Pathologic – Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Taking Chances
Browsing my recently deleted items on my Documents drive is a stressful experience. A daunting anxiety builds within me as I slowly mouse over the ‘Empty Bin’ prompt, considering erasing these items from my computer permanently. Forever and always. Gone.
This is an emotional product of the millennial generation. While I don’t promote the labelling of individuals, for I feel it increases the divide between the various groups of people who inhabit the world, there is no denying that my generation is leaving a far different impression on culture and society than of those preceding, ahem, ‘Us.’ As will the subsequent generations to follow, forever and always. With the ability to second guess our intuition across nearly all forms of media, a resulting paranoia and anxiety has manifested within the confines of our collective mindset. ‘Permanence,’ in relation to action, has become a minority factor in proceedings and situations.
In one of his performances, stand-up comedian Dara O’Briain jokes about videogames being the only medium of art in which one can lose. “You cannot be bad at watching a movie. You cannot be bad at listening to an album. But you can be bad at playing a videogame, and the videogame will punish you and deny you access to the rest of the videogame. No other art form does this!” This undeniable truth expresses the idea that videogames inherently provide a challenge for players to overcome, through a process of patience and mental stimulus. Defeating an enemy requires an understanding of that enemy’s maneuvers, provoking clever thought and strict attention.
A book or an album certainly require assessment to understand their key underlying subject matters; however, participants need not critically evaluate these works in order to directly progress through them. Videogames, meanwhile, offer no progression to those who fail to overcome the given obstacles.
Perhaps no other modern game so prominently proposes this concept than Dark Souls. The game is fundamentally designed around teaching players to progress, through cryptic hints, a variety of enemy interactions, and numerous means of development. The game has become just as lauded as it is vilified for its approach to engaging players in difficult situations. ‘Souls-like’ has become one of the most gratuitously thrown-around words to describe any third-person game with any sort of focus on challenge. The industry has become plagued by the massive influence of this series, and a recent playthrough of the first title (technically second) reminds me just why it remains so extolled and admired.
Dark Souls is a defining game of the millennial generation. To tentatively pass through a fog gate, ignorant of what provocations lie beyond, incites a psychological reaction akin to permanently delete a year-old selfie, or a forgotten, uncompleted word document. When a player dies in Dark Souls, the game makes it very clear not only on screen in All-Caps, but also by stripping away the awards they have collected throughout their run. Souls act as currency and experience points, and they are dropped upon death. If they fail to collect them back before dying again (pretty much an inevitability, no matter the player’s skill or level), the souls disappear. Forever and always. Gone.
To truly embrace the virtues of Dark Souls, one must surrender all anxieties and just roll with what the game dishes out. I learned this after numerous attempts to make my way through its surrealistic venture. My initial playthrough was a gradual, cautious slog, heavy shield raised down every hallway, heavy armor to preserve as much protection as possible. The boss fights always felt intimidating and I was incapable of defeating a single one without the aid of a summoned player or NPC. It was a grueling experience.
I partially blame this on my preconceived notions of the series. It’s always been billed as a relentlessly difficult title, and so I went into it with daunting expectations. I was convinced from the start that the game hated me and would offer little support in my progression through its enigmatic, domineering world.
Learning that Dark Souls is not meant to scare you, but in fact encourage investigation and experimentation, is the first step towards liberating the anxieties placed upon a first-time player. But to reject these inherent anxieties is to reject society-imposed instincts produced from this generation’s collected psychology. Willingly forfeiting souls (experience points and currency) is much the same as permanently deleting those pictures from my phone. And it’s a liberating experience, expressing a complete disregard for the consequences of permanence.
. . .
Pathologic is a horror game for radical, unconventional reasons. Released in 2005 to little public acknowledgement, the rather brilliant work cunningly impels players to accept the fact that death is the only true inevitability in Life. Playing along with this rudimentary concept at every turn, often in twisted or intentionally-enigmatic ways, players are given a multitude of tasks (which usually involve maintaining other characters’ vitality as well as their own), all with conclusions ultimately determined by factors of time and players’ specific engagements. There is never a moment of serenity throughout Pathologic, and the game devilishly makes this evident from the very start, pitting one in a world where their influence could mean the very downfall of an entire community of individuals.
Whereas time is convoluted in Dark Souls, Pathologic runs on a fixed schedule of events, with only the player’s worldly interactions transforming the destined paths of the town’s numerous characters. Fate itself drives the events of the bleak title, and depending on their approach to progression, it may in fact be altered to one’s advantage. Fate is always watching, often disguised(?) as Death, awaiting every decision the player makes with anticipation. He(?) will appear at random moments of significance, allowing for further insight into the mysterious events unfolding around you, leading you deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole as you analogously progress through the dialogue options, eager to uncover some sort of revealing commentary.
But narrative ambiguity is perhaps where Pathologic reigns supreme as far as narrative constructs are concerned. Clarity is never present; dialogue is playfully written, recalling a Victorian-era drama; even the often miscalculated English transitions influence a strong sense of doubt. The map becomes cluttered with locations to visit, objectives to complete, all without ever allowing the player the time to calculate their next moves accordingly. The game simply wants to give the player a hard time, to promise them the ability to succeed without ever really aiding them in their proceedings.
The Pathologic remake has come at the right time. Dark Souls has taught the modern gamer the joys of letting one’s guard down and embracing the wild unknowns, in order to more effectively develop, which is the central dire conceit behind the very foundations of Pathologic’s design. Both titles revel in maintaining strict ambiguity, focusing far more on allowing players to obtain their own goals through the twisted objectives laid before them. However, Pathologic is far more dreadful in its outcomes, often forcing players back against the wall as it so actively tries to eliminate their methods of success.
In the end, the player is the one who decides whether or not they have failed or succeeded, if they have “beaten the game,” so to speak, because the tasks given to the player are entirely objectionable, and their success falls upon what the player wishes to achieve. “Failure” is a term determined by the morality of a separate individual; and it is often a community and its circumstances which influence one’s idealism. Videogames, historically, are based around the concept of overcoming obstacles and completing given objectives.
Pathologic, and indeed Dark Souls instead devise a certain breed of horror by placing distressing responsibility upon the player character’s back. This weight remains throughout both titles, obtusely positioned as a reminder of the permanent consequences brought about by both action and inaction. In Pathologic, if the town’s inhabitants are lost to the disease which so ravages them, the game forces the player to live with those consequences; much as Dark Souls refuses players a separate save file to fall back, while certain characters’ arcs featured across Lordran each gradually succumb to their own unique demise.
The Marble Nest demo proves Ice-Pick Lodge’s attention to allowing player choice has indeed been preserved. Dialogue options once again allow for psychologically-driven decisions, emphasizing failure for those who seek perseverance in the face of Death, while dreadfully recalling the permanence of mistakes in regards to a more despondent character role.
Death may have a single returning face in this refined Pathologic experience; however, its methods vary radically. An early task in the demo showcases the plague’s consistent aura redefining every convention of society within the town: A man once thought diseased is found dead in is bed, not by the hands of plague, but rather an untimely stroke. Death visits our doctor protagonist, proclaiming, “Not everyone dies of the sand pest.”
This trifling experience further exacerbates the problems inherent in fighting something which cannot be defeated: Fate will always find a means of transpiring, it can only be temporarily diverted. Thus, Death itself is the player’s greatest enemy in Pathologic, and Death is permanent. But this concept of temporary success highlights the main motive guiding one’s progress through the twisted narrative which Ice-Pick Lodge have so complicatedly etched out. The original title alone remains a testament to the anxieties conjured by the mere existence of probable, though certainly avoidable failure.
If this generation’s greatest collective fear regards the permanence of one wrong mistake, and all of its subsequent possible consequences — the key word being “possible” — the unknown impact of a single decision made in Pathologic is what keeps many from ever truly embracing its rich, manipulable experience. Now is the time for it to shine, and if The Marble Nest has proven anything, Ice-Pick are fervently dedicated to retaining this cruel design while modernizing and expanding upon the gameplay and visual aesthetics.
Dark Souls may be designed with even more malicious intent, refusing players opportunities to wrong their mistakes or even pause the action; however, its more intuitive role-playing presentation allows for more chances to ‘succeed,’ as defined by the completion of given objectives within the contexts of a limited universe. Pathologic, meanwhile wants the player to fail, time and time again, in order to demonstrate the greatest harshness of all Life: all paths lead toward the same grim inevitability.
Ultimately, both games strongly emphasize the same core argument: Our influence on the world around us forges a legacy eternal. One need not be the ‘Chosen Undead’ in Dark Souls to link the flame and resist the curse, but it certainly helps if everyone has such prodigal figure to idolize and appreciate — perhaps even seek to adopt the title themselves. Dark Souls may be a dark title, but its moments of levity and hope prove it an argument far more liberating. Pathologic embraces a more pessimistic approach, deviously constructing a sinister venture through which one’s actions speak volumes of their overall Humanity. Fate will not allow us to go back on our mistakes, and it is this constant threat which so ardently pushes the title to the brink of dread, while reminding us (including the millennials) of our own sickening mortality.
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