As I’ve been playing Pathologic this past week I have repeatedly wanted to write something on it. Having now finished it – an exhausting but gratifying experience – the hundreds of words I’ve written and re-written don;t seem to summarise it well. In short though: despite its flaws: I find it to be one of the best games to have been overlooked. (some would say worst, but herein lies the debate)
Pathologic is not an entirely unloved game of course, various places have praised the obscure Russian FPS/RPG/adventure. Notably Rock, Paper, Shotgun, whose write-up encouraged me to buy it. I must warn you though, RPS’ write-up is so full of factual errors and spoilers that you’re actually better off not reading it. Other places like Gamasutra compared it to Deadly Premonition, as a game which is interesting but not a triple-A blockbuster full of polish.
Pathologic is unlike anything else I can think of. It may contain recognisable elements found in other games, such as dialogue trees and firing guns, and its bartering system does seem to have influenced the later released STALKER, but as a whole the game is excitingly unique and still so, despite being released in 2005.
Most places have already covered the story: you choose one of three people in a remote Russian Steppe town, with the intent of stopping a plague which threatens to engulf the entire country. The trains have been stopped and no one leaves until things are fixed. As the situation deteriorates the authorities continue send ever more brutal figures with the intention of regaining order.
That’s the gist, but what most places won’t tell you is that while the 4 standard endings are fairly boring, the secret ending obtained by keeping alive two sets of important people is possibly the greatest mindf**k in gaming history. So many people waste so many words on lesser games with irrelevant stories, whereas a game like Pathologic which suffers from what appears to be a mangled and unedited machine-translation (or just really bad human translation) still manages to eclipse so much of everything else out there. As someone on the RPS comments section said, other languages appear cute when mistranslated, but Russian when mistranslated seems to take on this profound gravitas. It also makes everyone appear frighteningly deranged.
Obviously it’s cheating to claim a game has a great story but then deny explaining why for fear of spoilers, but believe me when I say that at the end, the final (secret) revelation is jaw-dropping. It negates a lot of previous events which will upset some, but for sheer humiliating deception, there are few other games like it (Panzer Dragoon Saga and Metal Gear Solid 2 are the only ones that come to mind).
Besides the story, there are a few other major things which make me love the game.
Very few games if any deal with illness or disease in interesting ways. If they do, it usually behaves like poisoning in old RPGs, dropping your health until it self-cures or you take an antidote. Something I’ve always wanted to see in games actually is the topic of diabetes. I don’t know anyone who has it, but imagine a game where you’re about to eat food to restore health and you need to read the ingredients to make sure it doesn’t have sugar (sugarless and you can eat it, sugar and it’s only good for trading or for emergencies). Imagine if you had to maintain a supply of insulin for regular shots. Dead Rising 2 introduced Zombrex, but it was a very restrictive system and not handled particularly interestingly – in fact it was little more than a lock-and-key puzzle with window dressing. Such things would add an interesting dynamic to a game involving survival.
Pathologic allows the possibility for you accidentally to contract the Sand Plague which ravages the town. Once caught the infection builds, occasionally blurring your vision. Once over a certain level you start losing health when you sleep, forcing you to take restoratives (such as painkillers) before sleeping to prevent you from dying. To counter the growth of the infection and hold it back you can buy/trade various types of antibiotics. Some are best at slowing it, others at decreasing it. None of them cure the plague (it can be cured, but you need these rare curative items for the end-game). Taking the antibiotics though deteriorates your health (bad for the liver, don’t you know), and increases exhaustion, forcing you to sleep more frequently. This is a fantastic system, since once you have the disease it needs constant management and affects pretty much everything else, from health to fatigue. You can drink coffee to stave off the sedative affects of the antibiotics, but this is bad for the health. Lemons will wake you up, but they increase hunger so you need more food. And so you’ll find yourself sitting in bed, measuring out your pills for the subsequent days and trying to gauge which need to be taken at which time. If you liked Resident Evil’s need to manage limited ammo supplies, this need to manage medication will appeal. It’s a brilliant system.
Pathologic has, in my limited experience, the best economic system of any videogame (games with online trading components such as MMORPGs don’t count). And if I’m wrong, tell me, so I can go play the games which do it better.
Most games don’t actually have economic systems. They allow you to buy and sell crap, but there isn’t the feeling of a functioning economy. Prices are always the same wherever you buy/sell something, and they seldom fluctuate. Games like Fallout 3 will try to fool you by having a bartering skill which affects prices, but this is simply a number which deviates the standardised base price until you’ve built up its levels. In coding it’s something like this: BASE PRICE + (100 – BARTER LEVEL). As you increase your barter level, the price goes down. Yawn. The old space trading game Elite had a fairly good economic system, with variable prices, but none of the goods you dealt in were of any major significance to the game itself – they were just merchandise you hauled. STALKER had a cool trading mechanic, but this appears influenced by Pathologic. Metro 2033, a fairly recent FPS which I’ve got on order, proudly claims that the bullets you use in your guns are used as currency, which sounds quite cool.
As I said though, Pathologic is the best I’ve encountered. You can raid bins to steal junk for trade (sowing needles, razors, broken watches, empty bottles to fill with water), and you can also buy some junk (clothing stores are great for needles and fishhooks). These otherwise useless items can be traded with the townspeople for valuables such as bullets and medicine. Teenagers will trade bottles of painkillers for razors, while little girls will give you antibiotic pills in exchange for sowing needles. It might not seem realistic at first, since obviously they’re priorities during a pandemic are a little screwed up, but after a while you’ll come to trade these valuables as well. Bullets are useless if a man dies of infection, and what good is fighting a disease if you starve to death? Selling items for money is important too, since some NPCs can repair your clothes and weapons, which degrade. The majority of what you end up trading will have a beneficial affect on your playing, forcing you to prioritise items.
But the best thing about all this is the fluctuations. As one person on HG101’s forum out it, the game attempts to mimic the hyperinflation found in Germany after the first world war. When you start the game food prices are cheap, but as news of the plague spreads people start panic buying and food rises tenfold. A small fortune suddenly can only buy one loaf of bread. Hoarding items is also foolish, since once the authorities arrive and clamp down, prices are forcibly reduced thereby making your collection of tradable goods almost worthless. Different stores also sell for different prices, and there’s even a blackmarket that always has something of interest, but for a high price. Everybody in town also has their own unique supply items – the local security patrols are a good source of tinned food for example.
Random hoarding is always a bad idea, and the game forces you to think about your actual needs when planning ahead. I desperately hoarded bullets, but by the end game I had plenty spare and would have been better served with stockpiling food during the cheaper days. In no other game that I’ve played has economy and item management played such an integral role or been handled as brilliantly. More games would benefit from some intelligent design in their bartering systems, or least some variables to affect things.
Pathologic is not ugly. People will accuse it of ugliness, and say it looks like a game circa 2000, but these people aren’t seeing the bigger picture. Ignore the low-polygon count and poor animation, and look at the art direction. It’s not how much your game can pump out in terms of graphical effects, it’s what you do with it that’s important – it’s your original vision of how things will appear. Pathologic’s problem is they clearly had talented artists with a unique vision, but not the skill to recreate it in game form to the level that today’s shallow gamers expect. You just need to view the various hi-res paintings located inside people’s homes to know these people have artistic ability. Or look at the architecture: yes it repeats a little too much, but there’s a kind of grim beauty to those buildings. Look at the Cathedral, Commandant Savurov’s mansion, the enormous abattoir or the crowning Polyhdron – the architecture is imposing yet exquisite. I’ve heard people compliment Gears of War’s gothic architecture as being visually striking, the difference here is its developer had the money and man-power to make it really shiny and polished.
Here’s some things I noticed during my playing:
On the first day I found the villagers burning a local woman they accused of being a clay witch who murdered the town head, Simon; after she failed to harden and crack, they admitted they were mistaken and so set off the find the real clay witch. Life it seemed, was cheap out in Russian Steppes. On the fourth day some idiot destroyed the town’s only water supply, because he’d been told to boil water to kill bacteria and so assumed that all water was dangerous – thousands would now be short of water in a time of epidemic. And so it went on, dealing with madmen, tyrants and a town of uneducated cattle workers.
Most places (especially RPS) claim the game is borderline unplayable today, but I don’t agree. We’re not talking about the original System Shock here, which even after patching to feature a dedicated mouselook I still can’t bring myself to complete. Pathologic’s mechanics are no more archaic or difficult to deal with than those in Deus Ex or System Shock 2, two games I have replayed recently in preparation for Deus Ex 3’s release. You walk, jump, aim, shoot, interact, click through dialogue trees and handle item menus via the mouse – none of which is difficult to deal with. There’s also the standard quicksave and quickload functions, making the game totally painless despite reports of its high difficulty. In fact I found the game a little too easy playing as the Bachelor.
What appears to drive people away from Pathologic is that it isn’t instantly gratifying and it isn’t fun. It makes you work for progress, and admittedly your walking speed is too slow. But the storyline, when you can understand it, is epic, and for those who enjoy desperation of a resource-based and intellectual variety, it’s a substantial and worthy game to work through. How many other games infect you with a disease and then place you in a situation where you’re standing in a store bartering with the owner, trying to decide if it’s worth trading in the last of your antibiotics for a piece of beef to stave off the hunger that will kill you in less than 6 hours?
Pathologic, from start to finish, is a game of futility, desperation and grimacing through difficult periods. Illness, hunger and exhaustion almost become tangible as you crawl down the next filthy alley, clutching a half-broken army rifle and mumbling to yourself to make it to the next house. Everyone appears to be a lying self-serving bastard, you question who to trust, and by the time the army arrives towards the end, bringing with them their own brand of Imperial oppression, you quite relish the idea of everything going up in flames courtesy of heavy artillery.
It wasn’t fun or pleasant, not in the same way a fantastic game like Double Fine’s Stacking is, but in terms of mechanics and narrative I loved every second of Pathologic. If you liked something like Deadly Premonition, and are prepared for something which is functionally even more challenging, then Pathologic is an experience to be remembered.