal tensions. While the plague is murdering the town, we also examine financial and social imbalances that cause the pandemic to worsen. We witness racism, poverty, casual murder, gang violence etc
The atmosphere of the game is amazingly well crafted, between the music and the fact that your character can only walk not run, and the timed nature of the game the tension is thick. The atmosphere is that of a thriller-horror, playing on the psychological aspects of fear as opposed to outright monsters or physical threats (at least early in the game).
The stakes of the game are made almost immediately apparent, your character needs to survive, keep your bound alive and cure the mysterious illness. With this in mind, the stakes are survival, protecting those beholden to you and cracking an unsolvable mystery. Unfortunately, it is difficult to go more into this part of the discussion without marching into spoiler territory.