By George Khandaker-Kokoris, Unity Developer at Failbetter Games
I still remember the first time I played Pathologic. Ice-Pick Lodge’s grueling survival game had passed me by on its first English release in 2006, and I only found it two years later thanks to Quintin Smith’s three-part essay on Rock, Paper, Shotgun. After reading the first few paragraphs, I decided to dive headlong into Pathologic‘s plague-ridden steppes before spoiling myself any further, and what I found remains one of my favourite works of art.
As Smith wrote, Pathologic feels like it emerged from a parallel universe where we never had to debate whether videogames were art, where developers could use all the tools of their craft without also having to prove some kind of broader cultural point at the same time. Maybe the best thing about Pathologic is its boldness, its trust in the player’s willingness to approach it as a piece of literature rather than a toy.
Many of Pathologic‘s admirers like to use the example of a player selling their only gun for a bottle of milk to illustrate its survival mechanics, but this also represents a profound break from tradition. When so many games simply take for granted that the player needs to be armed, in Pathologic‘s world a gun is just an object – one that sometimes may not be as useful as, say, a loaf of bread.
If you’ll forgive the film-school name-dropping, Pathologic evokes the sullen dreamscape of a late-70s Tarkovsky movie. Many games like STALKER, Collapse and Metro 2033 have drawn from the same thematic well, but Pathologic carries its atmosphere in its very mechanics. The game has very little interest in making the player’s experience an empowering one; NPCs will lie, cheat and murder to survive the growing plague, and only the Executors and Tragedians – those omnipresent walking metaphors who look like they’ve stepped out of Zdzisław Beksiński’s sketchbook – ever seem to imply that the player is more than an unwelcome trespasser.
In short, Pathologic is a work of outstanding creative maturity and confidence. Its rough edges are a product of its schedule and its budget, but what lies beneath is morose genius. Ice-Pick Lodge are in the midst of crowdfunding an updated version, with a new, leaner English translation and PS4/XB1 ports to boot. If you want to see more games with ambitious, challenging stories, hop over to their Kickstarter and help make it happen!